‘We saw it coming’: The Indigenous leader fighting climate change
Indigenous land defender Nemonte Nenquimo discusses how climate change has altered the Amazon, the plant medicines used to help fight COVID-19, and the ancestral knowledge passed down by her elders.
Puyo, Ecuador – “People from the outside [of Waorani territory] see empty land but to us [Waorani people] the jungle is our pharmacy, our grocery shop, our home supplies shop. People just see gold and wood when they see our land, but this is our home, our diversity. We do not want to destroy our life,” says Nemonte Nenquimo over a Zoom call from her office in the Ecuadorian city of Puyo.
The 36-year-old Waorani leader and land defender is referring to the 802,220 hectares (about 2 million acres) of Waorani territory in the Amazon Pastaza province, of which Puyo is the capital, in Ecuador.
One of the most biodiverse rainforests on earth, it is home to 600 types of birds, 200 different mammal species, 300 types of fish and thousands of plants with medicinal properties, according to Amazon Frontlines, an NGO that works alongside Indigenous communities in the Amazon.
Nemonte calls it Omere, meaning both “jungle” and “our house” in her native Wao language. About 2,000 people in 54 communities make up the Waorani nation.
Nemonte’s eyes light up as she describes her community Nemonpare, at the heart of the territory.
Located in the basin of the Curaray River and surrounded by tapirs, jaguars, streams and sacred waterfalls, she describes the sounds of parrots and leaves creaking under feet as people go about their day harvesting cassava or fishing by the river. About 40 people, including her family, live there.
“When you are in the rainforest, you feel free, at peace in harmony. You bathe in the river or walk in the jungle…it soothes your soul,” she says.
Love for her land
Yet the pristine rivers and animals in the forest are facing extinction as a result of oil drilling, road construction and other operations nearby.
The Waorani people first faced colonisation in 1958 when Christian missionaries moved in, followed by settlers, loggers and Ecuadorian authorities looking for oil. Despite the Waorani’s fight to stop them, road construction for oil extraction began in the 1960s and has had a deep impact on their way of living.
The Ecuador government has also divided the land into blocks to be auctioned to oil companies – covering four provinces and millions of hectares of land, threatening most of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Six of these blocks cover Waorani territory, including Nemonpare.
Many Waorani reject this contact and move deeper into the forest.
For the Waorani, the changes in climate and the impact on the rainforest are not new; they have seen it firsthand for decades.
“People talk and talk about climate change just now, but we saw it coming for years before it was talked about,” explains Nemonte, as she describes the floods and river fluctuations she has witnessed in the last few years – the sort that have never been seen before.
“My dad used to have his small plot with different produce, cassava and plantain. My dad and my mom both had small pieces of land as they had all their life. Their chacras (land to plant food) on the riverbanks were destroyed by the river flooding. This did not happen before; the river is unpredictable now.”
Nemonte’s appreciation and love of her land and her Waorani heritage drove her to lead a legal battle against oil drilling in their territory. In 2019, they won a lawsuit that suspended the auctioning of 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) of their land for oil drilling, setting an important legal precedent for Indigenous communities fighting extraction operations in the Amazon.
While Nemonte’s leadership has been recognised internationally – Time Magazine named her one of 2020’s most influential people in the world and she won the Goldman Environmental Prize that same year – she is not fazed.
When speaking about her work, her conversation always goes back to her compass: the elderly women in her community, or as she calls them, Abuelas. It is their wisdom and advice, she says, that have shown her the way forward and given her the strength to keep working for a clean future in the Amazon.
‘They show me the way’
During her high school years, Nemonte left her community for her studies – first to Puyo, and then to Quito, the country’s capital. She excelled at school, translating Spanish texts into her native Wao language and participating in after-school activities.
Far from home, it took approximately 13 hours by bus and boat from Quito to visit family. But that was far from the only factor distancing Nemonte from her community.
Sponsored by missionaries for her schooling and influenced by their teachings in the Amazon, she began spreading a Christian gospel back home.
It was a message that often did not resonate with people in her community who were surrounded by nature and deeply connected to the spiritual importance of it. “I was telling my community what was right and wrong. I was adapting to another culture, without respecting my own,” Nemonte recalls.
During one of her visits to her territory, an Abuela who was on her deathbed asked to have a word with her.
“She took my hand and said she wanted to give me her blessing and said ‘You are a young woman who has learned so many things about the world and that it is so important to defend whatever you do … but what you are doing is not right, you have taken the wrong path. Come back to your land, with the spiritual side of this land, with your ancestral knowledge of your elders. Of course, respect other cultures, but remember your own.’”
Confused, Nemonte was unable to sleep that night. She began to question her life and what had led her away from her community.
“I had been curious to see another way of living but life in Quito was hard, disconnected from my family. My dad was sad I left, life was so different,” she recalls.
“I had no way to feel the freedom I felt in the jungle back in the city. I missed harvesting my own food and walking under tall trees. Living with a bunch of people in a dorm in a cold house instead of the jungle where you are free … that did not sit well with me.”
A few months later she finished her studies, packed up and went home.
Back in Nemonpare, she spent more time with her community and cherished Waorani life: meditating in the morning, setting up the bonfire for gatherings, preparing meals with her family, and sharing stories and songs.
She also began participating more actively in assemblies and decision-making processes, where representatives of families from across the territory gather to discuss issues and come up with joint solutions. As a Spanish speaker, she could liaise with local authorities, organisations in the area, and other Indigenous nations.
For Nemonte, the role of the Abuelas was pivotal. “Women are the peacemakers. Men would go and hunt, but the decisions were always made by women, this is historical in my community.”
