To the Waorani leader defending the Amazon, the mission transcends the here and now: protecting the territories that have belonged to indigenous peoples for centuries ensures a better world for the entire planet and for future generations.
A dense mist veils everything around you. You’re floating on a raft. As the haze lifts, you manage to see in the distance the banks of the great river on which you are traveling. This is the largest tropical forest in the world. You’re on the Amazon River, and everything around you, the entire river basin measuring over 5.5 million square kilometers (more than 2 million square miles), is the Amazon region.
There, in that physical location that is also a mental space, a semi-nomadic people of hunter-gatherers lived their way of life, in accordance with their cosmovision, until the second half of the 20th century.
For hundreds of years, the Waorani people defended their forest at spearpoint; giving a wide berth to Ecuador’s historical process of conquest, colonization and independence, they retreated further and further into the forest until they occupied only 10 per cent of their former territory. Waorani land includes what is known today as Yasuní National Park, catalogued as one of the areas with the greatest biodiversity per square meter on the planet.
In the late 1950’s, evangelical missionaries from the United States brought big changes. Since 1960, oil exploration, logging and highway construction have left in their wake deforestation, pollution and a public health crisis consisting of increased rates of cancer, birth defects and miscarriages. But the winner of this war has yet to be determined. On May 8, 1985, a baby was born in the heart of the Waorani community. Her grandfather, a man who witnessed the arrival of those missionaries, wanted his grandchild to encompass the entire universe in her name. She was called Nemonte Ayebe, which in the language of the wao means “constellation of stars,” “long fish of the broken river” and “singing bird.”
Today, this woman represents hope.
Nemonte Ayebe Nenquimo, together with 16 Waorani communities from the province of Pastaza, undertook a campaign and filed a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian State, which led to the protection of 202,000 hectares (a half a million acres) of Amazon rainforest from extractivism by oil companies.
In 2020 she was listed by Time magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world; the BBC named her one of the 100 most inspiring women, and she was awarded the Goldman Prize, the most prestigious environmental award in the world; it comes with 200,000 dollars, which Nemonte has devoted to the protection of the Amazon rainforest, and which she is determined to duplicate with donations from people who have responded to her Frontline Challenge, in collaboration with the organization Amazon Frontlines.1
Who make up the Waorani people today?
Our ancestors lived for thousands of years in the forest, and they were defenders, caretakers. They didn’t allow outsiders to come in for extraction purposes; if anyone encroached on their territory, they defended it with spears and killed the interlopers. They were also natural scientists. We have an extensive territory and we share it collectively. It is a single territory, a single language; that’s the way we understand it, but the governments have divided it into provinces: Pastaza, Napo and Orellana.
Pastaza has 22 communities, and I represent one of those 22 communities. We have an organization called Waorani Nationality of Ecuador, or NAWE; within the organization, one leader governs all the provinces. I’m a deputy coordinator, for the Waorani communities of Pastaza only.
It has been very hard for us since the arrival of the evangelicals. They tried to scare us and the oil companies took advantage of the situation, and they continue to work in Waorani territory, in Orellana and Napo. For years they’ve been extracting, damaging, polluting everything. But I’m the representative of Pastaza, a young woman who leads, learning from that experience, seeing how much harm the evangelicals have done by letting the oil companies in, and also seeing other cultures. That’s how the struggle started. In the Waorani community in Pastaza there’s no oil extraction; there’s no highway yet. We have 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres), extreme diversity, a green landscape, no pollution. We live free; we make our living by hunting, fishing, gathering fruit that the forest provides. In our environment, we have diversity and an abundance of life.
In Pastaza especially we have revived our rebellious ways, remembering how our ancestors sold nothing and refused to let invaders onto our land. We began to reactivate our defense, not like in the old days by throwing spears, but by deciding collectively that our home is not for sale.
What is it like to grow up in the forest? When you turned 15, you left your community to go study in Quito, the national capital. What did you learn from that experience?
