Positive People: Nemonte Nenquimo the Amazon warrior

Born in 1985, Nemonte Nenquimo has achieved much in what seems like hardly any time at all. Without her efforts, large tracts of the Ecuadorian Amazon would be changed irreversibly for the worse.

Nemonte is the leader of a tribe indigenous to Ecuador known as the Waorani. These people barely number more than 5,000 and hail from a culture which has called the Amazon their home for centuries. Traditionally, women have been the key decision makers in Waorani culture, as the men were often tasked with going to war to protect their home and people.

A moment of consequence

What makes Nemonte so remarkable as a figurehead of the environmentalist movement is her ability to bring out the best of the Waorani people in her determination to protect their home. Contact with the outside world only first occurred in the 1950s, when Christian evangelical missionaries came calling, creating confusion among the Waorani about the role woman played in the world.

Nemonte Nenquimo’s grandparents lived in an age before outside-world contact, recalling stories harking back to a more traditionally Waorani way of doing things. This older approach among her people encouraged women to become leaders when the men were away from home fighting wars. Nemonte channelled the strengths of her ancestors to defend her people and their home, when the Ecuadorian government had its sights set on selling off their land.

Indigenous tribes such as the Waorani have achieved a greater symbiotic relationship with the rainforests than we could achieve, giving them insight into the common good for their people and the planet’s own health. When the Ecuadorian government wished to sell off Waorani land in order to allow oil extraction to begin, it was Nemonte’s moment to stand up and show real leadership, done the Waorani way.

The Amazon in the dock

Nemonte and her people found themselves up against the clout of the Ecuadorian government in a high-stakes legal battle over the future of Waorani land. It was not just an environmental issue but also a cultural one for Nemonte’s people: at present, 80 per cent of Waorani people occupy land which represents just 10 per cent of the total land their ancestors once held. The case revolved around the argument that the Waorani people had been given no proper consultation over the auction.

In 2019, the courts recognised the claim of the Waorani people, effectively signifying that the land was owned by the tribe itself, for them to do with it as they wished. The battle was about more than 500,000 acres of land; it was a fight for the right for the Waorani to enshrine their self-governance, blunting the power of oil companies to buy up land from the Ecuadorian government without involving the people who lived on said lands. The ruling was an encouraging outcome, suggesting that the money of big oil or even political capital of governments pales into insignificance compared to a true grassroots campaign such as that led by the Waorani.

Nemonte Nenquimo is a powerful symbol of what is possible for indigenous people, but especially for women. Her success in 2019 has come at a time when Ecuadorian indigenous rights are represented better than ever and she is a woman for future generations of girls and women to look up to all over the world. That’s because Nemonte is a co-founder of the Ceibo Alliance, which allows her people to join forces with the other three nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (A’i Kofan, Siekopai, Siona) to work towards a common goal: protecting the fragile yet important Amazon Rainforest.

In recognition of her work, Nemonte received the Goldman Environmental Prize 2020 on behalf of South and Central America for her work so far. Having achieved so much in so little time, there are surely no limits to what Nemonte can achieve in her lifetime yet to come.

Main image Photo credit: Mitch Anderson, Amazon Frontlines

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