The silencing of marginalised voices at COP25 should not shock us – it’s merely a glimpse into an ugly reality
Wednesday 11th December 2019 started brightly for many young activists – Fridays for Future occupied the main stage at COP25, the UN sponsored climate talks in Madrid, in an action mainly engaging white youth, and Greta Thunberg was awarded Time’s Person of the Year. However, the picture quickly shifted to become much darker when a group of Indigenous youth staged a peaceful protest in one of the halls. They were calling out richer nations for trying to avoid taking responsibility for the climate and ecological crisis. This protest was quickly and aggressively disbanded by security, with reports of children being separated from parents, women being individually surrounded, and those filming being threatened. Youth were forced out of the venue and into the winter with no coats, and badges were taken to prevent them from re-entering the building. Unlike earlier in the day, these Indigenous protesters were not treated with respect, and their message was certainly not tolerated.
Anger is an appropriate response for onlookers. Fear is also a reasonable reaction. But shock that this has happened is not, because this happens every day.
Violence is sadly a common injustice suffered by Indigenous communities. Protectors are literally murdered – shot and burned – by those looking to stop their voices from being heard. Governments like Brazil’s are complicit in the targeted persecution of Indigenous activists, silencing them so that there is less chance of their regimes being criticised. It’s not as though Indigenous communities don’t try to tell the world about their plight, but the world tends to look the other way. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to believe that these things are happening, or perhaps we just don’t want to have to deal with it, but the abuse of humanity quickly became more than a footnote when the Amazon, burning out-of-control earlier this year, made global news. This was certainly the first time I was confronted with the truth of the fate of many Indigenous communities and individuals, and the danger and fear that so many more lived in. Using violence to silence is a common phenomenon, but it is allowed to continue due to the apparent indifference, or even complacency, displayed by our media and leaders. This should very much be everyone’s business; murdering people and destroying the planet very much go hand-in-hand, and demanding justice for Indigenous protectors is as crucial to the air we breathe, the food we eat, the land we walk on, as it is to the human compassion we should feel for oppressed minorities. Separating mothers and children, isolating individual women, and shutting people out in the cold are actions not unfamiliar, or even that extreme, to those being targeted by them. Perhaps we should be surprised that security were bold enough to carry out this silencing in front of the world and the cameras, but then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be.
This COP has been a failure from the offset – held in Europe yet agian, fossil fuel sponsorship, youth voices being pushed to the side-lines – but the most concerning feature didn’t come from the organising; it came from the reporting. For example, when Luisa Neubauer and Greta Thunberg hosted a press conference in which they gave their platform to marginalised and Indigenous voices, the press chose to report on this action and not on the vital messages being delivered by Angela Valenzuela, Arshak Makichyan, Carlon Zackhras, Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, Kisha Erah Muana, or Rose Whipple.
Nor did they choose to report on any other activists who spoke at the COP alongside Greta, such as Vanessa Nakate, who has been trying desperately to get attention for the Congo Rainforest by striking for well over 50 consecutive days. It is as if the media is happy to humour the youth, provided they don’t have to recount any of what is actually being said. This wilful neglect of reporting on Indigenous voices, voices from the Global South, and marginalised and minority voices from other areas perpetrates the issue that these knowledgeable, essential messages are not being heard by the global population as a whole. Whether it is intentional or not, this failure in journalism is allowing further destruction of our planet, and the first sign of this is the boldness through which security silenced Indigenous voices on 11th December, at a global event, right under the noses of a dispassionate press.
When the media fails to report the words of those already suffering the most due to the climate and ecological crisis, they are silencing these voices. When these voices are silenced, they are more vulnerable to abuse. Did the organisers feel no fear of backlash when they shut down a protest aimed at the inaction of wealthy countries? If they took a gamble, it almost certainly paid off. Creating silence is violence of a more insidious kind.
The events of today also make me question whether the youth had any hope of shaping the agenda at COP25. It is almost as though the organisers were happy to allow the children to speak, provided the children didn’t misbehave. The global leaders have no interest in listening to Fridays for Future or anyone else calling for systems change, because they’d rather condemn every child and young person they are supposed to protect than they would break with the planet-destroying status quo. As soon as that status quo was threatened, they shut down the protest, and the fact of the matter is that those being shut down were a portion of humanity that the powerful can get away with silencing. We must stand in solidarity with them, stand up for their rights, and demand that their vital message is reported by the world media, so that it can’t continue to be ignored.
Like a twisted version of the von Trapp children singing “goodbye” at a dinner party, the youth speaking of extinction at COP25 are just the entertainment. The contempt with which Indigenous youth were treated today is the same sentiment they would extend to all of us if they could. Allowing silence on the treatment of Indigenous and marginalised people is a tool for violence, as without attention, they are treated as vermin. We cannot continue to be silent on these issues. These voices hold the answers to the climate and ecological crisis. They are literally our hope for the future.
Listen to the science. Listen to Indigenous voices. Then, act.