Connecting Cultures at COP 21

Written by Scott Benzing


 Over the course of the past week I have spent a lot of time walking around the civil society portion of the COP 21, and one observation that I have made is how diverse the crowd of people truly is. People from all over the globe have made the journey to Paris, and every single one of them shares a passion for preserving the environment.
Even though this huge variety of races, ethnicities, and religions is present at the COP 21, most of those in attendance are dressed in suits or business casual attire, with the occasional person sporting blue jeans and a light jacket. But for some people, their attire is much more unique and meaningful. There are a number of indigenous peoples attending this conference from all over the world, and many of them have chosen to adorn their traditional clothing to the event. The vivid traditional garb worn by these people provides a stark contrast to the sea of ties and khaki pants, and draws the attention of everyone who passes by. Whenever someone wears a particularly intricate or colorful outfit, it is not uncommon to see a small congregation of people huddle nearby taking photographs.
Indigenous peoples at COP 21 are not limiting themselves to only dressing in their traditional attire, they are also sharing their languages, songs, stories, food, and cultures with everyone in attendance. All of the events involving indigenous peoples are limited to one area of the civil society building, but that has not stopped them from permeating through the rest of the venue.
Today I was fortunate enough to witness an older Russian indigenous woman in traditional clothing perform throat singing to a techno beat that a young French DJ was playing in the middle of the convention. The crowd of people around the stage was huge, and everyone in attendance cheered and applauded this beautiful mixing of cultures. This is just one example of how people have been putting aside their cultural differences here in Paris in order to make connections with others. Regardless of what the policy outcomes of the COP 21 negotiations are, I will leave Paris with a smile on my face knowing that all these thousands of people came together in harmony for at least a little while.

False(?) Presentations of the Inclusion and Recognition of Indigenous Peoples

Written by Sarah Huang


 Today I attended a panel organized by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called “Indigenous Voices and Climate Change: Outcomes of National Indigenous Peoples-Gov. Dialogues”. This panel included five indigenous peoples from Tanzania, Guatemala, Thailand, Vietnam, and Samoa as well as three government representatives from Dominican Republic, Norway, and Guyana. The dialogue that occurred throughout this meeting was interesting in the sense that it seemed to be guided by this relationship of collaboration between government and indigenous peoples, whether there was government recognition of indigenous peoples or not. The goal of these dialogues is to create more equitable spaces by incorporating the views of indigenous peoples in the negotiations. These dialogues will show the impact of climate change on livelihoods that will facilitate a trusting relationship between government and indigenous peoples, a relationship that has been severed in many cases.
While this process of indigenous participation and representation at this so called ‘table’ is encouraging, I think it is really important to be critical to the ways in which indigenous peoples are being invited to this ‘table’, or the ways that the government talks about indigenous representation. For example, one of the government representatives talked about the importance of government to educate local peoples on the effects of climate change and adaptation of climate change. This discourse about educating indigenous peoples undermines the authority and autonomy that indigenous peoples have over their own knowledge systems, but also over their own experiences. It assumes that their experiences are not legitimate in their own right and require governmental intervention and education in order for it to have an authority that is recognizable by government and other state actors.

So when I was trying to write a title for this blog, I was thinking about different ways of thinking about this issue. It seems like a struggle of legitimation, authority, and autonomy, but I think at the heart of it is really this issue of recognition and the right to be recognized. This right for recognition and respect of rights is a demand that indigenous peoples have been pushing for here at COP21, and was definitely lacking in this specific panel presentation from government officials. It makes me wonder about the relationship between recognition and legitimacy and the role that legitimacy may play in the recognition of indigenous rights. Does a recognition of indigenous rights require the legitimacy from government or does the demand for a recognition of indigenous rights from indigenous people create an autonomous legitimacy?

It also makes me think about something talked about yesterday during Africa Day, where many indigenous peoples spoke about false solutions to climate change that result in the displacement of indigenous peoples through development of clean energy solutions (examples include geothermal energy and hydropower). I think this term ‘false’ is an appropriate representation of how indigenous peoples are once again at the short end of a just climate solution that is based on the continuous colonialist discourses that were displayed in this panel session earlier today. The idea of legitimizing indigenous peoples’ knowledges and experiences through an ‘education about climate effects’ is the same strategy of colonialism and imperialism that indigenous peoples have experienced for too long. It is time to advocate for a climate change solution that is recognizes the colonialist history of oppression and proposes a decolonized approach for a just system. And maybe then, we may actually understand indigenous recognition where governments, heads of state, and COP21 delegates have the capacity to understand indigenous livelihoods and experiences in respect their autonomy and rights.

Is hydropower the answer?

The following blog entry was written by Rohit Bhonagiri, an accounting student in Dr. Marion Suiseeya’s International Environmental Policy class. The students in this class are conducting a digital ethnography of COP21.

Rohit’s blog was originally posted on his own website:

COP21 began on the 30th of November and things look good because all the actors are scurrying about making historic speeches about saving the environment. I have been following issues related to women and indigenous women at COP21.