I was very happy growing up in my family, with my parents especially, ever since I was a little girl, learning so many things about the forest, living a very happy life. At the age of 15 I felt curious, and I was the one who decided to go; it wasn’t my parents who sent me, or my family. That same year many evangelicals showed up in Waorani territory in Pastaza. My parents never wanted me to leave the community, much less learn new things, but that was an important experience that changed my life. I spent a few years in Quito, learning the Bible, learning to read and write, studying first through third grades, then I came back. There were many clashes in my life that I’m not ready to talk about. After a tremendous struggle, I changed, and that generated a revolution in me to help my people, to continue protecting my culture and our beliefs.
Do you consider yourself Ecuadorian? Are young people debating whether to belong to the Ecuadorian State or not?
I’ve never considered myself Ecuadorian. I respect Ecuadorians, but I’m a Waorani woman, and proud of it. For me it was a question of curiosity to go learn in the Western world; it’s important to learn, to go to school and learn about the world, but you need to know about life, about what’s important in order to carry on with the resistance: your culture, your language, your environment. It’s important to respect.
The Western world has many good things for your preparation—the university can be wonderful—but they can also be destructive of your culture and your environment. As a leader I’m working tirelessly now on education. Reading is a huge tool that can give people a basis for confronting, for deciding what happens in our territory, with an understanding of our rights. But there are some things that are very dangerous: civilization has changed young people. I’m working so that in the future— five years, twenty years from now—they can still have healthy lands, they conserve their knowledge, their culture; so that they can learn in school and go off to study in the university, but then come back to live here, to work in their home environment.
I’m a woman who represents my people, my territory, my language, and I stand firm by that. Nothing has changed me in that regard, even though I have lived in different worlds and traveled to different places. Why do you think that, over many years, in different cultures, civilization has come to an end? Because of big capitalism, which has been emerging little by little, killing, and we don’t want that to happen. We want to have our rainforest, our life, our knowledge; we want that to be a living root. That’s my work, and that’s my decision.
Nenquimo was 18 years old when she returned to her community, and a few years later, in 2010, she joined the Association of Waorani Women of the Ecuadorian Amazon (AMWAE, in its initials in Spanish), which was developing alternative economy projects.
By 2013 she was working on rainwater harvesting and storage projects. In this context, she met Mitch Anderson, an American who worked with communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon. They later married.
What implications and learning did your marriage bring with it?
Well, that’s a very personal question, and I’ve gotten angry many times because people don’t always write the truth. While I was working for my people I met him, through work; he was with other peoples, dedicated to the indigenous struggle, the Texaco and Chevron case especially,1 which has left the water completely destroyed. He was working full-time on a project with the communities.
Our marriage has also given us strength, because he comes from a different world, but he has great respect and great love for the rights of the peoples and nature, and this has been an important alliance. I’ve also felt many negative things from the context of my people, but mostly they were able to see that he was helping to create the Ceibo Alliance, doing the work, motivating people, bringing together other nationalities, and so far we’ve been walking together down this path, dedicated to the same struggle, focused on maintaining our territory, our rights.
Tell us about the Ceibo Alliance, which you formed in 2016, an organization that brings together four indigenous peoples: the A’iKofan, Siona, Siekopai and Waorani. What are your objectives?
The formation of the Ceibo Alliance was very important because before that there were many NGOs that talked a lot about the peoples, but they didn’t focus on the territory, and they didn’t focus on the peoples’ vision; they talked about the indigenous peoples, but we weren’t a part of the conversation. That’s why we created the Alliance with members of the different nationalities, to look at the reality, the need, the law that we wanted to build in our territory. I’m the founder, along with other members of the nationality. In the north especially, we started out with the rainwater project, with solar panels and the defense of the territory. Now we’re putting together an even larger team in the Ceibo Alliance, with young people, with the different communities.
In 2018 you were elected president of the Coordination Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza (Conconawep). You were the first woman to hold the position.
