Indigenous people are often at the helm of environmental movements. Fueled by a deep connection to nature and their cultural traditions, Indigenous people make powerful advocates for environmental conservation and maintaining balance between people and nature.
In honor of Earth Day this April, we’re diving deeper into the stories of three Indigenous recipients of the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize.
1. Leydy Pech
Born and raised in Hopelchén, Mexico, Indigenous Mayan activist Leydy Pech (Mexico, 2020) grew up studying and practicing beekeeping, a centuries-old Mayan tradition that continues today. In fact, over 25,000 families in the Yucatán—many of whom are Indigenous Mayans—depend on honey production for their livelihoods.
In 2012, with permission from the Mexican government, global agricultural giant Monsanto began planting genetically modified (GM) soybeans in the Yucatán, contaminating the local honey and jeopardizing the area’s food supply. Recognizing the ripple effect this would have on local communities, Leydy organized a coalition of beekeepers, NGOs, and environmentalists to file a lawsuit against the Mexican government.
Leydy asked academic institutions to launch studies investigating the effect of GM soybeans on the local pollen and honey supply, and she educated community members on the situation. After years of petitions, protests, and community organizing led by Leydy, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mayans in 2015, stating that the government must consult Indigenous communities before planting in their territories. In 2017, Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Service revoked Monsanto’s permits to plant GM soybeans.
2. Paul Sein Twa
A peacemaker and Indigenous Karen in Myanmar, Paul Sein Twa (Myanmar, 2020) has devoted his life to protecting the local environment and preserving his culture. As one of eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Karen people have suffered religious and ethnic persecution at the hands of the government for decades. What’s more, over the past 20 years, the Karen people’s home—the Salween River Basin—has been slowly taken over by logging, mining, and rubber extraction.
Eager to shield his home territory and promote peace in a conflict zone, Paul decided to take a proactive approach to environmental conservation. In 2016, he began holding public consultations to educate the Karen community and others about the concept of peace parks, which are geographically protected areas rich in biodiversity.
He collaborated with local leaders to garner community support, worked to adopt more sustainable forestry practices, and conducted biodiversity data analysis in the forests. Finally, at the end of 2018, Paul and the Karen people officially announced the establishment of the Salween Peace Park, which spans 1.35 million acres and is home to wildlife sanctuaries, forests, endangered species, and a significant Karen community.
3. Nemonte Nenquimo
An Indigenous Waorani woman and environmental activist, Nemonte Nenquimo (Ecuador, 2020) grew up in the Ecuadorian Amazon and has spent her life fighting to protect it. The remaining 2,000 Waorani, who are the most recently contacted of all Ecuadorian Indigenous people, have watched their territories rapidly shrink due to oil extraction and logging.
In 2018, Ecuador’s Minister of Hydrocarbons auctioned off seven million acres of Amazon rainforest and Indigenous land to oil companies. Determined to protect her homeland, Nemonte created a plan to fight the auctions. She mobilized local communities by holding assemblies and devising ways to avoid accepting money from oil companies, like installing rainwater harvesting systems. Nemonte also started a global petition and digital campaign to raise awareness about the Amazon and protest the oil industry.
In 2019, Nemonte served as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government. Thanks to her courage and advocacy, the courts eventually ruled in the Waorani’s favor, preserving 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest.
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