Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Julio Cusurichi Palacios on Saving People and Land in the Peruvian Amazon


All photos by Tom Dusenbery.
This is one in a series of interviews with previous winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe.

Indigenous people's rights just might be one of the hardest causes to embrace given the times we live in. But fighting for small, isolated communities' rights on their land, while searching for systems they can adopt to reach a sustainable use of natural resources--and in Latin America, to boot--well, that must be one of the toughest fights a man can choose.

But that's the fight Julio Cusurichi Palacios chose. Of Shipibo indigenous origin, he has been key in drawing attention to the problems of small communities that remain isolated inside the Peruvian Amazon, who face threats from the mining, logging and oil drilling industries, and are extremely vulnerable to contacts with the outside world.One of Cusurichi Palacios's most important achievements was an initiative to stop intrusion on the territory of indigenous people. By leading the effort, Cusurichi Palacios's work resulted in the creation of a 7,688-square-kilometer reserve for these peoples in 2002. The area was called Madre de Dios (Mother of God).

Today, along with the Native Federation of Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (or, FENAMAD), the indigenous leader continues to fight to keep the region protected. He's even filed a law suit against the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Interior, and Agriculture, as well as three U.S. timber importers for importing big-leaf mahogany from Peru, a violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. If the case is successful, it could cut off the main market for this illegal product, thereby diminishing the risk of illegal logging in the reserve.


Julio Cusurichi in his office at FENAMAD.

"We are moving forward in motivating people to think about the future, but we are not moving as fast as we'd like," says Cusurichi Palacios. "Authorities are not sensitive about these issues. I feel laws are created for economic groups, who don't care about the environment or human rights. They look at us and see an obstacle, an opposition to development," adds the leader.

"However, I feel motivated when, day by day, people come to me for advice. That's an indication that we need to go on, always thinking about vulnerable communities. I know solidarity will come to create concrete and direct programs with our communities to help mitigate climate change."

Cusurichi Palacios describes himself as "calm and quiet," and thinks his main purpose is "helping communities in their activities."

"I work with these subjects most of my everyday life, whether directly or indirectly. In the beginning it was difficult for my family, but leaders' achievements are most times the result of our family's support and understanding," he says.


Julio with indigenous leaders from the Peruvian Amazon.

With climate change and environmental problems becoming an evident reality everyday, Cusurichi Palacios says he's worried about the lack of interest from the both North and South American governments. "I feel that those who run the economy are the ones who direct governments for American countries, and that they aren't taking action against social and environmental problems. As a result of industrialization policies, we see how climate change is affecting our countries. I feel these leaders are only focused on money and they don't care about small communities. They don't even recognize the great knowledge these indigenous communities could contribute," he explains.

However, he's also encouraged by citizen and NGOs action, which he says will be key for change. "Everyday I find people doing similar work to mine in different parts of the planet, and those lines of action are undoubtedly great help to warrant our future."

In 2007, Cusurichi Palacios was awarded The Goldman Environmental Prize for South and Central America. Besides the personal reward that meant, he's certain that the main importance of the award resides in showing society how people are fighting.

"This award is very important for all of us who fight for sustainability, because it makes us visible to society and motivates us to continue contributing with humanity besides difficulties and limitations. We are aware that to help more we need to be at decision-making stages, but we are seen as a threat for authorities. See, we think about everybody and about the future of humanity while they think about their government."

Read more about Julio Cusurichi Palacios and see a video showing his work at the Goldman Environmental Prize website. Read about Iceland's salmon-saving Orri Vigfússon, another prize winner, here. Stay tuned for this year's winners, chosen for their commitment to changing the world one cause at a time. Winners will be announced on April 14.
::Goldman Environmental Prize

Tags: Activism | Awards | Conservation | Goldman Environmental Prize | Peru