Ecuador’s Nenquimo Earns Global Recognition

The year 2020 didn’t have many bright spots in the world of rainforest conservation. Fortunately, a courageous woman in Ecuador was an inspirational exception.

In recognition of the struggle of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, TIME magazine named Nemonte Nenquimo from Ecuador to this year’s TIME 100, its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She also earned the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Nenquimo is a leader of the Waorani nation, legendary hunter-harvesters of the south-central Ecuadorian Amazon. There are only about 5,000 members of the Waorani nation spread across 54 communities and 2.5 million acres of some of the most threatened rainforest on the planet.

In 2019, she led her people’s historic legal victory against the Ecuadorian government, protecting half-a-million acres of primary rainforest from oil drilling, which established a legal precedent for Indigenous rights across the region.

After the Ecuadorian government announced the land auctions, Nenquimo assumed a leadership role and began organizing Waorani communities. She held regionwide assemblies and interviews with village leaders, helped her people launch a digital campaign targeting potential investors with the slogan “Our Rainforest is Not for Sale,” and spearheaded a petition to the oil industry and Ecuadorian government that was signed by 378,000 people from around the world.

At the same time, Nenquimo proactively helped communities maintain their independence from oil company handouts by installing rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels and supporting a woman-led organic cacao and chocolate production business. She played a key role in a community mapping project that charted more than 500,000 acres of Waorani territory, encompassing 16 communities.

Nenquimo also secured training for Waorani youth to be filmmakers and document their work, publishing powerful images and videos for the campaign, including aerial drone footage of the rainforest and Waorani territory. Ultimately, Nenquimo helped bring the Waorani case to the courts and served as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government for violating the Waorani’s right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.

“The court recognized that the government violated our right to live free, and make our own decisions about our territory and self determination,” Nenquimo said. “Our territory is our decision, and now, since we are owners, we are not going to let oil enter and destroy our natural surroundings and kill our culture.”

Indigenous people often suffer violence at the hands of those who attempt to take their land. They are often forced to leave their territories due to pressure from large corporations with global influence.

Just days before the Waorani victory, a coalition of Latin-American journalists unveiled a new reporting project, “Tierra de Resistentes,” which exposed the dangers that face environmental activists. The report showed that advocates from ethnic minorities—particularly indigenous people—face a high risk of violent attack from supporters of mining, logging, and other industries. The project, which is supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie, the Pulitzer Center, and others explains that defending the jungles, mountains, forests and rivers of Latin America has never been this dangerous. One aspect of the project is a database, compiled by thirty journalists, from Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala, which documents more than thirteen hundred attacks on environmentalists that took place in these seven countries over the past decade.

According to a recently published Global Witness report, Latin America accounted for more than half of the environmental defenders killed around the world in 2018. Titled “Enemies of the State?” the report revealed that 83 of the 164 environmental defenders killed last year were from Latin America.

“Ever since we began documenting the murders of environmental defenders in Latin America, it has always been the most dangerous region,” says Ben Leather, a campaigner from Global Witness.

The 2018 report marks the first time Global Witness has documented the use and abuse of the laws and policies designed to criminalize and intimidate environmental defenders, their families and the communities they represent. According to the report, the criminalization of environmental defenders “can be used to tarnish reputations, choke off funding, and lock activists into costly legal battles that stop them from carrying out their work.” It also “reduces the possibility that activists will continue their activism” in the future.

Ecuador is not immune to the violence against environmental activists. In 2014, an indigenous leader who was found bound and buried, days before he planned to take his campaign to climate talks in Lima. The victim, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a former vice-president of the Shuar Federation of Zamora, was last seen on his way to a meeting of protesters against the Mirador copper and gold mine. Tendetza had been a prominent critic of Mirador, an open pit that has been approved in an area of important biodiversity that is also home to the Shuar, Ecuador’s second-biggest indigenous group. The project is operated by Ecuacorriente – originally a Canadian-owned firm that was brought by a Chinese conglomerate, CCRC-Tongguan Investment, in 2010. According to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, the project will devastate around 450,000 acres of forest. Suffice it to say, Antún likely died trying to save that sacred forest.

