By Nemonte Nenquimo
When I was a little girl I used to swing in the hammock at night by the fire and listen to my elders sing. Imagine all of us kids, barefoot, piled into a hammock beneath a palm-thatched roof, listening to our people’s history sung to us by our grandparents.
Before I ever wove a basket with my own hands, I’d already heard my elders singing about how the yellow-rumped cacique bird taught our ancestors the most intricate weaving patterns. Through their songs, I knew about the wisdom of owls, the spirits of jaguars, the meaning of a rainbow, how to make ceramic pottery, the power of plant medicines, and I also knew about the outsiders, the cowori (as we call them), and how our elders walked day and night, carrying spears, patrolling our rainforest territory against the missionaries, the loggers, the miners, the oil workers.
I did not leave the forest until I was 15 years old. Never walked on pavement, or saw a car, and barely knew any words in Spanish, much less English. But I knew that my people were misunderstood by the world. The outsiders, the cowori, had many words for us: innocent, simple, savage, ignorant, stupid, strong, fearless, brave, violent. And many of these words were used to morally justify the exploitation of our forests by the cowari who came to our home. They saw us as inept—not worthy of the hundreds of thousands of acres of primary forest that we had been stewarding for centuries. In their mind, we needed to “know” other things—how to cut down our rainforest home and make it profitable, how to turn a miraculous forest ecosystem into a money-making scheme.
I’m 35 years old now, and a mother of a little girl who swings as I did in the hammock by the fire. I see two things very clearly: we are all connected, and we are all in trouble. Scientists say with different words what indigenous peoples have said for centuries: We mustn’t do violence to Mother Earth. But white man’s civilization hasn’t listened. And now here we all are, wondering whether planet Earth will be inhabitable for future generations. We are facing a climate crisis, massive biodiversity loss, a global pandemic. Yet, the politicians and the industry chiefs continue their quest for profit and economic growth over everything, even life itself.
I received this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize because of my people’s collective fight to protect what we love: our way of life, songs, rivers, forests, the animals, life on Earth. Together, with our allies at Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance, my people were able to stop the sale of hundreds of thousands of acres of our forest homeland to the international oil industry. By combining our ancestral knowledge with new technologies, we were able to create digital maps of our rainforest that showed the world—and the governments and the oil companies—the immeasurable spiritual, ecological, and cultural value of our rainforest territory. Through community-organizing and innovative legal strategies, we were able to confront head-on some of the mightiest interests in the world and win a legal victory that not only protects a half-million acres of our forest homeland from oil drilling, but also sets a precedent for other indigenous nations to protect millions more.
My hope is that our story of resistance inspires other movements across the Amazon and around the world to imagine a different path for ourselves. We can’t afford to let our imagination fail us now. There is too much at stake.
Governments and industry can’t see beyond the hole that they are digging. Despite the climate crisis and the global pandemic, in the Amazon we see governments planning to intensify fossil fuel extraction and large-scale mining operations. This destruction will lead to an ever-deepening crisis that our children will have to shoulder.
We need to transform the way we live on planet Earth. We must be rebellious and creative, loving and kind—and more than anything, humble enough to confront some liberating truths: rivers are alive; butterflies have their own perspectives; plants have their own purpose; and we, humans, are not at the center of things, nor do we stand apart from nature. We are the rivers, the butterflies, and the plants. We are nature.
Indigenous peoples know this. Our spirituality is based on our interconnectedness with all beings, and on the deepest principle of respect: reciprocity. That is why to this day, despite centuries of displacement and violence against our peoples, we are the protectors of 80% of our planet’s biodiversity. We are only 5% of the world’s population, yet in our territories, we’ve kept our Earth’s ecosystems alive and flourishing.
But the world is getting smaller, societies are moving faster, and the threats to our planet are growing greater day by day. My elders sing about how they defended our territory with spears and patrolled the forests with the stealth and stamina of the jaguar. But, today, spears are not enough.
And so, I’m writing to you now from my home in Ecuador’s Amazon to ask you to join us at www.AmazonFrontlines.org and help us build a movement with the power to protect our forests, our cultures, and our songs—and transform the way we all, collectively, live on this Earth.
About the author:
Indigenous leader Nemonte Nenquimo led a campaign and legal action that resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and Waorani territory from oil extraction in Ecuador. She is the co-founder of the Ceibo Alliance and president of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality of Ecuador-Pastaza (CONCONAWEP). Nemonte was named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2020. She won the Goldman Prize for South America in 2020.