The daughter of an Indigenous Ecuadorian mother and Finnish Professor, Helena Gualinga was born into the Indigenous Kichwa Sarayaku community in Pastaza, Ecuador. She comes from a family of activists, with her mother the former president of the Kichwa Women’s Association, an older activist sister, and an aunt and grandmother Indigenous women’s human rights defenders. Helena spent her childhood between Ecuador and Finland.
Helena Gualinga had witnessed her family’s persecution for standing up to big oil companies and their environmental impact on Indigenous land. Many of her community’s leaders and even family members lost their lives in violent conflicts against these large corporations and the government.
Helena Gualinga sees her upbringing as an opportunity. She has become the Sarayaku Indigenous community spokesperson. As an activist, she continuously exposes the conflict between the Indigenous community and oil corporations. This she does by spreading an empowering message to youths attending local Ecuadorian schools. She also continuously brings her message to the international community, hoping policymakers will take note.
Her message includes the impact of deforestation of the Amazon on Indigenous communities and how they experience climate change. This includes increasing forest fires, desertification, the quicker melting of snow on the higher mountain peaks, and the prevalence of disease due to flooding. In 2019, she took part in a demonstration with other young environmental activists outside the UN headquarters in New York City during the UN Climate Action Summit.
Helena Gualinga has also taken part in the COP25 held in Madrid, Spain. There, she spoke about her concerns about the Ecuadorian government’s authorisation for oil extraction in traditionally indigenous areas. She also mentioned her disappointment in her government claiming an interest in the protection of the Amazon instead of attending to the demands of Indigenous Amazon women brought to the government in 2019 during the Ecuadorian protest actions taking place. Her talk also mentioned her disappointment regarding world leaders who had no interest in discussing the topics brought to the conference by Indigenous people.
Together with Isabella Fallahi and Ayisha Siddiqa, Helena Gualinga founded Polluters Out. The aim of the organisation is the fossil fuel industry and was founded in response to the failing COP25. They want the UN to refuse fossil fuel corporation funding for COP16.
The plight of Helena Gualinga and her people is encapsulated in the documentary ‘Helena Sarayaku Manta’, i.e., Helena of Sarayaku. The documentary highlights her life relating to the teaching of the Sarayaku way of living. It premiered at the 2022 Environmental Film Festival in Ecuador’s capital city. The same year saw her, and her sister featured in Revista Hogar Magazine, with their photographs on the magazine’s cover. It was the first time that an Indigenous woman was featured on the cover. She has also been featured in Vogue magazine.
As a conference speaker, Helena Gualinga talks about various aspects of conservation, the impact of large companies on the environment, and human rights issues. She is mainly based in Ecuador and presents in English.