A leader of Peru’s Asháninka indigenous people was awarded on Monday the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for the region of South and Central America.
Ruth Buendía won the $175,000 prize from the San Francisco-based organization for her work in uniting the Asháninka in a campaign against large-scale dams and a hydroelectric project that would have uprooted thousands of indigenous people living in central Peru.
Buendía became the fourth Peruvian to win the award since it was established 25 years ago to honor grassroots environmentalists. In addition to Buendía, five other activists from India, the United States, South Africa, Russia and Indonesia received the award this year.
The Asháninka is a large indigenous community located in Peru’s central Amazon region, usually living in small groups of immediate relatives. Thousands of indigenous Asháninka were killed in the 1980s and 1990s by Shining Path guerrillas who invaded their land and setup operations in their territory (see story on new discoveries of mass graves in the area). A splinter group of the Shining Path still operates in the central region where the Asháninka live.
Buendía’s father was killed by the Shining Path, and her mother sent her to the Peruvian capital of Lima at the age of 12 in order to escape the violence. When she later returned to the jungle town of Satipo, in Junin region, she joined the Asháninka Center of the Ene River, known as CARE.
“Eager to reconnect with her roots and contribute to the Asháninka community’s healing, she began volunteering with the organization, helping indigenous people obtain the documentation needed to attend school and access public services,” the awarders of the environmental prize said of Buendía.
During her early time with CARE, Buendía traveled throughout the Ene river valley where she met tribal Ashaninka chiefs that had respected her father. In 2005, at the age of 27, Buendía was elected the first woman president of CARE.
Shortly after, Peru signed a bilateral energy agreement with Brazil that would involve building several large dams in the Ene river valley in order to export hydroelectric energy to Brazil. The projects included the Pakitzapango and Tambo 40 dams.
“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,” the Goldman Environmental group said.
The organization said that Buendía and other CARE leaders reached out to the indigenous communities to show the damage the dams would create, which resulted in uniting the Ashaninka to oppose the projects.
She also led Ashaninka delegations to raise their concerns with investors during meetings in Washington D.C. and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In 2010, Peru’s Energy Ministry turned down the Pakitzapango dam project due to Buendia’s advocacy. In 2011, Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht withdrew from the other dam project, Tambo 40, citing concerns from indigenous communities.
“With the Pakitzapango project tied up in court, Buendía is now working to firmly establish land rights for the Asháninka,” says the Golman Environmental group. “She is developing a management plan for the Asháninka Communal Reserve (see ParksWatch description) that would protect their lands from future development while allowing local communities to pursue sustainable economic opportunities such as coffee and cacao farming.”
Previous Peruvians to win the prize include Evaristo Nugkuag, a member of the Aguaruna tribe who founded the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin. He won the award in 1991 in recognition of his work in building alliances between environmentalists and Indians.
In 2003, sociologist Maria Elena Foronda Farro won the prize for improving waste treatment from Peru’s fishmeal industry. Peru is the world’s biggest producer of fishmeal.
And in 2007, Julio Cusurichi, a Shipibo indigenous leader, was awarded the prize for securing a national reserve in Peru’s southeast Madre de Dios region. The reserve has helped protect the delicate ecosystem and indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation.
Buendía is to invest her prize money in educating her five children and in funding CARE and other community projects.