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The problem of racism towards Pasifika within climate change

A Tokelaun woman marching for climate action with a sign

Auckland, NEW ZEALAND  — In New Zealand, youth climate change movement School Strike 4 Climate Auckland has declared itself as racist, and disbanded, but young activists say going silent is not the answer.

The group had organised large protests in centres throughout the country, becoming the biggest climate protest movement in the country.

The mea culpa announcement came out of the blue - in it the youth-led group acknowledged being a "white-dominated" space.

"School Strike 4 Climate Auckland has avoided, ignored, and tokenised black, indigenous and people of colour voices and demands, especially those of Pasifika and Māori individuals in the climate activism space," the organisation said in an online statement.

It said it made the move to shut down on advice from people of colour and indigenous people.

But as reporter Mariner Fagaiava-Muller investigated, he found racism within the climate change movement is not new, despite Pasifika being disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change.

The youth climate protest movement was made notable by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl whose poignant speech to the United Nations even landed her the 2019 Time Person of the Year choice.

But long before Thunberg's whimsical cover portrait looking out over the ocean took the world by storm, trouble in paradise was ignited.

Climate change affects every country in the world, but its impact in the Pacific has been so unrelenting and for so long, the region faces a real threat of being wiped off the map. However, it seems the very tagata Pasifika who want to stand up for themselves have long been silenced.

Here in New Zealand, people are only noticing it for the first time because a lot of white kids have decided to strike in the streets and I feel like a lot of privileged people are able to engage in these spaces more, so inherently that's just going to be a lot more Pākehā," she said.

"And naturally they centre their own voices, and what that does is further perpetuate the systems that we're trying to fight back against."

Vano felt there was a tokenistic, tick box culture, and that some just came on-board for another extracurricular activity, as opposed to embracing environmentalism.

The first of three major strikes in 2019 was held on the same day as Polyfest where hundreds of Pasifika youth who would have otherwise attended were overlooked.

Fellow Pasifika activist Helena Fuluifaga Chan Foung (Amaile, Vaimoso, Luatuanu'u, Lalovaea) said shutting the organisation down and leaving the climate conversation altogether washed their hands of any accountability.

She said they should have had the humility to take criticism and work towards competency.

"To disband and to dissolve is really to me like quitting and copping out, because they're saying the act of disbanding is the action that they see fit as a reparation for something that they've done wrong," she said.

While it is bad enough that seas are rising across the world, in the Pacific it is happening faster than average.

Lineage and heritage built within the paradigm of the moana is becoming less recognisable. The land is entrenched in cultural tradition and storytelling, as a life source - but is now embattled by increasing damage.

That is why Chan Foung said instead of Palagi being the face of the climate crisis, it was imperative for people from the moana to stand on the frontline.

"It was very eco-centric - a lot of the indigenous ways of living, and so with all of that passed down knowledge and descending from those groups, you would almost think that indigenous groups were leading those conversations," she said.

Brianna Fruean became a founding member of environmental organisation's Samoa chapter at 11 years old, and said racism within the climate change movement was even more rife back then.

She said simply standing back from racism was not good enough, and to be anti-racist made more impact.

She encouraged Palagi to undertake to be allies, a role that allowed as many hands to help mobilise the climate movement as possible.

"The weight of this crisis is heavy. It will take everyone's hands and help to carry it," she said.

"A lot of the times it will be comfortable - because climate change is an intersectional issue, [but] there will be a lot of times when you feel uncomfortable trying to shift and change, and adapt your organising so it's inclusive and... a safe space.

"But I think it's important to acknowledge all the hands it will take for us to be able to organise a sustainable future."

Fruean said it was unfortunate that racism had taken away from the cause at hand.

"Pasifika activists aren't asking for the climate space to be solely us," she said.

"We're just asking for our voices to be valued, and for us to be able to work together in a way that upholds everyone's dignity and right to their voice to be heard."

The plea from the Pasifika communities is that they lead the conversation, be listened to, but not be the only ones talking.

School Strike 4 Climate Auckland declined an interview when approached by RNZ Pacific.