‘Honour our knowledge…or get out the way’
‘The wind carried me here across the ocean like a bird,’ Waorani Enqueri from Ecuador told me last week at the COP26 climate conference. She was one of more than 140 indigenous leaders that had travelled to Glasgow for the summit, but the reality of their journeys was far less poetic.
Many had come from remote places – deep in the Amazon or high in the mountains – to be there. They had negotiated complex visa requirements, stringent Covid-19 regulations and long quarantines. And yet they had come because they felt that they needed to be there. Not just to be listened to but also to be heard. And not just to be heard but to be understood.
The barriers to understanding the deeper message offered by Indigenous people are not linguistic or cultural. The lessons that indigenous people have to offer go much deeper than what can be set out in a PowerPoint briefing. They have to be felt or experienced to be truly understood.
At the opening session of the COP26, Maori activist India Riley had offered an invitation to delegates: ‘Learn our histories, listen to our stories, honour our knowledge… or get out the way.’
By the end of the summit, it was clear that this invitation had not been taken up.
10/. ''It's time to reforest our thoughts. It’s time to reforest our hearts. It’s time to reforest our actions'' @GuajajaraSonia— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) November 8, 2021
I don’t speak a word of Portuguese, Spanish or any indigenous languages & yet I understand everything that is said#Cop26 #COPpic.twitter.com/QVP72cYSfv
‘The decision-makers are in there, we are out here,’ Mindahi Bastida – who, like so many delegates came to Glasgow with the organization Minga Indigena from Mexico – told me, gesturing to the conference centre behind a metal fence. His frustration that indigenous peoples – about five per cent of the world’s population – have once again been excluded from meaningful participation and inclusion in decision-making processes is echoed among all the indigenous leaders I spoke with.
‘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.
Eighteen-year-old Xiye Bastida, also from Mexico, says she was given the opportunity to address leaders at COP. ‘I was invited to the World Leaders Summit,’ she tells me. ‘But when I got to the podium, most of them had already walked out.’
This experience of being marginalized or excluded from decision-making processes is nothing new for many indigenous environmentalists, yet COP26 provided an opportunity to change this. It was a chance for the world to take much needed guidance on how to tackle the climate crisis.
Indigenous communities have been conserving and sustaining lands far better than industrialized nations. Their cultures are inextricably connected to their lands and they have lived sustainably with their ecosystems for generations.
Traditional knowledge passed down from generation to generation effectively means that indigenous people were climate scientists before the term existed. They are the true experts at protecting biodiversity.
Lessons from the margins
Indigenous activists and leaders came to Glasgow not only to share their experiences of how the climate crisis is affecting their communities but also to offer their ancestral wisdom on how the world can live in balance and harmony with nature.
‘I not only brought with me the hearts and souls of my community,’ an indigenous leader from Ecuador tells me. ‘I have also brought the message that we are the solution to the problem.’
But their solutions have yet again been ignored and the most important experts were again excluded from the top table.
Whilst the frustration was keenly felt, there were some positive spin- offs to the exclusion of indigenous leaders from the Blue Zone, a UN-managed space which hosts the negotiations.
‘Inside the Blue Zone, policy makers are trying to find absurd solutions to climate change,’ says Wilma Esquivel Pat from Mexico. ‘Outside the fences we have been be able to build networks and find strength in our shared experience of genocide and ecocide.’
Strength in solidarity
Given many people had travelled so far and sacrificed so much to be there, the forming of alliances and strengthening of the bonds among the indigenous movement might seem like scant consolation. But it should not be underestimated.
Neither should the solidarity that is building alongside the growing recognition of the importance of indigenous knowledge in tackling the climate crisis: knowledge that must be owned and shared by indigenous communities themselves.
Decision-makers at COP26 may have chosen not to take up the invitation to learn their histories, nor to honour their knowledge, but this invite extends far beyond the metal barriers of the Blue Zone.
It is time for us all of to listen to the call of indigenous people. Not because they need our help, but because we need theirs’. In the words of indigenous activist, Lilla Watson:
‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.’
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