Thank you for joining me for this interview. I’d like to start by asking you to say a bit about your background.
I’m forty-six years old, and I was born in Colombia, but I grew up in Venezuela. As you may know, Venezuela is an oil state. Their whole economy is based around oil. So activism is something I came to at quite a young age. I’ve seen what big corporations do to nature. I’m from South America, from the Global South, and 22 years ago, I decided to leave the country to see the world. I’ve lived in a number of places around the world: India, Israel, the UK, Germany, Italy, and in all my trips, I’ve done a bit of activism, and also worked on my career. I’m a Technology Strategist, meaning that I know about a lot of technologies, and I do integration between all of them. I’ve been here in Ireland for 16 years now, and I became Irish in 2012. Since then, I’m mostly here working, but I still travel as much as I can.
Apart from activism, I’m really into sports. I play a lot of tennis, and I like running, hiking, and cycling. I take part in a lot of protests, as well. I know this is part of my activism, but it’s a way of life, as well. I research technology, too, not just for climate change activism, but also to learn about how we can tackle the problem.
Did you commune with nature a lot when you were a kid growing up in Venezuela? Do you have any memories of that time?
Oh yes, absolutely. Growing up in the Global South, we are used to being in contact with nature all the time. So if we don’t have a forest nearby, we go to a beautiful beach along the coast, or we visit big fields or plains. We also have the Amazon very close to us. It’s important to people, and seeing over time that it’s being destroyed makes you think. It makes you sad.
It’s all linked to companies wanting to take our resources for their own profit and benefit, and of course, the economy needs to grow, but this has just been allowed to go on so much that it’s destroying nature itself. But yeah, my early memories are always of us doing something in nature, and loving nature itself.
And in Venezuela, all the oil is state-owned, isn’t it?
Yes. So basically, when you grow up in a country that is an oil state, as well as all the countries around it, nature gets compromised all the time. So when you go to the fields where this oil is extracted, you notice that the nature around it is completely destroyed. Our lakes are completely polluted. The indigenous people, or the people from the communities around these areas, are also affected, badly. So you see cases of cancer, or air pollution, or contamination of the water. Even the soil is affected. You may know that there are lawsuits against these companies, trying to mitigate the impacts they’ve had on natural resources. Some of those cases are getting into court, and the companies get fined. But a lot of them go unpunished. I suppose right now, with the awareness of climate change, that may change rapidly. And the companies that are there, they will need to make drastic changes, or curb their behavior, because we can’t allow them to keep destroying nature.
It seems that there may be a tension between that behavior and what you said about the cultural connection to nature, a tension between the people, the state, and that oil-driven behavior. So, how does that affect the individual people there, and their attitudes about nature and climate change?
Well, to be honest, people there don’t care much about political parties, or capitalism. People want to live in nature, in balance with nature, because that’s all they know. They know that when they interact with nature, it’s a connection, an interactive relationship. So the fact that nature is being threatened by these corporations creates a clear path for people to fight against it. The way people see it is that we need to act now. We need to do something. Then we can stop the madness that we’ve created with this system. I wouldn’t say that capitalism is totally wrong. It’s just a system that suited us in the moment. And it’s not in balance, or in line with nature.
I would say capitalism is a broken system. But that system can be repaired, we can have practices that grow the economy in a way that is in balance with nature. People like us, ordinary people who are living our lives, we see that our lives are being affected by all this business. So we recognize that we have to do something about it. We need to work on it.
And you grow up among that sort of tension. Do you have any memories that you can recall of places that you visited as a child, that you later saw had completely changed?
Yeah, in my travels around the country, back In Venezuela and in other South American countries, I’ve seen places where, for example, the courses of huge rivers have been changed, because they decided to build a dam there, and then they realized those dams are no longer effective because there are droughts happening. They completely changed the landscape to try to generate electricity, and that didn’t work well with nature. I’ve seen the destruction they have caused.
Also with oil drilling, they build these huge structures in the middle of our lakes, where we all see the oil getting spilled on the water, and that contaminates our rivers, and produces smoke that contaminates the air. So all these things, I’ve seen them throughout all my life. Not just in Venezuela, but also in other countries. And nature is in pain, and it’s fighting back, and we’re paying the consequences. My elder memories are all about seeing this, being a witness to these events.
Is there a pivotal moment that really affected you, that turned you into an activist?
Well, I have quite strong family values in that regard. So my family are all activists themselves. Not just for climate, but also for human rights, and that triggered me at some point, to go more deeply into it. My personality, too, I suppose, plays a part in all this. So we know what’s wrong, that the connection with nature is completely unbalanced. And you can feel it, you can see it. That also triggers a desire to act, for many activists. In this case, it triggered me to step forward. For that reason, I joined different organizations. Right now, I’m working with Extinction Rebellion. I’m part of the Extinction Rebellion group here in Ireland, and I also work with Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd fights for the ocean. They have that slogan, “when the oceans die, we die.” And Extinction Rebellion is all about ringing the alarm on climate change. To ring the alarm for everybody, not just for governments and big corporations, but for all people.
So you work primarily with those two organizations? I know you said you’ve attended protests. How would you describe your activism? Is it mostly on the ground protesting, or do you do other things as well?
