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Julio Cusurichi

2007 Goldman Prize Winner

Julio Cusurichi

South & Central America

In the remote Peruvian Amazon, Julio Cusurichi secured a national reserve to protect both sensitive rainforest ecosystems and the rights of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation from the devastating effects of logging and mining.

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In the remote Peruvian Amazon, Julio Cusurichi secured a national reserve to protect both sensitive rainforest ecosystems and the rights of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation from the devastating effects of logging and mining.

Tropical Ecosytems in Peril

In the remote Peruvian Amazon, the struggle between economic gains and indigenous sovereignty threatens both sensitive rain forest ecosystems and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Throughout this remote region, small isolated indigenous communities have chosen to remain completely cut-off from the outside world, living in the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years. As illegal loggers press into the area, harvesting rare old-growth mahogany for the US market, contact with the groups is becoming more frequent. This contact often ends in tragedy, with destructive epidemics, violent clashes, and the loss of long-practiced indigenous culture.

Julio Cusurichi, a Shipibo indigenous leader of the Peruvian Amazon, led the effort that in 2002 resulted in the creation of a territorial reserve for these isolated peoples spanning 7,688-square-kilometers (larger than the state of Delaware), in one of the most untouched areas of the Amazon. He has been instrumental in bringing international attention to the existence of the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation and stopping intrusion into their now legally recognized territory. During his tenure as adviser to Federation of Natives of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (FENAMAD), Cusurichi faced violent threats on his life and false public attacks on his character from the illegal logging and mining entities opposed to his work. Despite these challenges, he pressed on.

Mining, Logging, and Oil Exploration Bring Deadly Results

The Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon holds some of the most remote areas in the world. In spite of this, the indigenous communities who live there have confronted numerous threats from mining, logging, oil drilling and the ever-expanding influx of outside settlers.

In the most inaccessible area near the border with Brazil, a number of indigenous groups choose to live deep in the forest without contact with the outside world. They are called “indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation,” and are commonly referred to as the “uncontacted.” They do not use rivers for transport, walking between the headwaters of the rivers and fishing along the river beaches. Their population is estimated between a few hundred and a few thousand individuals. They are extremely vulnerable to outside contact, especially if exposed to new diseases. As recently as the 1990s, there were greater numbers of indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in the region. However, after workers exploring for oil established contact, entire groups died out, primarily from diseases new to them such as influenza.

Oil exploration is not the only threat to the isolated indigenous peoples. In 1997, Brazil banned bigleaf mahogany logging in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although it ratified CITES in 1975, Peru neglected to comply, leading to a dramatic increase in mahogany logging in Madre de Dios as the pressure increased from the Brazilian prohibition. To reach new stands of valuable mahogany trees, loggers built roads in once pristine areas. Peru became the world’s leading exporter of bigleaf mahogany, with most of the supply harvested illegally.

By 2007, there was little mahogany left in Madre de Dios, found in abundance only in the most remote areas, notably areas where the indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation live. Although they remain isolated, contact does occur, usually with loggers. The contacts are often brief and violent, ending in bloodshed as the indigenous groups defend their lands with bows and arrows, and the loggers defend themselves with firearms.

Recognizing the importance of protecting both the environment and the rights of the indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, Cusurichi worked to curb illegal logging in the rainforests themselves, working with both the Peruvian government and engaging courts internationally.

Continued Advocacy for Indigenous Peoples

After winning the fight to create the reserve, Cusurichi pushed for additional ways to protect the indigenous peoples, documenting illegal logging and at times calling in the police and military to enforce the law. He helped the government establish monitoring posts along the main rivers to curb the entrance of illegal loggers into the region and to document the number of mahogany logs leaving. When the government abandoned the posts, together with FENAMAD he trained local indigenous villagers to take over and worked out a deal for the government to pay them. Together with other villages in the area, they organized a monitoring network to protect the reserve.

To ensure that the area stays protected, Cusurichi, together with FENAMAD, the Peruvian organization Racimos de Ungurahui and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), engaged in a long legal and political struggle, filing a lawsuit in New York against the US Departments of Homeland Security, Interior and Agriculture, and three US timber importers. The lawsuit charged that by importing bigleaf mahogany from Peru, the US was violating the US Endangered Species Act and CITES.