Climate Hero: Helena Gualinga

Helena Gualinga in 2020 in Sarayacu. Image credit: Courtesy of Helena Gualinga

Climate Hero: Helena Gualinga

Coming from a line of strong women activists, Helena Gualinga continues her family’s legacy of fighting for nature and the Kichwa Sarayuku community in the Amazon. Co-founding the organization Polluters Out, she leads a global coalition of youth that demand the removal of fossil fuels from Indigenous lands, world governments, and international policy.

Kichwa People of Sarayaku

On Bobonaza River in the province of Pastaza in the southern part of the Amazonic region of Ecuador lives the Indigenous Kichwa Sarayaku community. Made up of only 1,500 people, the village is so remote that it can only be accessed by canoe or a small airplane. Here, in the heart of the rainforest, is where Sumak Helena Sirén Gualinga was born,

Yet, despite their connection and rightful place as caretakers of the land, the Sarayuku and surrounding region have been under constant threat from oil industries. In 2002, a subsidiary of Chevron, with the help of the Ecuadorian military, placed 1.5 tons of explosives in the forest, destroying biodiversity and sacred sites.

A family of fighters

The community and Gualinga’s family fought back. In 2012, the Sarakayu took the Ecuadorian government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, citing the government nor the oil company had asked the community’s permission to do so and won.

Growing up participating in protests and strikes alongside her family, Gualinga and her older sister Nina were called to activism. Noemí Gualinga is their mother and the former Kichwa Women's Association President. Their aunt Patricia Gualinga and grandmother Cristina Gualinga are advocates of Indigenous women's rights and land defenders in the Amazon.

Finding her voice

Becoming a spokesperson for the Sarayaku, Gualinga began spreading the message about the destructive industries wreaking havoc on the Amazon, Indigenous communities, and the planet to youth in local schools in Ecuador. She spoke about the effects of climate change the Sarayaku have experienced firsthand, such as forest fires, desertification, destruction, and disease spread by floods, and snow packs melting on mountain peaks.

Gualinga continued to spread this concern on the international level, protesting during the 2019 Climate Action Summit. Holding up a sign that read, Sangre indígena, ni una sola gota más, “Indigenous blood, not one more drop,” she stood outside the UN headquarters in New York City.

Later that year, Gualinga participated in the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain. She called the Ecuadorian government “criminal” for “still granting our territories to the corporations responsible for climate change.”

Image credit: Courtesy of World Economic Forum

Taking on fossil fuels

Along with fellow environmentalists Isabella Fallahi and Ayisha Siddiqa, Gualinga founded Polluters Out in direct response to the failure of COP25 for not doing more to remove fossil fuel industries from influencing world governments and markets. The coalition of youth activists works with adult and scientist allies to get all governments to reject big polluter sponsorship in any capacity and kick them out of Indigenous lands.

In March 2022, at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital, the largest environmental film festival in the world held annually in Washington, D.C., the documentary Helena Sarayaku Manta premiered about her life and activism. Gualinga has also been featured in Vogue magazine, Revista Hogar magazine, and Refinery29.

Healing the Earth

At the 2022 Bioneers Conference, Gualinga spoke on the Daughters for Earth panel with Justin Winters, the Co-founder and Executive Director of One Earth. The Daughters for Earth campaign is powered by One Earth and aims to mobilize women worldwide to engage in climate action.

Throughout Gualinga’s work, there is a throughline of Indigenous leadership, women empowerment, and the idea that humanity is not separate from nature. With these guiding principles, the Amazon and the entire Earth can be saved from the current path of destruction.

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