This summer, fires began to rage in the Amazon—known as the “planet’s lungs” and responsible for producing 20% of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere—as a direct result of Brazilian president Jair Bolsorano’s weakening of environmental protections, which set the scene for mass deforestation.
This thrust into the spotlight the work of Nemonte Nenquimo, Emergildo Criollo, Sandro Piaguaje, and Taita Pablo Maniguaje—a group of indigenous leaders from the Waorani, Kofan, and Siona nations in the Ecuadorian and Colombian Amazon—who have come together with Amazon Frontlines to give voice to their shared work of protecting their regions’ natural resources.
Although the four activists have been vocal about the Amazon fires, their work cannot be distilled to a single event or cause. Nenquimo, Criollo, Piaguaje, and Maniguaje have all been involved in the fight against global warming for significant portions of their lives, and they face very real threats in order to do their work.
Piaguaje is currently under both national and international protection measures due to threats on his life for defending Siona land from oil interests, and right now, Nenquimo and Criollo—like many Ecuadorians—are at risk as violent unrest triggered by fuel price hikes taking place in Quito, Ecuador.
Earlier this month, Vogue spoke to the delegates in New York about their work, their fears, and their hopes for the future.
A young mother from the Waorani nation of Ecuador, Nenquimo is the first female leader of CONCONAWEP (Waorani Organization of Pastaza Province) and lead plaintiff in the Waorani people’s recent landmark lawsuit protecting half a million acres of their rainforest territory from oil drilling.
On the dangers she faces for her activism: “All of us leaders have experienced threats. We’re in danger constantly. People will call us and say, ‘You aren’t thinking about the development of the country; the petrol industry is helping to develop the country for everyone.’ That’s a lie—the petrol industry is going to bring death to my territory. People who are part of this fight are being threatened by the government. They want to eliminate all of us leaders who appear in public and say that our territory isn’t for sale. As a woman and a mother, I feel strongly that life is more important than money.”
A founding member of the indigenous organization Ceibo Alliance, Criollo lost two of his children to oil-spill contamination stemming from Texaco/Chevron’s presence in the area. Now, Criollo—a member of Ecuador’s A’i Cofán Nation—has helped forge an alliance of four indigenous nations, for the first time in their history, to confront threats to their lands and way of life in the Upper Amazon.
On his trip to New York to attend the UN Climate Action Summit: “I saw Greta [Thunberg] speak beautifully to defend our planet against global warming, and I told her, ‘We can unite our paths to work together.’ That was my idea in coming here, learning how to combine our efforts, because Greta has already made great strides and has momentum.”
Piaguaje is the elected leader of the Siona people of Putumayo, Colombia, and the founder of the region’s first indigenous land patrol. Piaguaje has testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the risks faced by indigenous environmental defenders in Colombia.
On the future of the climate activism fight: “The world recognizes that issues like climate change have become trendy, but I don’t want what we’re doing to become a trend. This is the feeling of many indigenous people: that people are going to take advantage. We’re here today to tell the world that the Amazon people are here to fight and protect, but one day we’re going to be worn out without support.”
Taita Pablo Maniguaje
A traditional Siona shaman at the Colombia/Ecuador border, Taita Pablo —“Taita” being an earned title reserved for spiritual leaders— Maniguaje is an international authority on the intersection between spirituality, sacred plants, and land defense. Through leading Yagé (ayahuasca) ceremonies for the Siona community, Taita Pablo Maniguaje is one of the Siona elders on the forefront of healing through the ritual.
On the biggest threat facing his community: “The biggest threat to the Siona people right now are transnational corporations, like petroleum companies. Petroleum companies are like these large monsters who don’t think about Mother Earth in the way that we indios do. We think of Mother Earth as a woman because a woman has the fruit, the seed.... She produces life, and it is so with Mother Earth.”
Special thanks to Tom Laffay and Sophie Pinchetti
Originally Appeared on Vogue