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14-year-old Kynan Degar explains how the palm oil industry harms indigenous Indonesian communities through deforestation—an interview at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR We’re here at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, a hotly contested event by many. Many have been looking forward to this moment, but it’s also been criticized. And by a lot of people who are youth. This action comes just days after the largest youth-led demonstration in history. Here in New York, hundreds of thousands of people came to the streets. Earlier this morning we saw a Greta Thunberg from Sweden speak about how disappointed she has been in climate leaders. And, I’m here now with another youth activist. And so you’re here, again, from Indonesia. Could you explain where we are right now and what we just saw happen?

KYNAN DEGAR Right now we are at the SDG action [inaudible] and we just finished talking about beyond nature-based solution.

DHARNA NOOR and I understand that you one important nature-based solution is reforestation. But in many places we’re seeing deforestation, including in Indonesia where you’re here from. Could you talk a little bit about that and the role of the palm oil industry in that deforestation?

KYNAN DEGAR In our area, in my community specifically, we for hundreds of years have been luckily… Have been rejecting those palm oil companies from entering our land. But the villages surrounding ours, they didn’t. They accepted the palm oil companies. And, because of that, right now they’re facing the problems that are related to that. They are having their forests taken before them. And their livelihood, their source of life, replaced by palm oil. And, because of that they have been facing many, many problems related to their food, their economy, and even clean source of water.

DHARNA NOOR You also mentioned that this has been an assault on culture. Could you talk a little bit about the way that indigenous cultures have been under attack because of the interception of these palm oil industries?

KYNAN DEGAR Because, in our culture, the people, the forest really depends on the culture. If we don’t have our forest, we do not have our culture. It is intrinsically linked. And, if we don’t have our culture, we don’t have the forest. We need the culture to protect the forest and we need the forest as our culture.

DHARNA NOOR You said today that allowing indigenous people to protect lands is one good way to not only protect indigenous people themselves, but also to fight climate change. That was a sentiment that was also closely-modeled in the United Nations IPCC report recently on land use. Talk a little bit about why. Why are indigenous people stewards of the land? And talk about what that history is. What having indigenous stewardship and sovereignty could mean in fighting the climate crisis.

KYNAN DEGAR The indigenous people are the best protector of the land because, for thousands of years, they have lived in those lands. They have learned from the land, from the forest, how to manage it correctly. How to use it sustainably, which is the most important bit. And, from there, we need to learn from them. Because those knowledge have been accumulated across hundreds and thousands of years, in comparison to what we have now with the modern lifestyle which is just not sustainable in the area, in the forests.

DHARNA NOOR So, in Indonesia, have indigenous people have been given a seat at the table in terms of this kind of decision making? I understand that last year the Indonesian president did pass a moratorium on reforestation continuing from these palm oil companies. Has that had an effect? Was that enough? Or have indigenous people really been represented in these sorts of processes?

KYNAN DEGAR No. Even just a couple of weeks ago when we were talking to the minister of Indonesia to the US he just blatantly said, “Indonesia does not have indigenous people.” And that was just heartbreaking to hear that they don’t even recognize the existence of the indigenous people.

DHARNA NOOR Has the United Nations done enough to uplift indigenous voices? Earlier today we saw Raoni Metuktire, who’s the the chief of the Kayapo people in the Brazilian Amazon, being told that he was not given the right pass to hold a press conference here. I understand that a number of indigenous activists have been appalled at some of the false solutions they say that have been posed here at this summit. But others seem to be less critical, more hopeful that there could be a future for these kinds of solutions here at this summit. Have you seen indigenous people represented here in the United Nations? And what would you like to see from representatives here?

KYNAN DEGAR I might not be the perfect person to ask that. But indigenous people have recently been getting more and more of a place to voice, a platform to voice, their opinions what they have to say. But it definitely needs to be improved.

DHARNA NOOR Thank you so much.

KYNAN DEGAR No problem.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.