Liz Chicaje: Activist whose fight created a national park

By Vanessa Buschschlüter
BBC News

Published
Image source, Goldman Environmental Prize
Image caption,
Liz Chicaje Churay has won the Goldman Prize for South and Central America

An activist whose efforts to protect land sacred to her indigenous group resulted in the creation of Peru's Yaguas National Park has been awarded a prestigious environmental prize.

Liz Chicaje Churay is one of six activists worldwide to win the annual Goldman Prize, which recognises grassroots activism.

The park protects more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest.

It is rich in unique wildlife and considered key to conservation efforts.

Image source, Daniel Martinez
Image caption,
The area is rich in freshwater fish and home to the giant river otter

The 38-year-old was nominated for the award along with Benjamín Rodríguez, a leader from the Huitoto indigenous group, who died last year from complications after contracting the coronavirus.

Diversity haven

Liz Chicaje is a member of the Bora indigenous community which lives just outside what is now Yaguas National Park, in the north-eastern Loreto region of Peru, near the border with Colombia.

The park itself is uninhabited but its 2.1 million acres (868,000 hectares) - roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States - are home to some 3,000 species of plants, more than 500 species of birds and 550 species of fish.

Image source, Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Image caption,
The giant river otter is among the animals found in Yaguas National Park

It was designated as a national park by the Peruvian government in January 2018, after a long campaign led by Ms Chicaje along with members of other indigenous groups from the area.

Goldman Environmental Prize
Many of our beloved ancestors died there. It is a sacred place for us and so we couldn't bear seeing it destroyed.
Liz Chicaje Churay
Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Ms Chicaje says it was no coincidence that it was a coalition of indigenous groups which fought for the creation of the park.

"We live in the jungle, we know it better than anyone, we walk through it, so the desire to protect this territory and the people who depend on it develops naturally," she told the BBC.

Image source, Goldman Environmental Prize
Image caption,
Liz Chicaje (second from left) campaigned for the area to be declared a national park

The idea to put the area under official protection to guard it from illegal loggers and miners was not new, Ms Chicaje explains. But it took decades for the indigenous groups to get the political backing for the area to be declared a national park.

"You have to have that love for your land, for the forest, for your community, for the people," she says of her motivation.

"We just knew we could not let it become deforested because it's vital for the reproduction of so many animals."

But co-ordinated action from the indigenous communities, as well as securing help from conservationists in Peru and from as far away as the Field Museum of Chicago and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, were key to reaching their goal.

Image source, Goldman Environmental Prize
Image caption,
Liz Chicaje and others in her community rely on agriculture and fishing

The forest is essential for the survival of the indigenous groups, as they rely on fishing and agriculture for their livelihood, but according to Ms Chicaje, it is also of great spiritual importance to the Bora.

Where the spirits rest

During the Amazon rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, indigenous people were rounded up and forced to tap natural rubber from the trees. Up to 100,000 people are estimated to have died as they suffered forced labour, slavery, torture and mutilations.

The Bora were among those who were enslaved by the rubber barons. Some managed to escape from slavery and flee to the deep jungle which is now the Yaguas National Park.

"Many of our beloved ancestors died there due to lack of food and medicines as they tried to cross it to safety," Ms Chicaje says. "It is a sacred place for us and so we couldn't bear seeing it destroyed."

"Due to the remoteness of the area and the threats facing it, it was key to get the government involved in its protection," she says, adding that the indigenous groups did not have the resources to guard such a large area.

"Illegal loggers and gold miners were coming down the river and it was with the help of the navy that they were driven out and their dredges burned."

The government's decision to declare the area a national park was greeted with much joy in the communities living next to it.

But, she says, for them it was never a question of whether they would win the fight to protect their sacred lands, but when, as failure was not an option.

Image source, Goldman Environmental Prize
Image caption,
Liz Chicaje wants people to keep putting their faith in the environment

She has noticed many improvements since, such as the deployment of park rangers as well as educational campaigns to highlight its ecological importance.

Ms Chicaje would now like to see more direct investment and help going to the indigenous communities to protect those areas, too.

Asked what message she would like to convey as winner of the Goldman Prize, she said: "Keep putting your faith in the forest and the environment, which is the foundation of planet Earth."

Other winners of the global award this year hail from Malawi, Vietnam, Japan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the US.

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Media caption,
On patrol with an indigenous leader trying to protect the Amazon from land grabbers

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