words by daphne chouliaraki milner
photographs by stefan dotter
The environmental activist from Sarayaku, Ecuador, speaks to Atmos about the urgency of redefining progress and why fossil fuel extraction must cease entirely.
When Nina Gualinga arrived at COP26 two weeks ago, her expectations of world leaders—that they would finally commit to making tangible, meaningful change to protect the climate—were low. Instead, she felt disappointment. Outrage, too, at the hypocrisy that many of those sat at the table of the 2021 edition of The United Nations climate change conference were also responsible for some of the greatest crimes against the planet and those trying to protect it.
“When you look [back on] this COP, what you see is that it’s the same companies and corporations responsible for climate change that violate Indigenous rights and territories,” said Gualinga, who grew up in the Ecuadorian Amazon among her community, the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku. “It’s the same governments that persecute and incarcerate Indigenous people in their countries that were negotiating. They’re the ones that have decision-making power.”
Combating the multiple threats that face her community has become Gualinga’s life’s work. Last year in May, extreme floods in the Ecuadorian Amazon destroyed homes, schools, bridges and crops, leaving Indigenous people along the banks of the Bobonaza River homeless and destitute. Most of the affected communities were forced to rely on aid from GoFundMe pages and local NGOs over government support. This came as no surprise to Gualinga, who spent much of her childhood defending the ground she lived on from government-endorsed oil companies hoping to extract lucrative resources. It’s an ongoing battle that led her to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) with the aim of getting the harm inflicted upon her community and land recognised as abuse.
“It’s the same governments that persecute and incarcerate Indigenous people in their countries that were negotiating at COP26.”
Even so, Indigenous voices are repeatedly silenced in world events like COP26, which has been widely criticized for privileging delegates from high-income countries and welcoming a disproportionate number of representatives from fossil fuel companies: “In what this side of the world sees as the climate movement, Indigenous voices are still not heard,” Gualinga told Atmos. “But the real climate movement is out there with those frontline communities where people are literally putting their bodies on the line to protect biodiversity, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to protect forests and water.”
And so when Gualinga traveled to COP26 as part of the Amazon Watch team, a nonprofit that supports Indigenous delegations like Minga Indigena, to back the delegation of Sarayaku, her agenda was clear: to uplift Indigenous voices and amplify the local knowledge of Indigenous people from various countries and regions.
“I think the answer is pretty obvious right now, but I question if the people that [were at COP26] have the right intentions?” she said. “Do they have a political will to change? I feel the answer is no.”
When Gualinga speaks of the changes she wants to see, the terms are clear. First of all: keep fossil fuels in the ground. It’s something Indigenous communities have been calling on governments to do for decades. “We demand that banks immediately stop financing fossil fuels and ensure the life of all of humanity,” said Maricela Gualinga, vice president of the Kichwa Sarayaku peoples. “We want to continue existing, and for the forest to continue living for the sake of the entire world.” In fact, Indigenous activists fighting fossil-fuel exploitation save the U.S. and Canada on average 12 percent of their annual emissions, which translates roughly to 0.8 billion tons of carbon, per year, according to a recent report.
“People are dying, people are being incarcerated for [opposing fossil fuel extraction],” said Gualinga. “Governments and corporations need to stop criminalizing and persecuting Indigenous leaders and land defenders.” A recent example is the Line 3 pipeline—a 1,097-mile-long pipeline set to transport 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day by the end of the year. As of October, 2021, more than 900 individuals, many of them Indigenous, had been arrested by police while protesting the pipeline, according to the Pipeline Legal Action Network. And more often than not, resource extraction projects cause a spike in local crime, including sex trafficking and sexual abuse, making the cause against oil exploitation all the more urgent.
“Indicators of wealth [should] include fertile soil, abundant forests, clean water and clean air.”
It’s a problem that is just as pressing in countries across the Global South. In Ecuador, right-wing President Guillermo Lasso is putting plans into action to double oil extraction despite mass protests, including a lawsuit, by Indigenous communities from the country’s Amazon. In instances such as this, Gualinga underscores the importance of governments—both in the Global South and the Global North—being held responsible for upholding violent and exploitative systems. “Otherwise we allow countries like Ecuador to continue perpetuating violence towards Indigenous people and continue extracting fossil fuels in Indigenous land,” she said. “So, I would like to see those countries, no matter where they are, to be held accountable. And I want to see that fossil fuels are kept in the ground. I want to see that Indigenous people’s rights, territories, and decisions are respected.”
Another demand outlined by Gualinga is that the natural world be recognized as living; that plants, trees, rivers, insects and animals be formally acknowledged as equal to human life. Once again, it’s a fight Indigenous people have been pushing forward for years. In 2017, the Kichwa People of Sarayaku launched Kawsak Sacha, otherwise known as The Living Forest, a declaration that aims to conserve the territorial spaces that have emerged between Indigenous peoples and other living beings. A year later, in 2018, the White Earth Tribe approved a law that grants wild rice legal status because of the grain’s central place in Anishinaabe culture. For Gualinga, meaningful, widespread recognition of the natural world as a living entity would require redefining what progress, development and wellbeing means. “Indicators of wealth [should] include fertile soil, abundant forests, clean water, clean air, solidarity across communities and people, happiness, mental health,” she said, adding that profit-focused goals cannot be considered markers of success in an equitable world.
But for change to be long-lasting there needs to be a paradigm shift, a global will to rewire what we deem meaningful: what we choose to prioritize and what we decide to leave behind. “We expect it to be easy,” Gualinga said. “We expect an easy solution to complex problems. But this is not going to be easy. We need to prepare ourselves [for the fact] that it’s not going to be a [quick fix]. But it needs to get done. We have to change because it’s already getting too late.”
After all, the world we live in is all we have. “We are still here,” she said. “And there are people back home in the frontline communities that are fighting against these corporations, literally with their bodies. They are safeguarding forests, water and mountains. I see that resilience. I see that power. And I think that what we have left is worth fighting for. Despite the disappointment, there is also power in the people.”