Opening remarks at the Peoples' Arctic Conference in Kiruna, Sweden:

Greetings my friends, and welcome to the conference, the Peoples’ Arctic: Unified for a Better Tomorrow. My name is Kumi Naidoo and I have the pleasure and honour of welcoming you here today.

First I would like to thank the Sami Peoples of Sweden for welcoming us all here and allowing us to host this meeting on their traditional territory. Ohlo-Keeto!

I would also like to thank the people of the Nordic region, who, through their support of the Swedish Postcode Lottery, have been funding this important conference for the second year in a row. And to the Swedish Postcode Lottery directly, thank you for making this all possible.

Thank you all so much for coming all this way to be here with us for this historic occasion, where Indigenous Peoples from every Arctic state have come together to share experiences, exchange stories, bond over our likenesses and learn from our differences. We at Greenpeace and the Save the Pechora Committee are honoured to be with you all here in Kiruna. 

It’s not often that we are able to gather together in this way. We live far apart from each other, in diverse lands, living unique lives — but we come together today bound by a common thread: the story of the changing Arctic — the changing landscape of your homes.

During the next two days you will hear stories from many important voices in this struggle — people like my friend Alice Ukoku, who has been fighting valiantly against the impacts of oil drilling in her native Niger Delta. Aleksei Limanzo from RAIPON will speak to you about the changing situation in Russia and Dene National and Northwest Territories Grand Chief Bill Arasmus will discuss Indigenous rights in a changing Arctic with Laila Susanne Vars, vice-president of the Sami Parliament in Norway, and Pat Pletnikoff, an Alaskan mayor. We’ll hear stories of the pitfalls and potentials of resource extraction from Mikkel Myrup, the Chair of Avataq in Greenland, as well as Francois Paulette, a Dene human rights activist from northern Canada.

I will not try to tell their stories for them. But I do want to talk to you now about other stories: the stories we tell ourselves every day; the stories we pass on to our children; the stories that some try to tell for us; and the stories that we’re changing just by being here today.

Over the last few years, in my position as the executive director of Greenpeace International, I have had the honour and the opportunity to hear stories from many of you directly about the changes you’re experiencing in your daily lives. Your homes, your ancestral lands, are changing rapidly. Everywhere on this planet, from my home in Africa to the north of Alaska, we are all experiencing the impacts of a changing climate firsthand.

And in fact, just two days ago, we hit a terrifying landmark when the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million. Let me repeat this, for this is a tipping point for all of us: For the first time in human history, the concentration of climate-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has passed the milestone level of 400 parts per million. The last time so much greenhouse gas was in the air was several million years ago, when the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert and sea levels were up to 40 metres higher than today.

This is no longer just a theory or something we worry our children will face. We are already seeing climate change in action, all over the world. I’ve seen it where I come from, I’ve seen it in Fort Chipewyan in the Alberta Tar Sands, I’ve seen it in the Amazon where Indigenous Peoples have paid a huge price as well, and I’ve seen it in Greenland (where I had the privilege of spending almost a week’s holiday in prison in Nuuk!).

I’ve also heard from many of you that you see it every day where you live. The weather is changing. We can no longer deny this. In some places, the rains come less frequently; in others, the snowfall lasts well into spring. Deep trenches of water are appearing where before there was only ice. Reindeer and caribou, deer and moose, fox and polar bears and countless species of birds are migrating away from traditional hunting grounds, changing their patterns, beginning to adapt to a changing climate.

Across the Arctic, amid all this change, we are hearing stories of struggle and seeing signs of trouble — but also signs of emerging crusades for justice and resilience against the corporate powers that for too long have dictated our story.

Shell was forced to cancel its 2013 Arctic drilling plans after a series of failures and accidents plagued its 2012 drilling programme. Similarly, both Statoil and ConocoPhillips have both shelved plans to drill in the Arctic this year.

But beyond the oil companies, this has been a year of heroic stories for the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic. A battle has been brewing with our allies in Russia, where RAIPON, the largest Indigenous organisation representing more than 40 Indigenous groups in Russia and the East, was ordered in November by the Russian Ministry of Justice to close its doors following what they deemed, “irregularities in its organisational statuses.” This stirred exactly the sort of international outrage that it warranted.

As expressed by Aili Kesketalo, the leading Sami politician from Norway, this challenged “the very foundation for international cooperation between Indigenous Peoples.”

