We Will Not Be Saved by Nemonte Nenquimo and Mitch Anderson review – voice of the Amazon

<span>Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo carries her people’s lawsuit during a march towards the Provincial courthouse in Puyo, Pastaza, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.</span><span>Photograph: Amazon Frontlines</span>
Waorani leader Nemonte Nenquimo carries her people’s lawsuit during a march towards the Provincial courthouse in Puyo, Pastaza, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.Photograph: Amazon Frontlines

When Nemonte Nenquimo was little, she and her sisters and brothers would hear planes flying over their village in the Amazon and race one another to the nearby landing strip to see who was arriving. Only white people – known as cowori – travelled by plane, and they would bring gifts of candy, clothes, earrings and dolls with blond hair. Over the years, they brought other things too: God, polio, alcohol and oil executives waving contracts allowing them to plunder indigenous land for its oil reserves. One village elder reported signing papers with his thumbprint after being given bread and Coca-Cola and assured that the oil companies would build schools and medical clinics.

In her richly detailed memoir, written with and translated by her American partner Mitch Anderson, Nenquimo documents her path from early childhood in a Waorani village deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest to becoming an environmental activist, named in 2020 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. The Waorani tribes, which live traditionally as nomadic hunter-gatherers, once claimed the largest territories of all Indigenous Amazonians in Ecuador – land that was among the most biodiverse on Earth. But that was before it was reduced by settlement, cattle grazing, oil extraction, gold mining and logging, and its rivers poisoned with oil. In 2019, Nenquimo helped win a historical lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government protecting more than[LJ add] half a million hectares of Waorani ancestral territory from being auctioned to oil companies.

The word “saved” in the title is significant: for the Waorani, to be saved is to be patronised, disfranchised, stolen from and lied to. When missionaries first made contact in the late 1950s, they were met with a hail of spears and several died, though they nonetheless continued in their efforts to save the souls of these auca, a Kichwa term adopted by outsiders meaning savages. When the oil companies arrived, they claimed to be saving the Indigenous tribes by bringing money to the region, even though the Waorani had no use for it. They call money tocori, which can be translated as “worthless paper”.

Nenquimo observes young Waorani being seduced by beer and money, and resolves to fight for her people

Nenquimo’s book, then, is not just a cri de coeur against the destruction of the land, even though that alone justifies its existence. It’s also an attempt to help the world understand what that land means to her, her family and community by sharing their way of life. One of 13 siblings born and raised in the forest, Nenquimo writes evocatively about her childhood hunting, foraging and living cheek by jowl with bats, toucans, macaws, monkeys, peccaries, bullet ants, scorpions and the jaguar, whose spirit is channelled by Waorani shamans. She recalls hunting one day with her father and coming across a lifeless anaconda that had eaten a whole deer. When a red brocket deer dies, its legs immediately straighten and stiffen, in this case bursting through the skin of the anaconda and killing it. Nenquimo’s father points to the maze of prints belonging to other animals – ocelots, pumas, anteaters, capybaras and a lone tortoise – that had come “to pay tribute, to gorge on the powerful energy of the snake’s flesh”. To him, it is a scene not of horror but of spiritual beauty.

As she gets older, Nenquimo is beguiled by the visitors from so-called civilisation, specifically by “their skin, their teeth, their clothes, their planes, their promises”. At one stage, she feigns tooth pain and has two teeth brutally extracted; when her grandfather later asks why, she replies: “I want the white people’s teeth.” She is drawn, too, by the zeal of missionaries who tell her she can be a daughter of God and who rechristen her Inés. At 14, she decides to leave the forest and go to Quito to study at an evangelical mission where she is taught to read and write and study the Bible. There, hundreds of miles from her family, she is repeatedly raped by one of the missionaries.

Related: This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth | Nemonte Nenquimo

When she returns home as an adult, Nenquimo observes young Waorani being seduced by beer and money, and becoming estranged from their own heritage. She resolves to fight for her people. Falling for Anderson, whom she meets while he is building water catchment systems in remote villages, helps her rebuild her trust in outsiders, though only after he has proved his worth by spending a night hunting in the forest with her siblings. Their tale of love across the cultural divide could easily make a book by itself.

Full of wisdom, sadness, flourishes of joy and more than a few psychedelic visions, We Will Not be Saved is testament not only to Nenquimo’s resilience but also her deep spiritual connection to her land and ancestors. It’s no small feat to write a book in a second language (her native language is Wao Tededo, and she learned Spanish in her teens), have it translated into English and still manage to plant readers right in the heart of the rainforest, immersing them in its sounds, smells and kaleidoscopic landscapes. Many are the memoirs that profess to tell untold stories, but here that claim is watertight. At the start, she notes that books are not where Waorani history is traditionally stored. “Our stories have never been written down. Not like this,” she writes. “Part of me is scared. Have I told too much? Left too many tracks? What will you do with my story now it is written? I hope you will let it live.”

We Will Not Be Saved by Nemonte Nenquimo and Mitch Anderson is published by Wildfire (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.