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Ancestors Calling: insights from Egypt, COP27

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

Our Co-Founder & Director Kay Michael's reflections after taking Letters to the Earth to COP27 in Egypt

The stillness envelopes me. The slightest ruffle of my blanket disturbs the miles of silent sand and dust and rock. On and on and on and on the mountains go, standing, watching, over aeons of time. I feel them whisper in the darkness “We are here”. “We see you”. I’ve been here before. 3,000 years ago, on the edge of where the Red Sea parted for my ancestors to cross for safety.

It’s been a week now since I woke at dawn to the rising sun in the Sinai Desert. Breaking through the crack of the horizon colours shape-shift as the rays light up the sand - blue, now turquoise, now gold. Camel, fox, snake, lizard and rabbit tracks can be seen. Rabbits live here? Lily is amazed: How can they survive without any green? Where do they burrow?, I think. There is one un-touched mound of white sand ahead. I won’t walk there.

Waking in the desert the morning after a day-long hike, lunch and ceremony hosted by the Bedouin community on the mountain range of Mount Sinai, it’s been 10 days since I left home and began my journey to Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th UN Conference of the Parties. I’m exhausted by the unnavigable labyrinth of the official blue zone of COP, where countries who can pay the most (upwards from $500,000) have the largest pavilions to boast their climate credentials (..sponsored by Coca Cola..) whilst outside in the heat, doctors and nurses cry out for the health of their patients on a 1.5C+ planet, indigenous women wail for ‘Stolen Relatives on Stolen Lands’ and activists demand ‘Don’t Gas Africa’.

Shirley Krenak speaking at the protest inside COP27 in support of indigenous women and territories

Loaded on my back and dragging behind me are 30 kilograms of 2 weeks worth of conference attire and envelopes full of letters. I’d hoped to travel by land and sea to reach the climate change conference. Flying was the only option*. I’d navigated the hours-long queues for a visa, raised the finances within 2 weeks, and put together a plan with my team so that we could play our part in amplifying the voices of the less heard, the less visible, the easily forgotten. We’d been invited by Julie's Bicycle to have our Letters read out in the ‘Resilience Hub’ in the Blue Zone thanks to the Climate Heritage Network, a network working tirelessly to centre people and place-based approaches in the climate negotiations, and who with great joy had brought together a community of practitioners and activists from around the world - from the Cayman Islands to Morocco - to showcase their stories. Their wins? A historic reference to cultural heritage and the role and rights of Indigenous peoples in the Sharm El Sheik Implementation Plan.

With Syed Jazib Ali, a videographer and campaigner from the indigenous community of the lower Himalayan region in the conflicted Indian-administered Kashmir, I arrived at our first stop on my route to Sharm: Refugee House Calais. A small guest house, it hosts women and children as they wait, in hope and with prayer, to cross the English Channel for sanctuary. Thanks to translation apps on our phones, we spent our days in conversation with the guests and volunteers over lunches and dinners generously prepared by the women - rice dishes from Iran, red hot curries from Eritrea. They took great pleasure in their cooking (the cabbage I brought from South London sat by, a sad onlooker) and the washing up too. We were not to lift a finger. On this visit, we were the guests in their temporary kitchen - their new place of pride, where memories of home could surface. Memories and stories of tastes and spices, and the faraway places where the herbs would grow.

Our campaign video taking the voices and letters of displaced people to COP27

These travellers have left their homes due to changing climates, conflict and resource scarcity, with hope to find a better future for their children and a life of freedom and security. The simplicity of our most fundamental human needs - and rights - strikes me. I nearly u-turned at the airport when our accommodation in Egypt fell through. How essential a secure bed in a foregin land is for us all.

The numbers of people who will be displaced due to climate breakdown are increasing rapidly already. 33 million are left homeless in Pakistan after the severe floods that wrecked the country this summer. By 2070, 20% of the world will be a barely livable hot zone (New York Times). Ignoring the calls for faster cuts in emissions and funding for climate adaptation will create unimaginable poverty and hunger and desperation for tens of millions of people.

“It’s going to take us dying for other people to live.” says Pakistani youth activist Rida Rashid, who lost family members and her hometown to the floods. “They only care after the floods”, reiterates Hania Imran, as I sit with them both in KFC on my last night in Egypt. They speak frankly. At 18 and 19 years old, they’re spending their gap years at climate conferences negotiating their futures with world leaders.

I came to COP with a message: “Let’s not leave anyone behind in the stories we tell and in the work that we do”. This climate crisis is also a humanitarian crisis. And the people on the frontlines are not just victims of climate change, but protagonists fighting for a different future. “Our present is your future” warns Ina Maria Shikongo, an activist from drought-affected Namibia in her Letter to the global north.

COP27 was both a milestone and a failure. It finally agreed, after 30 years, to create a fund to finance ‘Loss and Damage’, to support the developing countries most vulnerable to climate impacts (though the mechanism for how is yet to be fleshed out). Yet, there is still no commitment to phase out coal, oil and gas - that which is necessary to stay under the dangerous threshold of a 1.5C warmed world. We are being driven into climate catastrophe by the greed of the fossil fuel industry. An industry that gets $11 million dollars in subsidies per minute and makes more than $28 billion dollars per day. The world only has one carbon budget and by 2031 it will have run out if emissions remain at 2022 levels.

