Nemonte Nenquimo: The Indigenous Leader Awarded The 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize

On 30 November 2020, Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous leader of the Waorani people from the Ecuadorian Amazon, was awarded the 2020 Goldman Environmental prize following her 2019 legal battle against the government’s proposal to use the rainforest for oil extraction. The Ecuadorian government intended to destroy 500,000 acres of rainforest, an area of land overlapping the long-held territory of the Waorani Indigenous group. Nenquimo and her fellow Waorani took the Ecuadorian government to court, where she acted as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, arguing that the government had not received consent from the Waorani prior to announcing their plans. In April 2019, the court ruled in favour of the Waorani, setting a precedent for environmentalists globally.

Nenquimo described her people as “…protectors, they have defended their territory and their culture for thousands of years.” Encouraged to be a leader from the age of five, Nenquimo was confident of a victory, stating that “We were so certain that this territory is ours because we are the ones living here, so we could not permit this to happen.”

Alexandra Narvaez, leader of Ecuador’s Kofan people, praised Nenquimo, stating that “There is no indigenous woman who has achieved what she had.” Narvaez also noted the importance of Nenquimo’s victory for Indigenous people, saying that “It makes me proud that she is giving voice to our Indigenous people, defending our territories and our history to the rest of the world.”

Maria Espinosa, one of the Waorani lawyers, also commented on the greater significance of Nenquimo’s victory, warning that “the State cannot auction off the territories of the six other Indigenous nations in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon.”

Nenquimo’s stand against environmental threats and government control is an important lesson that is relevant across the world. Alongside her brother and the Waorani elders, Nenquimo visited land impacted by the oil industry, gathering evidence to take back to her people. This helped to educate both Nenquimo and the Waorani on the effects that the oil industry was having on Indigenous communities like theirs. Nenquimo’s fight against the government not only honours the meaningful history of the Waorani territory but, also, spreads a globally relevant message on the importance of protecting the environment.

Representatives from the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Resources visited Nenquimo’s village in 2012 to discuss the land auctions. However, Mitch Anderson, founder of the NGO Amazon Frontlines, described this as a “box that needed to be checked,” with no real discussion of the negative impacts oil extraction would have on the lands and rivers. Anderson also cited short visits and language barriers as a cause for concern.

Not only are Nenquimo’s actions groundbreaking in the field of grassroots activism, but they are also incredibly brave as, according to the reporting project “Tierra de Resistentes” (“Land of Resistants”), activists from ethnic minorities, especially Indigenous people, are at a higher risk of violent backlash from supporters of oil extraction, mining, and logging.

Having been recognised by the 2020 Goldman Environmental prize, Nenquimo’s achievement shows the power of grassroots movements and the importance of local voices, specifically women, and often excluded group in local politics. The legal battle resulted in the passing of a bill which requires prior consent to be enshrined in law, however, Nenquimo and other Indigenous leaders stated that they had been excluded from the drafting of this bill. With the global awareness that comes with the prize, Nenquimo hopes that the Ecuadorian government will be encouraged to include Indigenous people in any further work on the bill.