I was just heading out to my community when my dad said, “I’m going over to participate in that assembly.” So I said, “I want to hear about the work they’ve done. I’m interested, I belong, I’m a member, I have a right to attend the assembly.” I didn’t know I’d be elected. There were five men running as candidates, and when I walked in, I saw they were giving out candy. They were handing out candy and there were a lot of people, 180 or more. The old men were handing stuff out, and I heard them say, “Vote for me, vote for me. If you elect me, I’ll work to get the school house built, and the health center.” They talked and I just watched, but people knew me because I worked on different projects—mapping, territory, culture, and also installing rainwater and solar panel projects. I sat down to listen for the first time to that organization, Conconawep, and suddenly, and old woman got up and said, “My candidate is Nemonte. I want a woman elected today, and she’s a woman who has shown leadership, who’s done a lot to help Waorani communities. She’s honest and she’s a strong woman.”
I was so surprised! And then they passed me up front. Four men gave speeches and I was the only woman. Everyone was asking me questions: “If you’re elected president for the Waorani community, what do you propose? What alternatives? What do you think about this and that?” And I said, “Well, if I win, I’ll keep talking about protecting the territory. The only thing I’ll do is look after the territory, which is very important for future generations—our children, our grandchildren. They’ll be able to enjoy a free life, without oil wells. They’ll have fish, they’ll have meat, they’ll have land to live on.” That was my whole proposal. The men made lots of promises, about how they’d have ball courts built, a school, a health center, lots of things. Not me, I didn’t make those promises. All I said is that I’d defend the territory so that we could have a good life.
Do you think your election will bring about positive changes for the role of women in your community?
In the olden days, before contact with outside civilization, among our ancestors it was the women who decided. That was a good structure, but after contact, after civilization, that custom started fading away. There’s actually a strong women’s movement in the communities, because the ones who decide and make peace are the Waorani women; not the men, they play a supporting role. The women keep the peace in the home; that’s the way our culture is, and it’s been reemerging with this great achievement against the government. Now people believe in women more, that we’re more honest. Everything we do, what we love, what we do for our children so that they’ll live in freedom, without sickness, so that they’ll live in harmony, and have this land, this diversity, that’s what motivates us to keep on working. We’re mothers, we have children, and that gives us strength to carry on.
In 2012 the Ecuadorian government carried out a consultation to open the door to oil exploration in Waorani territory. Under the name of Petroleum Block 22 they tried to authorize exploration for the hydrocarbons that lie under indigenous territory. Later the methods used by the government would be brought to light: among other things, they visited the communities in helicopters, giving out Coca-Cola and canned food, and collecting signatures under false pretenses.
In Conconawep you spearheaded a campaign and brought legal action against the Ecuadorian State…
For me, it was hard to take over an administration that had been run previously by two men. It was totally broke, and had no office, no files, nothing. I couldn’t work that way. I had to legalize everything, make arrangements… That took me a year, paying off the debts they had left behind, with the banks, with the municipal governments, because more than anything they had worked on a municipal project and with Petroamazonas. They didn’t have any project of their own. They didn’t even have a structure; they didn’t talk about protecting anything. It was very hard for me. Since I had other jobs, I asked for help, economic support to pay off the debts and look for an office and put everything in order. I spent a year without returning to the community, the whole time in the city, putting the finances in order. After I finished, I heard the news that the government was announcing an offer in Petroleoum Block 22 in Pastaza, that anyone who had a company could go in there. When we heard that, we said, “What’s Block 22?” For us there was no such thing as Block 22, just our Waorani community, the place where we live, our home. That’s when we got angry and started to investigate.
We went to the communities to gather information about what they did when they came in 2012: what they offered, what they said. It took us six months, and then we held three assemblies. We deliberated with the elders, with the young people, to determine what we wanted for our territory. We wrote up a document, respectfully, but telling the truth: that the government wants to come into our territory to destroy, and we don’t want that because the Waorani rainforest is our home. And we filed suit against the Ecuadorian government.
With this precedent we’re now in battle mode. We haven’t forgotten. We’re working hard to make the government keep its word, because it’s not the same to consult the Waorani as to consult some other nation: we have different beliefs, a different cosmovision, and each town must be consulted at the community level, at the grass roots, not through some representative who sits down at a table in Quito. It has to be on our territory, in our home.
