Three Indigenous Leaders Protecting the Amazon

October 4, 2021

In early September, members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress approved a motion requesting a global commitment to protect 80% of the Amazon Basin by 2025. The campaign behind the initiative, Amazonia for Life: 80% by 2025, acknowledges the critical role of the Amazon in stabilizing the global climate and seeks to protect the region’s vast biodiversity and cultural significance.

In addition to being a key carbon sink, the Amazon is home to diverse communities and irreplaceable wildlife. Over 500 Indigenous nations live in the Amazon, including communities living in voluntary isolation, or “uncontacted” people. The powerful Amazonia 80×25 campaign is driven by Indigenous leaders like Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), which is uniting traditional communities with global NGOs and policy makers.

Over the last couple of decades, scientists and policy makers have begun to recognize the critical role of Indigenous people as stewards of the environment and its natural resources. In fact, a 2019 UN report concluded that “nature on Indigenous peoples’ land is degrading less quickly than in other areas.”

The Goldman Prize is honored to recognize the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the protection of the Amazon. Learn about a few of these Indigenous leaders below.

Nemonte Nenquimo

2020 Goldman Prize winner from Ecuador

In 2019, Nemonte Nenquimo’s “our rainforest is not for sale” campaign resulted in the preservation of 500,000 acres of Ecuadorian rainforest. A member of the Waorani community, Nemonte and her coalition used innovative mapping techniques combined with legal strategy to set a legal precedent for free, prior, and informed consent for development in the Amazon.

Nemonte’s achievements have been celebrated globally; she was recognized as TIME Person of the Year in 2020 and heralded by environmentalist celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio. Nemonte continues to use her influence to advocate for Indigenous rights and preservation of their ancestral way of life. Follow @nemonte.nenquimo on Instagram and engage with her organizations, Alianza Ceibo and Amazon Frontlines.

“As Indigenous peoples, we are fighting to protect what we love—our way of life, our rivers, the animals, our forests, life on Earth—and it’s time that you listened to us.” —Nemonte Nenquimo

Julio Cusurichi

2007 Goldman Prize winner from Peru

A prominent leader in the Peruvian Amazon, Julio Cusurichi is a member of the Shipibo-Conibo. He was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2007 for leading a successful campaign to protect the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru. The 8,300-square-kilometer (3,200 square miles) reserve is home to countless species as well as uncontacted Indigenous communities. Unfortunately, the Madre de Dios region continues to be the site of extensive illegal logging and mining, which are transforming the tropical region into a desert wasteland of sand and toxic ponds.

As current president of Federación Nativa del Rio Madre de Dios y Afluentes (FENAMAD), Julio is an active spokesperson for Indigenous rights. Most notably, he has gained international attention as a representative of Indigenous groups before the IUCN and helping to host Pope Francis on a visit to Madre de Dios.

“The goal is for Indigenous people to be the protagonists. We have to administer the Amazon regions that are our ancestral territories and not just leave it to the government.” —Julio Cusurichi

Liz Chicaje Churay

2021 Goldman Prize winner from Peru

Yaguas National Park, Peru’s newest national park, can thank Indigenous leadership for its creation. Described as an “earthly paradise,” the park is comparable in size to Yellowstone National Park, protecting more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest. It contains more than 1,000 species of flora and fauna, including the giant river otter, brown woolly monkey, and 330 kinds of freshwater fish.

The park was formed after seven years of organizing and hard work. Liz Chicaje Churay, a member of the Bora, led the campaign, along with her colleague, Benjamin Rodriguez, who died of COVID-19 in 2020. Her skills in grassroots diplomacy and organizing united communities in the region while partnerships with research organizations like The Chicago Field Museum provided key scientific support. The designation of a national park will help protect the region from illegal mining activities while still allowing Indigenous access. And, according to a report by Peru’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas, upgrading Yaguas to national park status will sequester about 1.5 million tons of carbon over the next 20 years.

“It is a sacred place for us and so we couldn’t bear seeing it destroyed.” —Liz Chicaje Churay