8 Women with a new vision for Earth

Helena Gualinga


The Defender

Indigenous Kichwa environmental and human rights activist

Born into a family of female Indigenous advocates, Helena Gualinga grew up witnessing the conflict between her community and an oil company that had moved in without its consent.

“I constantly saw all the things that happened to my people, to the people that said no,” she said in a 2020 interview with Refinery29. “It was always part of my life that people were fighting for our communities. This was normal for me, that someone was trying to take our home from us.”

It didn’t take long for Gualinga, hailing from the Kichwa Sarayaku community in Pastaza, Ecuador, to embark on her own journey as an environmental and human rights activist.

In 2012, when Gualinga was 10 years old, her community won a case against the Ecuadorian government at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which upheld the rights of Indigenous Peoples to free, informed and prior consent before such projects can be undertaken.

Since then, she has become a spokesperson for the Sarayaku Indigenous community, using her voice to spread the word about the struggle of Indigenous Peoples against powerful interests.

Gualinga is a co-founder of Kick Big Polluters Out, a campaign group that demands an end to corporate lobbying and greenwashing by major polluters. At the COP25 climate summit in Madrid in 2019, she spoke out against the Ecuadorian government’s authorization of oil extraction in Indigenous lands.

She has been featured in Vogue and Revista Hogar, and her life and activism have been captured in the 2022 documentary Helena Sarayaku Manta.

In an interview with CNN in 2022, Gualinga said that she does not identify as an activist because she believes she and many other Indigenous Amazonian people never had a choice – they are merely fighting to survive.

“The mere existence of people in the Amazon is what is securing the future of the Amazon,” she said.

“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.”