Kathy Jetnil Kijiner: making the untangible, tangible

In downtown Paris ArtCop21, a creative Conference of the Parties is taking place. It is described as a movement where artists are invited to get involved in the climate debate. A voice eager to be heard.

“Poetry brings tangible to these intangible [like COP] rooms says Kathy Jetnil Kijiner. Journalist, poet, Marshallese writer, performance artist and more recently climate justice activist. Remembering her performance of  “Dear Matafele Peinem” at the UN Summit more than one year ago in New York she noted how her performance over there made the atmosphere change “it was not politically charged anymore, it was not cold anymore but so much warmer.”

The poem was written for the opening speech on behalf of civil society at the UN Climate summit in September 2014. she  was chosen out of 500 contestants.

A poem that would change the world, they suggested. A poem that would inspire the movement and world leaders, they wanted. Left with one week to write and study a new poem by heart she asked the organizers to send her photos of the movement. A movement, she says, she was not familiar with at all before.

Remembering her poetry classes, she knew that if poetry should appeal, if it should engage, if it should inspire;  it should be as specific as possible, as concrete as possible. That’s why she did not write a poem tailored to world leaders, but she addressed it to her daughter who was at the time 7 months old.

Her inspiration on the other hand came from the social movement, united by the same cause. The reached out hands gave her hope and Kijiner recalls how amazed she was to see so many people fighting. “Coming [to Paris] and see the power of social movements. [To see] we can demand change. [That] we do not have to wait for the government.  We’re not being taught that we can demand change. We’re taught someone else can explode your island with a nuclear bomb and that you have to be okay with it.” With that last remark Kijiner refers to the horrible history of the nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests.

When Kijiner was asked what she thinks of nuclear energy she’s very clear stating “I want nothing to do with nuclear energy. When the Bravo bomb detonated, ash was carried to the other islands. Residents of the other islands, thinking  it was snow, played with it, swallowed it. People were dying on the street. We need to stay completely away from [nuclear energy]!”

Marshallese culture connects with the land because the Marshall Islands are so tiny land is very precious, she explains. “We have stories that explain the making of the coral. We know how to take care of the land. We’ve lost it to nuclear testing and now climate change. The idea is that certain people lives do not matter for certain countries.”

By losing land “we’re losing stories and songs. Stones decade but words can last forever. Poetry can preserve ideas, knowledge for the future.”

She is fighting for the very survival of her Islands. A week before she came to Paris, she witnessed once more the devastating effects of climate change to her homeland. One island, once covered with trees and crops, was now only a pile of sand and stones, it was dead. In the course of ten years it became wasteland, a prediction of what is the destiny of the other Marshall Islands.

Nonetheless she remains optimistic: “You have to be. You have to believe in humanity. You have to believe in change. For me optimism is an important aspect of this work.”

Continue reading “Kathy Jetnil Kijiner: making the untangible, tangible”

Kathy Jetnil Kijiner: making the untangible, tangible

As long as we are feeling, we are living

It’s been ten days I am here in Paris and this weekend, the level of frustration could not have been higher. Not so much because of what is going on here this time, but frustration with myself. I came here to talk about climate justice, listen to the stories of the different communities and bring them back home. But the task is huge. I don’t know where to start. I am often impressed by the people I meet, struggling to find the words. Being here, I realise how ignorant I am. How could I talk about what I do not know?

Yesterday, I attended the event organised by Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network: “Women Leading Solutions on the Frontlines of Climate Change – Paris”. Many women came to share the stories of their communities. We might all be fighting for a world in which the rights of people prevail on corporate greed, but many of them see people dying , I don’t – not yet. Where I am shocked by the kicks the police is giving here, some of these women have been tortured or badly hurt in protests against a coal mine or a mega-dam project that is threatening their land – and some suffer constant pain as a consequence of that. Quite a few testified of the difficulty to resist the terror from past killings and rapes. Of course, I know these stories! I would not be fighting for Climate Justice if I didn’t. But hearing them from the persons who are living them is different than reading them in papers – or social media. Again, I wonder how can I possibly be entitled to share these stories?

