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A message for Cop26 – from deep within the Amazon rainforest

In the run up to Cop26, the most crucial conference in the history of humanity, a powerful call for action to respect Mother Nature rather than destroy her was made by Nemonte Nenquimo, the female leader of the indigenous Waorani people from deep within the Amazon rainforest.

It was a cry from the beating loving heart of the Amazon to the brutal concrete heart of Glasgow, where world leaders meet in just few days, to decide our fate. As founder of the Ceibo Alliance and Amazon Frontlines, Nenquimo’s passionate dignified plea was made standing in the middle of her native rainforest, almost nine months pregnant, face adorned with traditional tribal paint and broadcast by video to the audience at the pre-Cop26 TED Countdown summit in Edinburgh. 

“Our forests are burning, oil continues to spill, the miners continue to invade our territory and colonists cut down our forests to feed societies abroad,” she said. The presenter who introduced her speech told the audience that an astonishing nearly 50 per cent of the world’s remaining ancient forests are protected by indigenous peoples around the globe. This covers 28 per cent of the earth’s land surface.

Nenquimo spoke eloquently about the difference in philosophy between her Waorani tribe, other indigenous peoples across the world, and the non-indigenous “Cowori” populations of the world and how we relate to the world’s forests. To indigenous communities, forests are their homes, their food supply, their pharmacy and the spiritual framework of their lives.

She spoke lovingly of how her knowledge, love and respect for the forest was taught to her by the tribal elders and by the forest itself as a teacher. The Cowori, she said, see the forests as a place from which we can keep extracting resources, but we are destroying them in the process. She said we do not care about nature’s rights or the fact her people depend on the forests for food, water, life and housing. She described how the arrival of roads, missionaries, oil companies and colonisers were destroying her home.

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The Amazon is the extraordinary beating heart of Mother Earth. A heart whose ability to absorb millions of the tonnes of CO2, that we the Cowori in our destructive fossil-fuelled industrial revolution have released into the atmosphere, has been crucial in helping keep the earth from overheating even faster.

Nenquimo warned that our destructiveness was in danger of not just destroying indigenous peoples, but destroying ourselves in the process. “It is up to you to hear our cries,” she said. This week’s devastating report from the World Meteorological Service on the state of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, followed by the dire news that our Mother Amazon’s heart had ceased to absorb our excess CO2, and has actually become a net source of CO2 in the atmosphere, as great swathes of it are burnt, felled or suffer from human-caused drought, as the miraculous cloud-making abilities of the great forest are bulldozed into extinction.

Nenquimo made particular reference to the duplicity and destructiveness of some oil corporations, which come to the Amazon with promises of development and no harm. “They come with beautiful words, saying it will not affect the environment, will not produce any waste nor damage the surrounding rainforests … but it is a lie,” she exclaimed. Communities like Nenquimo’s have been unable to clean up the oil spills that have contaminated their rivers, fish, people and spirits. People have become physically sick, she told viewers. She called for the oil drilling to end: “The forest is our home – period.”

But she nevertheless held out the hand of friendship and kinship, despite the ongoing harm to indigenous communities. “As indigenous peoples, we have a deep love and respect for our forests that goes back thousands of years. Whilst we cannot teach you all of this, all I ask is respect,” she said. “Mother Earth is not waiting for you [Cowori] to save her. She is waiting for you to respect her.” This latter statement especially resonated with me. I frequently get angry when I hear Westerners call for us “to support” indigenous peoples. Native communities have lived in harmony with nature for millennia, while we have brought the entire natural world to the brink of extinction in just a few centuries.

These communities do not need our support. They need us to grow up and stop destroying their ability to live harmoniously for thousands more years, instead of bringing devastation to their forests. Western economies value the dead forests. Indigenous communities value the glorious life they sustain. The Waorani leader finished her speech with a call to our shared humanity, she challenged us to stop consuming oil, to stop destroying the forests.

“It is not only for our children but your children also and for lives across the entire world. “You Cowori are capable of the same values as us. You can learn to respect the knowledge we have of the forest. You can become our allies. “Wake up and decide enough is enough.” Quite.

Let us hope the hearts of the world’s media and government leaders hear Nenquimo’s words of indigenous wisdom, as they meet in Glasgow to decide, not just the fate of the Waorani, but all future generations across the globe. Her message is simple – love nature, stop consuming oil and stop destroying our forests. We hear you, but will they?