‘We’re not just somebody to look at.’ Sidelined groups complain of racial tokenism at COP26 climate talks
Alberto Pezzali/AP for CNN

‘We’re not just somebody to look at.’ Sidelined groups complain of racial tokenism at COP26 climate talks

There’s a small desk right at the back of the largest room at the COP26 conference in Glasgow. It sits well behind the rows of seats reserved for world leaders and international organizations, right underneath a huge EXIT sign, behind observing journalists.

The label on the desk reads “Indigenous Peoples Organizations.”

The United Nations Conference of the Parties, or COP, is supposed to be an inclusive forum on climate, bringing together global leaders, NGOs, activists and civil society groups. The UK, which is hosting the summit in Scotland, promised “the most inclusive COP ever.”

But to some of the Indigenous people and members of other underrepresented groups that are attending, those claims ring hollow.

CNN spoke to more than a dozen people from underrepresented groups from different parts of the world, including Indigenous people and those from the Global South, and they all said the same thing: The conference doesn’t reflect the real world and doesn’t feel inclusive.

‘We’re working in a colonial framework’

Ruth Łchavaya K’isen Miller, a Dena’ina Athabaskan and Ashkenazi Russian Jewish woman who is part of the Native Movement delegation, said the UK’s pledge of inclusiveness is “quite hypocritical and simply a lie.”

“It feels really deeply and profoundly lonely,” she told CNN.

She said a lot of people from civil society groups, particularly from the Global South, had struggled to get to the conference because of the difficulties brought by the pandemic, but she also complained that participating virtually was limiting. A lot of virtual sessions mean people can watch, but they can’t raise their hand and get involved, or ask questions.

“We see low numbers of participation from civil society, members of the Global South, particularly from Indigenous communities,” she said.

People who have been unable to get to COP26 can participate in some sessions online. But Miller said that in many cases, the sessions did not facilitate those attending virtually to actually ask questions or join in on the discussions.

The way Miller sees it, conferences like COP26 perpetuate structures of power that run along racial lines. Indigenous people’s struggles to attend COP26 are not the result of anyone deliberately trying to exclude them, but are an example of everyday struggles these groups face in access to decision-making generally, according to Miller.

“COP … has not done enough to break down those barriers to entry,” Miller said.

She even described the way some of the sessions were held as “racist.”

“We’re working in a colonial framework to solve a problem caused by colonization … the ways that these meetings are held, they rely on fluency in English, they rely on the ability to navigate on an iPhone, they rely on the ability to sleep three hours every night and to run around oftentimes without any accessibility accommodations, to be on call at any moment,” she said.

While the COP26 climate negotiations bring together leaders and delegates from all over the world, the concentration of global power and wealth is still largely dominated by the West, and the leaders of those countries are still predominantly White.

As wrangling over financing continues — specifically over how much the developed world is willing to pay the developing world to adapt to the climate crisis — that concentration of power has been stark.

The priorities for COP26 hinged heavily on the G20 summit in Rome that came just before it, a forum that includes plenty of big developing economies but only one African and three Latin American nations.

Of the more than 2,000 NGOs and other organizations that received observer status with the UN climate body as of 2017 — which allows them to sit in on negotiations — two-thirds were from Western Europe. That’s not to suggest people from the Global South or Indigenous groups are being left out, but it shows, at the very least, that resources in climate are heavily concentrated in the West, even in civil society.

Grassroot campaigns, including Extinction Rebellion, have also been criticized for their lack of diversity. Extinction Rebellion says on its website it is “working to improve diversity in our movement.” A 2018 study by Yale University’s Dorceta E. Taylor found that 85% of staffers at 2,057 American environmental non-profits were White.

Some of the activists and members of NGOs that have observer status at the COP26 conference say they have been unable to gain access to negotiations, some of them several times across the first week, mostly because rooms with social-distancing measures in place are reaching capacity quickly.

Josh Kioke, Climate Policy Analyst at the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, told CNN that a representative of the group was asked to leave a negotiation on Friday on loss and damages — despite arranging to be on the speaker’s list as an observer.

“Several parties arrived late and all observers were asked to leave once the room reached capacity [because of] Covid,” he said.

