Experience the many layers of relevance of Empatheatre for COP27

By Elisa Morgera

We are delighted and excited that the UNFCCC (The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Secretariat has invited our Empatheatre colleagues from South Africa to perform in person the award-winning theatre play Lalela uLwandle (Listen to the Sea in isiZulu) at the Capacity-building Hub of the Blue Zone of COP27 (14th November 2022, 17.40-18.40 Egypt time). We look forward to engaging with climate negotiators, experts and stakeholders in the post-show conversation about the various ways in which this play, both as innovative transdisciplinary research on spiritual, cultural and scientific understandings of the oceans in a time of climate change and as transformative methodology for participatory processes, can support their work.

Lalela uLwandle explores intergenerational environmental injustices, tangible and intangible ocean heritage, marine science, threats to ocean health, and exclusion from ocean decision-making There are in fact several ways in which this performance sheds new light (and hope) on some of the well-known conundrums of climate change governance, at (but also beyond) the ocean-climate nexus.

photo: kelly daniels
Multiple insights for climate negotiators, experts and stakeholders

First of all, Lalela uLwandle illustrates how marine and social scientists can collaborate with holders of different knowledge systems, respectfully and constructively, to develop a more integrated understanding of environmental challenges. An integrated approach is required to tackle multiple threats to ocean health that affect the ocean’s capacity to contribute to climate change mitigation and the multiple socio-cultural and economic injustices that may arise from sectoral and non-inclusive decision-making (which undermine our capacity to rely on a healthy ocean for effective and just climate change adaptation). These contributions support climate experts in better listening to the voices of indigenous and local knowledge holders and integrate the oceans (“blue”) in nationally determined contributions – which the One Ocean Hub had already been invited by the UNFCCC Secretariat to provide insights on at the Bonn conference in May 2022. In fact, participating in the Lalela uLwandle performance allows the audience to deeply connect and “experience” different worldviews, without having to take a position or feeling the need to choose one over another.

Second, Lalela uLwandle illuminates the inter-linked human rights dimensions of ocean and climate governance, from the local to the international level. It shows the knowledge, contributions, needs and marginalization of small-scale fishers, Indigenous peoples and women, which are all expressions of their human rights to livelihoods, health, culture and participation. It also hints at how protecting these rights can contribute to the protection of everyone’s right to a healthy environment, safe climate and healthy ocean. In particular, it shows how intangible cultural heritage and past injustices (that are still present in living memory) are routinely left out of decisions on ocean conservation and use (and likely to be left out in future decisions on ocean climate action). This has negative impacts for integrated approaches to environmental management and human rights protection – as recently recognized by South African courts (see here, here and here). Lalela uLwandle further explores the role (and marginalization) of scientists in ocean governance, the overlaps between western and Indigenous knowledge (on the importance of the ocean in the global water cycle, which is a crucial matter for ocean-climate action) and the need for everyone to benefit from scientific advancements, which relates to the human right to science. On the whole, the play offer plenty of food for thought on how we need to prevent the mistakes of past climate action (including human rights violations) on land and rather take human rights as a pre-condition for transformative governance at the ocean-climate nexus (see also here).

Third, empatheatre as a process provides an innovative method for more open and constructive public dialogue on complex and inter-linked matters related to the environment, societies and cultures. At COP26, together with the Independent Mechanism of the Green Climate Fund, we explored virtually how this method can prevent and transform conflicts. At COP27 we have an opportunity to experience in person this method and discuss how it can support more meaningful and inclusive conversations on effective and just ocean-climate action, for instance helping with modelling, assessing potential impacts, making laws, plans and judicial decisions. Fundamentally, we wish to engage climate decision-makers and funders with the evidence we have gathered that we need to co-develop environmental solutions with different knowledge holders and human rights-holders. And that co-development needs to start (and be funded) at the early stage of ocean-climate knowledge co-production (see also here and here)– in other words, we need to recognize and support researchers and Indigenous/local knowledge holders as part of the development and governance process, to ensure integrated, equitable and locally appropriate approaches, protection of human rights and multiple co-benefits thanks to policy coherence.

More background on Empatheatre and its international recognition

Empatheatre, a theatre-based methodology for collaborative and ‘de-academised’ research with communities and Indigenous and local knowledge holders, researchers from the social and natural sciences, and artists. In collaboration with the Durban University of Technology and Rhodes University in South Africa, each performance is followed by a participatory public conversation with the audience on ocean governance, supporting engagement with complexity and a plurality of worldviews. The Empatheatre team was awarded the Bertha Foundation “Artivism” prize for Lalela uLwandle and used the funds to co-develop a new theatre production Umkhosi Wenala (The Festival of Abundance) focused on injustices in ocean conservation with a collective of young activists-artists (Mbazwana Creative Arts) in Northern Zululand (more on this in our next newsletter – sign up here ).

The Empatheatre team and Stratchlyde University law researchers have been collaborating with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in exploring the ways in which Empatheatre supports the protection of Environmental Human Rights Defenders(EHRDs) and provides insights for other researchers and activitsts. In May 2021, we contributed to global and regional UNEP consultations seeking to identify good practices to support EHRDs, and based on our research and partnerships with small-scale fishers and other communities, we recommendation to recognise ocean defenders as EHRDs, because until then the UN had primarily focused on land defenders. We have further explored the role of empatheatre to support EHDRs with UNEP, the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment and EDDRs from other regions of the world, in the context of the annual Winter-Summer School on Human Rights and the Environment in 2021 and 2022 (see webinars here and here).

photo: kelly daniels


When:14th November 2022, 17.40-18.40 (Egypt).

Where: COP27 Capacity-building Hub at the Blue Zone, Egypt.