Despite numerous threats to her tribe and herself, Nenquimo keeps fighting for the future. She grew up in the traditional community of Nemonpare in the Pastaza region of the Ecuadorian Amazon. She co-founded the Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance in 2015 to protect Indigenous lands and livelihoods from resource extraction (mining, timber and land-grabbing). She was elected the first female president of CONCONAWEP, the Waorani organization of Pastaza province, in 2018.

“The TIME 100 recognition is for our ancestors, our elders, and all Indigenous peoples fighting to protect the Amazon,” said Nenquimo. “The fires, pandemic, and accelerating climate change are a stark reminder that our world is out of balance. Along with my indigenous sisters and brothers, we hope TIME’s recognition will inspire people from all nations and countries to stand with us in demanding respect for Indigenous rights and to listen to Indigenous knowledge and solutions. Now is the time to unite to protect the Amazon, our planet, and climate for future generations.”

Nenquimo is the only Indigenous woman featured on the 2020 TIME list and among the first Amazonians to ever receive the accolade. Leonardo DiCaprio, an avid supporter of Indigenous rights and Amazon protection, introduced Nenquimo to TIME’s readers.

“Last year, the Amazon was better known for acres ablaze than for acres saved,” said DiCaprio. “But the lawsuit that Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the Waorani of Pastaza and a co-founder of the Ceibo Alliance, brought forth was a rare bright spot. The landmark ruling protects the Waorani’s ancestral home in Ecuador from immediate destruction. The ripples have brought hope to Indigenous communities everywhere, all too often facing overwhelming odds of their own. Nemonte lives her fight, and to have a conversation with her is to witness a rare clarity of purpose. I remember she once told me that she wasn’t going to give up. That she was going to keep fighting. That she would continue to defend the forest that she loves from the industries and the oil companies that would devour it. She has kept her word, and continues to be a voice and advocate for her community. Nemonte’s cause is everyone’s cause. She inspires those she speaks with to shoulder the nearest boulder and walk alongside her as her movement continues to grow. I am lucky to have met her, and I am luckier still to have learned from her.”

“Throughout the Amazon, our indigenous territories and cultures are being gravely threatened by governments, extractive industries, and invaders. The recognition from TIME proves that our struggle is being heard. Western civilization is waking up to the need to listen to and respect Indigenous peoples. As indigenous peoples, we are connected with our origins, and with the spirits of our territories. We are defending Mother Earth with our courage, our knowledge, and our lives. It is time for governments and companies to listen to us and respect us,” said a Waorani statement about the honor.

The Waorani people’s resistance continues to inspire frontline Indigenous communities across the Amazon and beyond as a powerful example of Indigenous-led action against fossil fuel extraction. Nenquimo was instrumental in developing her people’s multi-faceted campaign, which ultimately defeated the Ecuadorian government in court and galvanized Indigenous resistance to the auctioning of Indigenous territories to foreign oil companies. The Waorani people’s struggle emerged as a flashpoint in the South American country, highlighting the growing conflict between the Ecuadorian government’s thirst for oil revenues to relieve international debt and indigenous peoples’ internationally recognized rights to free, prior and informed consent, self-determination, territory and the rights of nature, which have been recognized by the Ecuadorian constitution since 2008.

Nenquimo is only the second Ecuadorian to be named to the TIME100 list, which recognizes the activism, innovation, and achievement of the world¹s most influential individuals and is now in its seventeenth year. Nenquimo’s recognition comes as Ecuador grapples with a severe coronavirus outbreak in rainforest territories and struggles to revive its fragile debt-ridden economy – crises that compound existing threats to Indigenous peoples’ survival. Since the onset of the pandemic, Nenquimo has organized independent medical brigades and other relief to Waorani communities infected by the coronavirus, as well as united with other Indigenous nations to demand a moratorium on all resource extraction in the Amazon during the pandemic.

“The recognition of Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo as a TIME100 Honoree shines a light on the collective struggles of Indigenous peoples who are putting their bodies on the line to fight against the most pressing threats facing the Amazon and our climate. This honor also serves to highlight the solutions and resilience of Indigenous peoples amid multiple crises,” said Mitch Anderson, Executive Director & Founder of Amazon Frontlines.

The Waorani will return to the courtroom this fall, before Ecuador’s Supreme Court, as their precedent-setting legal case has been selected to set national level jurisprudence on Indigenous Rights, with specific regard to the right to free, prior, and informed consent. The process comes amid intensifying extraction across the Amazon and contentious debate over Indigenous peoples’ right to veto projects affecting their territories.

