As scores of adult reporters crowded around Danish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, a group of indigenous leaders were shoved to the side by security as they tried to get into their office.

At that moment, at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 25 climate-change summit in Madrid, the hypocrisy and privilege of it all hit home for Kera Sherwood-O'Regan, of Kāi Tahu.

"Since we've been here, our indigenous women have been harassed, pushed off stage from speaking opportunities, and been shoved around," she said.

"Where is the security support for our indigenous people?"


The 25th United Nations climate-change conference, which ended this week, has been widely condemned for its lack of ambition in curbing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, and failing to reach agreement on carbon markets and carbon trading.

Kera Sherwood-O'Regan (Ngāi Tahu) told the conference to
Kera Sherwood-O'Regan (Ngāi Tahu) told the conference to "stop taking up space with your false solutions and get out of our way". Photo / Supplied

But Sherwood-O'Regan, in Madrid with the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, said it also largely ignored indigenous and human rights.

Indigenous groups were on show for the opening ceremony, but then shut out from talks, had their protests limited, and denied a platform to speak, she told the Herald.

"It felt like they utilised indigenous people as tokens, there for the opening ceremony, posing for photos with ministers, but as soon as we tried to exercise our rights they started imposing all sorts of rules on us that didn't apply to others."

Scores of activists, mostly women and indigenous peoples, were even temporarily blocked from the conference after staging a brief action.

Indigenous people the world over, who are typically more connected to nature, are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts but also among the smallest contributors, Sherwood-O'Regan said.

In the Arctic as the ice melted indigenous groups were having to drastically change their entire food-gathering processes. In Brazil, various tribes were being displaced by fires, and activists persecuted and even murdered.

Māori have been recognised as among the most vulnerable groups to climate-change impacts due to their "significant reliance on the environment as a cultural, social and economic resource".


The Māori economy relied heavily on primary industries, and many communities were near the coast. Already many urupā (burial grounds) and marae were being flooded or washed into the sea.

Sherwood-O'Regan, who was also there with Aotearoa indigenous youth delegation Te Ara Whatu, said none of her criticisms were directed at Thunberg, who has become the global face for the climate change movement, but the mass attention latched onto her at the expense of others.

Sherwood-O'Regan met with Thunberg during the conference, and praised her for being a "fantastic ally", giving her platform to a lot of indigenous youth and raising indigenous issues during interviews.

"But it was difficult seeing people so interested in her, meanwhile indigenous people, many of whom are already living with the impacts of climate change, struggle so hard to be given a platform."

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The same went for protest groups like Extinction Rebellion, mostly made up of "white, middle-class people who have suddenly woken up to climate change", Sherwood-O'Regan said.


The climate change protest movement was widely condemned after an action in London targeted mostly working class people trying to get to work on the train.

Kera Sherwood-O'Regan front left with other members of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change at COP 25 in Madrid. Photo / Supplied
Kera Sherwood-O'Regan front left with other members of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change at COP 25 in Madrid. Photo / Supplied

While their actions at COP 25 gained massive publicity, those organised by indigenous groups had much less traction.

"Indigenous people have been on the front line of climate change impacts, and also activism, for a long time," Sherwood-O'Regan said.

"But instead of looking to whakamana, support, those already here, they've come in over the top."

While delegates at the conference agreed on the key question of increasing the global response to curbing carbon, they could not agree on carbon markets and carbon trading - Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Supported by the European Union and small island states, the push for higher ambition was opposed by a range of countries including the United States, Brazil, India and China.


New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who was co-facilitating the talks for Article 6, said it was "frustrating" some countries were slowing progress at a time the need for climate action was becoming increasingly urgent.

He told the Herald any climate solutions needed to be "inclusive, build relationships with all people and their land, and connect with each other over shared goals".

"This is one reason why I was so pleased iwi were represented as part of the Aotearoa delegation."

He said they were also proud to stand with our Pacific neighbours throughout the talks in Madrid, including Tokelau as part of the delegation.

Today Shaw announced members of the independent Climate Change Commission, designed to help guide governments through a warming future.

Sherwood-O'Regan said New Zealand had pushed for indigenous and human rights to be accounted to be included in the article, but she would have liked to see more leadership on the issue.


"History shows if the market is left to itself it does not do well for indigenous people. So if we are pushing for things like renewable energy we want to make sure it doesn't end up with a big [hydroelectric] dam displacing communities."

Overall Sherwood-O'Regan said it was disappointing to not reach agreement on the issues, but given Madrid was chosen as a host last minute it was not surprising.

It was originally planned for Brazil but president Jair Bolsonaro withdrew his country, then back-up host Chile also withdrew due to civil unrest.

"I think hosting it somewhere like Chile or elsewhere in South America, places where indigenous rights affected by climate change are right on the front doorstep, would have made leaders more aware.

"Here in Madrid it was held in a tin box, in the middle of a huge city, capital of a country that perpetuated colonisation all through South America.

"There couldn't have been much more of a disconnect from civil society."