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Fighting Climate Change Is 'About My Home' For Indigenous Teen Activist Helena Gualinga

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Activist Helena Gualinga. (Allison Hanes.)

Activist Helena Gualinga. (Allison Hanes.)

Friday marks the last day of the 25th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP25.

World leaders gathered in Madrid to negotiate carbon emissions and the Paris Agreement. Last year, a U.N. International Panel on Climate Change report warned the global community it only has 12 years to avoid the threat of more severe floods, droughts, extreme heat and poverty.

But instead of collaborating to find solutions, COP25 has been defined by protests and frustration.

On Wednesday, Greta Thunberg, Time’s “Person of the Year,” criticized governments for lacking urgency. The 16-year-old activist also put a spotlight on indigenous communities’ fight against climate change.

“Their rights are being violated across the world and they are also among the ones being hit the most and the quickest by the climate and environmental emergency,” she said.

Thunberg called for the environmental movement to include more voices like 17-year-old indigenous activist Helena Gualinga, who grew up in a small community in the Ecuadorian Amazon called Sarayaku.

Gualinga says indigenous children are some of the most important activists because by living in native communities, they are protecting the forests in the Amazon.

“What got me into environmental activism was just living and growing up in the community,” she says. “I think that is activism. That’s a sign of resistance.”

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Oil companies have posed a threat to Gualinga’s community for as long as she can remember, she says. These companies often do not consult indigenous communities before entering their territories, she says.

That’s what happened to Sarayaku — her home. The Ecuadorian government supported oil companies and together, they entered the indigenous territory along with military, she says.

To protect their forests, she says the community had to stand up against these powers. As the first line of defense, men used to run into the forest to protect the community from the military, she says.

“It’s about my home. It’s about my people. It’s about my family,” she says. “We have this really close relationship to nature. And we live by nature and we live with nature. And that’s something that is very important to us.”

The fight to protect the forests later turned to a legal battle in courtrooms. Gualinga’s community won a court case against the Ecuadorian government in 2012 and the International Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.

Despite these victories, another oil company has since conceded on her community’s land, she says. She predicts this will lead to legal battles.

Since indigenous people are fighting these climate battles in court and in their forests, she says it’s important to represent their communities in spaces like COP25. But she’s disappointed indigenous people are still being “invisibilized” at such events.

Plus, countries like Ecuador attend climate conferences and make “beautiful speeches,” while indigenous territories are being conceded to oil and mining companies, she says.

This causes mixed feelings about events like the U.N. COP25 and doubts on whether activists are doing enough to succeed in stopping the climate crisis, she says.

“I know that this is what I have to do,” she says, “give a voice to the people that have been silenced and the people that don’t have a voice.”


Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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