Nemonte Nenquimo stood under harsh florescent lights in a crowded courtroom in Puyo, Ecuador. She was wearing red face paint and a crown of feathers. Elders carrying spears and large leaves stood beside her. Judges sat at a table in front of them, with lawyers on either side. 

Nenquimo is a member of the Waorani nation. For centuries, the Waorani have lived in the rainforests of Ecuador. Now, in 2019, they had journeyed to the city of Puyo to fight for their culture. Without their permission, the Ecuadoran government had divided up the Waorani’s land. They wanted to auction it off to oil companies who would drill there.

Nemonte Nenquimo is a leader of the Waorani nation.

Nemonte Nenquimo raises her fist in a sign of defiance at the start of the court hearing in Ecuador.

The Waorani fought back. Nenquimo helped her tribe file a lawsuit against the government to stop the auction of their ancestral home. The Waorani’s lawyers had presented their case. Now, the judges were ready to announce their decision. Nemonte took a deep breath. She squeezed her grandmother’s hand. The judge began to speak.

A Rainforest Home

The Waorani nation are about
5,000 indigenous people who live on 2.5 million acres in some of the most biologically diverse rainforest on the planet.
Most of their land is in the country of Ecuador, which has the highest number of species by area of any other place on Earth. More than 1,500 species of bird,
300 species of mammal, and more than 840 species of reptile make their home in the forests of Ecuador.

“Our culture comes from the forest,” Nenquimo says. “The forest teaches us how to live, and our culture teaches us how to protect the forest.” As hunter-gatherers, the Waorani’s lives are entwined with the rainforest. Weapons for hunting, such as spears, are made from the wood of peach palm trees. Traditional huts are made of palm leaves and tree trunks. Palm fibers are woven into baskets.

Waorani Territory







500 kilometers

500 miles



The Waorani live in the Amazon rainforest.  

The Waorani have always fought off invaders to their land, as far back as the Inca empire. They kept their distance from strangers. The Waorani did not have significant contact with the outside world until 1958 when an American missionary named Rachel Saint made peaceful contact with them for the first time.

Once contact was established, something was discovered: oil. Namely, deposits of petroleum in the ground under Waorani territory. The oil was valuable and to get at it, oil companies ran roads and pipelines into Waorani land for 50 years. Trees were cut down, destroying ecosystems and animal habitats. For the most part, the oil companies did this without permission from the Waorani.