“There’s a language barrier between those of us who are speaking the language of the Earth and the technical and political languages of these conferences.” Love and compassion is the language of Mother Earth, youth activist Ayisha Sid goes on to say in a panel conversation filmed by Earthrise Studios for the inaugural "CultureCOP".

Now back in my homeland, in south east England, I’m struck by the depth of love I carry for all those I’ve met in the past 2 and a half weeks. I thank Alex, Rachel and Patricia for trusting us and making us feel so welcome in their guest house in Calais. I thank Margaret for her mosquito balm from Ghana that soothed my bitten legs. I thank Mleegy for hosting us in the desert, and our taxi driver for the tea shared with his family at dusk. I thank Mohammed and his staff for the care and hospitality of their hotel that accommodated us at such short notice with our changing plans. I thank the wisdom keepers for tending to the fires and sharing their song and prayers, and the youth activists for their unstoppable force in telling the truth.**

Nasser Mansour in the bedouin's community's garden

“Eating together is the blessing”, says Nasser Mansour of the Jebalaya Bedouin tribe, as we gather in small circles on the floor around a plate of rice and lamb and vegetables. Earlier on our walk Nasser spoke to me of the 7 years the tribe had experienced no rain and that when the rains do come they come so strong they destroy the little remaining habitat and garden produce. “We need to pray, and we need to give back to the Earth” he says, whilst acknowledging that we’ve by and large forgotten as a species how to do that - our connection to nature and the more than human having been so severed. Whispering at my side, Ibrahim offers a prayer, a blessing on our meal, and places some food on the floor for the ancestors, as is his custom in Benim. I’d already sneaked an olive into my mouth before making my offering. My ancestors got the better of me: my lamb went flying from my plate into the dust. ‘Let’s not forget to feed our ancestors’ says Ibrahim. ‘We are here thanks to them’. Like the giant rock that looked over me as I slept in the desert, they are indeed watching.

We are all connected. Whilst we drink clean water in one country, another country’s river is polluted. Whilst we eat good food in one country, another country’s land is dried up. What happens on one side of the world affects the other.

I recall Mindahi Bastida, of the Otomí-Toltec people in Mexico, speaking in his Letter at COP26 in Glasgow, of the ‘unification process’ - a prophesied process whereby all beings, in all their diversity, come together to “recover harmony, balance and peace with Mother Earth”. Where we remember who we are as care-takers of the Earth, and return to the ‘original instructions’ of gratitude, kinship, and a reverence for community and creation.

Sitting at the many tables and in the many circles of community at COP, sharing food and culture and story, I feel blessed to have encountered so much joy, trust and respect amidst a climate conference bracing itself for a new hot Earth. Whatever the outcome of COP, the networks of alliances and collaborations that emerge from such an international focal point are undeniably life-affirming.

“We dream of and work toward a just world, a sacred Mother Earth who provides clean air, water, and land shared by all people” says Tom Goldtooth, member of the Navajo Nation. I share his dream and his call to action.

From the eye of the Dragon in the heart of the Sinai Desert, we declare the missing 11th Commandment: “All are your kin!”, hoping our improvised incantation reverberated all the way back to Sharm el Sheikh and beyond.


Actions you can take:

“No matter the question, the answer is always community” - Edgard Gouveia Junior

Letters to the Earth invites a deeper listening: a listening to the voices of nature and to the people in need. Letters give voice to what most needs to be heard and what most needs to be said. Be it the raw language of grief - shock, sadness, anger - or the emergence of other ways of being.

Letters are a dialogue. With the Earth and with each other. Write and share your Letter to the Earth.

* We have offset the carbon emissions with One Tribe, who directly support rainforest protection charities who then fund on-the-ground projects to protect rainforests and the indigenous tribes and biodiversity that call them home.

** We wish to also thank the Project Everyone team for including a letter writing station at their Culture COP X Blue Marine Foundation Night Cap at Goals House; Alison Tickell of Julie's Bicycle, Ruth Ben-Tovim and Farhana Yamin for facilitating our involvement in the CultureCOP Assembly at Sharm el Sheikh Museum; The Climate Justice-Just Transition Donor Collaborative for the opportunity to run a workshop with their youth fellows; the CultureCOP programming and tech team for presenting our short videos of Letters during the CultureCOP at the Sharm El Sheikh Museum and Aida Hotel; The Sinai Trail Project for an unforgettable experience on their land; Lily Cole for organising such a special overnight trip to the Sinai Desert; Re-Earth Initiative for collaborating with us on a display of young people's letters in the Children & Youth Pavilion in COP; all the readers of Letters in the Resilience Hub: Reon Porter, Rosie Paul, Professor Chukkwumerriie Okereke and Simon Musasizi; and our donors and supporters including Earthrising Foundation and Vivobarefoot.

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