climate change environment activists un united nations art
Printed pieces of "The World Canvas" being packed in the Philippines before shipment to the United Nations office in Thailand. Photo: Issa Barte
Vice creators summit

These Climate Change Activists Sent a Powerful Message to the UN Through Art

"Our paintings describe the stories we face as the youth in our homes: watching the natural world collapse as our people suffer horrific consequences."
January 20, 2021, 9:12am

The environment is in a critical state, but many world leaders have not done much to address this, declaring empty promises instead of practical reforms. So now, the youth are stepping up. Hailing from five countries across the Asia-Pacific — the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, India, and New Zealand — six young artists and activists came together to depict the dim realities on the ground.

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“The pandemic is still happening, so we had to figure out how to amplify our advocacies together, especially when some of the team stems from countries that are known to lock up or gun down their activists. Some of us…coming from countries still dealing with the brunt of COVID-19,” Issa Barte, an artist based in the Philippines, said about the challenges they faced in organizing the project.

“Safely, from the pandemic and from the sticky situations of some of our governments, we had to find a way to create something ‘dangerous’ without putting us in danger: and we chose art.”

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Reviewing the pieces for “The World Canvas” before their shipment to the United Nations office in Thailand. Photo: Issa Barte. 

Titled The World Canvas, the six artists created their own pieces at home and photographed them. Those from abroad sent copies to the Philippines, where they were printed, compiled, and tucked away with a letter. 

“We wanted to ask for help from Ms. [Dechen] Tsering, the Director of the UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] of the Asia and Pacific Office, but more than help, their action. If our governments won’t listen to us, maybe they’ll listen to her,” the letter sent to the UNEP read. 

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Issa Barte handwrites the letter crafted by “The World Canvas” team for Dechen Tsering, Director at the United Nations Environment Programme’s Asia and the Pacific Office. Photo: Issa Barte

“The letter, a stir of…the frustrations of seeing our natural world collapse in front of our eyes, didn’t stray away from asking for accountability, and then asking for help. Us young people can only do so much, our leaders who have the power to create big and lasting change have to step up,” the artists said. 

Part of the letter reads: 

“We cannot wait any longer for real change to begin. Our people are suffering the consequences of a crisis that we have nothing to do with. …We are at different levels of crisis here in the Asia/Pacific region. Some of our governments acknowledge the problem, some don’t. Our industries are changing, but moving too slowly too late. Governments are supposed to respond to the people, but too often they won’t — but they will respond to you, though. We implore you, as youth from across your continent, to take a stronger stance.” 

“Our paintings describe the stories we face as the youth in our homes: watching the natural world collapse as our people suffer horrific consequences. We ask for your help as we stand behind the dream of a better world. We see the work being done by current activists, and say to all doing the work that we not only see you, but support you.”

The artists’ message: they’re already inspired and motivated to mobilize, they just need help to do it. They called out the lack of action from governments, about four years after the Paris Agreement where nations promised to mitigate climate change. 

“[Governments] have done little but ease initial anxieties over the climate crisis. Today, at a time where the crisis looms over our heads and fogs over our futures, the anxiety has piled up and weighed us down. We need action, not their flowery words. We couldn’t just stay silent,” the artists said. 

climate change environment activists un united nations art

The handwritten letter to Dechen Tsering, Director at the United Nations Environment Programme’s Asia and the Pacific Office. Photo: Issa Barte

“We wrote the letter, painted our pictures, and worked on this in frustration, yes, due to the lack of action — but also in hope. If there’s anything I learned throughout all this, it’s that we still clearly need to work together to create change, and when we do, people and things can start evolving. They — we — already have. We can be part of this awakening,” Barte said. 

Below are photos of the paintings that were shipped from the Philippines to the UNEP office in Thailand in December. 

Philippines

It was not so long ago, in November 2020, that the Philippines was hit by one of the strongest typhoons of the year, drowning cities and leaving people in the mud.

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Painted on plywood is a child running away from a storm and into an uncertain future. Photo and art: Issa Barte

Mary Anne, a resident of Marikina, one of the cities in Metro Manila that took the brunt of Typhoon Vamco, told me that she and her family stayed on their roof the night of the typhoon with nowhere else to go. She watched as her whole community washed out in mud; all she could do was sit still and cling on to keep safe. There was nowhere else to run to, she told me, while scrubbing off the mud from her cabinets and dishes two weeks after the storm passed. “We’re used to it,” she said. 