But something happened at that event. Yesterday, the women who were on the stage came to talk “as mothers, sisters, daughters, as citizens of the world” as Thilmeeza Hussain said. What struck me is how many of these powerful women started crying, got angry, laughed. At one point, Thilmeeza, founder of Voice of Women (Maldives),  expressed how tired she was of hearing people telling her she is being too dramatic.

That word – dramatic – strangely resonated. I don’t know how many times I have been told I was too passionate when I was talking, and that it was not serving me. Listening to Thilmeeza, I remembered how one ex – and God knows how much he loved me – would put his hand on my shoulder to notify me I was getting too enthusiastic in a debate. Seeing Patricia Gualinga Montalvo cry talking about the sacrifices that were made, I remembered the amused or embarrassed laugh of people when I am getting ‘overenthusiastic’. Listening to Eriel Deranger’s trembling voice when she said she was taking the mic because her grandmother told her to use her voice, I remembered that director I was the assistant of for three months. I remembered the constant abuse, and I remembered the knowing looks the other women working with us were giving me – and how just a glimpse from them could give me the strength to go on. I remembered how that man told me after we had finished filming that he had abused me knowingly, so I could grow, so I could learn to communicate better.

Over the years, I have heard over and over again that the only way to be listened to is to speak in a rational, objective way – understand with no feelings, because objectivity is a myth (but I guess, that is my opinion). It seems impossible for people to give credibility to anything that is said with passion. The tone is used to undermine what is being said. The presented facts are put in doubt because of the -too obvious- subjectivity of the person sharing them. But here is the thing: facts have an emotional side too for the simple reason that they impact our lives. Some facts do hurt, some do revolt us, others fill us with joy. Why should we hide it? I thought honesty was a quality. As long as we are feeling, we are living.

Today, I want to thank every woman who talked and the women who invited them. The passion you brought with you allowed me to reconnect with myself. It hurts to lock feelings inside. I do it because if I have to speak the rational language to be heard, I will. Whatever is needed.  Yet, hearing all of you reminded me we can also refuse that some men dictate how we talk. Yesterday, you let us feel our humanity. Yesterday, I felt the right to be complete. Yesterday, you pushed me to reclaim my voice. Thank you.



As long as we are feeling, we are living

How activists made cops cry for the climate

December, 4, midday. We are arriving for the opening of the Solutions 21, an exhibition  “for all audiences, both young and old, giving them the opportunity to meet the actors with concrete solutions, to understand them, adopt them and ultimately to change the game.”. The queue is huge, the wait to get in is long. But I am happy to be here! Three reasons why I came:

#1 – I am curious about what is inside. I want to believe that the announced objective is actually honest:

“The fight against climate change is not only our responsibility, it is also an opportunity to improve the way we live.  With new behavior, new inventions, new professions […] Solutions COP21 offers a new perspective and a unique experience.  Because climate solutions do exist, because the subject is a fascinating one, that concerns each and every one of us.”

Totally agree with the statement that climate change is also an opportunity, and I am really glad to read we are many to think alike.

However, I have heard that the people who have a stand inside the Grand Palais are not all the ones we could hope for. This brings me to the second reason I am here.

#2 – If you have a look only at the Partners page for this exhibition, you might start wondering what kind of opportunity we are talking about… and for whom. Just to name a few if these partners, there is BNP Paribas, Engie, Coca-Cola, Avril, as well as Suez, or Veolia.

#3 – Because of these partners, there has been a callout for action: there will be a toxic tour inside the Grand Palais, guided by members of the frontline communities  who will tell us about what these companies do where they live. I think these are stories worth listening!

However, the police seems to have decided otherwise. I will not get in today. Just as many other people, when it is finally my turn to pass the security controls, a cop makes a sign to security: I cannot get in. No explanation given… So much for the “open to all” exhibition.