A representative of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus told CNN they were asked to leave negotiations on carbon markets on Tuesday, an issue that directly impacts indigenous lands, as the room had reached capacity.

Similar experiences are being shared on social media. Climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor said that at the COP25 in Madrid in 2019, she was able to freely observe negotiations “which is what being a ‘NGO Observer’ is all about,” she tweeted.

“Here, at COP26, I haven’t been able to observe at all. I feel lost, like I’m here as an ornament or to tell reporters what gives me hope over and over and over.”

The UNFCCC did not respond to CNN’s repeated requests for comment, but UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa has acknowledged several times that access has been a problem.

“In our process, we have packed rooms, some people even sitting on the floor and this is something that we cannot have here,” she told reporters last week.

Alok Sharma, the British MP chairing the talks, has repeatedly apologized throughout the conference for the access issues.

“I hope everyone appreciates that we are holding this COP in quite challenging circumstances. During this year, there have been various calls for this COP to be postponed once again. I have always been very clear that we must proceed,” Sharma said.

“In terms of access to the rooms, clearly, we’ve had to restrict numbers in groups and people appreciate the reason for that is the requirement for social distancing, ensuring that everyone is kept safe. I get this point about the NGOs and observer groups wanting access. I think we have tried to accommodate that,” he said.

“I think it’s very important that actually they have an opportunity to observe and for them to feel that they are included in this.”

‘We’re not just somebody to look at’

In at least one instance, when the COP26 presidency organized an open dialogue between observers and national delegations on Thursday evening, only one delegate, from the EU, made a contribution, and that was after turning up late. Footage from the meeting shows the moderator repeatedly calling on national delegations to speak, only to be met with awkward silence.

Chief Judy Wilson, who is at COP as part of the Assembly of First Nations delegation, said that Indigenous groups deserved to have more than observer status.

“It’s good that we show our dances and our prayers, but we’re not just somebody to look at and say, ‘Oh, you know, there’s a presence of Indigenous people.’ If you’re not hearing our voices, and we’re not at the table — and we’re not — if you’re not listening to us, then that’s just for show,” she said.

“You’re talking about our land, you’re talking about our water, you’re talking about our trees for carbon offsetting … you should be talking to the indigenous people, because that’s whose land it is.”

Wilson said she found the way the world leaders’ summit was conducted particularly upsetting — and a good reflection of how climate decisions are made.

“You walk in the room, that’s no place for you. When the G20 speeches were going on … all the wealthier countries, they did their speeches, they said what they’re going to do, and then oh, what they might do to help the underdeveloped countries, then they left,” she said.

“They didn’t stay to hear the whole discussion with Barbados, with Bolivia, all the other countries that [have] solid climate action plans, what they’re going to do for their country and what they needed help with,” she said.

“They weren’t in the room to hear it. So to me, that’s disrespectful because, you know, if you’re going to give your presentation, and you’re there to hear others, you should be sitting there listening yourself.”

‘The voices of the missing majority’

Azeez Tobi Abubakar, a young climate activist from Nigeria, says he came to the conference with a clear mission: To share stories of other youngsters who couldn’t make it to Glasgow.

Abubakar, who has a disability, was able to attend the conference thanks to the support of Restless Development, an organization that is working with young activists worldwide, helping them to amplify their voices. Without the group, it would have been impossible for him to come.

“Me being here, I was given a very good opportunity to put out the voices of the missing majority,” he said. “I owe it to them because they might not have the opportunity to speak.”

A fellow climate activist and a campaigner at Restless Development, Inés Yábar, said that the lack of access for young people to the decision-making forums was worrying, because they will be the ones paying the heavier price of failure.

And it’s not just COP. This lack of representation of starts at home, in the conversations held at national and local levels, she said.

“If you don’t have those before coming, then when people come, they’re not accurately representing those who aren’t here,” she said.

“This is a good place to be, but it shouldn’t be the main thing, the main thing is the conversations happening in communities, listening to people back home.”

‘It’s a continuation of the same fight’

Many Indigenous groups are particularly worried about the conference’s stance on carbon markets. One of the goals of COP26 is to finalize the rules of international emissions trading, which involves carbon offsetting.

