Eita, Tarawa, Kiribati. Kiribati's future generations are at risk of potentially lethal sea level rise (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The COP23 climate talks’ ‘Fijian flavour’ tastes a lot like tokenism

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu) is an Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate to COP23, the United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. Over the next three weeks, she’ll be reporting on the conference’s outcomes for indigenous peoples.

Talk to any climate nerd about this year’s UN Climate Negotiations, and you’ll likely be met with excited proclamations about ‘the first Pacific COP’. After all the hot air (pun intended) of Trump’s apparent exit from the Paris Agreement, I’ll admit it’s nice to have something to celebrate. Certainly, throughout the first day of the conference, it’s been impossible to escape the air of optimism and hope among attendees.

Whether in the queue for extortionately priced organic pretzels (justifiable only due to the palaver that is getting through UN security to get in or out of the centres); in the various briefings; or amongst the international displays and pavilions, everyone is revelling in the unique ‘flavour’ brought by Fiji’s presidency this year. Phrases like the ‘Talanoa dialogue’, ‘bula spirit’ and ‘Fijian flavour’ melt on people’s tongues like a buttery croissant, and mentioning that you’re indigenous is met with unanimous good cheer, support and interest.

Members of a Fijian culture group perform during the opening session of the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on November 6, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. Image: PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

On the surface, it all seems quite delightful. Dig a little deeper though, and I feel like the so-called Fijian flavor has got a slightly bitter aftertaste… and it tastes a lot like tokenism.

There’s no doubt the Fijian team have done an incredible job, working exceptionally hard to deliver a world-class conference. It’s impossible to miss the Fijian flair (yes I’ll run out of alliteration soon), with ‘Bula!’ emblazoned across most flat surfaces; blown up photos of smiling villagers; and their phenomenal pavilion, complete with dancers. If it weren’t so bloody cold you could almost be in Fiji – so full points for branding. And they’ve certainly made their mark on negotiations too.

However, it does all seem to fit neatly into a familiar narrative for indigenous people. In these kinds of spheres, it’s all too easy to invite us up the front. Sing a waiata. Open with a karakia. Perform our culture for all to consume. It’s a story we all know too well. Indeed, go back 60 years, only a train ride from my cosy Air BnB in Cologne, and indigenous people were still being displayed as exhibits in Human Zoos. If that doesn’t instantly strike you as deeply problematic then the rest of this piece will disappoint you.

So beyond the shiny lights of centre stage, where do our Pacific and indigenous peoples fit into the negotiations? I’m not really sure. And I think that’s the problem.

For starters, we’re not here. There’s plenty of talk about indigenous people’s issues, but no one is willing to put their money where their mouth is, and ensure that there are funded places for us.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks drinks kava during the opening session of the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Image: PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty

For many of us, just coming to these negotiations highlights a huge privilege, and a massive barrier for many of our communities to even engage. We are self-funded or reliant on competitive scholarships, and we’re accredited through NGOs and academic institutions with equally competitive entry requirements. With a BA, a certificate, and half a medical degree under my belt, I’m one of the least qualified people here.

So where does that leave our whānau whose valuable perspectives don’t come stamped with a Western university seal of approval? And those whose parents can’t loan them up to $10k for the trip? Where are our kaumātua? Where are our community leaders? Where are our agriculturalists, fishers, and those in industries at the front lines of climate change? Not here.

And where we are, we’re often pigeonholed into specific indigenous interest groups, rather than playing key roles across all issue areas. There’s so much going on – so many mailing lists to join, so many briefings to attend –  it’s impossible to do it all, and if you’re passionate about advancing indigenous people’s rights we often can’t spare hands to infiltrate other sectors.

Outside of our niche groups, indigenous voices are seen as a ‘nice to have’ or a check box exercise rather than a vital component of an equitable and just climate movement. Look no further than the proposed Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Platform, an opportunity to share information, promote engagement, and safeguard indigenous and local knowledge systems, programmes and policies. According to some, a website would be sufficient. Sure. Let’s just throw together a WordPress with some bullet points and country fact files to undo centuries of colonisation and exploitation, and to mitigate the huge burden of climate change placed upon our communities.

That’ll do it. That will ‘give us a voice’.

In the environmental and social justice movements, we’re always hearing about ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. There’s no doubt that indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by Climate Change, and there’s no doubt that we are underrepresented at these negotiations, but we are not the problem.

Dear non-indigenous COP,

We have solutions, and we don’t need you to “give” us a voice. We need you to decolonise your thinking. We need you to respect indigenous knowledge. We need you to respect indigenous traditions and tikanga. We need you to embrace intersectionality. We need you to fund indigenous delegations. We need you to put indigenous people on your boards and in your negotiating teams. We need you to put indigenous rights at the heart of all that you do, not just as an after thought.

If this is a problem, then you’re not serious about indigenous rights.

We don’t need you to give us a voice. We just need you to pass the damn mic.

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu) is an Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate to COP23, the United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. Over the next three weeks, she’ll be reporting on the conference’s outcomes for indigenous peoples.

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