Opinion: The Nobel Peace Prize belongs to indigenous climate activists

Adam Currie writing for The Spinoff

Opinion: One year before Greta’s first climate strike, nine-year old Idhima Pandey filed a lawsuit to the Indian Supreme Court against the government. 

Several years previously, Pandey’s entire family was displaced by the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, claiming the lives of her family members and friends.

One decade ago, 11-year old Sāmoan Brianna Fruean founded the Samoan chapter of 350.org after a powerful cyclone devastated her community. 

At 16, she became the youngest person ever to win the prestigious Commonwealth Youth Award.

Youth climate action is not new. For decades, indigenous rangatahi across the globe have been campaigning to draw attention to the crisis our planet faces – yet it seems the media is only interested in one Swedish schoolgirl.

Without doubt, Greta Thunberg is a superstar. In just one year, she has gone from being an unknown teenager, living in the comfort of a middle-class home in Sweden, to being one of the most recognised faces on the planet. She is fearless, earnest, passionate about the planet and determined. But the thing is; so are her peers.

Peers like 14-year old Autumn Peltier from the Anishinaabe nation in Canada, nominated for an International Children’s Peace Prize for fighting for clean water to drink after it poisoned her elders. Peers like 17-year-old indigenous leader Helena Gualinga, awarded WWF’s top youth conservation award for fighting the deforestation devastating her small village in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Peers like Marinel Ubaldo, survivor of Typhoon Yolander who fights for climate justice without a permanent home to live in.

Such activists exist in our own country.

Māori climate campaigner India Logan-Riley (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga) is a global leader in indigenous climate activism and founded Te Ara Whatu, an organisation bringing dozens of fellow Māori and Pasifika youth to the United Nations to fight for their right to a future. 

Rangatahi from the Pacific are core drivers of climate action in Aotearoa, with the Pacific Climate Warriors co-hosting Wellington’s recent 40,000 strong School Strike 4 Climate protest, mobilising 5 percent of the city’s population.

There are so many names we never hear. Yet frustratingly, each of these activists are often referred to in the media as the "Greta Thunberg" of their country, or are said to be following in her footsteps, though in many cases they began their climate activism long before she started hers. Their own identities are smothered by an obsession with a European.

This narrative that activists like those above exist only to echo Thunberg’s call invalidates the impact of indigenous peoples who have fought for climate justice for years, and further perpetuates the colonial "white saviour" stereotype. 

It is insulting to present members of the communities most threatened by climate change as passive onlookers who are only now being spurred into action by the "Thunberg effect". Issues with these narratives have been raised again and again by many indigenous people, and it’s beyond time for tauiwi like myself to amplify those voices.

Those most affected must not be conveniently ignored or implicitly, but unmistakably, informed that their leadership just doesn’t really matter. This privileging of Greta’s narrative over all others creates a world where teenage Kenyan climate activist Winnie Asiti would mention a Swedish teenager she only heard about a year ago as inspiration, but not Wangari Maathai, environmentalist from her own country who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

School Strike 4 Climate is the movement of the future, and collectively does deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday night. 

But Greta Thunberg alone does not, for she is nothing without the movement that supports her, and the longstanding labour of indigenous communities.

Countless others who are better placed than me to talk about this have done so already, at length. If I’m the first person to raise this issue for you, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the voices you are uplifting.

It’s time to pass them the mic.

The Spinoff