Last week I attended one of the many COP21 side events going on in Paris, and was left feeling more inspired than ever. 

‘Our Planet, Our Future, Our Fight,’ was an amazing evening put on by the advocacy group, ‘If Not Us, Then Who’ to celebrate indigenous peoples and forests. 

They hosted a series of events in Paris throughout COP21 alongside indigenous activists, campaigners, artists, and musicians to shed light on the importance of protecting the world’s forests and the role that indigenous and traditional peoples play in protecting them. 

The evening that had an incredible impact on me opened with a screening of the heart breaking documentary “Our Fight” (see above).  

This is the powerful story of Diana Rios, an indigenous woman from Saweto, Peru, whose father (among three other community leaders) was murdered by illegal loggers for trying to protect their traditional land. 

In the face of unspeakable tragedy and heartbreak, Diana has made it her mission to fight for the rights of her community to protect Mother Earth on behalf of us all and to carry on the legacy of her father.   

Hearing her tell her story that night brought me to tears. 

For the first time in my life, I felt like what I’m fighting for truly matters. 

I can’t think of something more important to do with my voice than to share her story with all of you. I had the privilege to spend time with Diana that night and to get to know the team at ‘If Not Us, Then Who.’ 

I interviewed Sophia Cheng from their team, and this is what we discussed:  

What is the mission and purpose of ‘If Not Us Then Who’? 

Sophia: “Forests cover almost one third of the earth's land surface and play a major role in stemming the effects of our rapidly changing climate by absorbing an estimated 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Within these forests live traditional and indigenous people who have a deep spiritual connection and understanding of their ancestral homes. 

This connection is being threatened by a resource hungry modern world. As a result, the people who call the forest their home, are now engaged in a constant and frequently violent struggle.

‘If Not Us Then Who’ communicates firsthand the unique personal stories of an inconspicuous yet vital people, as they battle to protect their lives, their cultures and our forests.

The films are a culmination of more than two years of participatory filming by Handcrafted Films. From Indonesia to Peru, we have been working with local partners to articulate individual stories through film.

Using powerful visuals we are now organising a global roadshow in the lead up to COP21 in Paris. Our aim is to draw attention to the wider issue of deforestation, community-based solutions and ultimately to put pressure on governments and their commitment to slow climate change.”

Why is it so important that indigenous peoples stories are heard, especially in Paris for COP21? 

Sophia: “Each film becomes a tool the community can use to show and share with their peers. At the global exhibitions the films provide an emotional enstry point for their campaigning goals. 

The exhibition in the centre of Paris has been created as an umbrella space for our indigenous partners to meet and share their stories. We hope to lift these stories out of the environmental movement, out of the charity sector and into the general public, to show the indigenous peoples around the world protecting the forests on which we all depend.”

What has been your personal experience meeting indigenous people and hearing their stories? 

Sophia: “I have had the privilege of working on the project for the last 16 months with indigenous partners from Indonesia, MesoAmerica, the Amazon Basin and the Congo Basin. Their strong sense of identity and belonging has forced me to reflect on who I am and where I belong. I have lived in London for the last 5 years where a transient culture exists, where many people are just passing through and do not commit to belonging there. But, to quote Brene Brown here, to not belong or not feel worthy of belonging deeply affects our wellbeing and therefore our behaviours.

The indigenous partners I have been working with have in many cases faced hardship and violence but their strong sense of belonging helps them in the face of adversity. It is truly inspiring to witness. I am on my journey to find my own sense of belonging.” 

What is your message to global citizens out there who want to get involved? 

Sophia: “These stories need to be shared. With friends and family to help build connections between the global north and the global south. With activists and campaigners seeking a fresh approach to their storytelling and complement your data driven reporting. With negotiators, policy makers and politicians working in climate change, environment and human rights; re-engage them emotionally, remind them human beings are impacted by decisions being made at a global and regional level.

If the world is serious about slowing climate change, they will support a solution that already exists. Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of the forests, but they are under siege from a great and growing hunger for new sources of food, fuel, mineral wealth and water. There is now clear and undeniable evidence that where indigenous people have strong rights, there are standing forests. These films help articulate this message.” 

This article was written in support for Stand For Trees.


Defend the Planet

Our Planet, Our Future, Our Fight

By Natalie Prolman