After looking at all the tweets on the women’s movements in Paris, I got a request to follow the World Economic Forum (WEF). The first tweet I came across was a picture with statistics of the renewable energy profile for the world which said that hydropower is the most efficient renewable energy and is better than other renewable sources because it can store electricity for later use. The benefits outweigh the costs, economic costs. One of my classmates, Eiji, mentioned that Brazil said that they are working hard on the environmental front and people should be optimistic of COP21. What they forgot to mention is any indigenous or human rights. Another place that indigenous, human and women’s rights is not mentioned is the non-paper that is submitted for negotiation. Brazil gets about 70% of its electricity from hydropower despite strong opposition from indigenous people that have lost their area. This now takes this issue to a new dimension of climate justice.  Background on these issues can be got from articles at the bottom of this blog.

From what I know indigenous people face a big obstacle, state sovereignty.  All states exercise power over the people and some need to adapt and make sacrifices. Indigenous people aren’t a big part on state economies and cannot wield power like Oil and gas companies. Should mitigation tactics include a drastic reduction in consumption like what Kalyani Raj overemphasized on in “Women’s Red Flags for the Climate Talks”? Whatever the next source of energy is, we must consider the social costs of it.

Africa Day: Desertification and Pastoralism

Written by Liz Wulbrecht


Today was Africa day at the indigenous pavilions. Men and women were passionately sharing their stories about climate change and traditional practices. A large majority of African indigenous people are pastoralist nomads. They roam the land with their cattle, both human and beast feeding off the earth. Climate change has caused the warming of the land and air, reducing precipitation, and thus compromising indigenous and animal ability to live off of their ancestral land. The grass that feeds the cattle no longer grows. And the milk that feeds these people no longer pours so freely as fifty or twenty years ago.

The pastoralist way of life is dying because of the warming earth. Men have to live in the cities to find jobs to feed and support their families. A Maasai woman discussed how women are overworked and burdened. Many have to work multiple jobs. A Kichwa women complained that women can no longer gather and consume traditional foods. These indigenous women are hurting. Indigenous men are hurting. A traditional cattle farmer apologized for his status. He said I am a farmer not an intellectual or academic, but I’m here to share my story, and he did. The trees and grass his people knew for generations have died and the cattle along with it. He spoke plainly and clearly. Life as he knew it, has ended.

It’s only been two days at the conference, but I’ve heard countless stories of the devastation from climate change. A woman in the crowd asked if actors in the official negotiations knew of these people’s stories. That is why these groups are here, to make their voices heard.

Indigenous Recognition: The Bare Minimum

Written by Sarah Huang

Today was the first day of the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion as well as the Civil Society “Climate Generations” meetings. Our Civil Society team: Kim, Suraya, Liz, Scott and I were split into three teams and headed to our various meetings. Suraya and I were a team and had events located in both the Civil Society rooms and the IPP (Indigenous Peoples Pavilion). Laura and Fernando were our representatives at the ‘blue zone’ side event meetings.


The grand opening at the IPP was a motivating space for me today. It reminded me of why I am invested in environmental justice and indigenous rights. The passion that came out of this room was easily sensed in the voices of indigenous peoples all over North America (Today was North America day in the IPP. There is a different theme for each of the days during COP21). There were talks about the effects of coal mining, fracking, dams, and lack of recognition by the federal government. All of these environmental, social, and cultural harms have effects on the health and well-being of these peoples. Their passion and the strength of their voices portrayed a sense of hope that I had not felt as strongly from the other meetings that I had attended today.

I was really struck by one indigenous woman from Alberta, Canada who spoke about how at bare minimum, they want recognition from state actors and delegates at COP21. It was shocking to me how these women can talk about all of these environmental and social harms, such as pollution of their river ways and being physically driven off of their lands, or the high cancer rates in their communities, but the root of all of this is the lack of recognition. She spoke about the lack of recognition of their land and cultural rights. Others throughout the day spoke about lack of recognition from the UN, or the US government, or even COP21. They were not invited to the formal ‘blue zone’ meetings or to have their own delegates at these meetings. They are not recognized by the UN. The US government has recognized some tribes, but promotes policies that support the degradation of environments. For example, the US government promotes the reduction of dependency on foreign oil and yet promotes the fracking and degradation of indigenous land for the drilling of oil.

This demand for recognition at COP21 does not come easily, as one indigenous woman expressed. She talked about how she doesn’t understand COP21 because that has meant that it has been 21 years where nothing has been done. She came to this meeting to say that we can’t have a COP22. The bluntness about this statement took me aback when I actually started to consider how, just within the COP context, it has been 21 years where there has been no agreement, and indigenous peoples are still not invited to speak on their own behalf. It is frustrating for me to sit and hear this, but it is hopeful to see all of these voices coming together to speak up. This woman closed on the idea that if they never make their voices heard, then they will have failed. And so they are hear demanding for respect of indigenous rights, which would also mean the protection of their environments and their cultures.

