2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Liz Chicaje Churay
2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Liz Chicaje Churay

Liz Chicaje Churay

2021 Goldman Prize Recipient
South and Central America

  • Peru
  • Forests

In January of 2018, as a result of the efforts of Liz Chicaje Churay and her partners, the Peruvian government created Yaguas National Park. Comparable in size to Yellowstone National Park, the new park protects more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest in the northeastern region of Loreto. Its creation is a key step in conserving the country’s biodiversity—safeguarding thousands of rare and unique wildlife species and conserving carbon-rich peatlands—and protecting Indigenous peoples.

A Complex Ecosystem at Risk

The remote northeast corner of Peru contains a large swath of Amazon rainforest that sprawls over two million acres. The forest is a pocket of “megadiversity”—with 3,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds, and 550 species of fish, as well as manatees, river dolphins, giant otters, and woolly monkeys.

Additionally, tracts of peatlands are scattered throughout this part of the Amazon forest. Peatlands, a type of wetland, are considered among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, as they are critical for biodiversity, safe drinking water, and flood control. Peatlands also help mitigate climate change as the world’s largest carbon sinks.

Yaguas National Park is uninhabited, but 29 Indigenous communities reside just outside its borders, and protection of the area is vital for their survival. Communities depend on the rich natural resources of this ecosystem, especially fish, and consider the rivers and land sacred.

For the last 20 years, illegal logging and mining have plagued the region and its inhabitants, who have long denounced and resisted the encroachment. According to the Conservation Strategy Fund, the illegal mining and logging planned for the area were expected to impact 3.8 million acres over the next 20 years.

A Leader Among the Bora

Liz Chicaje Churay, 38, is a leader of the Indigenous Bora community of Loreto, Peru, president of an agricultural cooperative, and former president of the Federation of Indigenous Communities of the Ampiyacu River. She first became an activist in her community at the age of 16, when she started to attend meetings about defending ancestral Bora territory from illegal logging and other incursions. That same year, she became a mother for the first time. During the campaign to protect the Yaguas, she often carried her young daughter with her, while spending long periods apart from the rest of her family as she traveled throughout the region.

Advocating for and Creating a Historic Park

Facing increased invasion from illegal loggers and miners in the department of Loreto, Chicaje and her community realized that the formal status of a national park would help protect the region’s rainforests and river systems.

Chicaje and her partners launched a campaign on multiple fronts to advocate for the park. They partnered with government officials, conservationists, and scientists, including researchers at the Field Museum of Chicago, who conducted participatory mapping and satellite image analysis. She and her partners organized education and outreach to Peruvians across society in order to make their case.

Chicaje and her coalition created strategies to strengthen local organizations and their leadership in the run-up to building political support for the park. In efforts to unite the various Indigenous groups from the surrounding region, she traveled extensively by boat to remote areas to meet with the different communities and discuss plans for the park. Strong diplomacy was essential in forming consensus and, ultimately, with the help of other Indigenous leaders, she convinced 23 of the 29 local Indigenous communities to endorse the park, as well as winning support from seven distinct Indigenous organizations.

Chicaje also traveled to regional and national capitals to meet government ministers, elected officials, and foreign ambassadors, advocating for the park and ensuring that, once created, Indigenous peoples would still be able to hunt and fish there as they had for generations. In 2017, Chicaje (and Benjamin Rodriguez) traveled to Bonn, Germany, for COP23 as part of Peru’s official delegation.

In January 2018, the work of Chicaje and her community finally paid off. Peru’s government declared the creation of Yaguas National Park, protecting more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest, comparable in size to Yellowstone National Park in the United States and considerably more biodiverse. The park’s creation is a key step in conserving the country’s rich ecosystems—safeguarding thousands of unique wildlife species and conserving carbon-rich peatlands—while protecting the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. 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.

Chicaje was nominated for the Prize with Benjamin Rodriguez, another Indigenous leader who worked for the protection of the Yaguas region, but he passed away in July 2020 due to complications from COVID-19.

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