A chance encounter with filmmaker Tim Lewis led me to If Not Us Then Who. I was taking photos for Humans of the UN Climate Talks during the Bonn negotiations in June last year, when he told me about their side event on Sunday. It was the perfect antidote to a week inside the climate discussions and a head filled with acronyms and statistics.
If Not Us Then Who? is an evolving, collaborative project led by indigenous and local communities, along with film-makers and communications experts, to share their stories of struggles and solutions related to climate change. More specifically the focus is on protecting forests, with a myriad of inter-related issues. The key demands they amplify are formal recognition of indigenous and local communities’ rights to land, consultation, an end to violence, and finance.
These films and this project cut right through to what is important, and sadly often forgotten amid the political, stunted climate negotiations: humanity and basic rights, land rights, financing, the utter beauty and necessity of natural resources, and of course the guardianship of local and indigenous communities. As the wonderful Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim from Chad observed in Bonn, ‘All this is talking about humanity… there needs to be a focus on people’. She also related back to the sterile UN climate change text, commenting that by taking human rights language out of that text it takes away vital respect for those it is supposed to protect.
Ultimately the short films are about people; generations of brave souls who continue to put their lives on the line to protect their homes and land, as well as blazing a trail with innovative projects. Importantly, the films emphasise the role indigenous and local people can play in dealing with climate change. Instead of being portrayed as victims these communities are a solution. For instance, working with activist and researcher Irendra Radjawali, indigenous Dayak communities in Indonesia have mapped out their land using drone technology (click here for the film). This has translated into real victories in court, where the maps have provided evidence of mining companies using their land illegally, thus substantiating community land rights. During If Not Us Then Who’s second side event in Bonn, Victor Lopez Illescas commented on the ‘direct relation between rights of indigenous peoples and low deforestation’. Moreover, Nick Nuttall, Head of Communications for the UNFCCC (UN climate change convention) secretariat, spoke bluntly at the side event: ‘We need the indigenous people because we need our forests’. By labelling this work as ‘an investment in all our futures’, he emphasised a shared interest in protecting forests.
The Sunday side event in Bonn was an intimate, soulful affair, with music, food and drinks accompanying the speakers and films. Both local university students and UNFCCC secretariat officials filled out the theatre. For me it demonstrated just how powerful storytelling can be, generating a palpable sense of energy, connection and hope. With their beautifully made and eye-opening short films, the If Not Us Then Who team involve each viewer with the reality of what indigenous communities and activists are living.
In a world where violence against and assassinations of environmental and rights activists, so many of whom are indigenous, are terrifyingly commonplace, we cannot look the other way. The recent deaths of Honduran activists, Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, have highlighted what is so often overlooked and ignored. If Not Us Then Who’s films put a much-needed spotlight on both harrowing and hopeful stories. They are no longer some distant challenge or problem. They are gritty and undeniable, and cannot be unseen. They might even question many viewers’ subconscious assumptions about where the answers lie to protecting habitats, communities and cultures from climate change.
During the COP21 climate summit last December, the If Not Us Then Who team held an 8-day exhibition at Point Éphémère in Paris. It was crammed with film screenings, talks, workshops, a photo booth and tree, a beautiful mural by AG Saño, different events, performances and meetings. Having kept in touch after Bonn, the UK Youth Climate Coalition held a stall for our Postcards to Paris project on their Ethical Consumer day. On the final night I managed to be there for some rousing speeches, films and music by the sublime Dadang from Indonesia. Among the speakers was ex-negotiator for the Philippines, Yeb Saño, who mentioned the negotiations: ‘They come in their suits and they ignore people who they claim to represent’. As Mina Setra, an indigenous activist from Indonesia, raised the call ‘We must not let them speak about us, without us’; she reminded me why we cannot ignore the UN climate talks. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should be circling around them like vultures, waiting to collect any nourishment thrown our way.
It is critical that we communicate with and ask what communities want. ‘This voice of the people needs to be heard’ (Hindou), and If Not Us Then Who is one platform that can help amplify and support these voices.