Indigenous activists at COP26

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Indigenous activists at COP26

Stefan Simanowitz meets the indigenous activists who feel that the Glasgow Climate Pact ignored them.

‘The wind carried me here across the ocean like a bird,’ Waorani Enqueri from Ecuador told me at the COP26 climate conference. She was one of more than 140 indigenous leaders that travelled to Glasgow for the meeting, but for what?

Many came from remote places – deep in the Amazon or high in the mountains – to be there. There were complicated visa requirements, strict Covid-19 regulations, and long quarantines. But they came because they felt that they needed to be there. Not just for people to listen to them but also to hear them. And not just to hear them but to understand them.

There are no language or cultural barriers to understand their deeper message. The lessons from indigenous people go much deeper than in a PowerPoint. We need to feel or experience the lessons to really understand them.

At the opening session of the COP26, Maori activist India Riley offered an invitation to delegates, ‘Learn our histories, listen to our stories, respect our knowledge… or get out of the way.’ By the end of the summit, it was clear delegates had not accepted her invitation.


Mindahi Bastida, like so many delegates, came to Glasgow with the organization Minga Indigena from Mexico. ‘The decision-makers are in there, we are out here,’ he told me. Like him, all the indigenous leaders I spoke with are angry that Cop26 ignored them. The indigenous peoples are about five per cent of the world’s population.

‘We came here because the world leaders would be here, but they did not want to listen to our leaders,’ says Uboye Gaba from Mexico. Xiye Bastida is 18 years old and from Mexico. She says they gave her the opportunity to talk to leaders at COP. ‘I had an invitation to the World Leaders Summit,’ she tells me. ‘But before I got to the stage, most had already left.’

This experience is nothing new for many indigenous activists, but COP26 was an opportunity to change this. It was a chance for the world to listen to their very necessary advice on what to do about the climate crisis.

Indigenous communities look after lands far better than industrialized nations. Their cultures are connected to their lands and they have lived sustainably with their ecosystems for many years.

Traditional knowledge passed from family to family means that indigenous people were climate scientists before we had the words “climate scientist”. They are the true experts at protecting biodiversity.

Lessons from outside the Blue Zone

Indigenous activists and leaders came to Glasgow to share their experiences of how the climate crisis is affecting their communities and to offer their traditional knowledge on how the world can live in balance and harmony with nature.

‘I brought with me the hearts and souls of my community,’ an indigenous leader from Ecuador tells me. ‘And I brought the message that we are the solution to the problem.’

But people ignored their solutions again and did not allow these most important experts into the Blue Zone, where the UN managed the negotiations.

The indigenous leaders felt angry but there were some positive things.

‘Inside the Blue Zone, policy makers are trying to find crazy solutions to climate change,’ says Wilma Esquivel Pat from Mexico. ‘Outside the Blue Zone we built networks and found strength in our shared experience of genocide and ecocide.’

Strong together

Of course, many people travelled so far and gave up so much to be there, and so building networks for the indigenous movement might not seem very much. But it is very important. And so is indigenous knowledge in solving the climate crisis. The indigenous communities themselves must own and share that knowledge.

It is time for us all to listen to the indigenous people. Not because they need our help, but because we need their help. As indigenous activist, Lilla Watson, said, ‘If you came here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you came because your liberation is linked to mine, then let us work together.’


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)