‘Treasuring every aspect of life’
As the years passed, Nemonte’s interest in taking care of their land grew. “The forest has kept us alive for years, centuries. We must respect nature because it’s the root of all life and seeing the elders bring that into our education, the importance of our territory, our land, our language, and knowledge… this has inspired me, I live there. It is my home,” she says.
In her early 20s, Nemonte went on a visit to Lago Agrio, a city located in northern Ecuador known as the “oil capital of the country”. There she witnessed the devastating effects of oil drilling: polluted water, sick livestock, a lack of produce and plants, and people affected by cancer some argue was caused by oil contamination.
“That’s where the strength for my leadership grew, where I saw a crystal-clear picture,” says Nemonte, looking up and pausing as she recalls that visit. “If we do not organise ourselves and work together it will affect us all the same. Water will be dirty, oil companies around. The houses I saw had no good wood, they [people in Lago Agrio] used to have a beautiful place. They cannot harvest their own food; they eat processed foods. If we do not fight, if we do not protect our territory, it will be destroyed.”
She started organising cultural exchanges with other Indigenous nations, who visited their land and learned the importance of taking care of it.
Some Waorani people have migrated to the nearby cities of Puyo and Lago Agrio, and Nemonte points out that in these cities, as well as in communities close to oil extraction operations and roads, the Waorani traditional way of life is fading. “Our children hike and know how to swim from an incredibly early age. They do not stay home all day; they go fishing and harvesting with their families. But those kids [near oil extraction sites] spend all day in front of the TV instead of going with their family into the jungle. Youth near roads and oil exploitation sites lose that way of life. That is one of the biggest threats we face to our culture, our people.”
In 2014, Nemonte and other Indigenous leaders founded the Ceibo Alliance, a coalition of Waorani, Siona Secoya and Cofan nations in the Ecuadorian rainforest working towards clean water and alternatives for income that move away from natural resource exploitation.
Nemonte cannot imagine her work without the continuous guidance from the elder Waorani women, the Abuelas. “That way of leading, by treasuring every aspect of life and transmitting that has had a deep impact on me as a young woman, mother. Leading is a way of growing because I am never alone.”
Due to give birth to her second child in the coming weeks, Nemonte relies on the ancestral knowledge of rainforest herbs and medicine from her elders. She recalls a time when her six-year-old daughter had a fever and she had not known about a remedy in a tree outside her house.
“Nemo, when your child has a fever, you have to bathe her with this plant,” said an Abuela.
“She said that as I was looking for a pharmacy nearby,” laughs Nemonte.
It is knowledge like this – shared through chants sung throughout the day and at assemblies and gatherings – that Nemonte never stops learning from. From cooking to bathing, the Abuelas have guided her as a leader and as a mother.
“That’s why I was so afraid when the coronavirus hit our community,” says Nemonte. “What would happen to them and their knowledge?”
In May 2020, when Ecuador’s health services were overwhelmed by the pandemic, she liaised with a university and Amazon Frontlines to bring PCR tests into Wao territory – and took legal action against the Ecuadorian state, claiming the government ignored pleas from the Waorani community for COVID testing and monitoring, and ceasing activity from oil companies operating nearby who could bring the virus into the area.
She and other plaintiffs won the case in a provincial court in June 2020, and several government ministries were ordered to take precautionary measures and better coordinate a response with Waorani leaders, as well as provide evidence of how they are monitoring oil operations in the Amazon.
“I was afraid – they are the people guiding us, they have centuries worth of knowledge and I was so afraid this virus might be deadly to them and we would lose all that we had to learn from them,” says Nemonte.
The Waorani community created their own protocols to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and despite Nemonte’s fears, she says all of the people in Waorani territory recovered without hospitalisation.
For Nemonte, it was the community efforts that led to a swift response during the early outbreak.
Nemonte recalls that before COVID, on a single walk around her community with the elder women, she had learned more than 100 plants’ medicinal uses. “This is for a toothache; this is for a headache and this for your hair and washing,” she recalls the women saying as they pointed out the plants around her.
Nemonte is focused on teaching this to young people. “I see a future where that knowledge remains with us, we cannot afford to lose it. We need to integrate that into the curriculum of studies.” For Nemonte, the knowledge allows them to exist in the jungle and carry on with their way of life. “Without this territory and our elders’ knowledge, we lose who we are, and we lose our identity,” she says.
She has grown more confident in sharing Waorani knowledge and vision with local authorities and activists in Ecuador and abroad, as climate change has become an important issue worldwide. She explains how to protect the forest and the uses of traditional medicinal plants. “Indigenous people, we knew from a long time from the wisdom of our elders, from our knowledge of the impact of climate change. We could see it in our rainforest. We have to continue to give the importance it deserves to the rainforest, as it provides oxygen to the entire planet,” she says.
As the young learn, she expects to see more Waorani women leading the process for conservation in the Amazon. In 2018, she was elected as the first female Waorani leader of CONCONAWEP, a Waorani organisation in the Pastaza province, acting as the spokesperson for decisions taken in Waorani territory and travelling to cities to participate and liaise with other Indigenous leaders and national authorities.
“There are other women like me, in other nations facing many challenges as it is not easy to juggle being a leader and a mother. There are challenges to overcome, and you always must relate to your community, listening to them to be a leader. One must respect the decisions and values of their community. Being a leader and loving our people and nature is something to be proud of and what drives my work. I am the first but not the last. I want to see more women taking on this role.”
As Nemonte continues her fight to protect her home, she says she has a long way to go when it comes to learning from the Abuelas. “I always say that in a day with the Abuelas you learn stuff worth a year.”
“If we don’t take care of the rainforest now, if the rest of the world does not help protect and keep doing what they are doing, consuming what we are consuming, that’s it for us. Is the end. We need to protect the forest right now,” she says.