Guardians of the Amazon

In an open air storage room in the Peruvian Amazon, all eyes are on Juana Payaba Cachique, the former president of the community of Tres Islas, home to the Ese’eja and Shipibo indigenous people. A group of journalists have traveled here to learn about the Rainforest Alliance’s work with the Asociación Forestal Indigena de Madre de Dios (AFIMAD), a local forest and farm management organization comprised of six communities, including Tres Islas. Today’s lesson in local sustainability efforts is also a primer about Tres Islas’ historic fight for self-determination.

Cachique’s entrance has brought a respectful silence to the room. By now, the group has heard about her courageous legal battle (aided by her sister, Vilma, and other community leaders) to protect this region in the Amazon from destruction -- a journey that took her to the highest court of her country. Her commitment to protecting the Madre de Dios rainforest from the ravages of gold mining has been a beacon for her community as it struggles to balance the traditional ways of older residents with the needs of the younger generation in search of a more stable economic future.

Juana Payaba Cachique

“Cachique’s commitment demonstrates that the people of Tres Islas have what’s needed to govern their natural resources themselves by protecting them from outside influences,” explains Mark Donahue, the Rainforest Alliance’s project director for the Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon. “The challenge now is to build upon this base to improve the long-term management of their resources, while developing economic alternatives to help replace income from less sustainable resource extraction activities.”

Since 2009 the Rainforest Alliance has been working with local leaders, including Cachique and AFIMAD president Martin Huypuna, to develop sustainable forest management initiatives to conserve 76,000 acres (31,000 hectares) of land surrounding Madre de Dios. These initiatives protect abundant wildlife and support local livelihoods through the sustainable production of Brazil nuts, timber and palm fruit. Through local training programs, community members learn how to manage their forests more sustainably, add value to their end products, expand their market reach and increase their incomes. These initiatives are vital to the long-term health of the precious ecosystem that Cachique, other residents of Tres Islas, and indigenous people across the Peruvian jungle have fought so hard to protect.

A Long Road

View from Explorers Inn Observation TowerCachique has been one of the Rainforest Alliance’s fiercest allies in the Peruvian Amazon. For three years, she put her life on hold to fight for the rights of her people, whose land was threatened by an influx of gold miners. She says she would do it again in a heartbeat. “As leaders, we have to think about the future and our children,” she explains. “We can’t think about ourselves.”

Cachique’s battle to defend her community against the negative impacts of increased mining began in 2010 (in the early years, Tres Islas residents themselves likely participated in small-scale mining activity). At the time, a public road cutting through Tres Islas had become a popular route for miners. The miners “not only destroyed the communal territory, but also brought an increase in bars and introduced child prostitution to the area,” Cachique explains.

“There was always mining here, but it got to the point that there were miners here 24 hours a day,” she recalls. “They were destroying trees because they didn’t live here. It wasn’t their home, and they didn’t care about the land the way we did.”

As indigenous people, the community of Tres Islas has constitutionally protected rights to the land. They quickly realized that in order to ensure the safety and well-being of their community, they needed to find a way to close the road frequented by miners. Juana and a few other local leaders took matters in their own hands by blocking off the thoroughfare. First, they built a fence and a toll, both of which were quickly felled by the miners. Next, they blocked off the road with boulders, only to have the miners return with a bulldozer.

The miners were not easily discouraged. Two mining companies immediately contacted local law enforcement, suing Cachique and other Tres Islas community leaders in an effort to force them to reopen the road. Tres Islas lost the initial court battle.

“I was really disappointed when we lost,” Cachique says, “but I knew we were going to win eventually.”

The Tres Islas leaders appealed the ruling, but they were defeated again during a second trial. Cachique and other community leaders worked to escalate the case to a higher Peruvian court to fight for the protection of the community’s constitutionally guaranteed land rights.

Eventually, Cachique traveled to Washington, D.C. -- her husband stayed behind and cared for their 10-year-old daughter -- to promote her case. “I went to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights because we didn’t think Peru saw the problem the way we saw it,” she explains.

Her trip to the United States tipped the scales. Peru’s Constitutional Court finally took the case and affirmed the community’s land rights in September 2012. Tres Islas was permitted to keep the road closed and protect their environment from further encroachment. The victory was an enormous relief for Juana, who had received a stream of threats from mining officials throughout the three-year ordeal.

“A group of people with courage may prevail with the leadership of a brave and committed person,” says David Llanos, manager for the Rainforest Alliance’s training, extension, enterprises and sourcing program in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. “Juana and her sister Vilma were that catalyst for the indigenous community of Tres Islas.” The case has set a critical precedent for Peru’s 1,500 indigenous tribes by establishing their land rights in the country’s highest courts.

With the help of AFIMAD, the Tres Islas community plans to continue its sustainability work with the Rainforest Alliance. “We still need a lot of help because there are many things we want to do to achieve our financial and sustainability goals,” AFIMAD president Huypuna says. “It’s really important to have partnerships with NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance.”

Huypuna and Cachique are confident that together, we can protect their beautiful, biodiverse home. “Please tell your countries that there is a community in Peru that is taking care of the forests for them," Huypuna says.

Much of the Rainforest Alliance’s work in the Madre de Dios region of Peru is financed by the United States Agency for International Development under the Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon.

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