Nemonte Nenquimo Carried a Spear Into the Courtroom

Leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon is among this year’s Goldman Prize winners

By Michael Fox

November 30, 2020


Photo courtesy of Jeronimo-Zuñiga

It was April 26, 2019, and Nemonte Nenquimo’s tribe, the Waorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon, was fighting for its life. The Ecuadorian government had announced 16 new concessions that would allow oil companies to explore and drill for petroleum. One of them—Block 22—was within the Waorani’s territory, an area of intact Amazon jungle stretching across roughly 500,000 acres near the foothills of the Andes. 

The Waorani said they had not been consulted about the proposed oil leasing—their right under the Ecuadorian constitution. In response, they filed a lawsuit against the planned oil drilling and launched an international campaign asking people around the world to sign a petition to the Ecuadorian government in defense of their rights.

In the courtroom in Puyo, the capital of Ecuador’s province of Pastaza, deliberations dragged on for hours. Nemonte Nenquimo, then 33, sat toward the front, near her brother, Oswando, and alongside a handful of elders of the Waorani, a nation of about 5,000 people that didn’t make contact with Westerners until the 1950s. The Waorani women in the courtroom were dressed in traditional clothes, their faces painted red.

It was not until the early afternoon that the three-judge panel made its decision. The judges agreed that the oil lease proposal violated the Waorani’s right to prior consultation. The oil concession would not go through.

The courtroom erupted in celebration. Nenquimo and her companions chanted. They sang the songs of their ancestors. They waved their spears in the air. Tears fell. 

“Today, we have won the right to life, not just for the Waorani people, but for all of the peoples of the Amazon,” Nenquimo said through a bullhorn outside the courthouse, under a bright afternoon sun.

For her resistance in defense of her tribe and Indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Nenquimo has received the 2020 Goldman Prize, the prestigious award granted to grassroots environmental heroes across the globe.

“For me, this recognition is a sign that this struggle is collective, of the grandparents who are dead, who defended our land for many years, for centuries until now,” she told Sierra over Zoom. Her face was painted red, just as it was on the day of the court victory. She wore a headband of yellow feathers and a long necklace of red seeds. “We are still fighting today.” 

Nenquimo’s story is rooted in the fierce defense of the land of her ancestors. She recounts how, roughly 70 years ago, two of her aunts were killed by white invaders. Her grandfather, Piyemo, a legendary Waorani warrior, returned with spears to avenge their death. 

“He was not afraid,” she says. “I am the granddaughter of this warrior. And I will also confront what may come, without fear. Everything I do is for life itself. And for my daughter.” 

And she has done much. As the first female leader of the Waorani, she has led her community’s fight against the government’s plans for oil extraction. As a cofounder of the Ceibo Alliances—a confederation of Amazonian Indigenous nations—she has worked with Indigenous women across numerous tribes. She’s helped install solar and water catchment systems in Indigenous communities, trained youths in video and audio-visual production, and shared the stories of Indigenous resistance abroad. In September, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of the year. She was the only Indigenous woman on the list and only the second Ecuadorian to have ever received such recognition.  

“There is no Indigenous woman who has achieved what she has,” says Alexandra Narvaez, a leader of Ecuador’s Kofan people, who traveled with Nemonte to Brazil last year to participate in the country’s first Indigenous Womens’ March. “It makes me proud that she is giving voice to our Indigenous peoples, defending our territories and our history to the rest of the world.” 

When discussing her various advocacy efforts, Nenquimo speaks of the past and future as intertwined with the present, like the plants and animals of Waorani’s jungle home that are interconnected in thick webs of biodiversity. These are living beings to fight for, and sources of inspiration, in a struggle that her people have waged for thousands of years. 

“Mother Earth is not waiting for us to save her,” Nenquimo says. “All she asks is for our respect. We Indigenous peoples have been in direct contact with the jungle, with the spiritual, with the animals. Money will not save the life of the Amazon. We must follow with our wisdom, with our ancient knowledge and with our own governance.” 

