Tired of waiting for the older generation to solve global issues, youth activism is gaining momentum at an unprecedented pace. Recent advances in technology have made it much easier for voices of youth to be heard across the globe. In this “Youth in Digital Activism” series, UNAI features young activists taking the world’s most pressing issues into their own hands.
Through the thick haze of smoke, Emmanuela Shinta could not see anything but blaze of fire. Smoke surrounded her as bright flames went on to burn down trees, one by one, in the forest nearby. “There was nowhere to hide. People were dying and babies were suffocating.” Emmanuela, who belongs to the Dayak Indigenous community, grew up in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, an island in the southwestern part of the Pacific Ocean. The third largest island in the world known for its rich stock of wild animals, is now at the forefront of the region’s fight against a climate disaster: forest fires and smoke haze.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the smoke haze, which is made up of smoke consisting of small airborne particles containing many harmful compounds, has been occurring for several decades in Southeast Asia. The 2015 haze, which had a dire impact on Emmanuela’s community, was said to have been particularly severe. And the incident was not just an “one-off” event. The haze, which is nothing rare in the region now, especially affects small children since they are more vulnerable to air pollution. UNICEF estimated in 2019 that nearly 10 million children are put at risk from air pollution in Indonesia due to fires burning in wild forests and peatlands.
Some of the forest fires that created the haze in Indonesia are brought intentionally as part of “slash and burn” agriculture or for land-clearing purposes, in particular to expand oil palm plantations. In dry seasons the fires can easily spread to adjacent forests and burn out of control.
Witnessing the trees get burnt down was something unbearable for Emmanuela, who as a member of the Dayak community had always felt special attachment to natural resources. Shortly after experiencing the haze in 2015, Emmanuela founded the Ranu Welum Foundation, which aims to combine Indigenous wisdom and modern technologies to protect the forests and also fight for rights of the Dayak community. The foundation is involved in various activities, such as holding sessions to train young people on how to fight wildfires, advocating for and educating people about Indigenous rights, and planting over 8,000 trees across Indonesia with the help of over 3,500 youth from 49 communities.
Indigenous peoples have been among the first on the planet to face the consequences of climate change, due to their close relationship with nature and resources. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by Indigenous communities including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment. However, their plights have not always been met with sufficient attention from the rest of the world.
But that situation is gradually changing due to technological advances. The increased Internet accessibility has made social media a vital tool for communications and enables youth across the globe to unite and mobilize. And with more youth at the forefront of the fight against climate change, the efforts of Indigenous peoples around the world to raise alarm on climate change has gained momentum. “Before, the concern was that we were going to feel the effects in the future. Young people [today] are growing up where they are experiencing the effects of climate change in their everyday lives", said Dana Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland in the United States.
“We must protect Mother Earth, our religions and holy places.” Naelyn Pike is a 21-year-old Indigenous and environmental rights activist from the Chiricahua Apache based in southeast Arizona, USA. Building on her family’s decades-long efforts to protect the Oak Flat, a sacred site in her hometown where the Apache has performed ceremonies, gathered food and buried their dead, Naelyn has taken advantage of social media to make her case across the globe.
From an early age, her passion for climate action and Indigenous rights has led her to travel around the United States to speak at schools and conventions about racial and environmental injustice. Naelyn now uses social media as a tool to educate her audience on the importance of the Indigenous rights and climate emergency. Currently, well over twenty-five thousand people follow her work on Facebook. Emmanuela, who on her part has around 12,800 followers on Instagram, has also been able to update her followers through social media on the work of her Foundation, the daily lives of her community and spread awareness about climate change.
The rise of social media has enabled more climate activists to communicate to one another and to the global audience, reaching even remote areas across the globe. Linda Etchart, lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Kingston in the United Kingdom, specialising in Indigenous rights, explains that "Even though they might not have roads to reach their villages, many of the communities do have internet nowadays. So, they do use Facebook and Twitter, making them able to communicate across the world". Emmanuela and Naelyn have been able to build on such foundation to make their voices heard.
Their combined efforts are bearing fruit. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, United Kingdom, which was held from October to November 2021, 28 Indigenous peoples were nominated to directly participate as “knowledge holders” and share experiences as Indigenous experts with governments. In the main decision adopted at the end of the meeting, governments recognized “the important role of civil society, including youth and Indigenous peoples, in addressing and responding to climate change, and highlighting the urgent need for action”.
But the fight to protect their communities from the dire consequences of climate change has just begun, and the young activists are aware of the hurdles ahead of them. One such hurdle, according to Naelyn, is tearing down the “wall” which still exists between Indigenous communities and others. “When a native is fighting for something, it becomes “their fight”. No one wants to see themselves as a part of the problem. [According to them,] the Oak flat can be destroyed because we are Indigenous and the ‘dust underneath the carpet’.”
So, what can we do as individuals? Emmanuela suggests starting from somewhere simple: "Just listen to what Indigenous people are saying, especially elders in Indigenous communities. They are the ones who have protected the forest from climate change for hundreds of years."