Liz Chicaje Churay is from the Bora ethnic group. She lives in the native community of Paucarquillo, two days by boat from Iquitos, the city in the Peruvian Amazon closest to her home. In this remote place, she was born, grew up, and provides for her entire family. She is 38 years old, has five children, and has been working since she was ten. Practically for as long as she can remember, she has looked after other children, washed other people's clothes and cleaned her neighbours' houses.
In her free time, Chicaje would go to the creek near her house to fish with a string and seeds, and get lost in the forest dreaming of helping her family. When she finished primary school, work was the only option. As the fifth of eleven siblings, she had a responsibility. From the age of eleven, every year she and her sisters would sail the Amazon River for two days until they reached Leticia, on the border with Colombia and Brazil. There, a Colombian family awaited them. They would stay for three or four months, working as domestic servants. In those days, Chicaje had no idea that she would soon be raising a family of her own, or that she would become an internationally recognised defender of the forest.
Liz Chicaje wants to be a good example to her children Diego, Zinedine, Matias, Job and Cielo, her companion on the road. When Diego began secondary school, she decided to go with him. Mother and son studied the last five years of high school together in Paucarquillo and became closer than ever. From that moment on, she realised that she could achieve anything she set her mind to.
Goldman Prize-winning Chincaje is hopeful
Chicaje is barely over five feet tall, has a soft voice and an easy laugh. She is also a teacher at the Christian church where she congregates and has just started her studies to become a kindergarten teacher. Between 2014 and 2017, she was president of the Federation of Native Communities of Ampiyacu (Fecona), an organisation that represents 14 Bora, Huitoto, Yagua and Ocaina communities in Peru's northern Amazon, home to some 10,000 people.
As president, Chicaje had to travel to the basins of the Napo, Putumayo and Amazon rivers to communicate the need for recognition of the Yaguas National Park. She had to coordinate and reach agreements not only with communities, but also with the Peruvian Ministry of Environment and indigenous organisations such as the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep), and the Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the East (Orpio). This was not an easy job for a young woman in a world traditionally governed by men.
Despite her diminutive stature, Chicaje has earned the respect of many indigenous peoples. Those who have seen her speak at meetings, surrounded by male leaders, are amazed at her ability to capture attention and silence entire rooms. She has no need to raise her voice.
"Nobody comes to my community. We are abandoned, we are invisible to the state. That's why when I look at the last presidential elections we realise that no one is looking out for the good of the country, everyone is looking out for their own interests,” Chicaje told Diálogo Chino. “There is no fellowship, there is no good faith," she adds, preferring to stay away from mainstream politics herself. "I like to help people and politics gives me that opportunity. But it can also be very dirty, as we see now. That's why I prefer to work from my community and help young people have a better future.”
Goldman lifetime achievement award
Chicaje’s commitment has not gone unnoticed. She has just won the Goldman Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for environmentalists. Right now, she can't believe it.
The jury recognised Chicaje’s work and the strategy she followed to achieve the ongoing protection of the forest. "I got a phone call. I didn't understand the voice very well, it was chewed Spanish, like from another country. I was going to cut him off, but fortunately I didn't," she jokes about joining Peruvian leaders Ruth Buendía and Máxima Acuña as winners of the Goldman prize, as well as Julio Cusurichi, current president of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its tributaries (Fenamad).
This is not the first international recognition of Chincaje’s efforts. In 2019, she received the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, also for her struggle for the establishment of the Yaguas National Park, the only tropical forest on the planet where its main river rises and dies in the same territory.
Yaguas National Park is unique. "An area equivalent to a football field in Yaguas National Park contains more tree biodiversity than all the forests in the United States," said Fernando León, former vice-minister of Strategic Development of Natural Resources.
Nigel Pitman, an ecologist and conservationist at Chicago Field Museum, who focuses on Amazonian tree ecology also said that “the biodiversity in Yaguas is impressive. We have done more than 20 expeditions in South America and there is no place like it. More than half of Peru's freshwater fish species are found here”.
It covers an area of more than 868,000 hectares, the size of New York and Paris combined. It is home to more than 3,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds and fish.
hectares of forest make up the Yaguas National Park
"When I flew over Yaguas, I was thrilled. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was," says Liz Chicaje. Although there are currently no people living within this protected area, there are 29 indigenous communities that benefit from the space they have always called home.
"In 2005 we began to notice the presence of people coming from outside to cut down the forest. Miners and illegal loggers. They tricked us and we didn't know how to protect ourselves," says Chicaje, who, as Fecona president, trained herself in law to put an end to the illegality that endangered her home and her life. She was never afraid, even though 10 environmental defenders were murdered in Peru in 2020 alone.
This is a recognition that belongs to all indigenous peoples. Achieving the Yaguas National Park has been a very intense work in which many leaders participated
"We never stopped, there were days of learning and sacrifice. Sometimes people don't realise how much you give up to help others. They think you earn money, but nothing. I do everything to help. Sometimes the bad comments hurt, because being away from your family is not easy," says Chicaje, who remembers her teacher Benjamín Rodríguez, president of the Federation of Native Border Communities of Putumayo (Feconafropu), who was lost to Covid-19 last year.
indigenous communities benefit from and protect the Yaguas National Park
"This is a recognition that belongs to all indigenous peoples. Achieving the Yaguas National Park has been a very intense work in which many leaders participated. I want to remember Benjamín Rodríguez, who taught me a lot. He was a great leader who knew how to guide us in the creation of Yaguas", she says, remembering the friend she travelled with to Bonn, Germany, to participate in COP23 climate talks to stress to the world the urgency of protecting the Yaguas forest.
Chicaje’s parents lived off the forest. They hunted to survive, to "make ends meet", as she puts it. "In those times there was abundance. Sachavaca [tapirs], sajino [boars], majaz [a type of rodent], carachupa [a marsupial], monkeys, there was everything. Now there is, but less. When they started to invade us, we began to suffer from scarcity. It's not easy to live in the forest, it's beautiful, but it's not easy," she says. Although she loves her community, Chicaje says she would one day like to have drinking water, electricity, telephone signal, internet, a medical station, and other comforts that city-dwellers take for granted.
Chicaje is determined to continue strengthening her community, especially for the women. "Now I am focused on moving forward with the business of producing and processing cassava from the Ampiyacu basin. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, our business collapsed, but now we want to start up again," she says, referring to attempts to promote the sale of cassava derivatives, such as starch, fariña, tapioca and black chilli. However, she is not confident and seeks ways to improve the economic plight of her indigenous sisters. For this reason, she trains the Paucarquillo craftswomen's association in making handicrafts from chambira, an Amazonian palm.
The forest is not only her home, but also the cradle of her ancestral knowledge, medicine and her food. Chicaje feels it is her mission to promote conservation and to present her Bora brothers and sisters with economic alternatives so that they remain steadfast in protecting this pristine corner of the world.
"We have to protect our customs, our language. Children no longer speak our language, minors no longer express themselves. That worries me. Medicine has also changed. Everyone wants paracetamol or aspirin. We stopped looking for plants in the forest. We live very precariously and without money we can't educate our children, let alone get ahead. One of my dreams is to organise training workshops with the youth to strengthen ancestral knowledge," says Chicaje, with a huge smile on her face.