Our Burning Planet

VOICES OF THE UNHEARD

Protest and repression at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh

Protest and repression at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh
Protesters attempt to unfurl a banner declaring ‘People vs. Fossil Fuels’ during the speech on 11 November 2022 by US President Joe Biden at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

‘No, my voice isn’t being heard,’ Jacob Maurice Johns explained to Our Burning Planet, from Sharm el-Sheikh, on Wednesday, 9 November. ‘NGOs have a way of tokenising indigenous people… they capitalise off the pain of indigenous people.’

Three days later, Johns would send us an update. “I got kicked out of COP,” his message stated.

The full story, given that we had got to know Johns during the pre-COP build-up, made perfect sense.

At around mid-morning on Friday, 11 November, in COP27’s main conference hall, President Joe Biden was delivering his keynote address. One of the central messages that the US head of state intended to get across was that indigenous people held the answers to climate change.

Biden had just started to articulate this message when a Native American war cry erupted from the back of the hall. The delegates craned their necks to see where the noise was coming from, and were confronted with the following words on a banner:

“People vs. Fossil Fuels”.

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President Joe Biden speaks at the COP27 climate conference on 11 November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

According to the Washington Post report, Johns and his three fellow protesters were immediately “quieted” by United Nations security. They were taken into a side room after the speech and told that their conference badges were “being suspended”. Apparently, they were also told they were “lucky” that the UN had “got to them first”.

Jacob “Two Arrows” Johns, indigenous delegate, Cop27, Sharm el-Sheikh. Photo: Supplied

The implication, of course, was that things could have gone a lot worse for the protesters had the Egyptian military police beaten the blue helmets to the punch. In the experience of Johns, we knew, this assessment was an indisputable fact.

‘Repression and fear’

“The feeling here right now,” he had said to us during the initial interview, “is one of repression and fear. This is my third COP — I was at Madrid and Glasgow, and the feeling is more prevalent than ever.”

protest cop27

Protesters, including an indigenous activist from Brazil, demonstrate on 12 November 2022 over climate justice, loss and damage, fossil fuels, human rights, exploitation by rich countries of poor countries and other climate-related issues during the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Johns, it turned out, had a long history of protest against repressive regimes.

Part Hopi and part Akimel O’otham, with the indigenous name, “Two Arrows”, he had been on the frontlines at Standing Rock, where the US federal government had thrown its heavy armoury behind the protection of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Since the election of Trump, he said, he had also been working as a full-time activist and indigenous community organiser — mainly because the threats to his ancestral heritage had never been greater.

And so, as far as COP27 went, for Johns it was all “double-talk”. 

Biden may not have been Trump, he noted, but that didn’t alter the fact that the Inflation Reduction Act — which the incumbent president touted in his speech as a landmark climate achievement — required more oil and gas drilling on public lands. 

protest cop27 justice

Climate justice protesters demonstrate on 12 November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Neither did it alter the fact that Native Americans, who collectively made up less than 3% of the United States population, had never been adequately compensated for the land that was stolen from them by white settlers. 

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Like the NGOs, as Johns told the Washington Post, Biden was therefore also “tokenising” indigenous people.

The same general message was expressed to Our Burning Planet by Jeffrey Todd Ferguson, a Spokane tribal member, who accompanied Johns to COP27. Age 51, a dozen years older than Johns, he told us that he had been involved in community work for a large chunk of his life, mainly in cultural preservation and the sovereignty of water rights. Alongside Johns, Ferguson said, he had been taking on the US federal government, which had been “fighting back every step of the way”.

For both of them, aside from the mass slaughters orchestrated by the early US armed forces, not much had changed.

climate justice protest

Climate justice protesters on 12 November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

“It was assimilation at its finest,” he said of the original US government policy, “colonisation, all of it… all of that stuff was very successful.”

On COP27, Ferguson was equally blunt. 

“The indigenous are acknowledging that there’s not a lot that’s going to come from this. But there is solidarity and unity among us.”

Price gouging

Which, it so happened, was exactly what was needed — because the price gouging in Sharm el-Sheikh had left many of the indigenous delegates high and dry.

“When we arrived at our hotel,” explained Ferguson, “even though we had pre-booked months in advance, they flat-out asked for an extra $9,000 for the duration of our stay… an extra $700 a night. I said to the guy, ‘really, is that what’s in your heart?’ He said, ‘it’s just business, mister’.”

In the event, Johns and Ferguson managed to find a room in an apartment rented by an activist comrade. Still, although they now had beds, there wasn’t much they could do about the food problem — COP27’s organisers, as the world’s media made clear, had notoriously under-catered.

“That salad was lonely,” Ferguson quipped about the meal for which he had just overpaid, “it needed a tomato or something.”

‘Surveillance’ problem

Then, as the world’s media also made clear, there was the “surveillance” problem.

“The word here is that the Vodafone cards have a worm in them, to monitor stuff,” said Ferguson. “There’s a line for them downstairs, they’re giving them away for free at the airport. I got one, but Jacob didn’t download the official app or get the phone card.”

climate justice egypt

Climate justice protesters on 12 November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

But despite it all, for Johns and Ferguson, their experience of COP27 was “worth it” — if only because it strengthened the ties between indigenous communities around the world. And up the Red Sea coast, in the town of Dahab, were their newfound friends from the pre-COP gathering who had decided not to attend the main event. 

“In our experience,” said Pumaquero Minta, a member of the Puruhá of Ecuador, “we have seen that the people of Egypt used to have a great culture. Nowadays, however, it seems to have lapsed.”

Minta’s wife, Teresa de Jesus Quizhpe Guaman, was in agreement. Like all the indigenous activists that we had engaged with during the pre-COP build-up — a gathering organised by Pooven Moodley and Rutendo Ngara of South Africa, under the banner of the “Earthrise Collective” — her message was simple.

“It’s more important to be an example, to lead by example, than to talk policy.” DM/OBP

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