In a video produced by the Goldman Prize, Nenquimo walks through the thick green foliage of a dense jungle. She is followed by women of her tribe, walking single file behind her, their bare feet stepping lightly over the twigs and dead leaves that cover the thin path. Their mouths move softly emitting an ethereal chant that seems to echo across the jungle and embrace a symphony of insects. 

“I am the granddaughter of this warrior. And I will also confront what may come, without fear. Everything I do is for life itself. And for my daughter.”

It’s a powerful image and an apt symbol for Nenquimo’s own life. For three years, she lived and worked with Waorani women across the Ecuadorian provinces of Orellana, Napo, and Pastaza. “I learned the importance of our knowledge and culture, the weaving, and crafts, the songs, the importance of our territory,” she says. “Then I began to go to other communities like in the north [of Ecuador].”

The Kofan territories in northern Ecuador, near the border with Colombia, have been devastated by oil. Between 1964 and 1992, Texaco polluted the environment with 650,000 barrels of crude oil and 16 billion gallons of wastewater. Much of this contamination still remains. Nearly 900 waste pools litter the former oil operation zone, seeping toxins into the environment. According to lawyers who have been battling for years for a settlement with Chevron—which now owns Texaco—the oil contamination has impacted the health of 30,000 people. 

“I heard the stories of how they suffered. How, like us, they once had a vast beautiful, healthy environment, but then came the oil company. And the company promised to bring development and health and education,” Nenquimo says. “Now look at the consequences. It made me angry. It gave me courage to fight.”  

Nenquimo moved to the region and began working with the communities there. In 2014, she cofounded the Indigenous-led Ceibo Alliance, to unite Native peoples of the Ecuadorean Amazon in their struggle. She also brought members from her own tribe to meet the communities impacted by oil, to see the destruction firsthand, and to learn from their experiences.

Then she returned home. With her brother Oswando and the elders of their villages, they began to map their territory with their own ancestral knowledge: the hunting trails, the medicinal plants, the rivers and villages. They eventually used those maps in their defense in the lawsuit to stop the oil concession. 

Nenquimo’s brother says that from a very early age Nemonte seemed destined to become a natural-born leader. He remembers a time when an elder came to their home in the village of Nemonpare, along the Curaray River. The woman said she had decided to give Nemonte a special gift—the knowledge of how to make the best chicha. 

Chicha is a typical Waorani drink made of yucca root, boiled, chewed, and sometimes fermented. It’s sweet and typically served cold. Oswando says the visitor took out a small jar that she was carrying and rubbed a layer of honey on Nemonte’s tongue. The elder told Nemonte that just as the bees fly from the hive to pollinate the flowers and then return to make honey, so would she. “When you are older, you will be like the bees,” the elder said, according to Oswando. “You will go out and then return to your home to make the best chicha.” 

Oswando points out that this is what Nemonte has done: traveled, lived, and worked with other Indigenous communities, seen the devastating effects of oil contamination elsewhere, and brought those stories home to share with her community. “It’s an important metaphor,” he says.

But Nemonte Nenquimo’s fight is not over. 

On November 19, she participated in a press conference with two of Ecuador’s largest Indigenous confederations to denounce the National Assembly’s drafting of a law that they fear could weaken Indigenous communities' constitutional right to free, prior, and informed consent over issues regarding their territories. This right won the Waorani’s oil drilling case in 2019.  

They say lawmakers in Quito are writing the bill without the participation of the Indigenous communities that will be impacted by the law. The Waorani and other Indigenous groups fear the law could have grave consequences and that without their involvement in the drafting of the bill, loopholes may be created for approving extractive operations on Indigenous territories without their consent. Ecuador’s ex–vice minister of mines recently said the law could boost the mining sector by streamlining the consultation process and preventing advocacy groups from acting against extractive projects. Indigenous leaders say they are prepared to take to the streets to protect their rights.  

“Our land is our home. It’s sacred and it has given us life for thousands of years,” Nenquimo said during the press conference, surrounded by Indigenous leaders from numerous tribes. “That’s why we are united, demanding that the government listen to our voices and respect that the decision over our home is ours.”