by Lizzy Hermosilla ‘23
Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries on earth despite its small size, containing the lush Amazon Rainforest and the rich indigenous culture of countless tribes. The Waorani people are traditionally hunter-gatherers living in smaller clan-like groups. In 1958, American missionaries made contact with this tribe that numbers around 5,000 people today. Since the 1960s, big businesses have depleted and taken advantage of the resources that surround the Waorani’s ancestral land. Guardian of the Amazon and environmental activist 35-year-old Nemonte Nenquimo has saved 500,000 acres of Amazonian Rainforest and Waorani land from oil extraction, while creating an activist movement within tribal communities.
Nenquimo grew up hearing stories from the elders of her tribe about how the Waorani lived before their contact with missionaries in the late 1950s. The Waorani tribe left the decision-making to the women while the men went to war. It was not until contact with the Evangelical missionaries, and the story of Adam and Eve, when the role of women was questioned within the tribe. Despite the disruptive influence of western culture, Nenquimo was encouraged by the elders of her tribe to seek out leadership from a young age.
“When it comes to taking decisions, the women pull no punches, and everyone listens up,” said Nenquimo in an interview with the BBC. Nenquimo is the first female president of the Waorani of Pastaza province but nowhere near the first female leader within the tribe.
In 2018, the Ecuadorian government announced that 16 land permits would be auctioned off to oil companies covering seven million acres of the Amazon rainforest. Nenquimo led the fight against the concessions by launching the “Our Rainforest Is Not For Sale” digital campaign that garnered almost 400,000 signatures. Recently, Nenquimo acted as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government. She claimed that the government had not obtained prior consent from the Waorani people to auction off their land that overlapped with many of the concessions, first announced in 2018. In April 2019, the judges on the case ruled in favor of the Waorani, protecting 500,000 acres of rainforest from oil extraction. This case has caused a ricochet of other tribal nations to challenge their country’s government to protect their ancestral lands and the rich biodiversity of the rainforest.
Nenquimo is also the co-founder of The Ceibo Alliance trying to prevent oil companies from contaminating water sources that tribes like the Waorani rely on. The goal of Ceibo Alliance is to bring health and happiness to the communities within it, including the A’i Cofán, Siona, Siekopai y Waorani people.
Nenquimo is no stranger to recognition for her environmental advocacy. She has received countless awards like the Goldman Environmental Prize, the UN’s Champions of the Earth Award, and earned a spot on the Time magazine’s list of the world’s “100 Most Influential People of 2020”. Leonardo DiCaprio nominated her for the list writing, “I am lucky to have met her, and I am luckier still to have learned from her.”