Climate Advocate Helena Gualinga: Climate Change Is Not A “Gen Z Issue”

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If you've ever read a story about Greta Thunberg or last year's Global Youth Climate Strike, you'd think all anyone under 25 does is worry about the environment. Marketing report after marketing report will tell you Gen Z prioritizes "impact" above all else. As a result, brands are dying to tell young consumers how eco-conscious and environmentally-friendly they are, and how all their products are zero-waste. And it seems that, by now, even Gen Z is tired of hearing about its climate anxiety, especially with its own version of the hipster – the VSCO Girl – famously preoccupied with saving the turtles. We get it, Gen Z really cares about the environment. But giving a shit about climate change is so much more than a generational trademark. And folding it into a trope makes it seem more like a youthful personality trait than the major emergency it really is.
For 18-year-old Helena Gualinga, who is just finishing high school in Finland, advocating for the rights of the Sarayaku community to maintain custody over their land has been a life-long battle. The Sarayaku community in the Ecuadorian Amazon is just one of many communities fighting off Big Oil's attempts at exhausting the environment for private gains. She comes from a family, and community, led by women committed to preserving the Amazon as well as their people's autonomy. Refinery29 sat down with Gualinga to talk about the assumption that Gen Z will save the world and how "Indigenous is the answer."
Gen Z is not here to save you. They're just fighting for their future. For the Future spotlights young activists and goes beyond the myth of the Savior Generation. They're not superheroes, they're not untouchable, they're simply young people pushing to make a difference in their own worlds.
Refinery29: Your work focuses on the intersection of Indigenous rights and climate change. You have a notable platform for just speaking out and bringing awareness to these issues. But in your own words, how would you describe what you do? Do you consider yourself an activist?
Helena Gualinga: I think that I am more of a voice for what is happening. For example, what's happening to Indigenous people and things that are happening in the Amazon. So I would not state that I'm an activist, rather the activism [is] of my people, my community, and I am only someone who is trying to make people listen to those people. Because the people that actually are doing the work are, you know, in the communities, they are in the Amazon, they are on the ground. They are protecting, literally with their own bodies sometimes, their lands and protecting huge areas of forest, waters, et cetera.
How did you get started in this? What led you to do advocacy?
My mom is from a community called Kichwa Sarayaku. Sarayaku is a very small Indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. There are about 1,200 people there, and the year I was born, an oil company entered without my community's consent. So when I was growing up, I constantly saw all the things that happened to my people, to the people that said no. It was always part of my life that people were fighting for our communities. This was normal for me, that someone was trying to take our home from us. So when I grew up and I realized that I have a voice, I have a platform that I can use — English is a very good tool to have to reach a lot of people —  I think I owed this to my people, that's the least I can do to help my people.
A lot of people's attitude when it comes to Gen Z and climate change specifically, is to kind of lean back and think, "Gen Z is here to save the day." I was wondering if that relates to your experience at all?
Yeah, definitely. I hear that a lot. Like, you know, youth is the solution. I kind of feel a lot of times they applaud us or say "Congratulations on all the work you're doing." And like, it's sad to hear that because we shouldn't have to do the work that we are doing. We should not have to think about this at such a young age, you know? I'm 18 now, but these issues for me, they've been there all my life. That is what people are growing up with, not just in my community, but everywhere. It's kind of putting the responsibility on us and being like, "Oh, you're so good, but we are not going to take responsibility for what we have done." And that often happens with politicians or CEOs of big corporations: they take a picture with us and then they continue their dirty work. And that is really upsetting. We literally are screaming for action and people my age don't have the tools or the knowledge to solve climate change, for example. But we do know that this is an issue. Sometimes people don't know what to do, but they know that there are people that have the power to do something about it, and we need to speak up for that to happen. It's not fair to get credit for something that actually I shouldn't be doing. I shouldn't have to do this.
Talking about that same eagerness on the part of older generations to take a step back and let Gen Z take care of things, do you think there is a similar expectation that Indigenous communities should be the ones to clean up the mess?
I think that that happens less. At least in my experience, I cannot speak for anyone else, often Indigenous people are not valued at all. That's more the issue. While with youth, you kind of get the credit for it, even though they just use us for photo ops or something. We still get some credit. But instead, with Indigenous people that does not happen. In both media and with the governments, we are criminalized and they sometimes even have called us terrorists or use words like that against us. And it's not always just people in power. It's also just people in general, the civil society that has these great misconceptions of Indigenous people and does not actually even know of the work that Indigenous people are doing. I think that's more the issue, that people are not even aware of how much Indigenous people are contributing to our world. 

