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 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. Few understood the language that was used. And only the benefits were presented.

Afterward, the Waorani learned that the government had divided up a large section of the Amazon. These sections would be auctioned off for drilling. The Waorani section was number 22.

They needed to defend their land. But first, the Waoroni needed a leader.

A Leader for Her People

Nemonte Nenquimo is a 35-year-old mother. She was born and raised in the Waorani culture. Early in her childhood, her family moved to a community deep in the rainforest.

Nenquimo’s childhood was filled with swimming in the rivers, picking wild fruit, and listening to 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. 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 and young people worked together. They mapped the sacred waterways, animal breeding sites, burial spots, and fruit tree groves. They used traditional drawing methods as well as GPS and cameras. These maps would be invaluable to show the deep relationship the Waorani have to their land.

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. The case argued that the government had not gotten the free agreement of the Waorani. And this was required by law. The planned auctioning of the lands was illegal.

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.