I do many things. I help to plan actions, to design actions, I liaise with the police here in Ireland. I have to be in contact with the police to coordinate our actions sometimes, and I have conversations with the main traffic police officer, so I have to have a relationship with them, as well. I take part in protests, I organize affinity groups, or groups of actions. I deal with the press here nationally, and sometimes the international press calls me. You know, I do a bit of everything. I started with Extinction Rebellion right from the beginning, so I suppose I’ve been doing different things since then.
For Sea Shepherd, I just started two or three months ago. They have three directors that built Sea Shepherd Ireland here, and I’m just part of the team now, so I do more or less the same work as I do for Extinction Rebellion. I also help to facilitate from time to time. So pretty much everything, you know, I’m always jumping from one role to another.
A jack of all trades. Thank you for your activism by the way. I wanted to ask, in August, the Dublin Inquirer did a piece on you that focused on the lack of diverse representation in Ireland’s environmental movement, saying it appears that not a single environmental organization in Ireland is headed by a person of color. It makes me wonder, what do you think those organizations should be doing to change that—and not just in Ireland, because the North/South divide can be seen everywhere.
Basically, you have to look at their situations. For example, when we talk about people of color in the North, normally it’s also our minority groups, right? They may be living in different situations or conditions. For example, in the case of going to protests, they may have to worry about being arrested. So you also have to think about what it means when someone gets arrested in one of these countries, because they could be a student, or a refugee, or they could be in different financial situations that limit their ability to take part. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that I think we’ve failed to make a meaningful connection between social justice and climate justice. People of color will tend to get more involved in organizations and movements that are linked to human rights, because they feel more personally affected by those things than by climate change. I’m talking about people of color here in the North. So I suppose this connection between climate change and social action can be driven by what people perceive as the thing that most affects them, and human rights issues are something that affects us all, too. So it’s been poor messaging that shows how we are all affected by both of these issues. And maybe that’s why we don’t see as many people of color getting involved in climate change activism yet.
For example, in Extinction Rebellion, I am one of the “arrestables.” This is because I have the freedom to be arrested, and nothing will happen to me, because I’m Irish now. I’m Venezuelan, but I’m also Irish. Somehow, I feel brave enough to go out there and put myself on the front line, if I’m needed. But I know people from other minority groups that may be afraid to get arrested. And maybe they think climate change won’t affect them so much here in the North. Maybe if they lived in the Global South, where climate change would affect them more, they would get involved.
What do you think other activists can do to appeal to people of color to join the fight?
Actually, they’re already doing it. In the case of Sea Shepherd, and Extinction Rebellion, they work to show that they’re open to everybody. That there are no differences, regardless of what background you come from, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re a person of color or not, and regardless of your beliefs, everyone is welcome. But there are two approaches here: one is us being open to everybody, inviting everyone to join us, and the other is whether others are willing to join our organization, to be part of it. So it’s a compromise on both sides.
I think the organizations that I joined, they’re doing very well, but their messaging isn’t registering with all people just yet. It’s a work in progress, and there are movements all around the world that are working to bridge that divide. Some may not have enough white people that join them, as well. So it’s not just about people of color. It’s about what the organization stands for. And whether it’s appealing at the right moment for minorities.
It seems to me that there may be a particular lack of people from South America involved in the movement. Do you have thoughts on why that might be? Is it just because things are so difficult there right now? Or is it cultural?
Obviously, I witnessed what happens when an oil state wreaks havoc on nature, and of course it belongs to me, this is also a personal story. Climate change is happening everywhere, in one form or another, and more people will begin to join. And slowly, slowly, they will realize that we can’t escape from this, that our lives are threatened, and our children’s lives are threatened. All species are threatened. And they will join, but I have to say, we must give it more time. So people can be become aware of what’s happening. One of the things we say is that governments are not doing a good job telling the truth. You know, telling people, “we’re in really big trouble, and we have to act on this. It affects everybody, no matter what color or background.” So I suppose that the people who are very active now are active because they’ve already felt the impact, more quickly than others. But we will all get there.
Perhaps some campaigns could be aimed at people in those areas that are less represented, to try and encourage them to get involved?
Yes. For example, you’ve seen what happened in the elections in the United States. Now, their parliament is quite diverse, because someone said that “we can’t let what’s happening continue.” Someone threatened them, in this case Donald Trump, so women stood up, from different backgrounds, and now they are in Congress, in the Capitol. So we need things to click, to tell people, “wake up, we have to do something about it, everybody is involved in this, or should be involved in this, or must be involved in this.” And then we push together.
What sort of activism do you think is the most effective in reaching people?
That’s a good question. It’s that sort of activism when you feel part of it, where you feel like you belong to it. When you feel that your values are threatened somehow, and you have to defend them. So when we talk about our children, and when we talk about something that’s coming that will affect all our families and our friends. It’s there, that’s the catalyzer. It’s the trigger that will bring people together. So awareness and education are the way to go. We can’t force people to do something that they don’t want to do. But we can educate them, and we teach them the benefits of it. We want to pull together as human beings, and then to push together. We just need to put things into context.
Manuel Salazer is a technology strategist and an activist with Extinction Rebellion Ireland and Sea Shepherd Ireland. He tweets from @sach_eu.
Sea Shepherd Ireland (SSI):
Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XRI):