Talanoa exhibit at COP23
The Talanoa Climate Action Center at the 2017 Bonn climate talks. (Photo credit: David McCarthy)

For two weeks this past November, Bonn must have felt a little like Fiji, and a touch of the South Pacific lay over the Rhine.

The ongoing political debate on the future of the global climate during that period was softened by gentle guitar sounds and vocal harmonies of Polynesian songs. The COP 23 climate summit, co-hosted by the island republic and Germany, brought 22,000 people to the headquarters of the UN Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn.

The discussions dealt primarily with the fine print needed to fulfill the December 2015 Paris Agreement: rules for recording and comparing national contributions to climate change. Important for sure, but not very headline-grabbing.

But Bonn 2017 may be remembered for something that proponents hope will be long-lasting, something they hope can pave the way for more agreements among international parties going forward: Talanoa. The term refers to a form of dialogue rooted in the traditional culture of Fiji and neighboring countries such as Samoa and Tonga.

The hope is that the process it embodies can contribute to countries’ becoming more ambitious in terms of climate protection – without getting bogged-down with each other over their past or ongoing behaviors.

Talanoa … ‘listening with respect … common interests’

This coming May, there will be a conference in Bonn perhaps different from those preceding it. Instead of dry statements, national egotisms, and the seemingly endless haggles over single words, the May conference may feature real conversation.

“At Talanoa you tell each other stories about your own experiences. Everyone else is listening with respect,” says Nazhat Shameen Khan, chief negotiator from Fiji. Common interests, and not divisive issues, are to be emphasized. “It builds trust and helps you find solutions,” Khan says.

Some activists and scientists from industrialized countries have invoked the “Talanoa Spirit” terminology, and dozens of newspaper articles poured a little South Pacific flavor into the usual reports on negotiating tactics and demands. In many of the closing commentaries of various groups and dignitaries from Bonn, Talanoa sounded like a magic word – now that we’ve discovered and agreed to that, everything will be fine.

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Whether those authors and speakers really understand what they were talking about remains doubtful. After all, the Fiji Times calls Talanoa “a way of life.” That’s a concept not easily explained in just a few sentences. Moreover, the dialogue could strike westerners as un-hierarchical, unrestrained, aimless, and devoid of rules. A hidden agenda and dishonesty could lead to exclusion from the Talanoa community. The approach may seem interesting and exotic to people from the industrial north; can they actually be expected to participate?

What really is Talanoa? What can the community of participants accomplish with it? What expectations does Fiji have in offering this part of its culture to the world? Is the magic word really magical, or just a see-through sleight of hand?

In Bonn Talanoa showed itself above all in the “Talanoa Space,” a colorful, busy area with two stages, crowds, and many small spaces for conversation. It appeared in photos to be a living wall of colorful flowers and dark green leaves, in front of which sat wicker chairs.

Focus on civil society, on dialogue

So it could be just an attractive background for the usual panel discussions, which certainly do not meet the standards of Talanoa. The Germans, however, speak of higher aims. As co-hosts of the space, they wanted the Talanoa Space to focus decidedly on civil society and dialogue, said a spokesperson.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe (“Frank”) Bainimarama declared at the opening of the Bonn conference that for the first time at a COP, there was open dialogue between members and non-members of the UNFCCC (or in the lingo of the event: between state-“parties” and “non-parties”).

“This is not a side event,” he said, it should not be dismissed as an embellishment. “Today, we will not be negotiating. We will be talking to each other. And we will be listening. The Talanoa Spirit isn’t just about being nice to everyone – although respect is essential. It is about contributing to a solution that requires a degree of straight talking.”

The Fiji Agriculture Minister, Inia Seruiratu, added that the Talanoa area would not be an echo chamber and issued the motto: “faster, further, together” – more ambitious climate goals would have to be reached in less time as a community.

Breaking the usual ‘crippling rut of disagreement’

Talanoa is actually the second term for a traditional form of dialogue that is introduced at climate summits to break the usual and often crippling rut of disagreement. In 2011 in Durban, the South African hosts put “Indaba” on the agenda, a conversation anchored in the culture of the Zulu and Xhosa where “wise men” inform each other about their respective red lines and search for common ground in between. At the 2015 Paris conference, which ended with a widely hailed treaty among nearly 200 countries of the world, the instrument of the Indaba had again come into play.

