Te Whānau-a-Apanui leader Manaia Sorensen at the Red Tide youth conference at Pahaoa marae. Image: Jason Renes

Iwi and the fight against the rising tide of climate change

Climate change is not a taniwha far off on the horizon, it’s right before us demanding we address it. In the first week of May, members of Te Whānau-a-Apanui invited indigenous climate change activists and thinkers from Aotearoa and around the world to the Red Tide International Indigenous Climate Action Summit. Jason Renes travelled to Te Kaha to attend and learn what can be done to overcome this great challenge.

The wharekai at Pahaoa marae, just down the road from Te Kaha, is packed with an assembly of people. Mostly youth between 11 and 16-years-old, they fill the length of the dining hall called Kiritapu. None are eating. All are silently listening.

Manaia Sorensen from Te Ehutu hāpu of Te Whanau-a-Apanui is speaking. She is 16, dark-haired and clear-voiced, wearing the yellow and black dress blazer of her school Te Kura o Te Whanau-a-Apanui.

Sorensen talks about what it means to be from the East Coast, how the people of Te Whanau-a-Apanui commune with their tribal rohe by swimming in the awa, diving in the moana and hunting in the ngahere. She paints an idyllic lifestyle, then disrupts it with an important question.

“What if one day all of this was taken from us? What if one day you walked into the bush and heard no life? No trees, and no birds calling?

“’Oh, but this will never happen,’” she states rhetorically. “’So really, why should I even care?’

“Actually, no, this is all happening.”

She is highlighting a stark consequence which may come to the East Coast if climate change continues to be ignored.

Earth is warming, waste is widespread in all parts of the environment, and fossil fuel extraction is having debilitating effects on the health of the land, sea, skies and the people of the planet.

Which is why these rangatahi are here, at the Red Tide International Indigenous Climate Action Summit. To discuss ways of tackling the biggest challenge facing them, facing all of us.

This is the youth conference. Learning about climate change is part of the agenda, but the real opportunity Red Tide offers is a chance for the young attendees to discover ways of actively addressing this great test. Over the course of two days they will take part in workshops, try tools and equip themselves with knowledge they can use when they take the lead on climate action.

Civil defence responses and management; mapping the changes in the environment with Geographic Information Systems (GIS); using 3D animation to design water bottles that use an alternative to plastic; trying out slam poetry to discover fresh ways of expressing their thoughts and spreading the message on climate change. Hands-on learning to inspire the youth to action as they look toward the future.

Before the workshops begin, however, Sorensen finishes laying down the wero not only to her peers, but also to the adults in attendance.

“The more we become consciously aware, the more we understand that our actions affect our environment – which affects our future. It is not just a change in action, it is a shift in mindset.

“And that is why we are all here today. From afar, or just from down the road. We have come together as a collective to talk, and discuss the changes that are happening.”

One of those visitors from afar is Beangka Elliott. Her whakapapa is to the WSANEC nation and Lekwuagen/Songhees nation, whose territory is at the southern tip of Vancouver Island in Canada. They are known as the ‘salt water people’.

Her work back home is centred around developing food systems using the traditional practices of her people with the goal of total food sovereignty for her community.

“I try to ground my work in the idea that violence on land is violence on our bodies,” she says.

Beangka Elliot from the WSANEC and Lekwungen/Songhees nations believes youth, with guidance and support from elders, need to step forward and take the lead on climate action. Image: Jason Renes

Her approach is to involve the youth, and have them take leading roles in the projects they work on such as the revitalisation of a trashed playground overrun with invasive plant species. Elliot and her team of youth arranged volunteer days to clean up the site, improving the soil and laying down leaf mulch, until eventually it was ready to be planted with their native foods. The tikanga of her people was what they turned to when it came to planting.

“You can’t just plant a normal garden, you have to think about the whole eco-system and how that interacts. Then also the human and spiritual connection to that, we try to incorporate. Through that action we’re resisting colonial violence, by taking food systems into our hands and into our public spaces.”

The rangatahi at Red Tide are like Manaia Sorensen: they are eager and engaged to take action against climate change. Elliot’s experience with the youth from her nation is similar.

“I think there’s a hunger in youth to belong somewhere. It gives youth the space to be in a place together that’s safe. There’s no judgement. And we’re just all there to learn.

“I think youth do have a really keen interest in that and they want to know more. We’ve actually had really good success and it’s based on my relationship with them. They come because we’re friends. I’m not just a youth worker, I’m somebody that’s a part of their life.”

Red Tide’s on-the-ground organisers are Te Kaha locals. Ora Barlow-Tukaki (Te Whānau-a-Apanui), a co-director and manager at Toi Toi Manawa Trust, and her husband Ray Tukaki (Te Whānau-a-Apanui) both spent the last two years planning the event, and were adamant it take place in the heart of their tribal lands. Toi Toi Manawa are co-presenting the summit along with the Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, a non-government organisation from Canada. The NGO is based in Lekwungen territory and they facilitate knowledge exchanges between indigenous communities across the Pacific. There are other allies on board for Red Tide. Seed, an indigenous youth climate network from Australia, and Indigenous Climate Action, another collective from Canada whose focus is climate justice.

Taking action on behalf of the environment is certainly the kaupapa guiding Red Tide, but the core focus of the summit is that indigenous worldviews ought to be at the fore of any response. This theme forms the spine of all kōrero delivered during Red Tide’s summit proper, which takes place after the youth conference has finished – up the road from Pahaoa at Te Kaha marae, where the great tīpuna whare, Tukaki, stands.

More than a dozen guest speakers offer their views and wisdom over three days at Te Kaha marae. Te Whānau-a-Apanui’s own Dayle Takitimu is the first presenter, and she lays down the importance of indigenous worldviews, which is the whole reasoning behind Red Tide.

“If the way that we live in harmony with the land as part of a sacred ecosystem, could rise to the top, if our values based decision making could be pulled into the mix at an international level, I firmly believe today we could arrest this pathway that we’re on.”

Long time environmental advocate Dayle Takitimu maintains there is still much that can be done to mitigate climate change. Image: Jason Renes

Takitimu is an indigenous rights and environmental lawyer who has, among other things, advocated directly at the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN’s Working Group for Indigenous Peoples and Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues.

Her thoughts on how indigenous worldviews can shape effective climate action take into account the inbuilt capacity of indigenous peoples to keep balance with the environment. By honouring its sacredness. And this comes from an understanding of where humans fit in the grand scale of things.

She sums up: “In [the Māori] creation story, we’re the bottom of the food chain. We are the tēina. We are the pōtiki. We’re not the master of this universe. We mihi to the moki, to the kahawai as our tuakana.

“In that, you start to get looking at your role – what you can and can’t do with the world – a bit differently.”

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