COP26 Reflection: What Have I Learnt From Indigenous Leaders?

Jie Zhou
7 min readDec 6, 2021


During November 1st and 10th, I had the immersive privilege to attend United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26 for short) meeting in Glasgow. Running between the city and the conference, my memories were filled with the harsh reminder of human impact on our planet (seeing protests on Glasgow street in pic 1.), intriguing talks, and challenging negotiations within the blue zone, where an illuminated Earth dangling over to remind all the participants what they were here for (pic 2).

Pic 1. Protestors outside of COP Blue Zone (Scottish Events Centre)
Pic 2. The illuminated Earth at the Blue Zone

Many articles have been written to reflect whether this year is a good COP or a bad COP. Some commentators have remarked on how, given that this is a global conference, it appears to be the whitest and the most privileged ever, with delegates from global south being structurally excluded due to a combination of visa and vaccine issues.

If you were lucky enough to get the pass, finding an affordable accommodation was another challenge. As a city with 15,000 hotel rooms, Glasgow was flooded with nearly 30,000 delegates from around 197 countries. Many of them were priced out to Edinburgh or other satellite towns. I crushed on a friend’s sofa for week 1, and after a few sleepless nights, decided to book a small bed & breakfast in Edinburgh. This challenge may be even more evident next year where COP27 is scheduled to take place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh. I’ve heard some organisations have already booked accommodations the day when COP27 was announced.

Despite these obstacles, I am extremely grateful to have the ticket to blue zone at the very last minute. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with hundreds of like-minded professionals and academics in person from across the world, which I have done for almost two years. Yet, I left with mixed feelings and a refocused eye on how my work and life may be leveraged to affect positive change.

A Powerful Voice From The Few

Across my 10 days at COP26, what stroke me the most is a group of black-and-white photos of Sebastião Salgado’s incredible voyage into Amazônia, which exhibited in Brazil Pavilion (Pic 3). Sebastião Salgad is a world well-known Brazilian photography who has travelled the world, tracing the footsteps of an ever-changing humanity in the past forty years. I am still awed by the unspoiled heart of this wilderness- not just the landscape, but also those indigenous people who steward it.

Pic 3. Amazônia at COP26

To get the portrait and the jaw-dropping view, Sebastião Salgado had to navigate through carefully. Guided by the “Captain of the Jungle”, he first asked if the indigenous people wanted him as a guest, then there were complex forms and permissions required, followed by a journey upriver into the heart of Amazônia, or by helicopter sometimes. Then came quarantine to protect the tribes from modern germs, as there are more than 100 of tribal groups that have never been contacted with outside world. To create and produce these impactful images, his every single trip to Amazônia must bring no impact — like he was never there before.

“You are not allowed to hunt the food of the Indians or catch their fish. Anything I need to eat on that part [of the journey], I must bring. I must bring a pharmacy, my equipment, my studio.” — — by Sebastião Salgado

There are boundaries for blue zone, but the movement led by indigenous groups were visible across the city.Outside of the blue zone, in the same vein, I followed “Indigenous Listening Session” hosted by The Flourishing Diversity organisation. The session created an intentional space for the audience to join in quietly and respectfully listening to Indigenous knowledge, perspectives, stories and calls to action. There was a powerful statement from the group of indigenous leaders:

…the real question isn’t ‘How do we solve the climate crisis?’ but rather, ‘Will enough people from western cultures listen and find the collective will to act?’

a super cartoon on a wall of the main corridor at COP26, by Betje

Though indigenous communities are less than 5% of the global population, they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Unfortunately, they are among the groups that are most marginalised at this COP (Pic 4) (btw, the largest delegation at COP26 was not a country, but the fossil fuel lobbyists). Prominent leaders was sitting in the audience, including HRH The Prince of Wales, who remarked:

“I’ve tried to get across the point, that in the modern world, we’ve lost that all important sense of the sacred.”

Whenever there is an indigenous people talking, it’s guaranteed that you will hear them using the phase “Mother Earth” or “Pachamama”, as they say in Latin America, all the time. Even before start learning from their wisdoms of living in harmony with nature, we can learn about their mindset and respect to nature.

Pic 4. Indigenous leaders speaking outside of the blue zone

Three Lessons from Indigenous People on Leadership

  1. A clear vision

Indigenous peoples came to Glasgow with clear goals that they wanted to see reflected in the final results, including:

  • a seat at the table: only a handful of countries, such as Ecuador, have included Indigenous members on their official delegations, so that
  • the right of Indigenous people is also respected, promoted and considered, which now has been acknowledged in the COP26 cover decision eight times.
  • regarding their most concerned Article 6 on international market of emission trading and offsetting, they asked an international grievance mechanism be established which can be used whenever their rights are violated. Critics warn that such carbon credit schemes often rely on sequestering land, forests and rivers relied on by indigenous and local communities.

2. Shifting the narrative

They demonstrate the what an effective communication and collaborative storytelling around climate change should look like. “We need to shift the narrative that big conservation projects are the thing,” quoted from an Indigenous leader from Philippine.

“What it means to be in relationship with the natural world, to know what it means to understand the stories of the water, the stories of the land, the stories of the sky, the stories of who we are as indigenous peoples and how those stories provide us answers and pathways to solutions that are not locked in markets and capitalism: systems of domination and war and violence, but in relationship and reciprocity with the land and with each other” — Eriel Tchekwie Deranger

The vast majority of us know we face a climate crisis — and want more action to solve it. Communications that only tell us we face planetary peril are telling us something we already know. Worse, they invite us to keep believing that these problems are too big and overwhelming to solve.

To move from despair to action, we need all of our stories to balance the scale of the problems with our collective capacity to solve them. We need to see and hear about our ability to rise to the greatest challenges in human history.

3. A personal reflection

Reflecting on the experiences and looking into the 2022 year, I challenged myself to question what it still means to make an impact, either within my workplace or wider community?

Sebastião Salgado’s Amazônia taught me an important lesson of making an impact by letting go, with respect and humbled mind. Conversely, as professionals with the inspiration to make tomorrow a better world than yesterday, and are committed to creating an impact, we may not be sure how they will diverge and then reconnect. However, you and I might have an intrinsic need in our professional lives to create a lasting change or difference, and to do something that is meaningful to the planet and the society. Be is building and planning urban area, financing the green transition, or accelerating the sustainability innovation, we need to make impactful movement as a whole in the most nature positive way, not in a piecemeal fashion.

It’s increasingly difficult to navigate what is becoming a very complex, global and fast moving landscape, unless we have diversity and “groupthink” . In the COP26 closing day, Secretary-General’s stated:

“The approved texts are a compromise. They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today.

They take important steps, but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.”

I don’t have an answer yet with my own quest. I’ve just started the exploration of the complexity and intersectionality, but I do know that I know nothing.


Weymouth, 5th Dec, 2021



Jie Zhou

Current student of MSt Sustainability Leadership@ Cambridge University (2020–2022)