How to centre indigenous people in climate conversations

This piece was originally published in The Spinoff on 01/11/19.

‘Amplify indigenous voices’ is a sentiment I’ve been hearing more and more, but I’m left wondering what it means in a practical sense to those saying it. I caught up with Haylee Koroi who is a member of Te Ara Whatu, a group of Māori and Pasifika youth from Aotearoa taking action on Climate Change. As in previous years, Te Ara Whatu are planning to send a group of eight rangatahi to the COP25 UN climate conference next month (with help from Pledge Me). If mainstream media is your main source of news you may not have heard of this group, but they’ve been doing the mahi of protecting and advocating for Papatūānuku since they formed in 2017, with a number of prominent rangatahi among their tuākana including Pania Newton, Anevili Tupuola and India Logan Riley.

I wanted to talk to Haylee about indigenous sovereignty and why, with groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Global Climate Strike getting massive public buy-in, indigenous-led groups are still rallying from the margins. This feels especially ironic when many mainstream movements will be the first to acknowledge that they need to prioritise indigenous voices as those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. I found myself wondering whether the call to amplify indigenous voices was genuine or tokenism tacked on for show. And if not, what does that mean in practice? Will mainstream movements still be prepared to amplify narratives they find uncomfortable or challenging to listen to?

One of the things I’ve always loved about Haylee is her ability to see complex issues deeply and to articulate them clearly. He manu hōmiromiro. We first met in 2015 at Te Wānanga Takiura where we were both rumaki reo students. Haylee advanced through the programme much faster than me, attending kura reo in the weekends while I flailed around in the shallows with basic grammar and flashcards. She studied Māori and maths at university and the year when we were classmates, she was always either writing furiously on her laptop or reading a textbook. Our decolonisation journeys have traversed similar pathways and I will often look to Haylee, who is 26 to my 42, to check my thinking. We’re both Ngāpuhi. Haylee is Te Rarawa from Pukepoto while I’m Ngāti Hine from Waiōmio. It’s been a few years since we last caught up but we didn’t waste any time talking about the weather (unless you count the climate).

Nadine Hura: What do you think about all these global movements against climate change, especially the call to ‘amplify indigenous voices?’

Haylee Koroi: From what I have seen of mainstream or global climate movements, they often centre colonial ideas and are not necessarily prepared to give those ideas – or their associated power – away. These movements call for inclusivity of indigenous people but that feels peripheral to me. Metaphorically, it’s like being asked to gather around the fire that someone else has lit (after they’ve systematically gone about putting my fire out for generations) and then asking me to help them stoke it.

Why can’t these movements support and resource pre-existing indigenous movements – including the continued push for Māori water rights, the protection of Ihumātao, the Hands Off Our Tamariki campaign, and calls against Tuia 250? These are all opportunities for climate action but often Māori voices are shouting alone. It often feels that white movements co-opt indigenous ideas, give them new names and then claim them as their own.

KOROI (CENTRE) WITHE MEMBERS OF TE ARA WHATU AND PANIA NEWTON (LEFT) AT IHUMĀTAO. PHOTO: HOLLY BURGESS

The metaphor of building a fire and asking indigenous people to bring the fuel is really powerful. But I know that some people will find that pretty uncomfortable to hear. I’m not sure a lot of people will see the connection, for example, between Ihumātao and climate change.

Yeah, because indigenous people are always expected to do the work of decolonising. The truth is that indigenous people have always stood for the protection of the land. Why are we creating whole new entities when we should be supporting whānau, hapū, and iwi?

For 250 years, colonial systems have sought to undermine our relationship to the whenua by removing us from it – our very resource base – in order to fund colonisation. People think of climate change as an environmental issue, but it’s a human one that has become manifest in the external world. Human-induced climate injustice has been enacted on my tīpuna for centuries.

