S.O.U.L activist Pania Newton addresses UN Secretary General António Guterres and Minister for Climate Change James Shaw. (Photo: Kera Sherwood O'Regan)

Breakfast with the Secretary General: Māori activists press the UN on climate change

The United Nations Secretary General has given a nod to indigenous rangatahi in their fight for climate justice.

Yesterday morning, rangatahi Māori activists made their way to Auckland Museum’s event centre for an unusual meeting. Te Ara Whatu, Aotearoa’s first indigenous youth delegation to the United Nations, joined climate minister James Shaw and other climate activists in hosting Secretary General António Guterres for a roundtable breakfast on climate change. The foyer of Auckland Museum’s events centre, set with half a dozen tables, laden with muesli, yoghurt, and fruit, was buzzing with school blazers, activist t-shirts and a media entourage.

Hardly a pot of muesli was touched as young campaigners quizzed the Secretary General, while officials were glued to their phones eager to capture the perfect tweet. Te Ara Whatu representatives Hana Maihi, Pania Newton, India Logan-Riley and I were among those going hungry at the breakfast, focused instead on raising the urgent need to uphold indigenous knowledge and rights in the fight to tackle climate change.

Globally, indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change, and particularly so for our neighbours and whanauka throughout Te Moana Nui A Kiwa. With two key intergovernmental reports (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services approved just two weeks ago) painting an ominous picture for the future of our global climate and biodiversity, the role of indigenous people as kaitiaki and leaders in environmental protection is front of mind for many campaigners and organisations, though few provide tangible support for indigenous organisations to do this important mahi.

Minister Shaw and Secretary General Guterres were eager to emphasise the importance of a “just transition” in their opening remarks, with Shaw affirming: “We don’t simply repeat the injustices of the past.

‘Just transition’ refers to a range of social interventions to protect workers and those most affected throughout the transition to more sustainable methods of production, and a transition to a low- (or zero-) emissions future. A necessary consideration for all climate change work, the principle of a just transition has often focused on supporting industry workers, such as those in fossil fuel industries, and highlighted the need to ensure these people are able to find employment in other sectors, particularly in renewable energy. However, many frontline communities such as indigenous peoples and disabled people have struggled to have their voices heard in such lofty conversations, and few frontline communities have been appropriately consulted or resourced for the climate labour they already do.

Te Ara Whatu member Hana Maihi (Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei) was quick to raise this point, challenging the minister and the Secretary General on whether the significant mahi of indigenous peoples and youth would be resourced. Both leaders welcomed the kōrero, conceding that the New Zealand government and United Nations respectively have failed to engage appropriately with indigenous peoples, though they stopped short of committing resources.

Members of Te Ara Whatu L-R: Pania Newton, India Logan-Riley, Hana Maihi, Kera Sherwood O’Regan, Eric Soakai. Image: supplied

While discussions of a just transition and naming of indigenous rights is a welcome development, highlighting the impact of decades of indigenous, disabled, and POC advocacy within the climate movement, Te Ara Whatu and other rangatahi present at the breakfast pressed the Secretary General and the Minister to take clear steps to tautoko a truly just transition that puts those voices front and centre.

Seated next to Guterres, Te Ara Whatu member and S.O.U.L. campaigner Pania Newton presented an opportunity for the leaders to take tangible steps to climate justice. She addressed the Secretary General directly, inviting him to the whenua at Ihumatāo, and urging him and the New Zealand government to uphold indigenous rights and protect her ancestral land from housing development in an impassioned speech that wet eyes around the room.

“A commitment to climate change requires a commitment to ensuring the survival and wellbeing of indigenous peoples who have a strong concern for this issue and play a huge kaitiaki role that draws attention to humanity’s reliance on Papatūānuku and the need to make decisions that do not take her for granted,” she told the group.

Newton emphasised the need for decision-making that looks beyond government terms, asserting: “Indigenous people here and elsewhere around the world, emphasise decision making with the seventh generation in mind… Governments need to start making decisions with the seventh generation in mind.

“The burial grounds where my father lays has eroded from the stormwater discharge from a nearby factory discharging into our ancestral creek and of course the threat of sea levels rising.”

Finally, Newton implored the leaders, “We have to put other values, our indigenous values on the table as paramount concern for making decisions for our future.”

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Newton’s comments come as police prepare to clear mana whenua occupants from Ihumātao to make the land available for a housing development, highlighting a disconnect between the Labour-led government’s stated support of climate justice, and tangible action to uphold rangatiratanga.

There is no just transition when rights of indigenous peoples are not upheld, and when the voices of our communities are heard only for the sake of a checkbox. With a nod of support from James Shaw, the Labour-led government will need to take concrete action on what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern herself has called our generation’s “nuclear-free moment.”

After a robust conversation, Guterres left indigenous rangatahi with a piece of advice: “My closing remarks are very simple – go ahead, and if your government misbehaves, give them hell.”


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