Waorani people traveling by canoe on a river.

Drilling Down

In 2012, the government of Ecuador wanted to offer new drilling rights to oil companies. The drilling area included Waorani lands. The government was required by law to explain the pros and cons of oil drilling to the Waorani and other communities. So, government representatives flew into the rainforest and held short, rushed meetings. Many Waorani did not have time to travel by foot or canoe to attend these meetings. The representatives used technical language that was hard for some Waorani to understand. They spoke only about how the oil money would help the community, not hurt it.

Afterward, the Waorani learned that the government had divided up a large section of the Amazon, including their territory. These sections would be auctioned off to oil companies. The Waorani section was number 22.

The Waorani had defended their land from Spanish conquistadores, rubber tappers, and loggers. Now, they needed to defend it again. But first, they needed a leader.

A Leader for Her People

Nemonte Nenquimo is a 35-year-old mother who was born and raised in the Waorani culture. Early in her childhood, her father moved the family to a community deeper in the rainforest. He wanted them to be away from the influence of religious missionaries. Nenquimo’s childhood was filled with swimming in the rainforest rivers, picking wild fruit, and listening to her grandmother’s and aunt’s
traditional songs.

a Waorani community gathering

This Waorani elder uses a blowpipe and darts for hunting.

Nenquimo’s grandfather, Piyemo, was a respected warrior and defender of Waorani territory. Piyemo believed that the rainforest should be protected as an inheritance for his children and grandchildren. From him, Nenquimo learned that the land must be defended against those who do not make their
homes there.

Nenquimo learned from her grandmother, too. Women in the Waorani nation have traditionally been the caretakers of the forest. They watch over the plants and animals and tell the men where to hunt and for which animals. Nenquimo was already a community leader. In 2015, she helped lead the Waorani in a project to map their ancestral lands.

Elders, young people, and children worked together to draw and map the sacred waterways, animal breeding sites, burial spots, fruit tree groves, and paintings on their lands. They used both traditional drawing methods, like paper and pencils, and modern devices like GPS and cameras.

These maps would prove to be invaluable in the later fight. They showed the deep relationship the Waorani have to their land and how ingrained it is in their culture.

The Waorani mapped the rainforest to show their connection to the land.

Surrounded by her people, Nenquimo speaks to reporters about the court case.

Twelve communities elected Nenquimo and four other women to lead the lawsuit. It argued that the government had not gotten the free agreement of the Waorani, which was required by law. The planned auctioning of the lands was illegal. “The government tried to sell our lands to the oil companies without our permission,” Nenquimo said later. “Our rainforest is our life. We decide what happens in our lands. We will never sell our rainforest to the oil companies.”

On February 27, 2019, the Waorani officially sued the government of Ecuador. They did not know if they would succeed. But, they knew they had to try.