This week, world leaders and diplomats are converging on the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh for the 27th United Nations Climate Conference – better known as COP27.
Meanwhile, some 12,000 kilometers away from the sun-drenched beaches and high-level negotiations, another climate battle is already underway.
Among those attending COP27 is 20-year-old Helena Gualinga. She hails from a remote village in the Ecuadorian Amazon – home of the Kichwa Sarayaku community, who have been fighting for climate justice and indigenous land rights for decades.
And with historic results. In 2012, the Sarayaku community successfully took the Ecuadorian government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, after it allowed oil exploration activities on their territory without their consent.
(Among the court’s findings was that Ecuador had put the Kichwa Sarayaku peoples’ right to life and cultural integrity in serious risk and was reportedly ordered to pay more than $1.3 million in compensation).
The landmark legal case had a lasting impact on Gualinga, and she hasn’t shied away from calling out the inadequacy of former COPs.
In response to the perceived failures of COP25, Gualinga co-founded Polluters Out, a global youth coalition challenging the UN and governments to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry.
Here, she tells CNN Opinion why she has reservations about COP27’s effectiveness, the importance of including indigenous people in climate crisis talks and why she doesn’t identify with the term “activist.”
The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
CNN: Describe growing up in the Ecuadorian Amazon and how this influenced your relationship with nature.
Gualinga: I spent a significant part of my childhood in my mother’s Sarayaku community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where I have a big “ayllu” or “family.”
It was an upbringing both in nature and in coexistence with nature – a lifestyle and culture we carry with pride.
Here, we are surrounded by big Ceibo trees and beautiful waters. We live in huts made out of wood and palm leaves, built with ancestral practices. Our subsistence has solely depended on nature – but the climate crisis, extraction of resources and deforestation have all contributed to devastation of our territory, which impacts the wildlife and our communities.
All of this has influenced our philosophy and declaration – Kawsak Sacha, meaning “The Living Forest,” where everything is alive.
The forest, water and mountains are considered living beings and therefore to honor and protect these living beings, the Sarayaku is fighting for legal recognition of them to create a new category of conservation.
With traditional conservation methods increasingly being questioned, it’s clear that the world needs to look towards Indigenous people to learn how to protect our ecosystems.
CNN: The Sarayaku case in 2012 was a landmark victory for indigenous rights – how did it shape how you see the world?
Gualinga: The Sarayaku case is a symbol of resistance. Throughout my childhood, the leaders of my community – many of whom are family – were violated, facing defamation, violence, torture and criminalization for their defiance. It sparked rage in me and my community.
But when Sarayaku won, we showed the world that you can fight big oil because no political or economic force is powerful enough to exploit land when its people unite.
Our victory inspired other Indigenous peoples protecting their lands and sends a powerful message to the companies and banks invested in projects that violate our rights. Their time is up!
After living in fear of losing our home, my peers and I have followed in our elders’ footsteps in defying the systems that uphold violence against people and nature.
Last month, a youth gathering was held in Sarayaku where Indigenous youth from across the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon gathered to discuss the future of our territories and reaffirm our commitment to protect Kawsak Sacha.
Kawsak Sacha – a decolonized shift in mindset, rooted in Indigenous practices – is vital to stand against human greed and fight climate change. We need to replace Western conservation methods with Indigenous stewardship. Western models treat nature as something separate from humans, while Indigenous peoples see ourselves as part of nature, which we have lived with for thousands of years, and seek to pass on to future generations.
CNN: You don’t identify with the label ‘activist’ – why is that?
Gualinga: I don’t identify as an activist because I do not believe we had a choice. Where I come from, most of the Amazonian Indigenous population would be considered “activists.”
If Sarayaku did not put up a fight, our territory would have been destroyed. It’s a matter of survival rather than acting out of choice.
My region, Latin America, is one of the most dangerous places for Indigenous people and land defenders. Our life’s work has been to protect our lands – our existence is our resistance.
The mere existence of people in the Amazon is what is securing the future of the Amazon. Does that make us activists? No. It is simply part of who we are and where we come from. It’s a defense mechanism of nature itself.
CNN: Why are indigenous voices important in the global conversation on climate?
Gualinga: Our communities have been raising the alarm bell on the climate crisis as we see the changes to the environment firsthand. We are on the front lines of keeping fossil fuels in the ground as we work to defend our lands.
As the world is moving away from fossil fuels, it’s now being replaced by the green energy industry. However, the transition to a green economy must ensure that it includes Indigenous peoples in decision-making – and that it does not repeat the same colonialist approach of the fossil fuels industry.
However, the green energy industry is currently not adequately including Indigenous peoples in decision-making.
Where will these resources come from? Unfortunately, indigenous territories will be ground zero for exploitative practices in the transition to green energy. For example, across Latin America, mining for lithium, ‘the new gold,’ is intensifying and leaving indigenous communities in extremely poor conditions.
In the Amazon we have also seen hydro dam projects happen on Indigenous territories without prior and informed consent from Indigenous people. Often these projects are classified as “green,” however impacts on Indigenous communities have not been adequately addressed and accounted for.
It’s essential that Indigenous people not only have a say in climate negotiations, but that discussions are also led by Indigenous people, so that all climate action is guided by climate justice.
Indigenous people have tended ecosystems for thousands of years. The knowledge we have obtained interacting and coexisting with nature for years is essential to understand how we will restore and find balance between humans and nature.
To understand this, let’s look at the numbers. Indigenous peoples comprise less than 5% of the world population but we protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which we have lived for centuries.
CNN: Are you hopeful COP27 will bring change?
Gualinga: I do not have high expectations for COP27. A sense of urgency about the climate crisis has still not reached the negotiating rooms despite millions of people suffering from its devastating consequences.
COP has yet to deliver on the big promises the parties have made throughout the years. In particular, COP27 needs to make sure Indigenous people are at the front and center at the negotiations to ensure an outcome that accounts for the injustice we are facing in protecting our rights, lands and the world’s biodiversity.
Countries must put nature at the heart of their mitigation and adaptation plans.
And the most pressing conversation to be had is the end of fossil fuel extraction. The climate crisis will continue if we do not close the oil tap, halt extractive industries and the financing of energy projects that violate the rights of Indigenous peoples and threaten ecosystems like my home.
My community, Sarayaku, for example, is currently divided into several oil blocks – meaning the government has allocated our territories for the exploration for and production of oil – which means we live under a constant threat. Much of the trade of Ecuadorian Amazon crude oil is financed by European banks, some of which may be attending COP27 with inconsistent promises and Net Zero pledges.
COP27 needs to recognize the expiration date of fossil fuels is now. It needs to acknowledge our wisdom on climate solutions as stewards of the land and provide funding and resources so we can help to cultivate a just future.
Nature is at stake – and it will not be safe until governments are held accountable.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described oil blocks and omitted a line about the financing of the crude oil trade.