In the end, after much outrage and complex politicking, this unjust decision was overturned. This marked a change in the story the Russian government was trying to tell, affirming an important lesson: that the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic are powerful, and when united, represent an unparalleled threat to the current “business as usual” approach to Arctic management. In the words of RAIPON’s former First Vice President:

“There is an extensive hike in the level of industrialization in the north, and the Indigenous Peoples are among the last barriers against the companies’ and state’s development of the resources.”

Reading this, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes by Ghandi,: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

This is also exactly what is happening in Canada where we saw other evidence of this kind of oppression in late 2012, when Indigenous Peoples were similarly vilified by the Harper government.

After being labeled by the Minister of Natural Resources as “radicals” funded by shadowy government conspirators, Harper went further, introducing bills containing huge, draconian amendments to environmental assessment and protection — and buried in there were changes to many laws that removed tens of thousands of rivers and lakes from federal protection, including bodies of water to which aboriginal groups have registered legitimate claims and declarations of interest.

This spurred an unparalleled uprising, a massive movement called Idle No More, which brought together tens of thousands of people from across Canada, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, standing together in opposition to this clear undermining of human rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, and in clear contrast to their treaty rights.

The story of the Idle No More movement is hugely inspirational but also extremely nuanced — but over the course of the next two days, I encourage you to seek out your Canadian Indigenous allies and ask them about this uprising, about what it means for them, and what it says about the Canadian government that is just this week assuming chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Amid all of this oppression shines an underlying story: a light of resistance, power, and hope. Indigenous Peoples everywhere are fighting back. You are being recognised as the stewards of the land and the powerful force that you are; you are demanding that your treaty rights be honoured, and finally I hope that you are being heard by the governments that first ignored you, then laughed at you, then fought you, and then conceded.

You’re not alone. All over the world, people are joining forces, moved by the stories of what’s happening in the Arctic, and inspired to act to change the power structure, take it away from the big corporations and put it back in the hands of the people.

I see this week as an opportunity for Arctic Indigenous Peoples to have your voices heard. In these big political games, where the story has long been about whoever has the most money and power gets to call the shots, where the people with money get to carve up your land and divide the resources, it is imperative that your story be told, and that the right people be made to listen.

While you lose your right to sustain yourself in a traditional way off the land, they make money. While you are getting hungrier for untainted food and water, they get hungrier for more power and control. This is not a just story. It is not one I want anything to do with. It is not right, it is not equitable, and it is certainly not sustainable. And so we must change it.

We must change the questions that are being asked and the answers that are being given in false justification. These corporations are asking themselves, how much can we consume? How quickly can we extract all this oil? When really the questions they should be asking are, to whom does this land belong? And who should have the right to decide how it’s managed? Who will suffer tomorrow’s consequences of our decisions today?

The authorities will often frame the story as this: oil equals sustainable development and a better quality of life for Indigenous Peoples living here, versus no oil equals no prospects for local communities in the North. This is a false dilemma and tantamount to blackmail. We have learned time and again that access to oil does not mean positive growth for Indigenous and local communities. In fact, coming from Africa, I know that being rich below the ground almost always equals poverty above ground. But your stories do not have to end this way.

In a few decades, oil will be gone. Experts say that we passed peak oil production in 2010. So why should we risk the last pristine ecosystems on the planet in the race for the last drops of oil? And who will take the responsibility for cleaning up the mess these companies will leave behind when they are done sucking everything out of the Arctic? Not the companies, no, we have learned this. And not the Arctic Council either — their new toothless oil spill response plan has proven this. Time and again, we have learned the sad truth that neither governments nor industry can be trusted to do this.

This week Greenpeace and the Save the Pechora Committee are here to learn from your experiences, to listen to what you want, and to help amplify your voice in this struggle. To help tell the stories you want to tell.

It is no secret that historically, Greenpeace hasn’t always done right by Indigenous communities. We made some errors many years ago, but we are learning from past mistakes. So let me be clear on this point — Greenpeace unequivocally supports subsistence hunting. 

However at this critical point in history, it’s important to recognise that there is far more that unites us than divides us, and it’s that unity of purpose that we want to explore.

Last year when I addressed a similar conference we held in Russia, I told some of you that we would not solve all the problems we face with one conference, nor will we solve them with two. But together we made great strides. The attendees of the conference sat together crafting a joint statement of opposition to Arctic drilling. For hours they talked around the table, exchanging ideas, honing the language, fine-tuning the set of demands until there was unanimous agreement. The result of that meeting was a strong statement that other Arctic Indigenous Peoples have continued to sign on to since then. The statement is here, and you’ll be given the opportunity to read through it and sign if you so choose.

