An interview with Nemonte Nenquimo

Image © Amazon Frontlines

By , |2022-10-31T14:14:09+00:00June 23rd, 2022|Biocultural Diversity, Biodiversity, Community, Flourishing Diversity, Indigenous Peoples, Interviews|Comments Off on An interview with Nemonte Nenquimo

Nemonte Nenquimo is an Indigenous leader of the Waorani people in the Ecuadorean Amazon province of Pastaza, one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. Nemonte gained global attention when she led a successful court action to block a proposal for oil exploration and drilling on 500,000 acres of Waorani land. Her tireless and courageous work to rally Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador to oppose oil exploitation on their territory and insist on proper consultation led to a landmark legal victory, a decision that was seen as setting a precedent for Indigenous rights in the region.

Nemonte was subsequently awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for South and Central America, in 2020, and she was also named in Time’s magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in the same year.

Three years on, what is the legacy of this famous victory? We spoke to Nemonte about the continuing challenges facing the Waorani, and her work to bring their struggle out to the wider world; and we asked what people in rich, industrialised nations can do to support Indigenous Peoples to protect their land and help to ensure that biological and cultural diversity can flourish.

Taking the government on, and winning

Q: Since you won the landmark court ruling in 2019 against the Ecuadorian government and in favour of the Waorani, how have things changed for you personally and for the Waorani?

Nemonte: At the time, a lot of people told us there was no way we would be able to win against a government that has many more resources than us, small Indigenous nations. There was no way we could defeat them in court! Yet by building solidarity with other Indigenous nations, with Indigenous Federations marching in the streets, connecting with people around the world, we did defeat the government – we beat them in court.

For me personally, our victory against the Ecuadorian government clearly demonstrated the strength of having a united voice. It showed me for the first time that our voices and our decisions need to be respected. As a leader, it helped me to recognise the power that we can actually wield.

Waorani Indigenous leader Nemonte Nenquimo marches in Quito with other Indigenous leaders, in 2019
Nemonte Nenquimo marches alongside representatives from other Indigenous nations in Quito, 2019. Image © Amazon Frontlines

But in terms of whether things have changed in government, no. We are still facing threats to our lands. The new Ecuadorean President (Guillermo Lasso) recently issued two decrees to expand oil and mining across the Amazon. From the government side of things, there has been no positive change…

But it does feel like my people have woken up. The 2019 struggle really raised awareness and brought the threats against our lands to their attention, and I feel it has given us a renewed sense of drive to protect our lands. And I think there was also a wider shift in awareness about the need to listen to Indigenous people’s voices and respect their decisions.

We have shown the world the power of a united collective movement, a collective struggle.

Our forest is a place that is full of life

Nemonte: There is something central to our Indigenous world view that often gets misunderstood or only partially understood in the West: the natural environment and within it all the biological diversity, the animals and Indigenous Peoples are not separate, unconnected things; they are one and the same. Indigenous Peoples belong to a biodiverse environment, and we maintain a direct relationship and a deep connection with that environment.

Indigenous wisdom is about respecting the natural world. Why would we destroy what we rely on to survive and what we rely on for our way of life?

Our food and livelihoods originate from the forest. We recognise that if we overhunt or destroy the environment and its animals, then we are damaging our own future.

Indigenous Peoples have a deep connection and understanding of animals and wildlife, and that connection has contributed to the protection of biodiversity within Indigenous territories. Our forest is a place that is full of life, and it provides everything we need. It is our pharmacy, our hardware store, our supermarket…

We see our forest in the same way that you see your cities. We know where the different fruit trees are, we know where the wild boar will be, we know where there is a freshwater spring, we understand our territory and see it in a similar way to people planning and mapping out their cities.

Members of the Waorani in river
The Waorani do not consider themselves as separate from nature. Image © Amazon Frontlines

More than an empty space

Nemonte: The problem is that many outsiders see the forest as just a big green empty space. Or worse than that, many governments and companies view our territory as simply a series of overlapping resource concessions, as oil blocks, logging areas, mining claims.

The power of using maps as a tool in this legal case was as a way to tell that story and help the government and the judges – and people around the world – to understand how Indigenous people both view and live within our territory.

Mapping allowed us to tell a more complex story about Indigenous territory to people who don’t live there. We needed to contradict the official narrative that the forest is just an empty place where there are not many people, or that forests are just places from which you can extract resources.