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Javier Ruiz Gutierrez was the recipient of the 2019 Landscape Hero Award for the Global Landscapes Forum. Please cast your vote for the 2020 Landscape Hero here. The winner will be announced at the GLF Biodiversity Digital Conference, 28-29 October.
On an hot day in northwestern Peru in 2015, Javier Ruiz Gutierrez felt unusually cold, perhaps as a premonition. He dressed in a jacket with a hood and headed to work, pausing at his office door when he heard someone yell out from a car. He did not recognize the person and continued inside, moving just in time to avoid gunshots from unknown assailants.
The attack was part of an ongoing battle Ruiz and his fellow environmental advocates have fought to preserve a little-known corner of Peru. Just inland from the Pacific coast, arid tropical dryland forests cover a rocky landscape of green and brown shrublands. The forests are a part of the Tumba-Choco-Magdalena, a biodiversity hotspot marked by long dry seasons and habitats of critically endangered species. There are large concentrations of the white-winged guan – once close to extinction but now slowly growing in numbers – and one of the largest wild populations of the spectacled bear, South America’s only native bear species and the inspiration for the fictional Paddington Bear. Andean Condor, pumas, the llama-like guanaco, and anteaters also share the land.
Without the work of Ruiz, these species might never have survived. In 2001, to better protect this vulnerable landscape, the local Santa Catalina de Chongoyape Peasant Community succeeded in creating Peru’s first private conservation area, in large part due to Ruiz’s advocacy campaigns and outreach about the area’s ecological importance as well as his work to educate community members on the value of conserving their native landscape through sustainable agriculture and forestry rather than opening it up to development. The Chaparrí Ecological Reserve was established by the government, spanning some 34,000 hectares of land, legally protected from development and entrusted to local land management by the community and conservation organization Asociacion Naylamp.
However, others had different intentions for Chaparrí. Large agribusinesses, criminal organizations and land invaders moved in, aiming to take control of the land despite its official designation as protected territory. Their main push was for the construction of a controversial water reservoir, despite Peru’s Ministry of Environment prohibiting development in the reserve – and there being another completed water reservoir located not far away. But the promise of a new water source sent land prices soaring and brought in a wave of illegal settlers. Allegedly backed by agribusinesses interested in expansion, the settlers have feigned identities as local community members and since burned and cleared roughly 1,000 hectares of forest to plant crops while dispossessing locals of their land.
“An organized criminal network has its hold on the area …. and the perpetrators seldom face legal consequences,” Mar Pérez Aguilera, an activist for the National Coordinator for Human Rights, told The Guardian newspaper in 2018.
Ruiz and other environmental defenders have fought back through the Frente de Defensa Salvemos Chaparrí (Save Chaparrí Defense Front), an organization dedicated to protecting the reserve.
“To defend ourselves we only have a pin, and we are facing a tank,” says Ruiz. “However, with this pin we have been able to puncture and damage – and get things balanced.”
In one example, the Chongoyape Peasant Community has formed patrols known as ronderos to prevent illegal settlers from entering. Ruiz has also shared Chaparrí’s story with the media and human rights organizations, helping bring attention to the struggles of a part of Peru often overshadowed by the troubles of the Amazon rainforest.
This success in raising awareness about Chaparrí has come with its own challenges and dangers. One of Ruiz’s fellow advocates for the reserve, José Napoleón Tarrillo Astonitas, was killed in 2017. Aside from the attempt on his life, Ruiz has also been arrested and imprisoned, during which he organized a small group of inmates to make Chaparrí-related handicrafts that were sold to help pay for the legal costs necessary for his ultimate acquittal. His resilience and commitment to conservation also earned Ruiz the Global Landscape Forum’s 2019 Landscape Hero Award.
“Despite the fact that these situations can be very adverse, there is always hope, there is always the possibility of making a difference,” he says. “It has been very valuable to be involved with the Global Landscapes Forum because you realize you are not alone, that your story is not unique, that you are part of network of people around the world. That also gives you strength. It gives you the [courage] to keep working for these initiatives and keep working for the future.”
Threats continue to emerge. In September, a new governor ordered plans for the controversial reservoir to move ahead. In the meantime, outsiders are still entering the reserve to clear forests, poach wildlife and grab land.
Despite these setbacks and the personal dangers involved, Ruiz vows to continue to fight for the preservation of the reserve and the rights of its people.
“If we lose Chaparrí, our region would be losing one of its lungs,” he says. “By defending the forest, we defend life. The main legacy we are going to leave our coming generations is the possibility that they have access to an adequate, healthy, clean environment, the possibility of having the fauna we enjoyed, and not that they only see it in an image or a museum. That encourages. We are not alone.”
Judith Marie Sonneck, assistant global coordinator of the Global Landscapes Forum, helped in the reporting of this article.