A youth perspective on climate talks: Time for indigenous leadership

9:39 pm on 21 December 2019

Amid the state-led hum of COP25 and resulting headlines of failed climate talks, government disagreements and Greta Thunberg, a small group from New Zealand was there to stick up for indigenous rights.

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Te Ara Whatu members in Madrid. Photo: Supplied

Te Ara Whatu is a collective of indigenous youth from across the Pacific, based in Aotearoa. Its work is centred on working for climate justice and indigenous sovereignty.

Group member Nakia Randle said they numbered eight - five Māori, two Tongans and one Papuan.

"Our intentions were to disrupt, learn and connect. Part of us being in the space is that COP is obviously a conference of the parties, so it's about state governments, and state governments are the main ones that are given a voice," Randle said.

"We show up so that there's an indigenous and in particular, indigenous youth, presence in the space because climate change impacts us, our communities, the first and the hardest, a lot of the time.

"And also indigenous thinking and knowledge holds a lot of solutions about how we should be interacting with our environment.

"It's kind of that idea of 'nothing about us without us' - and all this climate change decision making is a lot about us. But the process excludes us essentially."

Randle said Te Ara Whatu and other indigenous groups at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, were there to get human and indigenous rights included in the Paris Agreement rule book.

Climate activists protest at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 Madrid

Climate activists protest at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 Madrid. Photo: AFP

But nations at COP25 couldn't come to an agreement on that section - called article six.

It's essentially the part that describes the rules to ensure greenhouse gas emissions will be cut.

"It got to this big blocked point.

"That's now being kicked to next year's COP in Glasgow, so it just didn't get decided, which is a really big part of people calling it quite an unsuccessful COP as far as what was actually done."

The group also had a focus on facilitating collaboration among Pacific nations.

"We created our own space and said 'this is what the Pacific working together looks like'," Randle said.

"We held an event ... where we invited mainly indigenous people from the Pacific and mainly youth - but open to everyone - to come and have a space where we share our stories of how climate impacts us."

Indigenous voices

Randle said it was disappointing to see whose voices were listened to or elevated.

"We would hold a press conference, our people would show up to listen, but it's not a full room. And then when there's a Greta (Thunberg) press conference, that's like, half of it flowing out into the main other area. So as far as who people want to listen to, there's a massive distinction there...

Greta Thunberg arriving at the Madrid climate talks.

Greta Thunberg at COP25. Photo: AFP

"So there are parts like that where indigenous youth voices still continue to be shut out, but at the same time when we create our own spaces, like the sharing that was able to be done between indigenous youth … that was, like, super powerful.

"And for our delegation, a lot of people said that was the highlight, the best part and the most important thing to take away was how we build solidarity amongst indigenous communities across the world and what we're all doing."

Thunberg, when taking to the stage at COP25 with six indigenous activists from around the world, refused to speak herself, opening the floor to indigenous speakers, RNZ Pacific reported during the talks.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet from the Marshall Islands, said in the same report that indigenous perspectives needed to be better understood.

"I think that indigenous folks and people who have that connection to land - it's a very unique connection - and I think that actually it's very difficult to convey to people."

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Brianna Fruen from Samoa, a member of the Pacific Climate Warriors, said some strides had been made by the UN to include indigenous voices but a lot had to change.

"We need to start inviting more of these young voices into these spaces because there are so many solutions to come out of these groups and it's just a matter of us giving recognition to these voices."

She said they needed to come together to fight the bigger enemies: slow governments and climate change.

Randle said it was important for indigenous groups to show up, regardless of how they were received.

"If we don't go at all, we get ignored. If we do go, we just get marginalised. And so it's like a big harm reduction piece."

A key realisation for the group was that although meetings like COP had value, they weren't the places to get things done.

"We look at what's happening there and then we look at how we are able to mobilise things back home ... I think people come back motivated and really clear that (grassroots action is) where it's at."

Next year, Te Ara Whatu will be planning action that can be taken in New Zealand.

"Things that will be on my mind to do for that (are) around building resilience and adaptation for... local communities or for marae, and we really just want to share all the things that we've learned over there back home … also continuing to do that work to hold New Zealand government to account to the kinds of statements and stuff that they've made internationally," Randle said.

But the key takeaway from COP25 was just how much knowledge and leadership existed in indigenous communities.

"We met people who ... understand the land and environment of the Arctic Circle, of the Pacific islands, of Central America ... the solutions lie in allowing indigenous leadership. "

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