But I have all day, and really want to get in. So I go back in the queue. After a while, the queue stops moving though. They closed the entrance. Someone later told me that police said there was a fire inside… I guess that’s their own way of referring to people getting fired up in that toxic tour?

It took me a while to realise they had closed the doors: people where leaving the queue, so I kept moving forward. Until something quite interesting happened: a guy decided to climb up a street lamp, and stay up there with a beautiful banner. He starts: “We are waiting for the end of their world [understand big corporate world], but it won’t be ours”. The energy changed. Suddenly a lot of cameras are out, the cops arrive to tell him to go down. Soon people start chanting slogans for climate justice and against greenwashing (“Si tu aimes le greenwashing, tapes des mains…”).

Special climbing cops arriving, some people spontaneously gather around the street lamp so they do not have access to it. They are soon kettled by the police. I am not super tall, so I cannot see everything. I see waves of people being pushed, I hear the ones around the lamp pole chanting “Sans haine, sans armes et sans violence” (“Without hatred, without weapons and without violence”), others follow with “Vous aussi vous avez des enfants” (“You too have kids”). It is not really effective… police is going for arrests. One of the person watching starts shouting at the police. He cannot believe that they are attacking activists, defending those who are causing climate change. He cannot believe that they do that, when these activists are actually fighting for a world in which their children could live. I can hear despair in his voice. Police does not wink.

From what I understand, people are pushing so they can prevent the arrests of those at the street lamp. The wave moves, they seem to be able to go closer to the pole. But then, you can always count on the police to come prepared: they get the pepper spray out and everybody moves back.

The police line is formed again. And when I finally get to see them, I realise, a lot of them are crying. There was a bit of wind today. They pepper sprayed themselves more than anyone else. It feels right that way. After all, we are fighting for them too. This planet that we want is a planet where everybody can live a decent life. So the least they could do, is cry with us when big companies take over the COP. And if these tears come from pepper spray, well then, so be it. That’s a start.



How activists made cops cry for the climate

Neutralising opposition.

“If you listened to the speeches of the head of states they sound like [climate justice advocates]. But we need to understand the real agenda of economic globalization, deregulation of environmental regulations. […] We need to undestand […] that as long as the macro-economic agenda does not change, nothing will change” says Maude Barlow at a workshop organized by Naomi Klein to present “The Leap manifesto” – what Avi Lewis calls “less than a political party, more than a petition.”

In a future post I will talk about “The Leap Manifesto”, but for now let me focus on the most important message yet. Because what Maude Barlow says cannot be ignored.

In his opening speech François Hollande does not only refer to historical responsibility and acknowledge that if possible the increase of temperature should remain under + 1,5°C, he also mentions climate justice. A tactic known in the lobbying-lingo as neutralising the opposition. 

Ironic, because in the meantime the French government accepted virtually any company as sponsors of the COP21. Amongst them BNP Paribas and EDF, both of them winners of the Pinocchio-Award respectively in the category of local impact and greenwashing.

Or, what do you think of President Obamas speech in which he not only recognizes the “role [of the United States] in creating this problem” but even  embraces the “responsibility to de something about it.”? He adds, “We know the truth that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its most destructive effects. “

Will this COP21 be the most ambitious COP yet? Will this COP be a COP where justice and equity will thrive? At the beginning of this week it was the impression one could have from skimming the headlines in different newspapers. An impression now very much denied by reality.

It has been known before the Paris talks began that the INDC’s – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions –  will not deliver on the goal to keep global warming below 2°C. This while the Climate Vulnerable Forum is pushing to set the goal of the Paris agreement not to exceed global warming by 1,5°C. On Monday November 30th, the Climate Vulnerable Forum issued the Manilla-Paris declaration the strongest call to date for full decarbonization of the world economy.

