25 June 2021

Liz Chicaje Churay, twenty years of struggle for land and biodiversity

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Among the environmentalists honored with the 2021 Goldman Prize is Liz Chicaje Churay. For two decades, she fought to protect the sacred land of the Peruvian Amazon. And she won

by Matteo Cavallito

Liz Chicaje Churay is one of the winners of the 2021 edition of the Goldman Prize, the award that recognizes the most outstanding environmental activists on the Planet. It’s a meaningful achievement for the 38-year-old member of the Bora indigenous community that lives on the edge of Yaguas National Park, in the northeastern region of Loreto, Peru, near the border with Colombia. This protected land, which was established by the government in 2018, in fact, represents the main accomplishment of a 20-year struggle to protect soil, wildlife and biodiversity. It’s a story of commitment, effort and threats that have been faced and ignored. But, most of all, it’s a happy ending tale.

Liz Chicaje Churay, an environmental leader

Yaguas hosts 868 thousand hectares of Amazon forest, which is the symbol of deforestation and land exploitation. Today the park is uninhabited, but the survival of its treasures – estimated in 3,000 species of plants, 500 varieties of birds and 550 of fishes – is essentially linked to the struggle of indigenous groups. For decades they have tried to fight the activities of illegal loggers and miners.

Liz Chicaje Churay, nominated for the Award along with native leader Benjamín Rodríguez, who died last year from complications related to Covid-19, was the most recognized representative of that battle. And her effort also managed to capture the attention of foreign institutions. Such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Zoological Society of Frankfurt.

From rubber to gold, over two centuries of exploitation

“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,” the BBC has reported. “Up to 100,000 people are estimated to have died as they suffered forced labour, slavery, torture and mutilations.” The Bora were also among the main victims, having been forced under the oppression of their exploiters. Some managed to escape into the jungle, in the land that now hosts the Park. Many of them died there. That’s why this territory “is now a sacred place,” Ms Chicaje says.

For the past two decades, the forest has been home to groups of illegal gold miners. Liz Chicaje, who, began her fight at the age of 16 succeded in reunite 23 indigenous communities. Together they asked for the creation of the park. According to a report by Peru’s National Service of Protected Natural Areas, quoted by the Goldman Prize promoters, the natural reserve status will allow Yaguas to capture about 1.5 million tons of carbon over the next 20 years.

“Now hings are going to change”

“Keep putting your faith in the forest and the environment, which is the foundation of planet Earth,” said Chicaje, quoted by the Guardian. A reference to the role of natural resources, which are crucial to the survival of native groups, who rely on fishing and agriculture for their livelihood. Their story can also inspire a renewed commitment at the global level. “More people are listening now to what indigenous people are doing for forests,” she said. And when asked about upcoming 2021 biodiversity and climate conferences, she reply: “I’m feeling optimistic. I think things are going to change. There is more and more news about climate change. Our fight is more visible to the world.”