The idea goes back to the “net zero” concept, which most countries in Glasgow have agreed to reach by mid-century. It’s a target to reduce emissions as much as possible and offset what’s left through measures like planting more trees to absorb more carbon dioxide and using technology to remove greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, which still isn’t at an advanced stage or widely used.

Several Indigenous groups have voiced opposition to that approach during the conference, especially since some of the world’s largest carbon sinks, such as forests, are on their lands.

Because forests absorb and store carbon in trees, organic matter and soils, they could be a valuable asset when countries start to look for ways to offset their emissions.

According to the UN, Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the world’s population, but they protect 80% of remaining forest biodiversity globally.

“The Indigenous peoples have a knowledge-based system that predates any university on the globe, that allows us to maintain those lands in a manner that all things living can survive,” said Thomas Joseph, from the Hupa tribe from Hoopa Valley in California, who is representing the Indigenous Environmental Network at COP26.

“That tenure is under threat by carbon markets, because you have to think about ownership and who’s trading and who’s buying and who’s buying the right to what. And so when we’re talking about using native lands for carbon sinks, that’s giving corporations the ability to mandate what goes on those lands,” he said.

Joseph is campaigning for clauses on the rights of Indigenous peoples and protections of their lands to be included in any treaty on carbon trading.

“If we’re talking about climate solutions, we need to talk about how are we going to keep fossil fuels in the ground? And about real solutions to reducing our CO2 emissions, not about using mathematical schemes to balance out your book so it looks like you’re at net zero,” he said.

“On a personal level, I come from a community, a matriarchal society that has thrived in this region for over 10,000 years,” he said.

“To meet your ancestors once this life is done, and for them to say we survived the boarding schools, we survived the 49ers, the Gold Rush, we survived the state of California paying their citizens to scalp our people, we survived the United States military, the wars against our people … and you lost it to the carbon bankers, you lost to false solutions … that’s something I’m not willing to do,” he said. “It’s a continuation of the same fight.”

‘It has been very difficult to get here’

For many civil society groups, the fight to be heard at COP is simply a reflection of the struggles they face at home.

On Tuesday, a group of women representing more than 40 different indigenous groups from across Brazil brightened the sea of gray and black suits in the security line with their colorful headgear featuring feathers from some of Brazil’s most beautiful birds.

One of them is Alessandra Korap, an environmental activist and a leader of the Munduruku people, a group whose home in the Tapajós region of the Amazon River basin has been under threat from government developments for years.

“It has been very difficult to get here,” Korap told CNN, explaining that raising the money for the journey was hard.

She said her community had been attacked several times and complained of the rampant destruction of the Amazon, driven by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

“The government has to stop lying to the world,” she said, referring to the way the government is making pledges to end deforestation while dismantling federal legislation and environmental agencies intended to combat logging.

At the conference, the Brazilian government signed a statement committing to ending deforestation by 2030, but what the years until then hold for the Amazon forest and its people is worrying to Korap.

‘We’re not even at the table’

Miryam Vargas Teutle, a Nahua woman from the Cholulteca region of Mexico, struck the same tone. “We’re here to show that Indigenous peoples still exist and are still resisting colonialism,” she said, describing the difficulties she’s faced getting to Glasgow. Because of language and other access barriers in her own country, it took Teutle half a year to find an organization to join that would be recognized by the UN as one that could participate.

“They’ve never taken us into account, they’ve never listened to us and this is particularly ironic because these negotiations are all about taking over our land and our territories for [carbon offsetting] and we’re not even at the table. We’re not listened to. We don’t even exist for these negotiators,” she said through a translator.

Back at the lonely desk during the summit’s opening ceremony, Tiana Jakicevich sat, watching a speech from the Māori climate campaigner India Logan-Riley from New Zealand. Jakicevich is at COP26 representing a group of young Māori and Pasifika activists called Te Ara Whatu.

When she arrived at the desk, there were no chairs. She said she had to fetch her seat herself.

“I think that was a telling representation of how we are treated. One of our members was one of the few people to open [the ceremony], yet the people of support were put at the very, very back.”

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