BOGOTA, – As a teenage mother and activist, Liz Chicaje would travel by boat and foot across Peru’s Amazon rainforest with her young daughter campaigning to protect the ancestral lands of the Bora indigenous people from illegal logging and mining.
To preserve the forest that the Bora and other indigenous people depend on for hunting and fishing in Peru’s northeastern region of Loreto, Chicaje spearheaded the creation of a two-million-acre (809,370-hectare) national park.
On Tuesday, Chicaje’s activism and leadership earned her a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize – known as the “Green Nobel” – which honors grassroots activism, along with five other winners.
“We live off the forest. It’s our wealth. If it wasn’t for the forests, we wouldn’t have the food and pure air that we breathe,” Chicaje, 38, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a Zoom interview.
“We all have to continue to advance in the protection of the environment and reforest areas,” she said.
Chicaje and other indigenous leaders worked with government officials, environmentalists and scientists, using satellite imagery to map areas that would be placed under protection.
Chicaje convinced other indigenous communities to endorse the park, and in January 2018 Peru’s government declared the creation of the Yaguas National Park.
With deforestation rates rising in parts of Peru’s Amazon, the national park is seen by environmentalists as vital in safeguarding ecosystems and carbon-storing peatlands and rainforest.
Announced in San Francisco, California, during an online ceremony, the Goldman Environmental Prize provides each of the six winners with financial support to magnify their environmental activism and continue local campaigns.
Among this year’s other prize winners are Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, a Malawian anti-plastics campaigner; environmentalist Maida Bilal from Bosnia-Herzegovina; and American Sharon Lavigne, a campaigner against toxic waste and pollution.
They also include Thai Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese wildlife conservationist, and Japanese environmentalist Kimiko Hirata.
Hirata’s work has focused on eliminating Japan’s old and inefficient coal-fired power plants – a major contributor to carbon and other emissions that fuel global warming.
After Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was severely damaged in a 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the government closed many of the country’s nuclear plants and ramped up coal power, Hirata said.
“We needed to start from zero. People didn’t really know anything about coal … they didn’t see it as a problem,” she said over Zoom.
“There was no knowledge among the Japanese people where coal power exists, how many coal plants exist and the risks it has,” said Hirata, who is the founding member of the Kiko Network, a local climate change nonprofit.
As part of a national anti-coal campaign Hirata began in 2011, a website was created to track new proposed coal plants, along with a network of activists living in areas where new coal stations were being planned, she said.
Working with scientists, academics, lawyers, journalists and local community leaders, Hirata sought to raise awareness in public meetings and hearings about the negative impact of coal power on the environment and Japan’s pollution levels.
The campaigning paid off. By 2019, Japan’s government had canceled 13 planned coal plants across the country, averting the emission of about 42 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, the Goldman Prize committee said.
“When I see the map of Japan, and where (coal) projects were canceled, those are mostly the areas where we mobilized local movements,” said Hirata, adding that there are currently no plans to build any new coal plants in Japan.
Hirata is now putting pressure on Japan to phase out the use of coal power altogether and to commit to only renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, by 2050.
But achieving this goal will be more difficult in a country where coal is seen as an important part of the energy mix, and where healthcare and economic issues often take priority over climate action, Hirata noted.
Japan’s energy policy aims to have renewable energy contribute 22% to 24% of total power by 2030. Currently, the country gets about 18% of its electricity from renewable energy sources.
“We can’t just shout, ‘Do not build more coal plants!’ We have to show a solution for the people who are involved in the coal business,” Hirata said.