This article was published by The Guardian on 25 May 2024

The Indigenous campaigner won a historic legal victory to protect Waorani land in the Amazon rainforest. Now she has written a groundbreaking memoir

When Nemonte Nenquimo was a young girl, experience began to reinforce what she had come to know intuitively: that her life, and those of the Waorani people of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, were on a collision course with forces it would take all their strength and determination to resist. “Deep down, I understood there were two worlds,” she remembers in We Will Not Be Saved, the book she has written with her husband and partner in activism Mitch Anderson. “One where there was our smoky, firelit oko, where my mouth turned manioc into honey, the parrots echoed ‘Mengatowe’, and my family called me Nemonte – my true name, meaning ‘many stars’. And another world, where the white people watched us from the sky, the devil’s heart was black, there was something named an ‘oil company’, and the evangelicals called me Inés.”

In 2015, Nenquimo, now 39, co-founded the Ceibo Alliance, a non-profit organisation in which she united with members of the A’i Cofán, Siekopai and Siona peoples of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia to fight for rights over their territories. Since then, she has won numerous awards for her activism, including the prestigious Goldman environmental prize; she was featured in Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2020, and has been named a United Nations Champion of the Earth.

Even more significantly, she has played a leading role in key political victories: in 2019 she took the Ecuadorian government to court to prevent it from auctioning half a million acres of land to the oil industry, and won; and just last year, she campaigned in a successful referendum to protect the country’s Yasuní national park from drilling. Although women have long been decision-makers in her community, she is the first to be chosen to lead the Waorani people of the Pastaza province. Her commitment and her triumphs have also attracted attention from actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, now a friend, and Emma Thompson, who provides an endorsement for her book.

We talk on Zoom, with Anderson translating from the Spanish that Nenquimo learned as a second language when she left the settlement of Nemompare at 14 to live in a religious mission upriver in Quito. Her relocation to Ecuador’s capital was a brutal wrenching that is brought vividly and horrifically to life in the book; “Not another pregnant jungle girl,” says one of the mission’s staff – a woman – when she arrives. Nenquimo was not, in fact, pregnant, and she speaks of being subjected to repeated sexual abuse while she was at the mission.

How does she feel now about those religious zealots, not least Rachel Saint, the American missionary who lived in Nemompare throughout Nenquimo’s childhood, distributing sweets, dolls, bouncing balls and dresses in return for attendance at church services? The first thing she tries to understand, she replies, is that these women came from very different cultures, “and they saw my people as people that weren’t wearing clothes, that didn’t write, didn’t read, that didn’t know about the God who died on the cross. And deep down, Rachel Saint surely was convinced that she was on God’s path, and that her mission was to steer us away from the devil and the devil’s ways. What Rachel Saint didn’t understand and didn’t care to understand was us: who we are, our identity, our history, our culture, our relationship to the earth. She othered us immediately and thought she could save us and protect us. And in doing so she weakened us and damaged us and hurt us profoundly.”

“Our people notice the small changes before the big weather events that create headlines for people in cities”

Much of Nenquimo’s life, she explains, has been a process of grappling with that deception – not merely that of one “evangelical”, but of all those “cowori” (outsiders) who arrived on small planes and in helicopters and referred to her people as “aucas”, or savages. Frequently, the God the missionaries sought to impose on the Waorani was invoked as supportive of the oil industry, and those who disagreed were “communists”, including Amo, a young Waorani man warning that the contamination of the rivers would lead to the death of their fish, a primary source of food. “What will happen when all the fish are gone?” asks the child Nemonte. “Then we will become like the cowori,” he answers. “We will only eat chicken and rice. And we won’t be funny – we’ll never make jokes again!”

Not long after that, Amo is found shot dead; in an intensely moving scene, Nenquimo describes his parents refusing to allow him to be buried near the church, and his father throwing money into his grave. “This is why you’re dead, my son. Money. Take it with you.”

This is the first book of its kind written by a member of the Waorani people, and it was vital to Nenquimo that – contrary to the experience of being seen through the lens of intrusive missionaries, company executives or anthropologists – her community are allowed to speak on their own terms. Before writing it, she asked for permission and advice from her parents and other elders. She reproduces her father’s words in the introduction – “Walk down the trail, then veer off into forest, leaving no tracks” – which she took as an injunction to remember that the world outside is often not to be trusted.

The life of hunting and gathering that has sustained the Waorani people is captured in minute and impressive detail – the making of poison-tipped blow darts for catching fish, the tracking of wild peccary pigs, and the cultivation of fruits and vegetables in her mother Manuela’s extensive gardens. The rainforest is seen throughout as a source of sustenance and as a complex ecosystem that must be respected and safeguarded. I ask Nenquimo what, given the encroachment of the outside world among all the Amazonian Indigenous nations, their freedom would look like now.

