Indigenous Leader Recognized By TIME, Goldman Prize

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 for her work to defend rainforests, biodiversity and cultures across Ecuador.

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 a groundbreaking legal victory against the Ecuadorian government. The action protected 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 regional 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.

Meanwhile, Nenquimo 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 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.

“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 receive the honor.

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.

Read the full story about threats to the Amazon Basin and Nemonte Nenquimo’s campaign to defend this critical ecosystem.

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