INDIGENOUS PARTNER OF THE RAINFOREST FOUNDATION IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON AWARDED PRESIGIOUS INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL PRIZE
An indigenous leader and long-term partner of The Rainforest Foundation UK, (RFUK), in the Peruvian Amazon is to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize – a prestigious accolade awarded to six grassroots environmentalists each year – at a ceremony in San Francisco this evening.
Ruth Buendía, 36, the president of CARE, (The Asháninka Central of the Ene River) - RFUK’s local indigenous partner organisation in Peru - was nominated for uniting the Asháninka people in a powerful campaign against large-scale dams that would have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest and once again uprooted indigenous communities still recovering from years of victimisation at the hands of terrorists.
In 2010, the governments of Brazil and Peru signed a bilateral energy agreement that called for a series of large-scale hydroelectric dams in the Amazon. Under this agreement, most of the energy would be exported to Brazil. Few economic benefits would come back to local communities in Peru, whose ancestral territories would be flooded during construction.
The indigenous people living in the proposed construction site of the Pakitzapango dam along the Ene River are the Asháninka have made this part of Amazon rainforest their home. The energy agreement was pushed through without any consultation with the Asháninka, in direct violation of the International Labor Organisation’s (ILO) Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples —which Peru ratified in 1994 —that requires governments to consult with indigenous communities on any development projects in their territory.
Ruth was just 12 years old when the Shining Path guerrillas invaded Asháninka territory in the late 1980s and set up political and military operations. Her father was killed during the violence that ensued, and her mother sent Ruth away to seek safety in Lima. Thousands of Asháninka were killed during the conflict; thousands more fled their ancestral lands.
Following her return home, Ruth worked at a juice shop in Satipo where she was approached by a customer who recognised her as a fellow Asháninka and encouraged her to join CARE). Eager to reconnect with her roots and contribute to the Asháninka community’s healing, she began volunteering with the organisation, helping indigenous people obtain the documentation needed to attend school and access public services.
Traveling across the Ene River Valley, Ruth met several tribal chiefs who had known and respected her father—and felt at home for the first time. She thrived at CARE, and in 2005, a retirement in the organisation’s leadership led to an unexpected opportunity as Ruth, at 27 years old, was elected the first woman president of CARE.
Not long after the historic election, Ruth came across news coverage of the bilateral energy agreement and the proposed Pakitzapango Dam. CARE’s requests to the Peruvian government for more information went unanswered, but it soon became clear that the massive dams would displace thousands of Asháninka—reopening old wounds from Peru’s civil war a mere decade before.
Ruth and her team at CARE, supported by RFUK, began reaching out to Asháninka communities, raising awareness about the dam and its threats using digital simulations of how the valley would be flooded during construction. They organised a region-wide assembly and united the Asháninka in opposition to the dam.
Ruth took the struggle to international leaders. She travelled to Washington in the US as the representative of the Asháninka delegation and presented a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the impact of Peruvian energy development on her people.
In December 2010, as a direct result of Ruth’s advocacy, the Peruvian Ministry of Energy rejected a request from Pakitzapango Energy that would have allowed the dam to move forward. The following year, Odebrecht, the main shareholder in another dam, the Tambo 40, announced its withdrawal from the project, citing the need to respect the views of local communities.
With the Pakitzapango project tied up in court, Ruth, who is currently training to be a lawyer, is now working to firmly establish land rights for the Asháninka. She is developing a management plan for the Asháninka Communal Reserve that would protect this area, which is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, from future development while allowing local communities to pursue sustainable economic opportunities such as coffee and cacao farming.
Ruth said that her immediate plans after receiving the award were to complete her law studies and to continue supporting her people.
“[I want the Asháninka people] to have the same rights as the rest of the Peruvian population… but with due respect to their Asháninka identity.”
Executive Director at RFUK, Simon Counsell, said that Ruth has successfully defended the Asháninka communities’ right to remain living in their territories and is helping them to adapt to the modern world whilst also protecting their environment.
“RFUK is very proud to have supported CARE and Ruth over the last 14 years and we will continue to work with them as long as they need our help.”
PHOTO: GOLDMAN ENVIRONMENTAL PRIZE