Last year, the indigenous-led organization Waorani Resistencia took its fight for land rights to court to keep oil extraction out of their territory. They successfully sued 3 Ecuadorian government bodies over their improper consultation processes, preventing the exploitation of over half a million acres of the Amazon. This put a stop to the release of approximately 19 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.
It nullified all past consultations, thereby indefinitely suspending the future auctioning of Pastaza land. Their historic legal win set an invaluable legal precedent for other indigenous nations in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It forced the government to comply with often ignored constitutional and international obligations and emphasized the need for the informed consent of Indigenous communities on matters of their land.
Since its viral campaign, the organization has continued to speak out against exploitation, provided government oversight, and helped implement renewable energy. I had the privilege of interviewing Wao Resistencia’s spokesperson, Oswando Nenquimo. We discussed the organization’s campaigns, strategy, and how they are fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.
LR: Why was Waorani Resistencia created? What was that process like?
ON: Since we were first contacted by American Evangelical missionaries 50 years ago, we have dealt with consistent exploitation that has only gotten worse over time. We’ve accepted politicians, corporations, and whoever came to us with open arms. Everyone, be they good or bad, were immediately welcomed, but there was never any real consent or consensus.
We are guided by our dreams. They help lead our decisions and teach us to interpret the world. We have always dreamed of a strong autonomous governance structure led by Waorani people and Waorani values that adequately deal with outside involvement and protect our land.
Many organizations have come into our community with false promises. Universities and western nonprofits have imposed unwanted projects on us. Previous indigenous leaders appointed to broker outside relations have taken oil and government bribe money to sign contracts on our behalf. All decisions have been made behind closed doors, and outsider’s interests have been the only ones represented.
Youth from Pastaza, including my sister and I, came together to create an autonomous organization led by indigenous people like us. We thought critically about our history before meeting with 3 other minority indigenous groups in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon: the Siona, Secoya, and Kofan. We spoke freely about the issues our communities face and the kinds of governance structures we want. Over a year, we came together, as people and as friends, to create the Ceibo Alliance. It was born out of the needs of our communities, and to address the impacts of logging and oil exploitation we have felt first hand. Waorani Resistance is 100% indigenous and works under the Ceibo umbrella to support the Wao nation in Pastaza.
LR: How do you approach your campaigns and initiatives? What are you working on now?
ON: Before we begin any initiative or campaign, we ask our community what we can do as youths that understand the globalized world. We listen to our community and make every decision in collaboration with them. We don’t provide services but accompany and collaborate instead.
We provide legal assistance, monitor the movement of oil and logging companies, and help implement renewable energy solutions. We’re installing rainwater collection systems in areas that do not have access to safe drinking water. In the past few months, we have also been working on a whole host of initiatives to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.
LR: Which campaign are you most proud of, or want to highlight?
ON: I was on Alianza Ceibo’s team when we started our community-led mapping project a few years ago. Missionaries, nonprofits, and oil companies had come in and mapped our land. Their maps showed major rivers, oil, timber, gold, and petrol deposits, they only represented the interests of those doing the mapping.
Our maps show where medicinal plants, sacred waterfalls, creeks, fishing holes, jaguar trails, animal reproductive zones, and historic battle sites are. We wanted to turn our traditional knowledge into something tangible. We wanted to use these maps as an advocacy tool and as a means to preserve our traditional knowledge.
We didn’t want to bring in an outside geographer. We know a lot more than any outsider could about our land. We collaborated with Amazon Frontlines and Digital Democracy, as they helped us get access to GPS systems and cameras. In working with them, we were very clear about the fact that they were there to accompany us, not to impose or dictate what we should do.
The process involved spending a lot of time in the rainforest, walking through trails. We needed everyone’s knowledge. Elders, women, and the youth of every Waorani community came together to tell their stories. It was a massive project, we mapped over 180,000 hectares. We reflected on the importance of our territory and collectively reassessed our response to oil and logging expansion.
The maps played an integral role in our legal battle. They are what brought us together. While presenting our final product in a large assembly, we discussed what action needed to be taken to address the exploitation of Block 22. That is when we collectively decided to sue the Ecuadorian government.
LR: What is your role in Wao Resistencia? What does the organization mean to you?
ON: I am working hard to serve my community as Wao Resistencia’s elected spokesperson. This organization means a lot to me. I grew up in the Nemonpare community in Pastaza, learning from my grandparents and elders. The wisdom of our ancestors and elders directs our work. It inspires us to do more for our communities. I am proud to be a part of the fight and to be a young Wao leader in my community who speaks out against injustice. I plan to keep fighting until our elders, our land, and our rights are respected.
LR: How would you describe the relationship between Waorani Resistencia and the Ecuadorian government since your historic legal win?
