Gente Power is a monthly Somos series profiling the Latinx activists, cultural workers, educators, and movement leaders creating change in their communities and paying it forward for the next generation. This month, we're talking with Ecuadorian environmental justice activist and Amazon defender Helena Gualinga.
Helena Gualinga’s life has always been marked by resistance. The year she was born, 2002, the Ecuadorian State granted permission to the Argentine oil company CGC to enter her community, the Sarayaku territory, without consent from the native people of the rainforest. The company spread deforestation by scattering explosives around the land. In response, the Sarayaku people have been fighting for a land where they could live free from extractivism. Rising up against deforestation and colonial threats from the Ecuadorian government, the community of just 1,500 people has emerged as leaders in the fight for human rights and nature conservatism — and Gualinga is one of its youngest defenders.
Rather than calling herself an activist, Gualinga considers herself a spokesperson, someone who uses her voice to speak for the rainforest. Known by her Amazonian family as Sumak, which, in Kichwa, has a profound meaning loosely translated to "the beauty of life," Gualinga’s mission is to protect all the beautiful life of the rainforest from threats that have only escalated throughout her lifetime. Growing up, Gualinga, who comes from a family of land protectors, listened to her elders discuss the perils of extractivism. In time, she witnessed and understood the dangers that lurked in the territory herself and it drove her to speak out.
“Whenever I am away, I would sometimes have nightmares that if I returned to my community, I would not be able to find it anymore — that the forest had been destroyed by the extractive industries that are rife here,” Gualinga tells Refinery29 Somos. “I understood my duty [is] to defend my territory as my ancestors have done.”
Gualinga splits her time between two worlds — Sarayaku, at the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and Finland, the country her father is from and where she was partially raised. Living in both regions, Gualinga says, has given her enormous privilege. The young crusader, who speaks English, Spanish, Kichwa and Swedish, has used her access and platform to speak with various communities around the world about the need to save the Amazon rainforest.
"I understood my duty [was] to defend my territory as my ancestors have done."
“Today, we have many threats to the Amazon and our environment: mining, deforestation and oil companies, to name a few. This threat will increase day by day until we reach a point of no turning back,” she says. “The Amazon has reached a tipping point; the ecosystem is already so attacked that it could collapse at any moment, and this is truly alarming.”
About 10 million years old, and home to 390 billion trees, the Amazon is a nest of biodiversity that is in peril. Scientists believe that decades of human activity and a changing climate is bringing the jungle to a tipping point. Deforestation, forest fires and global temperature rises have brought on longer dry seasons that are irreversibly breaking the water cycle. At least 17% of the forest has been destroyed, and, at the current rate of deforestation, it is projected that 27% of the Amazon will be without trees by 2030. Even if climate change is tamed, at this speed, it is expected that the central, eastern and southern Amazon will become barren.
Despite her age, Gualinga has already spoken about the destruction of the Amazon at forums and conferences around the world, including the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25). In November 2021, during her visit to Glasgow for COP26, she was part of a delegation of young Sarayaku women who co-led a youth climate march. During the demonstration, more than 100,000 people protested the over-representation of lobbyists at the international convening and the lack of attention given to young environmentalists and Indigenous people. The demonstrators also shared their grievances around the lack of will and commitment of governments that give into pressure from corporations and extractivist regimes rather than work to reduce their dependence on and exploitation of fossil fuels.
Like most environmental justice advocates of her generation, Gualinga is also active online, where she uses social media as a tool to share her fight and tell the world about the beauty of her community and her ancestors' wisdom. Among them: “Kawsak Sacha,'' a worldview of the Kichwa Sarayakus that literally translates to “living forest” and recognises the forest as a living being with other spiritual beings that live in its rivers, mountains and lagoons. For Amazonians, the "living forest" is a conscious being that has rights and communicates through a rainforest full of animals, colourful vegetation and magical rivers. It speaks to the need to protect native land and honour the interconnected relationship that Indigenous people have with fit.
For generations, Gualinga's family has looked to the land to receive ancestral wisdom, and she has looked to them. Among them was Gualinga’s grandfather, Sabino Gualingo, who passed away in February 2022, leaving behind a legacy of rainforest connection and protection and a deep respect for nature and its people. In 2011, he gained international attention for his testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, where he explained the idea of the “living forest” and helped win a ruling in favour of his community. “I cannot put into words what this loss means to me and my family and how much it hurts to let go," Gualinga wrote in an Instagram post after his passing. "But his teachings, his wisdom, his songs, his stories, his love, his spirit, and legacy will live forever.”
In many ways, they'll live on through Gualinga and her relatives. In fact, Gualinga is often surrounded by women like her grandmother, mother, aunts, and sister. As a child, she regularly accompanied them in meetings. They often adorned their powerful bodies with native jewellery and wituk, a tincture that some Indigenous communities use on their bodies as a form of activism and an expression of strength, beauty, care, resistance and celebration. For Gualinga, wearing wituk is also a way to defy colonialism and pay homage to Indigenous women leaders.
"We Indigenous women not only have the mission of protecting our territories but also protecting our bodies and souls."
“We Indigenous women not only have the mission of protecting our territories but also protecting our bodies and souls, a message we strive to convey most delicately and beautifully as we can,” Gualinga says, adding that many Sarayaku women sell necklaces, seed earrings, and wood and clay handicrafts to generate income.
While Indigenous women have always been central to environmental rights movements throughout South America, they often pay a price for putting their bodies on the line for their land and communities. Violence against Indigenous environmental and human rights defenders is rampant, and women who resist state-approved corporate conquests risk rape, disappearances and murder.
For Gualinga, being a young Indigenous woman in this fight with an international following is both a hazard and an honour. In March, she and her sister Nina, a fellow land rights activist, made history when they became the first Indigenous women on the cover of Revista Hogar, a popular lifestyle magazine in Ecuador. Together, the two used the opportunity to share the stories and struggles of women in the Amazon who fight every day for the autonomy of their territories, their bodies, and their lands. The cover story caused excitement back home, especially among Gualinga’s younger cousins. “I hope that these achievements are just the beginning. I want to see many more Indigenous women, and our stories, reflected in the various media," she says.
Gualinga, who is currently in Sarayaku spending time with her family while enjoying the crystal-clear rivers of the rainforest, says that her homeland is known as "The Midday Town.” There are legends in the territory that its inhabitants are the descendants of jaguars and that the Sarayaku people will stand strong and, like the sun at midday, prevail for generations. This, in many ways, is the message she shares with the world, whether on social media, international stages, or within her own community: future generations of Indigenous girls and women of the Amazon rainforest can and will continue to preserve the land, the people and the beauty of their ancestral culture.