In March of 2018 the Ecuadorian government announced a plan to develop 16 new oil wells across seven million acres of the Amazon forest--which just so happens to be the land of seven Indigenous nations. By not consulting the tribes, this proposal violated the international human rights law to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), which obligates governments to consult with and gain permission from Indigenous nations before starting a project that has the potential to impact their territory. Sadly, this type of violation occurs regularly as governments and large corporations exploit Indigenous peoples. So what made this time different? Nemonte Nenquimo of the Waorani tribe.
Nearly 70 years before Nenquimo’s own fight to protect her land and tribe, her grandfather, a legendary Waorani leader, defended his family when they were threatened by colonizers.
“He was not afraid,” Nenquimo recalls. “I am the granddaughter of this warrior. And I will also confront what may come, without fear. Everything I do is for life itself. And for my daughter.”
From a young age, it was clear that Nenquimo would follow in her grandfather's footsteps, this time with the added accomplishment of being the first female leader of the Waorani tribe. The Waorani nation expands over 2.5 million acres and is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. While it is one of the few remaining wildlife sanctuaries in the Upper Amazon this region continues to face exploitation from the oil industry.
To fight the government’s proposal to develop these oil wells, Nenquimo created a viral campaign called “Our Rainforest is Not for Sale” and a petition which quickly received over 370,000 signatures. To highlight the importance of their land, Nenquimo and other Waorani sketched territorial mapping of over 500,000 acres of Waorani territory with detailed markings of sacred lands and plants, animal reproductive zones, and ancestral cave-carvings. These maps would later be used in court against the Ecuadorian government.
Nenquimo’s most powerful act of environmental activism came in the courtroom as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government following their FPIC violation. In 2019, the courts famously ruled in Nenquimo’s favor to protect half a million acres of Waorani land from oil drilling!
Nenquimo’s work and political victory was not only a huge triumph for her community, but for all Indigenous peoples. Historically stolen from and exploited, Indigenous peoples are constantly forced to fight for their land, culture, and way of life. Nenquimo’s leadership set a precedent for Indigenous rights and inspires others to continue the fight against large corporations and governments to protect the land that has always been theirs. While the government has plans to appeal the court’s decision, Nenquimo continues to lead her people through protests, campaigns and legal challenges, and has set an example for all environmentalists to follow in her footsteps.
“The Earth does not expect you to save her, she expects you to respect her. And we, as Indigenous peoples, expect the same” - Nemonte Nenquimo
Photo Courtesy of Jeronimo-Zuniga