ON: Since our legal win, we have pressured the government to comply with the ruling and our constitutional rights. It has been difficult. We have to be constantly vigilant. The ruling stipulated that the Waorani community in Pastaza will dictate what prior consent means to us. We are working with the Department of the Environment and Energy to reform the consultation process and make it culturally competent.
The government used to see us, and other Indigenous communities like animals or worms they could step on. They respect us more now. They’re scared of us.
We’ve come together, and we’re stronger. Earlier this year, we met with government officials after a direct action we planned in Quito. They would never have taken a meeting with us before our legal win. At the meeting, we asked them: When are you going to fix what you have damaged? When are you going to apologize for all of the harm you’ve caused? They know we understand the law and how to make demands, that we are going to fight for our rights and against anything that could infringe upon them. They know we can win.
LR: What challenges has the Waorani community faced during the coronavirus pandemic?
ON: We met with three other Waorani organizations, COCONAWEP, AMWAE, and, NAWE before there were any known COVID-19 cases in Ecuador. We discussed the kind of policies that would need to be in place to prevent spread and sent a joint proposal to the government describing them. We were hoping to reduce the amount of contact with cities and implement safe ways of getting access to soap, alcohol, salt, and testing kits.
We wanted to train the medical personnel in the health clinics near Wao territory since our community is culturally different from the White Mestizos they usually treat. We wanted to ensure that all forms and signs were in our language and easily understood. We didn’t hear back from local or federal government officials, so we spent a lot of time making and distributing our own infographics. We were well on our way to tackling the pandemic.
When the government first declared a state of emergency and restricted travel, we noticed that loggers were still given permits and allowed to work. When the Wao Resistencia and CEIBO teams were looking to travel to talk about COVID-19 prevention and care in our language, knowledge that would have been inaccessible otherwise, the government’s travel restrictions prevented us from doing that.
We didn’t even know that balsa logging was taking place in Pastaza until a truck from Ecuador’s epicenter at the time, Guayaquil, came into our territory and gave us our first case.
In Yasuni, two Repsol oil facility station workers were the first cases. When the government says that the Wao are infecting themselves, they are lying. The epicenters in our communities have been the places logging, and oil companies operate.
A Waorani woman was infected while in Yasuni but only started feeling symptoms once she reached Miwaguno. At a clinic, doctors told her it was just the common cold. A few weeks later, 90% of the community was infected. It continued to spread, impacting people in Konimpare, Nemonpare, Tobeta, and Kareno. Almost everyone got it.
The doctors said it was just a cold and gave paracetamol to those with symptoms. We pushed back because we knew what the symptoms meant. The doctors didn’t have the appropriate personal protective equipment or enough testing kits.
It is the Ministry of Health’s fault. It was negligence on the part of the state. If they had the funding or taken our petition seriously, we would not have dealt with such a high infection rate.
The government had still not responded to our proposal. In follow up meetings with them, they would bring our attention to food kits delivered by the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion. The kits included foods that we don’t eat, like milk, and a supply that lasted us only a few days.
We’ve also had a lot of wins. We used our knowledge of traditional medicine, namely the bejuco plant, to treat the 90% who were infected, and most have now recovered. My grandfather just recently beat COVID-19 with the use of traditional medicine. We’re still going to need support from doctors moving forward so that we can continue to administer tests and learn about preventing spread.
The whole nation was saddened to hear that a young Wao leader died in a Yasuni hospital due to the virus last week. We’re worried about the communities in that region since their proximity to oil production puts them at higher risk. The Yasuni community has lost a lot of ancestral knowledge, and many are waiting for doctors instead of using traditional medicine to treat the virus.
We’ve worked with the CEIBO Alliance, Amazon Frontlines, and UDLA University to get testing and masks. We haven’t stopped pressuring the government, but we’re now ready in case of another wave.
LR: What can readers do to support Waorani Resistencia?
ON: We’re grateful to everyone who has supported us and other indigenous communities in the past. Donate to Amazon Frontlines to support our fight and help us cover COVID-19 related costs. If we work together, we can beat the virus!
To find out more about the Waorani people’s campaign including their maps, stories, and ongoing struggle, please visit waoresist.amazonfrontlines.org.
Maria Hernandez Pinto | Pitzer College
Maria is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Foreign Languages at Pitzer College, where she is a rising junior. Born in Guatemala to Colombian parents, Maria has always been deeply invested in Latin American issues. She is passionate about Latin American politics, human rights, and community development. She is looking forward to using storytelling as a tool for advocacy while writing about Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela as a Latin American Correspondent. Maria is excited to highlight and learn from the important work being done by local organizations in the region and hopes to bring Latin American voices to the forefront.