What will we see at the close of COP21? How does indigenous representation at ‘blue zone’ side meetings influence the climate negotiations? Stay tuned for future reports on events in the IPP. I also recommend that you look at the list of demands at COP 21from the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The Politics of Performance: Dramaturgy outside COP21

Written by Sarah Huang

As we join COP21, our research is guided by three themes, which will be discussed throughout these blog posts. These three themes include: Translation, Scale, and Performance.


Translation refers to how different actors define problems, solutions and their role in solving problems; defining roles and convincing others to accept and take on these roles; and speaking for other actors.
Scale refers to different processes of scale, such as local, regional, and global that shape how ideas emerge.
Performance refers to how roles are performed and how these lend to how knowledge and identities are legitimized and delegitimized, and how shared meanings are constructed and deconstructed.

As a member of the civil society team, Kim, Liz, Scott, Suraya and I went to the COP21 meeting site Le Bourget. Upon arrival, to the site we walked along the tall metal fence that was separating the site from the roadside. There were armed guards on the inside of the fence on the top of grassy berms. There were also guards located at the gate entrances. As we walked towards the conference center, we were greeted by large columns with each country’s flags displayed alphabetically.

A biodiversity stand with volunteers were handing out apples from Carrefour to all people coming into the event. These stands promoted a “Taste of Biodiversity” and “Agroecology as a climate solution”. Agroecology is based on a whole-system approach based in traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food experiences. This promotion of agroecology and an alternative form of agriculture and biodiversity was a strong point, but what was not clear was whether these apples being handed out were a product of agroecology.

While we were standing around, buses were dropping off delegates to attend the formal meetings, and we even caught a glimpse of Al Gore as he walked into the center. Other forms of performance were conducted outside the conference center that called a lot of attention to people coming into the conference center.

The ClimActs #climateguardians from Australia were standing in the front holding up signs for “Climate Justice”, “Free our Power”, and “Coal Kills”. These six women of varying ages were dressed in white gowns and scarves with green wreaths sprinkled with white flowers on their heads. Each of the women were wearing five foot wings that were made of various colored pieces of tulle. These women had been standing outside all morning and were also visiting different sites and movements around Paris. The group was surprised that there weren’t other forms of protest happening during this first day of COP21. At this point, we said goodbye to Fernando and Laura as they headed inside to serve as delegates at the formal ‘blue zone’ meetings.

Another performance was the Earth Guardians group, which is a group of indigenous youth and  rappers, who were standing in the center outside the doors of the conference. It wasn’t clear whether this was a strategic or explicit performance, but the gathering of various press swarming the youth group and these three rappers standing alongside each other silently, became quite the performance.

I thought these events were very interesting forms of performance ​specifically the ways in which they displayed particular forms of identity. For me, the performance of angels and the symbology of angels as peace, pure, and guardians was really interesting. According to their website, the act of a guardian as a role in a “peaceful social disruption” as a symbol for climate justice and justice for clean energy resources. This costume and act of silent performance frames an understanding of climate justice is an act of peaceful protest. It makes me wonder: who are the guardians of the earth’s natural resources?

The use of angelic symbology as a form of guardian might suggest that we, as a collective, should be guardians of the earth’s natural resources. The representation of these angels outside the first day of COP21 sets the stage for a fight for climate justice that is both peaceful, but also needing to claim responsibility as guardians. This form of performance urging for a transition from dirty fossil fuels speaks to the impact that fossil fuels has on world, but does not explicitly mention the impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

First Day in Paris

Written by Sarah Huang

The team arrived in Paris this morning after a sleepless night. We might have lost 6 hours with the time change, but after a quick nap, we were up and running! Around 1:00 pm today, we had our first official team meeting here in Paris to discuss logistics, safety, event planning, and gear check. Fernando and Laura will be representing our team at the formal delegate meetings during the next two weeks. The news in Paris for today and tomorrow are about the free transit in the city due to the high traffic of Heads of State coming into Paris. President Barack Obama also arrived in Paris today. This is an interesting point of note as most negotiations have formal delegate meetings at the end of the conference period, rather than fronting them at the beginning. We are interested to see how this change in schedule will impact the events of COP21. Picture

After our team meeting we headed into the neighborhood to find a place to eat lunch, get some groceries and purchase our tickets for public transportation. We had lunch at a brasserie in the Saint Denis area and enjoyed walking outside on this windy day. Grocery shopping was another adventure at Carrafore, which is similar to a Target or Walmart. During our quick walking adventures we found some visuals of COP21 on the subway and billboards. We also were following the demonstrations happening in Paris and around the world today on Twitter and Snapchat. There were many climate marches happening in major cities throughout the world (Tweet from Rome March), the display of shoes in Paris in response to the ban on marches, and the police clashes in Paris with anti-capitalist protesters.Picture


While it is just Day 1 for us here in Paris, we must remember that the voices heard and the marches that happened are in response to a long history of seeking justice, peace, and power amidst many actors. Today we saw this play out through the demonstration of the right to representation and participation in public spaces.