“I observe Nemonte Nenquimo as she walks towards me. Her beauty is like a balm of peace; her tender look and motherly love embrace all my senses. Her skin smells of coconut.” – Maria Cabeza
Nemonte Nenquimo is a celebrated Indigenous activist and member of the Waorani nation from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador. She is also the first female president of the Waorani of Pastaza (CONCONAWEP) and co-founder of the Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance, an organization founded to protect Indigenous lands from resource extraction. In 2020, Nenquimo was named to Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world, the only Indigenous woman on the list as well as being the second Ecuadorian to ever be named in the magazine’s history.
In recognition of her work, in 2020 the United Nations Environment Programme honoured her with its “Champions of the Earth” Award in the category “Inspiration and Action”. Nenquimo was, famously, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government, a case which resulted in a 2019 ruling that now protects half a million acres of Waorani ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from oil drilling.
Maria Cabeza, who writes regularly for JazzDaGama recently interviewed her for the Queens Latin Newspaper in Buenos Aires. The following are English translations of excerpts from that interview.
Maria Cabeza: Hello Nemonte… May I start with the great battle that you won in court in 2019?
Nemonte Nenquimo: Sure… In 2012, the Ecuadorian government tried to sell our land [square 22] to a large oil company. They overflew the Waoroni territory one day, without even explaining to us about the impact of oil companies in our forest and, worse still, did not even consider our community needs .They talk a lot about building houses, education, health but, frankly, we had our doubts. We have our own research because we talk to other communities, we are aware of the impact of oil companies in our environment. Every place they go and start extracting oil, people are affected by diseases from which it is hard to recover; they pollute the land, the place these tribes live. The extraction of oil can only lead to death.
We have done our own mapping work; we have access to our own analysis and other resources so we called for a big Assembly. At the meeting, we discussed with our senior warrior leaders – our elders, our grandparents – and, as a result, we decided to present a manifesto to the government telling them in the strongest possible terms that our forest was not for sale. We also demanded that they respect that the forest as our home and we made it clear that it was OUR decision because we were defending OUR habitat and they should never contravene the rights of the Wao tribes.
After our presentation in court, it was the first time that we obtained a landmark judgment in Ecuador, regarding the Wao rights. That is the way laws should work. Many times, even though laws were passed, they have not been applied. People have broken them by trespassing into our forest, destroying our life and our home. This ruling was not only in favor of the Wao people but it also benefits every nationality in Ecuador.
MC: I read that the government was collaborative at first but then it changed its tune…
NN: It is true. That is the reason why now we keep on making alliances with other communities and we still demand the government respect our region and our life. We want justice; no less. It has taken a great effort to defend our leaders and to persuade them to sign these petitions to stop oil companies. Pastaza, our homeland, is a unique forest. There are 180.000 hectares of raw forest. We desire to keep it as a legacy that we can protect for our children and yours too. We wish them [the children] to continue living surrounded by nature – trees, water, and the green forest. Without a place for us to live, where will we go? We indigenous people will all die. We will pass away, our people will be devastated and after that, all of us, people. Humanity is already facing global climate change. We are supplying the world with pure air.
MC: How is your community formed? Is there a hierarchical order?
NN: In our community the elder (men and women) are the main chiefs, then we have the adults and, finally, the children. This hierarchy informs everything that we do; all our decisions. There have been times when our community has chosen men and they participated in meetings with the government but we did not have good results. They negotiated in our name and betrayed our tribes and put our future generations at risk. As a woman, I think about the future, as a mother, I care about our territory and that after 20 or 30 years it should still be clean, with no endangered animals, able to provide water so that our children and our grandchildren could continue living with joy; free and without illnesses. That is my biggest dream. I fight with women so that this heritage remains alive. Listen, in the 40´s we made a great effort to get involved with the Western world. The evangelists came to our land but left. Then the big oil companies took advantage of the failed Yasuní Initiative and tried to seize the protected reserve.
MC: If the Wao had been there, do you think this would have happened anyway?
NN: If the Wao had been there, businessmen would have never invaded us because Wao are warriors and fighters and they would not have allowed anybody to get into their land. Once they fought with spears but, today, from my feminist point of view, we use other ways. Women don’t want to use force, we don’t want to kill with spears, there is no need to spill blood as our grandparents did.
MC: How do you see the world?
NN: The world may be a place with different nationalities but as human beings we all experience the same things. The difference is that we [the Wao people] fight with our hearts, and our ancient knowledge. I am sure we will achieve our goal: to be respected and that we will gain that respect by demanding our rights politely. We will work together and in peace. We don’t want war. Moreover, we are not defending our forest in vain, for ages the woods has given life to the indigenous people. Unfortunately governments do not see the forest the way we do because it is we who have been taking care of the forest for so long.
[After a longish pause she continues to tell me…]
Indigenous people are clever and wise; we respect Mother Earth, the spirits, the animals. We coexist with all of them and we know that there are fierce animals in the jungle and even poisonous plants but we can distinguish which ones we need to protect; which we cannot keep destroying. We know how to co-exist with the earth.