In the words of actor and environmental activist Leonardo Di Caprio, who wrote the text that presented the 35-year-old indigenous woman, Nemonte Nenquimo “defends the forest that she loves from the industries and oil companies that would devour it.”
In 2019, an action by the indigenous organization Aliance Ceibo achieved a historic victory in Ecuador’s courts: the government was forced to protect an area of forest occupied by the Waorani and to respect indigenous rights.
With forest protection work in the Waorani territory, and focused on elevating the indigenous women of the Amazon, Nenquimo wants the voice of the forest peoples to be heard around the world.
“Indigenous peoples are wise, we live thousands of years, we know how to have a spiritual connection with nature. And live with it and respect it. The people of the world, of the city, need to respect it because the Mother Earth is giving life to all of us human beings that we are here. Without land, without water, without air, we would not be here, “he said in an interview with DW.
DW: What is the importance of an international recognition like this for the peoples of the Amazon?
Nemonte Nenquimo: I think it is a very strong value and importance. It is an opportunity. I am telling you as a person, Nemonte Nenquimo, because we women protest locally, nationally, throughout our country, and we have not been listened to or respected.
For me, this recognition made me feel very proud as a Waorani people. And also this recognition, I feel that it is not only for the Waorani people of the Amazon, but for all the indigenous peoples of the world that we defend our territory, our life. What we stand for is very important. I feel that this recognition belongs to all the indigenous peoples who are defending the front for life. I felt very encouraged, with great strength and with great hope. At last, women’s voices have been respected. Many times they were not respected.
He has succeeded in the courts of Ecuador to protect a jungle area for the Waorani people. Is that judicial decision being respected? What are the main threats?
In 2019 I sued the Ecuadorian government against block 22, where we live, in the Waorani communities of Pastaza. The government wanted to sell that area and said it was offering it to companies. But we made a demand, together with the women and men of the community, thinking that our territory must be consulted and that there must be consent. They must respect our right to life and nature.
This event was the first in the history of Ecuador. This was a great victory that I achieved as a Waorani people and we also feel that it is a hope for the other indigenous communities who live the same way, defending territory. Our jungle is our home, our life, which gives us food to live.
In the Constitutional Court, in Quito, which is bigger, we were also favored. In this process, for the first time in the history of Ecuador, a court is accepting the rights of the peoples. That has a precedent, not only for the people of Ecuador; it has to be also for the other countries.
Many times the people, capitalism, the people of the city, think that the indigenous people have the forest without using it. But an indigenous point of view is that we are respecting the mother earth. Because it gives us everything: it gives us water, it gives us food, it gives us fish, it gives us medicinal plants, space and air. That is our protection.
And we think as indigenous people that we must protect for future generations, for our children. And we also feel that with this care of the forest we are bringing air to the world where we live.
If we destroy our entire jungle, I think that, as an indigenous person, in the first place, we can be affected and killed. This also affects climate change a lot. That is why I say that the whites, who are more developed, who talk about technology, are those who do not know. They don’t know where they stand, they don’t know what will happen in the world, in the future. They are not leaving for the children, for the young people who are going to come to govern, who are going to come to live. We will not leave anything. This is our concern and we are fighting day and day. I am very happy that this very important and very large magazine is recognizing our values, our struggle.
How is COVID-19 Affecting Indigenous Peoples? Did you receive support from the government?
We have not had support from the government, but we, as indigenous leaders, have made a demand with precautionary measures to the Ministry of Public Health.
But in reality, when we made the demand, they felt compelled to go to serve in the communities. But it shouldn’t be like that. We, as indigenous peoples, are people too, we need the rights of people who live in cities. We also deserve that same right. We are also human, we are capable of taking care of our forests for thousands of years with our knowledge, our rituals.
It has been very hard for the Waorani people, and there have also been deaths. We have our sages, our elders are the sages who guide us, who have thousands of years of knowledge that they transmit to us.
Thanks to the knowledge of our natural medicinal plants, we have recovered the majority, saving lives. Even I was infected with COVID-19. I was sick for 14 days. Medicinal plants were sent to me from the jungle, and using that natural remedy I recovered. But in the last days I felt that my life had already ended, I felt that I had no strength, that I was going to die. It was very hard. Fever, dry cough, my lung was affected, I needed oxygen. With the plants and preparations that the community sent me, I was saved, I was cured and now I am healthy.
As an indigenous woman, did you encounter a lot of resistance when you took on this leadership role?
I have felt a great responsibility. You have to be focused, work on strategies, have meetings … And I also felt that when you are a leader you have to think and decide things, know where you come from, who you represent. You are not representing any government, you are representing your people, your territory, your language, your culture. In that I have my heart, my soul.
I will always be in favor of my people, I will not be in favor of business, or oil, for money, for personal interests. I love life, I respect my wise grandparents, I have a lot of love for the jungle and I care about future generations. I have a five-year-old daughter, and I want her to live happy, without diseases, with clean water, clean forest.
That is my fight, which gives me the strength to continue fighting. I also want to say that now is the opportunity. Not only the indigenous are screaming. Everyone who lives on this planet: Mother Earth needs us to respect her. No more destruction, no more pollution.
Indigenous peoples are wise, we live for thousands of years, we know how to have a spiritual connection with nature. And live with her and respect her. The people of the world, of the city, need to respect it because the Mother Earth is giving life to all the human beings that we are here. Without land, without water, without air, we would not be here.
Do you think that after this recognition the world will listen more to what indigenous people have to say?
Throughout the world, women, not just indigenous women, must take leadership to build the future. For our children, so that they can live well, healthy, without disease, without pollution.
People who come to pollute, extract oil, cut and burn our forests or pollute our water are not welcome. People who are from different countries and want to support and preserve are welcome, our house is open.
Author: Nádia Pontes