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Waorani leaders gather at the end of a historic three-day trial at the Provincial Court of Pastaza for their legal case against the Ecuadorian government, 13 April 2019

All photographs pages 12–13 © Amazon Frontlines

The Waorani victory provides a model for Indigenous nations across the Amazon produces 20% of our oxygen, and sucks in and stores more carbon pollution than any other place on Earth. But its planet-scale regulatory systems are under threat. Nobody understands this threat better, or is better situated to fight it, than the hundreds of Indigenous peoples across the Amazon. As the owners of approximately 1 million square miles of primary rainforest – nearly a quarter of the entire basin across seven countries – Indigenous peoples represent a powerful buffer against the destruction of this critical ecosystem.

It is urgent that we support their lead. State and industry efforts to open the “Earth’s lungs” to mining, oil, logging and agribusiness have already brought the rainforest to within sight of a disastrous ecological tipping point. Last May, the UN released a devastating scientific report forecasting the extinction of a million plants and animal species in the coming decades. The report highlighted that lands under Indigenous management fare far better than regions where native territorial rights are not respected.

Less well known, but equally devastating, is the cultural tipping point that threatens the survival of Indigenous cultures who have lived in harmony with the forests for millennia. The acceleration of forest loss is jeopardising Indigenous peoples’ way of life and their ability to survive off the abundance of the land. This dynamic can force young people to abandon traditional practices and find work in the very industries that threaten their forests, creating a vicious social feedback loop that will undermine the knowledge systems and ways of life that make Indigenous ecological stewardship possible.

The Waorani victory provides a model for Indigenous nations across the Amazon. This legal precedent immediately applies to the Waorani people’s neighbouring Indigenous nations, victims of the same flawed prior consultation process, whose own ancestral rainforest homelands are threatened by blocks in the government’s still-planned oil auction. It will reverberate in courts across the Americas.

The challenge before us is to scale up the pioneering Waorani model of advocacy and multi-nation mobilisation and solidarity, across Ecuador and the entire Amazon. There is much work to be done if we are to defeat the extraction-at-all-costs paradigm threatening the region. But it is also important to appreciate the smaller victories along the way. After the historic court ruling in August, the Waorani celebrated in the streets with song before returning to their homes to drink from the freshwater creeks, enjoy the beauty of the waterfalls, and walk freely in their forest.

Mitch Anderson is founder and executive director of Amazon Frontlines.

Issue 317

Resurgence & Ecologist


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