Ecuador: Nemonte Nenquimo, the Waorani Indian who defends the “heritage” of the forest

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Nemonte Nenquimo wants to bequeath a paradise to her daughter: to protect the 180,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest that belong to her people, the Waorani Indians, she has launched a legal battle against oil exploitation.

The tenacity of this 35-year-old Native American woman has earned her recognition by the American magazine Time among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2020.

In 2019, as president of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani People of Ecuador-Pastaza (Conconawep), she won a resounding victory: Ecuadorian justice banned oil exploitation in an area of ​​virgin forest of the Waorani territory, located in the province of Pastaza, on the border with Peru.

The judges determined that such a project violated the constitutional right of peoples to self-determination and to be consulted on the extraction of non-renewable resources in their habitat.

“The recognition (of Time) it is not for the struggle of Nemonte ”, but for the“ men, women and children who have been on the front line in this process ”to save the forest, confides the thirty-something.

Nemonte Nenquimo strives to convey his message in a way that is both clear and firm, in a language that is not his own. She speaks Wao-terero, the language of the Waorani Indians who accompanied her to Quito, equipped with their spears, to protest in front of the Ministries of Environment and Energy.

With “anger” and sadness, she recalls how the arrival of the oil companies transformed the lives of other Amerindian peoples, who saw their territories in the Amazon transformed into areas of crops and pastures.

“I have a daughter and if I don’t protect [la forêt], they are going to destroy it, the same story will repeat itself where we live, in Pastaza, the only Waorani community that lives in the green and virgin forest ”, she says.

In the world

The Waorani, numbering 4,800, own 800,000 hectares of forest in the states of Pastaza, Napo and Orellana. But only 180,000 hectares, or 1% of Ecuadorian territory, are virgin.

This area was to be part of an oil block that the Ecuadorian government wished to submit to a tender.

Because the law recognizes the property rights of indigenous peoples, but the state retains that of the subsoil, and oil exploitation has been one of the pillars of the Ecuadorian economy since the 1970s.

“Everything we stand for is not just for the people (waorani). What gives the world clean air is the forest, ”recalls the young woman, who grew up in the remote village of Nemompare, a 40-minute flight by small plane from the Amazonian town of Shell, 150 minutes away. km from Quito.

The forest is “the only legacy” to bequeath, insists Nemonte Nenquimo, who denounces conversely the destruction of nature inherited from oil companies, but also from logging companies and agricultural colonization.

“They come to destroy our life, contaminate the water, destroy everything we have, our wealth, even our own language,” she emphasizes.

Crude extracted from the Amazon is the South American country’s main export, and despite the recent drop in prices, it remains a vital resource for its dollarized economy.

“Without territory, without forest, we would not exist as Indians”, she recalls, while her people, whom American evangelical missionaries approached about 70 years ago, are related to nomadic groups, the Taromenane and the Tagaeri, who remain in voluntary isolation.

She says she is proud that her people still have access to “many animals, fish, fruits, with clean air and clear water”.

And she hopes that her five-year-old daughter, named Daime – “rainbow” in the Wao-Terero language – can “live in a green forest, full of animals, ancestral medicines, full of joy and freedom” .

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