Climate change to me represents the progressive erosion of our whakapapa, from the very first glimpses of colonisation, which wiped out tens of thousands of ancestors. Then came urbanisation when we were moved into the city and became disconnected from our traditional knowledge systems. Even within the context of our homes we have dysfunctional family relationships and poor relationships with our own individual tinana and wairua. All these areas things have facilitated the gradual disconnection of individuals from their whakapapa. The climate, or Ranginui as he is known within our creation stories, is almost the last frontier – the last potential point of disconnect.

I notice that some of these movements will try to say that the protection of the environment should be above or beyond politics. Do you think that’s possible or even desirable?

It’s ridiculous to say that climate change isn’t political. For hundreds of years, indigenous people have been, and continue to be, imprisoned for trying to protect their land from exploitation. How is that not political?

It actually reminds me of the old adage of “I don’t see colour”. It’s a nice sentiment when your every waking moment isn’t influenced by the colour of your skin. But for most people of colour, their skin will subject them to all kinds of judgements and mistreatment.

It’s the same with statements like ‘climate change doesn’t discriminate.’ Well, that’s nice in theory, but I think of my own awa, Tāngonge on the outskirts of Kaitaia, which was drained for farmland leaving our hapū without our traditional food sources. The policies that allowed this to happen were racist, and it changed our local microclimate forever.

What about the people who say the best climate action you can take is not to have children? That by having kids you’re contributing to the drain on the world’s natural resources?

No, it’s colonisation and people who uphold colonisation who are draining the world of its resources. Māori don’t have to bear that burden. It’s definitely not us. We already know that those contributing the least to climate change are the worst affected and most vulnerable. This shows how inherently political this issue is. The restoration and continuation of whakapapa is climate action. Having Māori children and raising them to be kaitiaki, as their ancestors were, is perhaps the most powerful form of climate action. Tamariki are healing for us as whānau and for the earth as our ancestor. Without our tamariki there is no future and nothing to hope for.

How do you feel about the language around climate change – words like climate fatigue and crisis and depression?

Without invalidating those that feel that way, the reality is that through colonisation, we’ve been experiencing the symptoms of climate crisis for generations. At the same time, I don’t get too bothered by it because as long as Māori are controlling Māori narratives in regards to climate change and we don’t buy into it, I think we’ll be alright.

The one good thing that has come out of the climate crisis as a whole is the need to have more progressive conversations. Even though some of these mainstream movements are problematic, the fact that people are willing to have these conversations at all is a good thing. Especially if they wouldn’t have had these conversations otherwise.

But is having the conversation enough? What are the solutions in practice?

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Ultimately there is going to have to be a lot of letting go of power, even within climate movements, in order for us to come to a real solution. The solution needs to firstly (not secondly) focus on decolonisation. That looks like decolonising farming processes and restoring animal ecosystems. That looks like returning land to indigenous peoples. That looks like food sovereignty. That looks like honouring Te Tiriti. Anything less will not suffice.

Why is it important for Te Ara Whatu to attend the UN Climate Change conference? Especially now that Chile has announced their withdrawal. Do you know where the conference will be and does this development impact on your message?

Totally. We’re really supportive of the decision to find an alternative venue for the conference so that the Chilean administration can focus their energies on their own people and finding a just and peaceful way forward. We’ve been keeping an eye on unfolding events for a while, so the announcement is not so much a surprise as a complication. We’re waiting for further updates from the UN but until we receive different advice, we’re working on the assumption that we’ll attend the conference wherever it is.

In the context of human rights violations in Chile, it more important now than ever to ensure that indigenous voices are at the table and in the room at COP 25. Corporations and governments need to be held accountable for the generations of neglect and violence that they’ve inflicted on indigenous people and by extension, the environment. ‘Amplify indigenous voices’ is a nice sentiment but it’s meaningless if no-one is listening. It’s not enough to say that indigenous views matter, we actually need it backed up with action. We need to be able to challenge the existing power structures and shift the autonomy from those in high places, back to the whānau and community where it has always belonged.