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Prize Winners Today: Indigenous Defender of the Amazon Ruth Buendía

October 14, 2020

By David Corrado and Ellen Lomonico

With the COVID-19 pandemic, political mayhem, and natural disasters, the US media has had its hands full with rapidly evolving events. Whereas last year, fires in the Amazon dominated headlines, in 2020 they have been one item on a long list of crises.

I was starkly reminded of the Amazonian fires when indigenous Asháninka leader Ruth Buendía (Peru, 2014) missed our originally scheduled interview for the Prize Winners Today series. Once we were able to connect, Ruth apologized—a fire, started to clear rainforest in Asháninka territory, had resulted in the hospitalization of a community member. The individual received severe burns from fighting the flames. Ruth had been pulled away to coordinate the medical assistance and response. No apology was needed, but the topic set the tone for our conversation.

Inclusive Development in the Amazon Basin

The ancestral home of the Asháninka in Peru’s Ene River valley is under siege by a never-ending list of exploitative industries. Located on the western edge of the Amazon rainforest, the area is beset by those looking to clear rainforest, mine for gold, drill for oil, and dam rivers.

Historically, indigenous rights in the Amazon, from Peru to Brazil, have been ignored to make way for mining, hydro-power, and other destructive industries. Although Ruth won the Goldman Prize in 2014 for leading a successful campaign against a series of large-scale hydroelectric dams in the region, during our conversation she was clear: even though that project was stopped, it could be renewed at any time.

Ruth is adamant that, “As indigenous peoples, we are not against development; on the contrary—what we want is public investment in the type of development that helps us.” Rather than offering handouts or food, the Asháninka and other indigenous groups are asking for technical assistance and economic opportunities that do not sacrifice their ancestral culture and connection to the land. They believe that development projects should clearly support the education, health, social, culture, and spiritual well-being of the Asháninka community.

Ruth Buendia speaking with Lucas Alvarino, president of the Meteni community

Asháninka Initiatives

At age 27, Ruth was selected to serve as the first female president of the Ashaninka Center of the Ene River (CARE). Today, she continues her work as vice president.

CARE is helping to protect the rainforest within Asháninka territory against a significant increase in intrusions—lately from illegal logging, land clearing for coca plantations, and exploration for oil by companies that have been granted land concessions near Asháninka territory. In response, CARE‘s ambitious plan for forest protection includes setting up a frontline alert system for communities monitoring the incursions. The organization has visited more than 20 communities—often remote and hard to access—along the Ene River to conduct trainings on low-cost land monitoring systems and legal mechanisms for reporting land violations.

By working to advance Asháninka engagement in regional policy and land-use issues, CARE challenges mainstream views on Amazon conservation. Traditional conservationists have often viewed the Amazon as a pristine and untouched region—free of human intervention or permanent presence. The reality is that the Asháninka have been present for centuries, acting as integral stewards of their ancestral land, and continue to play this crucial role today.

Culturally Appropriate Education

Ruth has taken on roles outside of CARE to advance the collective well-being of the Asháninka people, including a position as secretary of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP). The organization represents multiple indigenous groups in the region.

Ruth spoke enthusiastically about AIDESEP’s push for quality bilingual and culturally inclusive education in indigenous territories. For example, the Asháninka are experts on identifying and utilizing plants for medicinal purposes, but have little-to-no access to modern scientific equipment to build upon their traditional knowledge. Ruth laments the loss of potential as more youths are driven to study in Lima or other big cities where opportunities are greater.

Perseverance Rooted in the Amazon

When speaking with Ruth, it becomes obvious that, for her, threats to the rainforest are equivalent to threats to the Asháninka people. The teams at CARE and AISESEP seek to ensure that the people who safeguard the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet have a voice. In the meantime, how do these indigenous people continue to resist continuous threats to their livelihood? In Ruth’s case, she finds strength and motivation in her roots: “On my back, I carry my culture, my territory, my family, and my ancestors that came before me, which I need to defend.”

You can support the conservation of the Amazon by following organizations such as AIDESEP and CARE in their fight for recognition and protection of the collective rights of indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon.

This blog post is part of the Prize Winner Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?

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