These Indigenous Women Are Fighting Big Oil—And Winning

6 minute read
Nenquimo, co-founder of Amazon Frontlines and the Ceibo Alliance, is a Waorani leader who has won the Goldman Environmental Prize. Mbuthuma is a leader of the amaMpondo people in South Africa and spokesperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, a collective that defends her community’s rights to steward their ancestral land.

We are two Indigenous women leaders writing from the frontlines of the battle to save our oceans, our forests, and our planet’s climate. We have good news to share: We know how to beat Big Oil.

From the Amazon rainforest to the shores of the Indian Ocean in South Africa, we have led our communities to mighty victories against oil companies who hoped to profit off our territories. In September 2022, we succeeded in getting a court to revoke a permit that would have allowed Shell to despoil Indigenous farming communities and fishing grounds along the pristine Wild Coast of South Africa. Just a few years earlier in April 2019, we organized Indigenous communities deep in the Ecuadorian rainforests to resist the government’s plans to drill in pristine rainforests and were victorious, protecting half a million acres of forests and setting a legal precedent to protect millions more.

Both were David vs. Goliath victories—and both were opportunities for us to learn where to point that fabled slingshot.

Big Oil has the deepest of pockets and a horrific track record when it comes to corruption, scandal, and environmental crimes. Across the world, Indigenous and local communities know that once the industry gets a foothold in our lands, it leaves ruin in its wake. For instance, the A’i Cofán people of Ecuador’s northern Amazon have borne the brunt of decades of oil industry contamination, deforestation, and health impacts. And the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta have lost their fishing and farming lands to polluting oil operations, and have seen their leaders threatened and murdered when they dared to speak out.

Read More: Biden May Be About to Sign Off on a Huge Alaska Oil Drilling Project

As frontline communities, we must work together to stop Big Oil before they enter our lands. But this, in itself, is no easy task. The industry offers alluring promises of “progress” and “development.” And they have people—in government, the military, police forces, shadowy paramilitary groups, and sometimes in our own communities—who are willing to intimidate, harass, and even kill leaders like us who have the courage to stand up to them. They also have billions of dollars riding on getting permits to suck the oil out of the ground and sea.

So, how did we stop them?

First, we kept our communities together. We fought against the industry’s “divide and conquer” tactics by grounding our battle in our own sacred connection to our lands. Our ancestors and elders understood, as we do today, that Mother Earth is sacred and worth fighting for. We are connected to her through our breath, our stories, our dreams, and our prayers. She gives us everything: water, food, medicine, shelter, meaning. And in return, we protect her.

We also helped our people cut through the false promises and threats by exposing Big Oil’s lies and abuse around the world. That is, we made sure our villagers could learn from the A’i Cofán people of Ecuador, the Ogoni of the Niger delta, and the countless other frontline communities that have suffered at the hands of Big Oil.

As Indigenous women leaders, we know that if we can keep our sacred connection to the land and keep our people united, then we have a fighting chance against any oil company in the world.

We also have the law on our side, which makes Big Oil really vulnerable. In 2007, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognized our right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) for any activity that affects our ancestral lands. Our shorthand is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” We, Indigenous peoples, the ancestral owners of some of the most biodiverse, carbon-rich places on the planet (the places that the oil industry wants to get their hands on more than anything), have the internationally recognized legal right to decide what happens on our land.

In South Africa, we were able to protect 6,000 square miles of pristine marine ecosystems off the Wild Coast, saving dolphins and whales from deafening seismic blasts on the ocean floor while also protecting local communities and our planet’s climate from the threat of ramped-up offshore drilling. And on the other side of the world, in Ecuador, we leveraged our internationally recognized rights to protect some of the biodiverse rainforest in the Amazon, jamming the Ecuadorian Government’s plans to drill across millions of acres of Indigenous territories.

But the law alone isn’t enough. To move courts and politicians—and to create legal exposure and reputational risk to companies—we need global community support to keep going.

That means getting financial resources to the frontlines, so that we can protect our leaders, organize our communities, and secure our rights. Only a fraction of 1% of all climate funding currently makes it to Indigenous communities on the frontlines of the climate battle. We need to change that.

It also means sharing our stories and shining a spotlight on our struggles, so that local courts and politicians know that the world is watching. Public solidarity not only prevents corruption and back-room deals, but it also energizes our grassroots campaigns.

We need to continue to pressure governments around the world to finally adopt our internationally recognized right to decide what happens in our lands in their national laws and constitutions. Our peoples have been putting our bodies on the line in the battle to protect Mother Earth for centuries. It’s not only a moral imperative that global governments finally recognize and respect our right to self-determination, but it is also one of the most urgent and effective climate strategies—it’s no coincidence that we are the guardians of over 80% of our planet’s biodiversity. In the Amazon rainforest, half of the remaining standing forest is in our territories. Without us and without our territories, there is no climate solution.

To have a fighting chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we can’t afford to be opening up new oil fields in the lungs of the earth. We need to keep our forests standing. We need to transition to renewable energy.

We are writing this because we see that world leaders, businesses, and NGOs are only making slow, incremental progress on climate despite the urgent existential threat we face. Instead of getting frustrated, we’re doubling down on sharing our formula with other Indigenous guardians on the ground.

We know that time is not on our side—but our spirituality and our rights are. So here’s one idea from two Indigenous women leaders that beat the oil industry, and protected our oceans and our forests: Listen to us for a change.

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