For collaborating with the Peruvian government and Indigenous leaders to save huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest
At 16 years old, Liz Chicaje Churay found her remote community in the Amazon rainforest under threat: Illegal logging, fishing and gold mining were upending the delicate harmony of the ancestral Bora territory. Located in the northeast corner of Perú, the area is home to 29 Indigenous communities and remarkable biodiversity. Scientists have cataloged more than 3,000 species of plants, more than 500 species each of fish and birds, and animals such as manatees, giant otters and river dolphins.
The rainforest is dotted with peatland, which helps to filter drinking water and control floods. And the vegetation also serves as the world’s largest carbon sink on land, storing more carbon than all other plant types combined—making it crucial territory to protect if humans hope to make progress against climate change.
This was Chicaje’s home and she saw how it was changing. So she began attending meetings, and as her organizer prowess grew, so did her profile. In 2014, she was elected president of the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu, an Indigenous rights group.
Working with Indigenous leader Benjamín Rodríguez, Chicaje launched a project in 2015 to create a national park. Working with other Indigenous leaders—the "true caretakers of the forest" as she calls them—the two were ultimately able to persuade 23 of the 29 communities in the region to endorse the plan.
But getting stakeholders on board was only part of the plan. Chicaje and her partners also recruited conservationists and scientists from as far away as the Field Museum of Chicago and the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany to map the area and analyze satellite images to confirm the region’s incredible biodiversity.
In January 2018, after three years of organizing and campaigning by Chicaje’s team, government leaders in Perú created Yaguas National Park, granting official protection to more than 2 million acres of Amazon rainforest. According to Perú’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas, safeguarding the area will sequester about 1.5 million tons of carbon over the next 20 years.
In 2021, Chicaje received the Goldman Environmental Prize for South and Central America, which is often called the Nobel Prize for environmentalists. In the video created for the award, she vowed to continue the fight: "My wish is to continue educating people that nature is our greatest wealth."