Nemonte Nenquimo, Ecuador, South America

Community activists all around the globe are responsible for some of the most important and far-reaching actions contributing to slowing down the effect of climate change.

Nemonte Nenquimo, from Waorani tribe, is fighting for Indigenous rights in Ecuador. She has organized a campaign and legal action of the Indigenous groups aimed at protecting large swaths of Amazon rainforest and their tribal territory from oil extraction. Her fight is now joined by other tribes, aiming to protect additional areas of rainforest from oil extraction.

Ecuador, although small in territory, is considered one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth. It includes Amazon rainforests, rich in wildlife and complex ecosystems, and a home of Indigenous tribes, including the Waorani. The 5,000 Waorani peoples are still the traditional hunter-gatherers as were their ancestors. However, intrusion of logging, roads, and oil exploration, dumping waste into rivers, and contaminating land since the 1960s have had a negative impact on the rainforests, significantly reducing their area (now less than 15% of the country’s landmass). Today, 80% of the Waorani population lives on one-tenth of its original ancestral lands.

The Waorani are the rightful caretakers of the forest, having resided in the Amazon for thousands of years. Prior to the late 1950s, when their tribe was contacted by American missionaries, Waorani women were the ones to make the decisions while the men went to war. Nemonte’s grandfather was a leader who protected their lands from outsiders, and Nenquimo herself was encouraged to lead when she was a child.

In 2018, Ecuador’s government wanted to auction off 16 new oil concessions covering seven million acres of Indigenous land in the hopes of attracting investment by oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, in direct violation of Indigenous rights. One area overlapped almost entirely with Waorani territory. Nemonte knew she had to lead the fight against the concessions to save the land and her tribe. “The government tried to sell our lands to the oil companies without our permission. Our rainforest is our life. We decide what happens in our lands. We will never sell our rainforest to the oil companies.” Nenquimo, in collaboration with Amazon Frontlines, launched “Our Rainforest is Not for Sale,” a digital campaign that collected 378,000 signatures globally that opposed the auction. Nemonte deftly bridged the worlds of Indigenous people and Western society, bringing together elders and youth, and uniting distinct Indigenous tribes that were once divided. She also acted as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government because it had not obtained legal consent from the Waorani tribe to put the land up for auction. Simultaneously, she helped tribes maintain their independence by installing rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels. She also arranged for training for the Waorani youth to film and document compelling images and videos to support the campaign, including drone images of rare footage of the Waorani tribe in their ancestral home.

In April 2019, the court ruled in favor of the Waorani, protecting 500,000 acres from oil extraction and requiring that no land can be auctioned off without prior and informed consent. The legal victory sets a legal precedent for Indigenous rights in Ecuador. According to Mitch Anderson, the executive director of Amazon Frontlines, “This is a major precedent for indigenous rights across the Amazon. Guaranteeing indigenous peoples’ rights to decide over their future and to say ‘No’ to destructive extractive projects is key to protecting the Amazon rainforest and halting climate change.

”Nenquimo, a mother of a 4-year-old, continues to fight for the rights and preservation of the Waorani and other Indigenous communities. She is part of the Ceibo Alliance, an Indigenous-led Ecuadorian nonprofit organization comprised of members of the Kofan, Siona, Secoya, and Waorani peoples. The organization focuses on Indigenous resistance and international solidarity rooted in the defense of Indigenous territory, cultural survival, and the building of viable solutions-based alternatives to rainforest destruction. Nemonte feels it’s not only the Indigenous voices that need to be heard, and this is not just an Indigenous struggle. If everyone wants to live well on our planet and mitigate the climate crisis, we all must stand up, join forces, and confront it.

Most recently, Nemonte was one of six recipients of the 2020 Goldman Prize that honors grassroots environmental activists. She was also listed in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 and BBC’s 100Women of 2020 for her commitment to defending her ancestral territory, culture, and way of life in the Amazon rainforest.