Franka, a resident of the Bicol Region, one of the first areas that felt the onslaught of rain, invited me into her makeshift home one day in December, where we sat side by side in the dark. This is a temporary home, she said, telling me that her real house was torn up by the storm. Franka’s friend, Daisy, brought me into her home where she rubbed her pregnant belly while washing dishes. The house was lit up in red from a kerosene lamp that’s both too expensive to light everyday and toxic to their health. The day of Typhoon Goni, they watched from the window of their evacuation center, cramped beside 50 others, as the storm wiped out their island. This is the reality of living in a country that is said to be the second most vulnerable to the climate crisis

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As I listened, I couldn’t help but think about her unborn child — not yet in this world, yet already paying the price of this crisis they had no hand in aggravating.

“As I listened, I couldn’t help but think about her unborn child — not yet in this world, yet already paying the price of this crisis they had no hand in aggravating.”

This is the reality of my people. If their lives aren’t taken away, they are left with lives that are battered again and again by the typhoons. The climate crisis is not an abstract concept here, it’s a reality we face every day and in every aspect of our lives. This is not a future problem, it’s a problem that is clear and happening now. In December, the Philippines experienced its 22nd tropical cyclone of 2020, exceeding the average of 20 a year. 

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Painted on plywood is a body bag that lays on a deforested part of Northern Philippines, a tribute to the environmental defenders killed in the country who risk their lives in protecting our natural world. Photo and art: Issa Barte

The Philippines is one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, but ironically, also one of the deadliest places to be an environmental defenderIssa Barte

Malaysia

Malaysia has been facing the paradox of development and conservation. While the country is known for its vast and biodiverse forests, greed emerges and desire prevails. Apart from deforestation, we are now breaking our promise to nature by crossing off forest reserves from the national protected list in favor of development. A yard after an inch, the lust for modernity is insatiably growing and blooming.

climate change environment activists un united nations art

The intrusion of modernity is haunting nature. Projection on the cloth is construction in Kuala Lumpur. Photo and art: Joy Yuzu

Who is the owner of nature? In the state of Kedah, the Ulu Muda Forest has been suffering from the threat of deforestation and illegal poaching. This, despite its importance in biodiversity conservation and invaluable contribution to the country’s ecosystem. All the intrusion has left are barren concrete, endangered species, and a vulnerable ecosystem. 

By reducing the quality and volume of water, legal and illegal deforestation and unsustainable logging operations have threatened the main role of Ulu Muda as a water catchment area. The clearance of forests and unsustainable deforestation raises the runoff of soil to Ulu Muda's lakes and reservoirs, leaving the raw water quality poor and more costly to handle. 

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These actions damage the ability of nature to trap and hold rainwater, contributing to increased and more extreme flooding and droughts that could impact the livelihoods of more than 4 million people. Unsustainable tourism and illegal poaching are also a danger to the fauna and flora biodiversity of Ulu Muda, including its large population of large mammals. The forest that used to be happy, is now sad.

climate change environment activists un united nations art

The intrusion of modernity leaving wildlife behind like a shadow. Projection on the leaf is the dusky leaf monkey in Ulu Muda, taken by Fariman S., courtesy of GreenSmiths. Photo and art: Shah Shukri

Imagine if the wildlife could speak to us, what would be the first thing they say? How would they express their feelings? How would they react to us stealing their homes day by day? What would the river that was once clear but is now murky say? What would the tree that was once standing say? And what would the animals that once had a home but don’t anymore say? Or imagine: what does it feel like to live unnoticed by the world? — Shah Shukri

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Who owns nature? Projection on the leaf is the water monitor lizard in Ulu Muda, taken by Fariman S., courtesy of GreenSmiths. Photo and art: Shah Shukri

If people are following the same old disastrous road, we clearly know where the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR) is heading. We know what happens to a place when it puts modernization before sustainability. 