This year we’ve had elections in Ecuador. One of the candidates in the first round, Yaku Pérez, from the indigenous Pachakutik party, represents a broad-based group that calls itself the New Latin American Left, with the support of eco-socialist organizations, feminists, lgbtq+ and anti-extractivists.
According to the official results, Pérez came in third place, just 32,600 votes behind the right-wing candidate, Guillermo Lasso; that’s 0.1 per cent of the total vote.
Were you excited to see someone like Yaku making a serious run?
I love that question. My staff and I don’t focus much on politics. I steer clear of it. I’m always candid, honest. I represent my people and nothing more. I don’t represent any of Ecuador’s presidential candidates. To me it’s crystal clear: two of the main presidential candidates are not in favor of the Amazon region; they’re bent on destroying. The only thing I would ask of the two candidates, whoever wins, is that they respect the Amazonian peoples’ right to life, period.
Many defenders of the land have been assassinated in the Americas. How do the Waorani deal with the risks involved in the defense of their territory?
We know that the responsibility for the threats falls on the Ecuadorian government. We don’t want any more destruction: our lives have been put in danger, with diseases. The Waorani were warriors, they weren’t afraid of anything. If they had to die, they gave their life, knowing that others would continue the struggle, the resistance. That’s where we are today. But all the same, we’re on alert, looking out for each other. The only thing we see is that the enemy is the Ecuadorian State, which can order our assassination if they want to eliminate the leaders who are defending what we love.
What has the Goldman Prize meant for you, and all the other recognitions you’ve garnered, both individually and collectively?
I felt very proud as a wao woman. Outsiders think that award was given to an individual, but for me it was a recognition of our collective effort, because as women and indigenous peoples we have defended ourselves for thousands of years, but now this has made us visible.
The recognition also motivates us to keep on caring for and protecting our environment in the rainforest, and it has served to support our educational projects, and for monitoring and safeguarding our territory. But it won’t be the last time: we want the people out in the world who now see us, to support us and collaborate with us. That’s another way we can continue to protect our rainforest.
I’m working because the Amazon is providing oxygen and water for the whole world; everything we love is also for other peoples, for humanity that shares this planet with us. That’s the important thing: as indigenous peoples we are fighting for the lives of our children and of your children.
All of society has to join forces to stop climate change. We call on all the societies in the world: together we can make the change. I know that the government, the powerful interests, are not going to respect our right to life; they’re going to want to destroy, to plunder, to ravage. So, what can the people of the societies hope for?
What motivates them to get up in the morning? Where do they find their greatest strength?
I get up in the morning, and I always remember my dreams: what I dreamt, how the day will be—good or bad—and I also meditate. I look at my daughter, and she makes me feel strong. I’m in the office working, planning the first week, and in the last week we’re already out visiting the communities. Out in the territory where there’s no internet, no telephone… that helps me. I prefer to spend time out in the field because it connects me with nature, with the spirit to keep being strong. It makes me feel weak when I spend a long time in the city. I’m also very happy to be going back to the community for three months because I’m going to have a baby, my son. At the age of 36 I’m going to be the mother of a little boy and I’ll be with my family, connecting, thinking. The struggle goes on. .
1. The transnational Texaco, acquired by Chevron in 2001, operated in the Ecuadorian Amazon extracting millions of barrels of oil without using the methods agreed to in the operation contract. Since 1993 it has faced lawsuits filed by indigenous and farming communities for its dumping of toxic waste in the rainforest.
The importance of understanding
The Society of Jesus, through the Loyola Foundation, belongs to the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (Repam), an organization that coordinates experiences and services that seek to meet the needs of the Pan-Amazonian region, comprising parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
In an interview with MAGIS, Mauricio López, the Network’s executive secretary, spoke of the importance of listening carefully to the population of each territory, and understanding: “What we do is build the capacities of the actors as subjects of their own history in terms of human rights, in terms of impact and participation […] The Church and the networks have the means to bring people together over long distances, but they are the ones risking their lives, engaged in the day-to-day developments in their territories.”