We refuse to be the sacrifice of the international community in Paris. Anything that takes our survival off the table here is a red line,” Anwar Hossain Manju, Minister of Environment of Bangladesh, said on Monday.

On december 2nd  it has been reported by The Wire that several closed door meetings were held – also known as Spin-Off Groups. These meetings especially constrain countries with smaller delegations, most of these countries belonging to the global South fighting the consequences of climate change on a daily basis.   Although the developing and vulnerable countries ask time and time again to open up these meetings for observers, this request has been denied over and over. As Marcel  Llavero Pasquina  writes  on his blog this means that if there comes an agreement, it is time for us to understand that it does not represent the global interest, it is only about a few privileged ones.

This does not mean that we have to fall in despair though. As climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig  said at the opening summit of ArtCop21 it seems that the climate justice movement has reached a tipping-point of response. Hereby reacting to an observation made by Peruvian artist Teresa Borasino stating that “The social movement is not dependent anymore of the COP. We want to create solutions. We know that the governments will not change the system.”

Neutralising opposition.

Economic migrants: whose economy?

All throughout the summer, we kept hearing medias talking about the refugee crisis. The reaction of the government in Belgium has been shameful: they haven’t done half of what is needed to welcome all of the people arriving daily. Still today, it is civil society, along with some NGOS like Médecins du Monde that are trying to find solutions so that families do not have to sleep in the streets (you can find updates on what they need here).

It was good to see how people mobilised to respond to that crisis though. I remember going to an assembly that was meant to coordinate all the efforts. The assembly started with the traditional sign language explanation – which activists of all kinds are usually familiar with. I was surrounded by friends who had quite a lot of fun shaking their hands, showing if they agreed or not. People seemed to be finally engaging! However, part of the discourse  we could hear was sometimes bothering me. Indeed, some people were trying to convince that we should welcome refugees because they were refugees – not (economic) migrants.  Today, we met Saiba, who could not have given a better explanation why such a discourse felt so wrong!

This morning (December 3d), we went for a lobby tour organised by the Corporate Europe Observatory, l’Observatoire des multinationales and the AITEC.  Special edition at la Défense today, as the Pinocchio Awards ceremony is happening tonight. I will surely write more about my general impression of that visit, but right now, I want to focus on what Saiba told us when we arrived at the last building that hosts the offices of Yara. Yara is a Norwegian company and one of the leaders in industrial agriculture production and is known for its massive use of synthetic fertilisers. What’s the problem with that?

Well, Saiba comes from a farming community in Basse, Gambia. He explained us how in the 1980s and 1990s, his family and neighbours had good harvests, could feed the family and the community, and they could earn a good living. But then came the multinationals who sold them fertilisers. After a few years, they realised that these fertilisers were actually killing their soils. Damaged soils have multiple impacts: it brings food insecurity and it increases poverty. All of this makes it easier for diseases to spread. Not surprising then that they decided not to use these fertilisers anymore.

However, getting away from them was not enough because companies like Yara are now using huge parts of the land for biofuel. The fields are so vast that they use planes to spread their products… and people like Saiba and his family cannot protect their lands from these chemicals. So they keep seeing their harvest shrinking, their soil getting contaminated, and their situation getting worse.

Saiba finished his presentation saying he was sure we knew the Mediterranean sea. When we talk about it, it is usually to talk about these people crossing it by boat. And what Saiba was asking was that we stop our governments to let these companies from damaging their lands and endangering their means of subsistence.

Making the message clear to our politicians is our responsibility and we owe it to Saiba and his community. Let’s start by welcoming refugees and migrants alike. And most importantly, let’s find ways together to prevent these multinationals from ruining the soils and the local economies in countries such as Gambia. That way, people will not have to leave their home anymore. Simple as that.

Economic migrants: whose economy?

Healing in Paris


IMG_6572 copy
Place de la République

Knowing how much we have been involved in the climate movement the last year, it probably came as no surprise to our friends and family that we wanted to go to the COP21 in Paris. What better way to close the year? But after the attacks of the 13th of November, one question kept coming back: are you still going? The answer was and still is: “More than ever!”

