Prophetic Indigenous Voices on the Planetary Crisis heard at the United Nations Environment Assembly

15 March 2021

“There is an urgent need to embrace the values of Indigenous Peoples’ worldviews and turn from a mindset of extraction to one of relationship with Nature”.
From: Building Forward Better – Action is Urgently Needed, the Joint Global Statement from Major Groups and other Stakeholders to the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, February 2021

Story by Jack Palmer-White, the Anglican Communion’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and Elizabeth Perry, the Anglican Alliance’s Communication and Advocacy Manager.

In a companion piece, we wrote about the Prophetic Indigenous Voices on the Planetary Crisis webinar series – a collaboration between the Anglican Indigenous Network (AIN) and the Anglican Communion Environmental Network (ACEN), with input from the Anglican Alliance.

In this piece, we describe how a delegation headed by the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations (ACOUN) was able to lift up those voices at the recent United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) and how, as a result, critical insights from Indigenous Anglicans were shared and helped shape the statement presented by the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF) to the member state-led meetings of the Assembly.

“It was very encouraging to witness the Communion working so clearly as a connected body and with significant impact”, said Dr Elizabeth Perry, who took part in UNEA. “As the Anglican delegation we were able to act as a conduit, carrying the wisdom of Indigenous Anglicans from every part of the Communion into that space, influencing the conversation and asking questions of those gathered.”

The United Nations Environment Assembly 

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is a global agenda setter, establishing priorities for global environmental policies, developing international environmental law and catalysing intergovernmental action. The fifth session of UNEA is currently underway. The first part (UNEA-5.1) took place virtually towards the end of February, with the second part (UNEA-5.2) scheduled to take place in person in Nairobi in February 2022.

The virtual session included online leadership dialogues for Ministers of the Environment and other high-level representatives, which focused on ensuring a ‘resilient and inclusive post-pandemic landscape’. The meeting also agreed the UN Environment Programme’s medium-term strategy and programme of work for 2022-2025. Whilst this might sound arcane, this is an area where civil society can potentially play a significant role in shaping the global environmental agenda as UNEA is one of the most generous UN agencies in terms of the inclusion of civil society in its decision-making.

The small Anglican delegation was headed by Jack Palmer-White, the Anglican Communion Permanent Representative to the UN. Revd. Dr Rachel Mash, from the Anglican Communion Environmental Network (ACEN) and the Environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Sophia Gakii from Anglican Development Services, Kenya and Dr Elizabeth Perry, the Anglican Alliance’s Advocacy and Communication Manager completed the delegation.

The Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF) is the key platform for civil society engagement in the work of the UN Environment Assembly and Programme. The main purpose of this GMGSF was to gather input for a joint statement to be presented to the two member state-led meetings – the Council of Permanent Representatives and the Assembly itself – based around a number of key areas of concern. The Anglican delegation successfully influenced the outcome of the joint statement in a number of specific ways:

  • The title of the statement – Building Forward Better: Action is Urgently Needed – was proposed by Revd Dr Rachel Mash. This language has been used in other documents and narratives within the Anglican Communion and wider civil society.
  • Proposing language in the ‘Main Messages’ section to make the calls ‘more human’ – including the use of words such as “cherishing”.
  • Proposing the specific inclusion of ‘environmental racism’ as an issue that the UNEP Medium-Term Strategy and Programme of Work must address. This particular point was also highlighted when the GMGSF Joint Statement was presented at the Environment Assembly closing session and later picked out by Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, as a significant contribution of the statement.
  • Developing two sections in the document on the importance of listening to and learning from Indigenous people and communities in order to achieve the necessary changes in our relationship with nature and the means to achieve these changes. Wording included in the statement, based on the Anglican delegation’s suggestion, reads, “There is an urgent need to embrace the values of Indigenous Peoples’ worldviews and turn from a mindset of extraction to one of relationship with Nature”.
  • Supporting priorities in Tearfund’s campaign on plastic pollution, delegates successfully ensured inclusion of reference to informal waste pickers in the section on ending plastic pollution.
  • Receiving specific recognition from a rapporteur that UNEP needs to partner with faith-based communities to mobilise them in the implementation of the Programme of Work

Additionally, ACC delegates also raised questions of key decision makers – including the President of UNEA-5 and the Executive Director of UNEP – on a number of relevant issues:

  • Mobilizing faith actors to action on the Programme of Work and other initiatives and how to engage faith actors better in the dissemination of messages and bring them on board, including the specific suggestion that UNEP facilitate online tools to train clergy of all faiths in environmental stewardship.
  • UNEP’s position on divestment from fossil fuels, including a specific question to the Executive Director on the proposed drilling/fracking in the Okavango Delta. She noted the need for solidarity and funding for green development to avoid the need for hydrocarbon exploitation. Following this question, the UNEP national office in South Africa reached out to Rachel Mash for a briefing on Okavango that had been specifically requested by the UNEP Executive Director in light of Rachel’s question.

Following on from this work, ACC delegates were also approached by a representative of the Parliament of World Religions to discuss how to engage UNEP on the development of online courses on eco-theology.

The Anglican Communion’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Jack Palmer-White, said: “I am delighted that the Anglican Communion delegation at UNEA-5 was able to influence the virtual discussions so effectively. I am excited at the possibilities that further engagement can open up, so that Anglicans can be even more involved in influencing global efforts to tackle the triple environmental crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.”

Why the Anglican Alliance cares about the environmental crisis

The Anglican Alliance exists to connect, equip and inspire the worldwide Anglican family to work for a world free of poverty and injustice and to safeguard creation. The integrity of creation is under severe strain as a result of climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Environmental degradation and climate change are also major factors driving poverty and migration and are therefore cross-cutting issues that are part of each of our three pillars of relief, development and advocacy. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the interconnectedness of the life of the Earth and shown us anew how we are all “our brother’s keeper”. Human health is dependent on planetary health.