Nina Gualinga, an indigenous woman leader of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is the recipient of this year’s WWF International President’s Youth award. The award acknowledges and encourages outstanding achievements of people under the age of 30 who are making significant contributions to nature conservation.
Nina, 24, has spent most of her childhood and all of her adult years advocating for better, stronger protection of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the wildlife and people who depend on it. At 18, she represented Sarayaku youth at the final hearing before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in Costa Rica, winning a landmark case against the Ecuadorian government for violating Sarayaku rights and territory for oil drilling. Today, she continues to represent the community and calls for indigenous rights and a fossil fuel free economy at various national and international fora including the historic Paris Climate summit.
“Since a child, I have actively been defending the amazonian rainforest and our people. For the past few years, I have worked with my own community and other communities across the Ecuadorian Amazon, worked on international campaigns, participated in conferences and partnered with different organizations in order to protect and defend our territories. It’s important to understand that indigenous people play a key role in the protection of the Amazon, and the world.
“I grew up surrounded by nature and animals, in a place where we grow our own food, and drink the waters directly from the rivers. I always had much respect for humans and nature, for life. I was taught that everything is connected. Human, animals, plants, earth. We call it the natural balance, the balance between humans, nature and spiritual beings, you can also call it an ecosystem.
"As indigenous people we depend on a healthy environment and a surrounding that is alive. We call it The Living Forest. We need clean rivers, because we drink the water directly from them, we need healthy soil, because we grow our own food, we need the animals, the birds and the fish and they need the forest. Our whole survival as a people depends on the future of the Amazon. This is what I am fighting for,” said Nina.
Madison Pearl Edwards from Belize is another example of how youth around the world are stepping forward to help protect the planet. Recognized with a special mention at the awards ceremony, 12-year-old Madison has been advocating for the protection of the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world and home to Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage site, for the past three years.
Through her blog and social media, Madison has helped mobilize public support against offshore oil exploration in Belize, which resulted in the adoption of the permanent moratorium on all extractive activities in Belize waters in December 2017. The move not only made Belize one of only three countries in the world with such legislation but is expected to help take the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage site one step closer to being removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
“I feel proud that Belize has taken such an important step forward and that we helped make it happen but there is so much more we all can — and need to — do. Destroying our natural resources with selfish and short-sighted interests is not OK. I’d like to encourage children around the world to stand up for our planet. Our parents and grandparents have enjoyed a beautiful home and we and our children deserve the same. Together we must send a message to our leaders that they are responsible for the planet we will live on in the future and they must make it one they would be proud to leave behind,” said Madison.
“This drive to protect nature — the living fabric that underpins our well-being and prosperity — is absolutely what we need to halt environmental degradation, for the benefit of people and the planet. Nina and Madison show us that no matter where we are or how old we may be, our voices and actions can create meaningful impact for the planet, the one home we all share. Building a sustainable future for all starts with taking action on nature loss and climate change today and it is both remarkable and inspiring to see such young citizens lead the way,” said Pavan Sukhdev, President, WWF International.