Ātea

Indigenous youth say ‘pass the mic’ to decolonise COP23 climate talks

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu) is an Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate to COP23, the United Nations Climate Talks in Bonn, Germany, reporting over the three-week conference. This week: she’s tired and no one’s listening to indigenous people.

If you were looking for a nice and neat overview of the COP23 UN Climate Talks, I’ll save you the bother now. I can’t even pretend to have a handle on the full breadth of the negotiations. While we’re all trying our best to keep whānau at home abreast of our mahi in Germany, the reality is that it’s a giant clusterfuck we’re all struggling to make sense of.

For November, Bonn is the city that does not sleep. We’re gradually becoming immune to the cacophony of dings, rings, and whistles, that sound minute by minute into the wee hours as if all our devices have been issued a directive specifically to fray our nerves to the point of delusion. I’ve never felt exhaustion so deep in my bones.

It’s impossible to keep up to date with everything in these negotiations.

Hell, even following one topic (like the Indigenous Peoples’ Platform) you find yourself drowning in a rising sea of pedantic yet necessary text edits; circular arguments; action proposals; action invitations; press conferences; mailing lists; informal informals; and “bilaterals”… If I’m being honest, it feels like you need a law degree just to order a coffee here, never mind follow the negotiations.

So in the absence of a neat overview, the only words I can really get on a page at this state of sleep deprivation is an account of what I’ve been doing during my time here. Aside from spending a quarter of my waking hours on Germany’s surprisingly terrible public transport, that’s been putting my literal (€37!) activist pōtae on for indigenous rights.

Over 370 million people, from 4000 different groups and nations around the world identify as indigenous. That’s more than the entire US population. And more often than not, indigenous people are disproportionately and unjustly affected by climate change and its effects.

For our communities in the Pacific, key issues include the fact that rising sea levels risk salination of drinking water and agricultural areas, coastal erosion, extreme weather events, changing weather patterns affecting subsistence and loss of wāhi tapu.

Despite all this, there is still woefully inadequate representation of indigenous peoples at this supposedly progressive climate conference. This is why, as part of a group of indigenous youth from around the world, we decided to take action with an event called Pass The Mic.

Hana Maihi (Ngāti Whātua) shares her whakaaro at #PassTheMic Indigenous Youth Action at COP23. Image: Maia Wickler

We asked allies to join us in a circle, symbolically and practically taping their mouths shut. With “Decolonise” emblazoned across the tape, there was no misunderstanding the purpose of this action. Allies were asked to literally #PassTheMic until it reached one of our indigenous people, who read our list of demands or shared their personal insights, demands, or lived experiences of indigeneity.

Hana Maihi, Hla Doi & Kera Sherwood-O’Regan highlight the demands of indigenous youth at the COP23 Climate Negotiations. Image: Kera Sherwood-O’Regan

Minutes beforehand we didn’t even have a microphone for the event, and the cortisol was coursing through my veins as we occupied (much to the disdain of other diners) an entire cafeteria table to scrawl our list of demands. It had been a trying week, not only due to navigating the complexities of COP23 itself, but also from trying to unpack all the different roles we had to play as indigenous youth. Yet somehow, magically, it all came together. While we wanted to physically, and conceptually carve out a space for indigenous voices at this conference, I never expected it to feel quite so powerful. Many organisers and allies alike were moved to tears as we heard how various members of our group had experienced racism, exclusion, and a struggle with their indigenous identity as a direct result of the past, and ongoing colonisation of our whenua.

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan & Hana Maihi working on posters for their action at COP23. Image: Kera Sherwood-O’Regan

Finally having my chance to speak, the hairs on my arms joined the protest, and my clammy hands reluctantly gripped our mic. I had planned to rattle off our list of demands, and give a few points on decolonisation, but there’s something in that space. Where people have physically and consciously made the decision to be silent and just listen. It was somehow heavy and light at the same time, and weirdly the whole situation made me braver.

I shared my own dilemma of growing up in a constant push-pull between rejecting and embracing my culture and my heritage, and a deeply personal poem on colonisation. I never really showed my poetry to anyone. It felt like the time.

Standing with my indigenous brothers and sisters from around the world; finally having our voices heard and normalised; sharing in the important discussions of decolonisation; and having a safe space to voice our demands… yeah. Those are the moments that make this clusterfuck bearable.

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu) is an Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegate to COP23, the United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. She’s reporting on the conference’s outcomes for indigenous peoples; read her first dispatch here.

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