The KLNFR, 22 kilometers away from the heart of Kuala Lumpur, is a peat swamp forest, the most efficient natural carbon sink on the planet. It is critical in preserving global biodiversity, providing safe drinking water, minimizing flood risk, and helping mitigate climate change. It has also been home to the Temuan Indigenous community for more than 150 years, and a sanctuary for critically endangered species. But it is now under threat due to a proposed “mixed development project.”

climate change environment activists un united nations art

The ghost of modernity in the forest. Photo and art: Joy Yuzu

The intrusion of modernity is like a haunting nightmare. Seeing the ghost we can never get rid of, I can’t help but think of the power and greed behind it all, as well as the sacrifices that had to be made. When will it stop? Now? Or the day we lose everything? — Joy Yuzu 

India

In my view, India has become a slave to economic development, with the government and multinational companies taking the lead in this direction. This has led to an active reordering of societies, which time and again affect the ones living in it. Certain human activities, like uncontrolled and unsupervised mining, are the very products of development. And nature pays for the consequences. Cutting down huge expanses of forests for financial gains has not only resulted in loss of forests and species, but also has long-term impacts on the ecological and social health of the country. Many corporations in India have promoted financial growth over ecological stability and indigenous rights, giving rise to conflicts. 

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Part 1 - Depicting the relationship that the indigenous communities share with their natural surroundings. Nature is not looked at as a commodity but rather, an intrinsic part of their being. The painting refers to the Dongria Khonds Indigenous community. Photo and art: Shivangi Pant

Modernity has led to the idea that we all live in a single globalized world where science has been predominantly used as a tool to further the extractive agenda of the dominant culture. This has marginalized and demeaned other forms of knowledge such as the ones offered by our tribal communities. This has also become a major reason for many young people to  move out of their villages to cities, in search of the so-called “better lifestyle.” This era of extractive culture dominance has given rise to dualisms of human and nature, mind and body, civilized and barbarian, as well as civilizational differences. 

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Part 2 - The idea of growth and development — which is now mostly driven by material and financial growth, capitalist markets, and commodification — has resulted in the conflict between man and nature. Photo and art: Shivangi Pant

The digital artwork is just a simple representation of many stories of resistance that I have read, like Narmada Bachao Andolan, Chipko movement, Battle for Niyamgiri, and the Save Silent Valley Movement. These instances are testimony to how people, young and old, have come together and resisted against atrocities, to save nature and prove that they can’t be separated from their lands. So, we will stand again, whenever and wherever we are needed. — Shivangi Pant

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Part 3 - Resistance. Photo and art: Shivangi Pant

New Zealand

New Zealand is a tricky one. When it comes to the environment, we are good, but not good enough. From the inside, our ecological image seems both trivial and tokenistic. Why ban plastic bags and replace them with paper ones that are more resource hungry? Why add tree reward systems if they largely won’t apply to native biodiversity? Why impose fossil fuel restrictions on communities that can’t move to renewable energies, while government industries have massive fleets of their own accord?

climate change environment activists un united nations art

Using real images of Aotearoa’s natural biodiversity as a base, the pictures have been stamped over with signs of industry — timber, concrete, plastic, and steel buildings. Hiding those intrusions — barely — are color drops from the original scenes of nature enhanced up to an abnormal and unreal level. Photo and art: Māia Berryman-Kamp

If New Zealand sees itself as a world leader in social justice, it’s not enough for the rest of the world to see it, we have to act on it. Somehow, the government has finessed a reputation without accountability — so I’ll call them out. End the charade here and implement the changes we need, before even a sparkling reputation can’t save us.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua // As man disappears from sight, the land remains. — Māia Berryman-Kamp

Australia

Australia is a vast continent rich in biodiversity, land, and minerals. Australia’s commercial culture is based entirely on extraction. Gold, oil, gas, and forestry —  if it can be taken from the land, Australia has made bank off of it. This piece shows one of Australia's most beautiful and complex curios, the platypus. She wades through a waterhole filled with cash, attempting to drip clean the oil this country has exploited.

climate change environment activists un united nations art

One of Australia's most beautiful and complex curios, the platypus. Photo and art: Guy Ritani

Back to the country where it belongs, these precious minerals ooze from her body and try to settle into their home. Australia’s culture and economy must shift their profits out of an exploitative and extractive industry and create sustainable models to thrive off. This will be difficult as Australians are used to the endless spoils of exploiting our natural environment, but we must if we want to survive. — Guy Ritani

This project is part of the VICE Creators Summit: Climate Uprise, a content grant and mentorship program for young activists and creatives, funded by VICE Media Group and the International Committee of the Red Cross.