“As Indigenous peoples, we have demonstrated our critical role in the protection of the balance of life and our planet, and we have won the first battle against the pandemic. But our fight against the tougher pandemic of extractivism threatening our territories and our survival continues,” declared José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal from COICA, the coordinating body of Indigenous organizations across the nine-countries that comprise the Amazon basin.

The Waorani, who currently number around 2,000, once had one of the largest territories of all indigenous Amazonians in Ecuador, within the modern provinces of Orellana, Napo, and Pastaza. They traditionally lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in small clan settlements. Missionary groups relocated many Waorani families into larger communities with the purpose of converting them to Christianity.

The Waorani are the most recently contacted of all Ecuadorian indigenous peoples, first reached by an American missionary group in 1958. Since first contact, the Waorani have experienced a rapid and difficult insertion into modern society. Their territories have been greatly reduced, and their remaining lands impacted by logging, oil extraction, and colonist settlement, among other issues. Several Waorani groups have thus far rejected contact and continue to move ever deeper into the forest.

To the Waorani people, the connection and communication among all living things is a fundamental belief. The relationships between trees and other forms of life are reflected in the Waorani language.

In Waorani, things are described not only by their general type, but also by the other beings surrounding them. So, for example, any one ceibo tree isn’t a “ceibo tree” but is “the ivy-wrapped ceibo,” and another is “the mossy ceibo with black mushrooms.” In fact, anthropologists trying to classify and translate Waorani words into English struggle because, Haskell writes, “when pressed by interviewers, Waorani ‘could not bring themselves’ to give individual names for what Westerners call ‘tree species’ without describing ecological context such as the composition of the surrounding vegetation.”

Because they relate to the trees as live beings with intimate ties to surrounding people and other creatures, the Waorani aren’t alarmed by the notion that a tree might scream when cut, or surprised that harming a tree should cause trouble for humans.

“I received this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize because of my people’s collective fight to protect what we love: our way of life, songs, rivers, forests, the animals, life on Earth,” said Nenquimo. “Together, with our allies at Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance, my people were able to stop the sale of hundreds of thousands of acres of our forest homeland to the international oil industry. By combining our ancestral knowledge with new technologies, we were able to create digital maps of our rainforest that showed the world—and the governments and the oil companies—the immeasurable spiritual, ecological, and cultural value of our rainforest territory. Through community-organizing and innovative legal strategies, we were able to confront head-on some of the mightiest interests in the world and win a legal victory that not only protects a half-million acres of our forest homeland from oil drilling, but also sets a precedent for other indigenous nations to protect millions more. My hope is that our story of resistance inspires other movements across the Amazon and around the world to imagine a different path for ourselves. We can’t afford to let our imagination fail us now. There is too much at stake.

Governments and industry can’t see beyond the hole that they are digging. Despite the climate crisis and the global pandemic, in the Amazon we see governments planning to intensify fossil fuel extraction and large-scale mining operations. This destruction will lead to an ever-deepening crisis that our children will have to shoulder. We need to transform the way we live on planet Earth. We must be rebellious and creative, loving and kind—and more than anything, humble enough to confront some liberating truths: rivers are alive; butterflies have their own perspectives; plants have their own purpose; and we, humans, are not at the center of things, nor do we stand apart from nature. We are the rivers, the butterflies, and the plants. We are nature. Indigenous peoples know this. Our spirituality is based on our interconnectedness with all beings, and on the deepest principle of respect: reciprocity. That is why to this day, despite centuries of displacement and violence against our peoples, we are the protectors of 80 percent of our planet’s biodiversity. We are only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet in our territories, we’ve kept our Earth’s ecosystems alive and flourishing. But the world is getting smaller, societies are moving faster, and the threats to our planet are growing greater day by day. My elders sing about how they defended our territory with spears and patrolled the forests with the stealth and stamina of the jaguar. But, today, spears are not enough. And so, I’m writing to you now from my home in Ecuador’s Amazon to ask you to join us at www.AmazonFrontlines.org and help us build a movement with the power to protect our forests, our cultures, and our songs—and transform the way we all, collectively, live on this Earth.”

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Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management is critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.