It’s wonderful to see how the space creates this diversity of interactions. But how do these different events contribute to the diversity of messages at COP? I find this question central to the identity of the conference, because COP is so unique in its structure. We could begin over-analyzing the different ways each kind of forum warps messages in different ways, but that thought experiment is for a different time, for someone with more expertise. Instead I want to offer two contrasting experiences of my time so far at COP.
The first experience was a forum showcasing communities of the UNDP-Sponsered Equator Prize. This initiative is meant to recognize the successes of local, indigenous communities in fostering sustainable development and to promote similar successes moving forward.
The event progressed through a series of presentations led by indigenous representatives in the immaculate Rio Pavillion–an open, white structure filled with an excess of chairs and staffed by uniformed UN employees. Speakers used slides to highlight their communities’ accomplishments–how they organized around conservation and community empowerment.
I took many things away from this–the importance of empowering grassroots organizations for conservation, the power of indigenous peoples problem-solving, the commonalities of indigenous cultures. It focused on the positive, on how communities come together to save nature, and not on all the issues that people have to face. This was a space of solutions, of the future.
This contrasted with another event I found tucked away in an informal meeting area of Climate Generations called Indigenous Peoples Voices. Hosted by Sustaining All Life, a NGO based out of Seattle. Sustaining All Life believes that we can use listening to move past the hurt that many oppressed people deal with every day and begin to work towards productive solutions.
It was an intimate forum–no more than 20 people. The idea of the forum was to allow people from indigenous communities to come and share their experiences, their personal story, in an open, listening environment. Each story was so different, and they all showed an immense concern for nature and their cultural and spiritual heritage.
In the middle of the event, a Basque woman came forward and said, “I wasn’t planning on talking here. It’s hard to talk in front of so many people. But it’s good to talk to everyone.” She talked of the hardships of her people, her friends who had been silenced or killed, and the deep tie they have to the land. Their language has 40,000 years of history. “We all come from those times,” she said.
The last person to step forward was a Maori woman. She was a clan mother, with the responsibility of passing on the traditional knowledge to young people. She also works with Maori restoration workers to provide an understanding of the traditional guardians of the mountains and wetlands. “I am walking in the footsteps of my mothers,” she said.
She shared a deeply personal story, a story of the ‘living forest.’ This is a spiritual place of their people, nestled in a mountain valley and filled with the dark, ancient beech trees that cover the slopes of New Zealand. Here is the story she shared.
“There is a special place where the forest calls you. The young people feel its calling. When it calls you need to go whatever time of day or night it is. The journey is to enter into a dark forest after honoring the beings that are there. Once you walk in you need to wait at least 10 minutes–it’s pitch black. Then the magic happens. The forest lights up. I don’t know why? There’s a scientific reason. But that’s not my interest. When you need special medicine, the forest lights up. It’s the tree trunks, the leaves, the mosses, everything around you! There’s a cathedral of light. This is not to take things out of the forest, it’s to take the young people and the children to receive whatever message they’ll get from the forest and to understand that magic is still in this world even though we have corporations and greedy people trying to kill it off. That is my job. To be the clan mother.”
During this informal meeting, I heard the most powerful, sincere stories from indigenous peoples yet. Everywhere else, people weren’t comfortable with this kind intimacy. This was a space of understanding, of the now, of the personal.
It’s hard to contextualize this experience within the overall craziness of COP–the billions of dollars pledged, the degrees of warming, the heads of state, the underlying existential cultural and environmental crisis. It’s the kind of thing that slips in through the formal woodworking of the event–an accepting place where you can be vulnerable and intimately share your perspective.
So for the rest of my time at COP I’m going to keep looking and listening for these stories, not because I dislike the hopeful and practical messages of the UN, but because these are the elusive authenticities that speak to a different, more primal, part of your self. There is a value in this that the COP doesn’t recognize–possible cannot recognize—but I hope it will always be a part of this wonderfully mystifying conference.