“I want investors and financial institutions and the ones making decisions about where money flows to read this book”

She replies that it continues to mean her people “living in a vast and healthy forest and being in connection with that forest. So it means knowing how to go to the river and fish and bring food home for your family; it means going out as a family and making gardens, and knowing you’re going to be harvesting several moons down the line. It means knowing how to identify the sources of sickness and then find medicinal plants in the forest, roots, resins, vines, barks, to cure ourselves. It means being self-sufficient in the forest, and in our villages, and being able to make decisions as a people to continue to live happy and healthy existences in our land.”

That freedom has for many decades been in severe jeopardy, as Nenquimo points out: “We’re surrounded by oil companies, miners, evangelicals, and an entire global economy that promotes consumerism, promotes accumulation of things and products.” She sees her campaigning work – of which this book is an extension – as a call to action: “That’s why I want the oil company executives and the chiefs of industry to read this book, to read my story, because one of the things that our elders say is that the less you know about something, the more easy it is to destroy it. And that’s also what’s happening in the world, with oil companies and mining companies: they don’t truly and deeply understand the land, the forest, the ecosystem, and how it is providing life to all of us, and how interconnected all of us are across the globe. I want investors and financial institutions and the ones that are making decisions about where money flows, I want them to read the book and this story. I want to talk with them.”

If they do, they will discover an account that is both rich in powerful personal detail and scathing about the oil industry’s indifference to the lives and lands it regards as ripe for exploitation and profit. We Will Not Be Saved is presented in two halves. The first recounts Nenquimo’s childhood and her removal to the mission. The second, after she had left the evangelical community and become a teacher, shows her growing awareness and engagement in resistance, which encompasses providing and conserving clean water supplies, mapping territories and educational programmes that centre on women and young people. (“When women have a seat at the table representing their communities and their peoples, everything’s different,” she says.) It was during this time that she met Anderson, who had been living in the rainforest since 2011 and had become increasingly involved in environmental protest. When I ask them to talk a little about how their relationship developed, our language gap is no barrier to me understanding their laughter.

Anderson takes up the story: “When she told her father and her mother that she had met me and that we were in love, and that we were building an alliance together to unite the communities and the peoples against the oil industry, her father was very curious to meet me. He asked questions like, ‘But how is a white man going to be able to walk in the forest? Will he complain all the time? Will he ever learn how to hunt animals? If you’re going to have kids, how are they going to learn? How are they going to get fed?’”

Nenquimo’s mother, who specialises in making medicines, worried that he would arrive and promptly get bitten by a snake. Luckily, Anderson’s first trip to meet his future family allayed their fears: “My father said he’s very strong, and that he’s going to be able to first carry all the wild meat back to the house before he learns how to hunt. He can pack a lot of the boar on his back, so that’s good. He’s got strong legs.” Anderson chips in: “And they liked that I laughed a lot and I liked telling stories. And I didn’t complain about anything in the forest. That’s really important for the Waorani.”

Nenquimo is highly attuned to the existential threats to those living in the rainforest, and is quick to point out they are visible far beyond the high-impact weather events that make big news stories. “For my elders and for Indigenous peoples across the Amazon, we don’t need huge devastating storms, biblical floods, years-long droughts to notice changes. Our people see and observe small changes before the big weather events that cause headlines and grab attention for people in the cities around the world.

“For instance, just the other day speaking with my dad, he told me there’s a specific fruit tree that should be fruiting right now in the forest and it isn’t. That tree is what provides food for the squirrel monkeys, for the turkeys and curassows and for a lot of different animals in the forest. So now the monkeys are arriving and all they’re seeing are the leaves of the tree and they aren’t happy and they’re going into our gardens to eat fruits that are not for them – papayas and plantains. My father also told me he’s noticing that the river turtles are not laying eggs on the beaches as they should right now.” Recently, intense river flooding has destroyed crops of yucca and plantain, wiping out sources of carbohydrates for at least the next nine months.

Nenquimo and Anderson, who have two children – their daughter Daime’s birth is chronicled in the book, and a son, Sol, followed – have a vast task ahead of them, and appropriately ambitious plans to match. Over the next few years, their attention is focused on continuing their 13-year fight on the frontlines of the Amazon, building clean water and solar energy projects, installing high-frequency radio communications systems, and expanding a network of monitoring programmes. They are also focused on the movement to return land to those who have lived on it and cared for it for generations – territory that extends to 10m acres that are beset by ceaseless threats from governments and corporations.

“Across the Amazon, Indigenous peoples are the customary owners,” says Anderson. “Maybe they don’t have land titles, but they’re the traditional owners of about half the Amazon rainforest.” If the forest is forsaken, he believes, there is no prospect of averting climate catastrophe, and to protect it, allies are needed: “Indigenous folks can’t do this alone. They’ve been swimming upstream against an unrelenting tide of conquest and threats for hundreds of years. And now, there is this amazing alignment of urgency and interest in energy where the climate crisis is real, threats are growing every day, and there’s more and more recognition around the world of Indigenous people’s leadership on climate, their stewardship, the importance of Indigenous people’s protection of their lands and of biodiversity.”

Nenquimo is equally clear: “If we continue on this path of little by little destroying forests, destroying rivers, destroying air, the consequences are going to be awful for humans and cultures around the world, for all forms of life. And I want people to wake up.”

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