I was just the other day talking about this with my dad. I asked him, "Hey, do you know what percent of untouched forest there is in our province in Ecuador, that is in Indigenous people's territories?" And he was like, "Yeah, it should be like 90 something." We have all these politicians saying: "We're saving the Amazon," and they have all these contracts with NGOs or other governments. In reality, Indigenous people are protecting those lands because we stood up a few years back when they were threatening our communities. And that still happens. Just last year, they were just in my province, there were like two cases of Indigenous communities fighting for the lands against extractive industries. And that's a very small province. So I think that is more the issue, it's like people don't even acknowledge the work that we are doing.
Yeah, and a more recent example of how Indigenous people already know the answers to some of our climate concerns is with the California fires. If they were given power over the land they'd carry on their tradition of controlled burns, which the California government is only now looking to as an answer. Could you talk a bit more about how "Indigenous is the answer" and what that means?
Yeah, definitely, just as you said, like what is happening in California right now, the Indigenous people of those lands used to burn their lands there and they know these things, they know that land, they know how to treat it, they know how to handle it. And, when they have not been able to do it now, we're seeing the consequences. On top of that, we have this unprecedented situation with climate change. But in Ecuador, if we weren't protecting our territories, there would be no forest, no Amazon. And we would probably be pumping out oil from all our territories. We still have forests thanks to Indigenous people, and that is not just in Ecuador. That's in Brazil, that's in Colombia, that's in Peru, that's everywhere, not just in South America, but everywhere.
In your experience, how do people perceive your youth and interact with it? Do you use it to your advantage at all?
I think that what is good about being young, especially in my case, is that when young people talk, people turn around. We can get a lot of people to listen to us. The hard part is getting people to act, but at least people listen. And when people listen, even if the process is slow, it begins something. You realize, okay, this is actually real, and you wonder, why are youth actually worried about this? I think that it's super important that young people speak up because we can make a lot of heads turn around. 

It kind of surprises them, like, why are we worried about this? Why instead of being in school and just having fun, why are we actually worried about this? And then somewhere it clicks like, yeah, this is something that is going to affect them, affect their lives.
Right, so how do you reconcile the fact that, on one hand, young people shouldn't have to be doing the work you do of raising awareness and pushing for change, that young people should just enjoy being young and going to school and stuff. But also, it's not like young people shouldn't be concerned about politics?
I think that youth should definitely be engaged with the issues we have in our society. I'm not saying that we should not have to worry about that, but the thing is that you should never have to fear for your life since the day you are born. And that does not just apply in climate change, that applies in every situation. We should not have to worry about that. It's just so, so sad that people have let this go so far, that this is our reality for so many people. But this is so much more than just politics or issues in society. This is literally about our future and not just my future or, you know, my generation's future, it's an entire planet. 
There is no shortage of young activists and advocates in the climate change space. Climate change has kind of become Gen Z's cause and the Global Youth Climate Strike almost represents Gen Z in a weird way. Do you have thoughts on that?
Yeah, I think a lot of people connect our generation, Gen Z, to climate change and the fight against climate change because the climate movement is probably one of the biggest movements that has ever existed. And the faces of this movement, the people that are out on the streets, are young people. So I think that's why they think of us as the climate generation. But for me, it's so interconnected — climate, social justice, and Indigenous rights. A lot of people know me because of climate activism or whatever, but it's so much more than that.
Right, and you talked about how it's your people who have protected the Amazon and that this work isn't the work of a single generation. There are generations of your people working to protect the environment.
Yeah, and the climate movement wasn't started by young people. There were so many people working on that before this became a thing that people suddenly were aware of. Indigenous people and communities that actively were working against these issues have been doing this for so many years. It's just that now we're at the tipping point. So many people have joined the movement, and that's why we're putting the focus on youth because we are in the front of it all.
As a young person demanding change and challenging governments, do you get dismissed or criticized because of your age? What kinds of assumptions do people most often make about young climate advocates like yourself?
I've had people say to me that I do this for attention and stuff like that. I think every young person who does this work gets that. I've had people expect me to act in a certain way, speak in a certain way, or just be a certain way, having these ideas of Indigenous people and how we should be. That can be really irritating sometimes. Indigenous people are so diverse.

The stereotypes that people have of Indigenous people, they can be very damaging to our communities and to our cultures, to our ways of being and living. So people need to keep that in mind that those thoughts and those ideas actually do harm to people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

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