Picture of Goldman Prize Winner Nemonte Nenquimo
Picture of Goldman Prize Winner Nemonte Nenquimo

Nemonte Nenquimo

2020 Goldman Prize Recipient
South and Central America

  • Ecuador
  • Forests

Nemonte Nenquimo led an indigenous campaign and legal action that resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and Waorani territory from oil extraction. Nenquimo’s leadership and the lawsuit set a legal precedent for indigenous rights in Ecuador, and other tribes are following in her footsteps to protect additional tracts of rainforest from oil extraction.

Guardians of the Amazon Rainforest

Despite its relatively small area, Ecuador is one of the 10 most biodiverse countries on Earth. It contains pristine Amazon rainforests with rich wildlife, complex ecosystems, and significant populations of indigenous communities. Long protectors of this territory, the Waorani people are traditional hunter-gatherers organized into small clan settlements. They are among the most recently contacted peoples—reached in 1958 by American missionaries—and number around 5,000 today. Waorani territory overlaps with Yasuni National Park, which, according to the Smithsonian, “may have more species of life than anywhere else in the world.”

Since the 1960s, oil exploration, logging, and road building have had a disastrous impact on Ecuador’s primary rainforests, which now cover less than 15% of the country’s land mass. Extractive industries have increasingly driven deforestation, human rights abuses, public health crises (including spikes in rates of cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages), and negative impacts on indigenous peoples’ territories and cultures. For decades, oil companies have dumped waste into local rivers and contaminated land, while displacing indigenous people from their land.

Today, 80% of the Waorani population currently lives on one-tenth of its original ancestral lands.

In 2018, Ecuador’s Minister of Hydrocarbons announced an auction of 16 new oil concessions, covering seven million acres of primary Amazon forest, in efforts to attract investment by multinational oil companies, including Exxon and Shell. The concessions were located on the titled land of Waorani, Shuar, Achuar, Kichwa, Shiwiar, Andoa, and Sápara nations—in direct violation of indigenous rights. One area overlaps almost entirely with Waorani territory.

An Indigenous Steward and Leader

Nemonte Nenquimo, 33, is an indigenous Waorani woman who has committed herself to defending her ancestral territory, ecosystem, culture, economy, and way of life. She co-founded the Ceibo Alliance—an indigenous organization—in 2015 in order to fight back against the planned oil concessions, and was elected president of CONCONAWEP, an organization that represents the Waorani of the Pastaza province. Nenquimo has a 4-year-old daughter and lives with her extended family in the village of Nemonpare.

Using Strategies Old and New to Preserve Land and Life

After the Ecuadorian government announced the land auctions, Nenquimo assumed a leadership role and began organizing Waorani communities. She held regionwide assemblies and interviews with village leaders, helped her people launch a digital campaign targeting potential investors with the slogan “Our Rainforest is Not for Sale,” and spearheaded a petition to the oil industry and Ecuadorian government that was signed by 378,000 people from around the world.

At the same time, Nenquimo proactively helped communities maintain their independence from oil company handouts by installing rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels and supporting a woman-led organic cacao and chocolate production business. She played a key role in a community mapping project that charted more than 500,000 acres of Waorani territory, encompassing 16 communities.

Nenquimo also secured training for Waorani youth to be filmmakers and document their work, publishing powerful images and videos for the campaign, including aerial drone footage of the rainforest and Waorani territory.

Ultimately, Nenquimo helped bring the Waorani case to the courts and served as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government for violating the Waorani’s right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. In April 2019, Ecuador’s courts ruled in the Waorani’s favor, a ruling which was upheld in the court of appeals in July of that year. Nenquimo’s leadership helped protect 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and indigenous territory from oil extraction. She deftly bridged the worlds of indigenous people and Western society, bringing together elders and youth, and uniting distinct indigenous tribes that were once divided.

The legal victory sets a legal precedent for indigenous rights in Ecuador, spurring other tribes to follow her people’s example. According to Mitch Anderson, the executive director of Amazon Frontlines, “This is a major precedent for indigenous rights across the Amazon. Guaranteeing indigenous peoples’ rights to decide over their future and to say ‘No’ to destructive extractive projects is key to protecting the Amazon rainforest and halting climate change.” Nenquimo continues to fight for self-determination, rights, cultural and territorial preservation for the Waorani and other indigenous communities.

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