Deep in the remote access of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, where canoes and walking barefoot are the primary and “proper” means of transportation, one of the Times 100 most influential started her journey. Here is the story of Nemonte Nenquimo.
Nemonte Nenquimo, which translates to “many stars, face of the sun,” in Waorani, was raised among the indigenous Waorani community of Nemonpare. The Waorani, also called the Huaorani, is comprised of approximately 4,000 members, dispersed throughout the Amazonian region of Ecuador near the Napo and Curaray river.
Within the last half-century, the Waorani have shifted from a hunter-gatherer society into permanent forest settlements. This shift is caused by the dangers of illegal loggers, invasions by oil companies, and external influences.
When Nemonte Nenquimo was young, she experienced this first-hand. Nenquimo shares a story of leaving her community for schooling at a missionary. She subsequently left when the missionary attempted to force her to give up her cultural identity and history.
Since, Nemonte has risen through the ranks of the Waorani community, becoming a president of the Waorani of Pastaza and a co-founder of the Ceibo Alliance, an indigenous alliance with the goal creating a movement to preserve indigenous land, life, and cultural survival in the upper Amazon.
The Fight of Nemonte Nenquimo
Recently, Nenquimo obtained global attention after reaching a landmark victory in a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government, which was trying to lease its territory to oil companies. In their victory, they were able to preserve half a million acres of primary rainforest, encouraging the indigenous movement to preserve the resources of their land.
Nenquimo fights not only for the way of life of Waorani but for all communities of the Amazon. She takes it further, advocating for the protection of the forest, the water, way of life, and culture. She is emphatic that the oil of their territory needs to stay underneath the land. Otherwise, she fears that within 20 years her culture will disappear entirely.
She has witnessed the death, destruction, and disease brought by oil companies. In 1993, 30,000 local residents of the Amazon, including five different communities, filed a lawsuit against Texaco declaring the oil company consciously dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil during operations beginning in the 1960s. This area was within the Yasuni national rainforest, the territory of her Grandfather, which he defended from invaders during his lifetime. She asks herself, would those oil companies still enter if he had been alive today?
“Water is Life”
Nenquimo states that for her, Water is life. The people of the Amazon cook with the water, bathe in the water. Without it, they cannot live. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that the contaminated water and land have resulted in birth defects and cancer.
It’s not hard to imagine, in a place that thrives on water, how even small amounts of contamination can change an entire way of life.
For the people of the Amazon, oil extraction is a pandora’s box. Oil companies come in with false promises to help, guaranteeing anything from freshwater to coca-cola. However, once the contamination occurs, it cannot ever be undone.
Nenquimo also argues that these companies not only destroy the ecosystem but also their way of life. A powerful statement from Nemonte conveys an idea of the oil companies’ influence: “They don’t want the Waorani people to progress.
They want to keep us like animals.” She continues in the interview stating that When external influences come, they carry with them negative influences.
Some of these influences include alcoholism, changing in the way the indigenous dress away from their typical culture, laziness, and a change in mentality and culture.
The appearance of Nemonte Nenquimo in a magazine with such a commanding global influence is a promising and encouraging event. It shows that even in times of seemingly endless unfavorable news, even those in the remotest of locations on the planet can make enough noise to reach the global spotlight.
Perhaps growing up in the tropical rainforest ecosystem, where the trees must rapidly grow and outcompete others for a spot in the sun, plays a part in Nemonte’s incredible feat of getting her message out in a world of competitive stories.