These meetings and these collectively crafted agreements are critical steps in forging new and lifelong relationships that I believe will be pivotal in forming our collective future. Together we are consciously creating the sort of stories and the kind of world that we will all live in together, and that we will leave behind for future generations to inherit.

This is no small task. In fact, it is a huge responsibility, and one that I do not take lightly. Just by being here and demonstrating your commitment and willingness to work with your contemporaries around the world, shows me that you all share this burden.

There is an old Cree Proverb that I’m sure many of you know, that says, “Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught — Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.” 

And you know, this is happening. I truly believe that there is a shift in consciousness happening right now. We stand here today on the precipice of a new world.

It is daunting, and sometimes scary — but it is also a unique and inspiring opportunity. All across this planet I am humbled by what I am witnessing firsthand — a deep commitment, passion and vision of people who see another way forward. Who envision another kind of world for their children — one that respects the earth and honours her fragility; Peoples from north to south, east to west, who have grown tired of an economic paradigm that values profit over people, and greed over green. People who are standing up and standing together, claiming their rights as human beings, and demanding they be heard.

Every day I draw my inspiration and my strength from these people — from people like each of you who stand in this room. I am humbled by your individual vulnerability and your collective strength.

And you are not alone.

Last month, a group of young ambassadors — including Kiera Dawn-Kolson and Josefina Skerk, two Arctic Indigenous representatives and both of whom are here today — embarked on a quest with Greenpeace to the North Pole, to plant the names of three million people on the seabed below the North Pole — three million people from nearly 60 countries on earth, all united in their determination to secure Arctic protection. They all know what we do: that our fates are intertwined with the fate of the Arctic. They left their homes in the Seychelles, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, in the north of Sweden and in New York, to create a new conversation about the future of the Arctic. To tell different stories and to change the narrative from the current paradigm to the new reality we all envision.

On the seabed at the North Pole they planted an indestructible glass time capsule. There it sits now holding the names of 2.7 million people, including some of yours, a testament to our joint commitment. Inscribed around the capsule on a titanium ring is a quote from one of one of the most powerful storytellers from India. Her name is Arundhati Roy. The quote is from one of her novels, The God of Small Things, and it says: “Not only is another world possible, she’s on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

My friends, I believe that right now we are bearing witness to this. I believe the new world we seek is on its way.

Together with you all, we stand here today to affirm our commitment to creating this new world together, to asserting our right to ensure our future, to ensure our very lives, which may sometimes seem far apart, but are in reality wholly connected. With your blessing, I promise we will work to make the governments of the Arctic realise that your voices cannot and will not be ignored. Together we will continue in our battle to protect the Arctic and your rights as the true inhabitants of this unique place.

Over the next two days, I hope we will forge new relationships and strengthen old ones. I encourage you to use the breaks to make friends and speak to each other. I encourage you to ask Kiera and Josefina about the mission they have just returned from, and to share stories with them in return. More than anything at this conference, I look forward to hearing — and learning from — your stories.

These stories we tell each other will form the narrative that we create, block by block, and character by character; do not underestimate their power. These stories will shape our futures, and the future of this planet that we call home.

And history is also our teacher here in terms of our ambitions to address the destruction that is happening in the Arctic. Twenty years ago when Greenpeace and other groups pushed for the Antarctic to be declared a global commons protected from industrial exploitation, everyone said, you’re crazy, you don’t stand a chance, you’ll never win.

But they were wrong. And now more than two decades later, Antarctica is still protected, and this achievement has helped in some way to mitigate runaway climate change.

The irony is that Antarctica, which isn’t even home to human beings, is now protected. So how is it that the Arctic, home to millions of people, including some of the most precious and unique communities in the world, cannot secure the same protection where people need it most?

The answer is that we can, and we must. This reminds me of a quote from the Maori, the Indigenous Peoples of New Zealand/Aotearoa — about exactly this point, which I’d like to end on, because I think it perfectly encapsulates why we are all here:

He aha te mea nui o te ao? 
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? 
It is people! It is people! It is people!

Listen to Kumi Naidoo's speech here.

Kumi Naidoo is the Executive Director at Greenpeace International.