“That also was a form of dialogue that may have been lost to us in the Western world,” says Jan Kowalzig, who was an observer from Oxfam in Bonn. He particularly appreciates that at Indaba or Talanoa, all participants are to be given room to express their views, concerns, and problems. That’s not to deny that exposing and shaming climate “offenders” or labeling them “fossils of the day” is still a central component of many campaigns.

Talanoa, however, considerably broadens the circle of dialogue over Indaba and sets other rules. In the South Pacific, the process already is seen as having helped defuse some state crises, such as a long-lasting strike by public servants in Tonga, and the search for a new economic model on the Solomon Islands, both in 2005.

However, the example that is particularly prominent is from Fiji itself. It has long suffered from ethnic-religious tensions that led to a coup in the year 2000. Nationalists occupied the parliament and took hostages, and today’s Prime Minister Bainimarama, then army chief, was appointed head of a military government. He relinquished power after the acute crisis ended eight weeks later.

Given the seriousness of those events, factions of Fijian society agreed to try Talanoa. At the end of five two-day consultations, participants declared, “we found many areas of commonality and even where we did not agree, we gained a deeper appreciation of each other’s perspectives and positions.” However, “we had no consensus on future options.”

That peace was fragile, however, which showed in 2006, when Bainimarama led a coup and got himself appointed prime minister. He remained in the post until 2013, when elections were held under a new constitution – which he then won.

Talanoa … ‘telling stories without concealment’

Nevertheless, the Talanoa process generally is considered a success in Fiji. Sitiveni Halapua, an English-trained Tongan economist from the East-West Center in Honolulu, explains the concept: “tala” means “telling stories”, “noa” stands for “without concealment.”

Talanoa participants should therefore openly, honestly, and quite emotionally describe their situations and their expectations. “It is a central value of Talanoa that participating storytellers are free to author and tell their own stories about whatever issues that are given to their thinking,” Halapua writes.

Connecting a goal with it is therefore difficult. “Talanoa has a clear beginning without clear end.” And the process “strips away all the myths and contaminations of human hierarchy.”

As a German, of course, the author of this piece cannot judge whether the Talanoa technique really worked in Fiji, even though the nation then needed another coup for the country to apparently turn back to democracy. That would be presumptuous and culturally overbearing. And, of course, the people of the South Pacific are also free to present variations of a technique anchored in their culture on the international stage and set new rules for it.

What one can say as a German is this: The goal that the states of the world finally understand themselves as a community, stand up for each other, and tackle a great threat together is worth every effort. Faster, further, together.

But a non-hierarchical Talanoa discussion without any ulterior motives could run into trouble once national self-interest comes to the fore again. And that may happen if the process – as it has been at the climate summit – gets linked to a goal, namely for states to become more involved in the community, to plan for further emissions reductions, or to fill compensation funds for particular nations.

Concerns along these lines are expressed by Arieta Tora Rika, who runs the website talanoa.com.au in Australia and is well familiar with the Polynesian form of dialogue. “People from outside the Pacific tend to separate and compartmentalize discussions, particularly relating to larger issues” she says. “In the Pacific, we bring our whole selves to the table during conversations, especially Talanoa. We shrug off the ‘poker face’ and we share our true thoughts, concerns, ideas.”

The test: Can Talanoa help with advancing shared interests?

Asked if Talanoa could help with the climate negotiations, she replies: “I am totally unsure as to whether it’s reasonable to expect people from different places around the world to suddenly adopt this way of communicating. However, I would absolutely love it if they did – because I know when it’s done ‘right’ it is truly powerful.”

Maxine Newlands of James Cook University in Australia also has her doubts. “It will be an interesting experiment because of the differences in cultural understanding and aims,” she says. Ultimately, the western perspective always looks for economic solutions under a capitalist worldview. Talanoa, on the other hand, wants to show the diversity of voices and achieve results that serve many, not just a few. Success would depend on the skills of the moderator of the Talanoa process.

These moderators come from two fundamentally different cultures. Fiji, as the COP23 presidency in Bonn, now is working with Poland, which is to lead the COP24 meeting, set to take place in Katowice, in the heart of the Polish coal mining area. The former “Eastern Bloc” country has announced its support for the 2015 Paris agreement while also proceeding with efforts to subsidize its coal-fired power plants, environmentalists say.

It may be best to wait and see whether and how Talanoa advances shared interests when the climate summit starts there late in 2018.

Christopher Schrader is a German science journalist living in Hamburg, Germany.