If you go to the French government page, you will read that civil society plays a major role to make this COP21 a success and therefore, it is largely welcome. Of course, due to the situation, many events had to be cancelled to ensure the security of the people… but you will understand that it is a difficult moment demanding difficult measures to be taken.

If you have been following the news – from alternative media mainly – in the run-up to the COP21, it is hard to believe these arguments. For a lot of people, it seems too good an excuse for them to be true. We did not forget that the borders were meant to be closed from the 13th of November (day of the attacks) until the 13th of December (just after the COP would finish). We do not forget how visas were refused to some representatives of civil society coming from more vulnerable countries. We do not forget how little was done to accommodate the activists coming to the COP.

Protesters at Place de la République on Sunday morning

We do not forget, and we are full of questions. Following the attacks came the state of emergency. And with that came the prohibition of the march on the 29th of November – in Paris but also in Belgium quite shaken since the attacks. The reason behind that decision: ensure the security of protesters, and avoid distracting the police that has already a lot on its plate. It could be seen as good sense, even honourable from these politicians to want to protect the citizens! But how come lobbying events such as Solutions 21 that gather a lot of people can still go on when the march cannot? Yes, of course; one is taking place inside, the other one is taking place outside. But then, why not allow an indoor alternative? Why are activists houses, organic farms and squats being raided? Why these house arrests? Civil society is treated as a threat, not as an essential partner to make Paris a success.

Police blockade at Place de la République

Image that is also passed on by mainstream medias, who are quite happy to focus on the – very few – activists whose frustration is showing. Yes, yesterday, at Place de la République, some people threw objects at the police – and even more excitingly scandalous for medias, some also threw flowers and candles from the memorial for the victims of the attacks. But which media talked about the indigenous healing ceremony for Paris terror attacks and climate change organised yesterday morning just in front of the Bataclan café? What about the activists protecting as well as rearranging the memorial, and the others marching in round for hours because they were stuck on that square? The human chain that gathered 10 000 people according to the organisers is rapidly touched upon, to quickly go back to the “agitators”.

In this context of repression, tabloids and climate emergency, we can only share the frustration of everybody involved. We have different ways of expressing it sometimes, but it is there and it can be hard to channel it the right way – if there is such a thing as “the right way”. Yesterday, at the healing ceremony, I felt peace for the first time in a long time. The day that followed brought back the frustration and the anger, but the lesson of the morning stayed: if we want our voices to be heard, we also need to take the time to heal. Only than will we be able to hear everybody and build a world together.






Healing in Paris

Même Pas Peur


On the 29th November 10,000 people gathered in Paris defying the state of emergency. The message they brought was clear and consistent. It is a message of hope and resilience.

Different slogans, the same message

One could be lost seeing all the different placards lining up from the Place de la République all up to Nation in Paris. From “Save the sacred system of life”, “we are speaking earth”, to “stop fracking – our water is our future”, or “Who is going to pay for adaptation”;  they were all demanding climate justice.

Rising up for all the vulnerable communities, be it far away or close-by. Now or in the future. The Human Chain makes it clear that climate change involves all of us in different ways.

 Decisive moment in history

What should be remembered of this mobilization weekend is not what could have been or what should have been. Yes, the movement did not have its much anticipated “Biggest People’s Climate March Ever”.  But the movement did get something else out of it, something much stronger.

People were coming together all over the world. From Australia, the Pacific through London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Senegal, Amsterdam,… With 2000 events taking place the last two days it is impossible to name them all.  All of them united by the same cause. All of them united by their fight for justice, equity and human rights for all.

The movement did not allow to be silenced. It did not allow the fear to come between them and their demand for justice.

It is clear that the climate justice movement is building momentum. It is growing bigger and stronger.

We are united.

We are being heard.

We are marching.

Même Pas Peur