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Indigenous leader who fought for communities and conservation mourned in Peru

Benjamin Rodriquez Grandez. Image courtesy of Daniel Rosengren/FZS Peru.

  • Benjamín Rodríguez Grandez, a leader from the Huitoto tribe who dedicated his life to preserving Indigenous customs and the natural resources they depend on in the Peruvian Amazon, died of COVID-19 on July 16, 2020.
  • Rodríguez was a key player in efforts to lobby for the creation of Peru’s Yaguas National Park, an area of 868,927 hectares (2.15 million acres) of forest home to more than 3,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds, and 550 fish species.
  • He was also a teacher and a “judge of the peace,” a special title in Peru that allows community leaders to resolve certain disputes even if they don’t have a law degree.
  • “If Benjamín convened the meeting, everyone attended,” one source told Mongabay. “He had that influence in the area.” His work for the Yaguas National Park would later be noted by the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize.

When Benjamín Rodríguez Grandez, an Indigenous leader in the Putumayo region of the Amazon in northern Peru, became sick with apparent COVID-19 symptoms in July, he was evacuated to Iquitos, the nearest major city.

Getting there was the only way to receive treatment in a hospital with an intensive care unit, and it highlighted the vulnerability of Indigenous Amazonian communities during the pandemic, cut off as most are from main highways and infrastructure by jungles, rivers, and state negligence.

Rodríguez, a leader from the Huitoto tribe who dedicated his life to preserving Indigenous customs and the natural resources they depend on, died of COVID-19 on July 16.

“Everyone mourns the loss of a leader who was so wise as Benjamin was,” said Jackson Coquinche, a friend. “Of all the people who have died in this region, they have mostly been elders, who are the most wise.”

More than 1,000 Indigenous people in the Amazon region have likely died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Each loss is a devastating blow to these communities constantly fending off threats that endanger their very survival, such as illegal land grabs, deforestation, and climate change.

Benjamín Rodríguez Grandez, front, was a leader in his community and in the campaign for Yaguas National Park. Image courtesy of Monica Paredes/FZS Peru.

Even before COVID-19, defense of these rights was often deadly. Anyone standing up against interests of politicians and big business, as Rodríguez often did, risked becoming the victim of violence. In 2019 alone, 33 land defenders in the Amazon were killed, according to a Global Witness report.

Peru has been one of the hardest hit countries in Latin America during the pandemic, with more than 35,000 deaths despite early precautions taken by the government. The high number of deaths exposed a crack in the idea of Peru as a regional success story that lifted all citizens out of poverty after two decades of economic growth. The reality was that many Peruvians had been left behind.

The country’s Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with one community showing an 80% infection rate through antibody testing, according to the Associated Press. Without access to the public health care system, many Indigenous Peruvians have sought out the wisdom of their ancestors for remedies. But this irreplaceable wisdom and knowledge is being lost with the deaths of Rodríguez and others.

“He was a wise man who everyone trusted and went to for advice,” Coquinche said. “Now that he’s not there, the communities wonder who is going to counsel them about conservation issues, because he was the only person people turned to.”

Friends and colleagues recognized Rodríguez as one of the most well-respected leaders in the region. He was reelected nearly 10 times as president of the Federation of Native Border Communities of Putumayo (FENACOPRU), a testament to his long-lasting and valued leadership in the community.

He left a good impression on everyone he met, said Margarita Medina of the Amazon Andes Fund. “If Benjamín convened the meeting, everyone attended,” she said. “He had that influence in the area.”

He was a teacher and a “judge of the peace,” a special title in Peru that allows community leaders to resolve certain disputes even if they don’t have a law degree.

Health personnel visit a Peruvian Indigenous community looking for possible cases of COVID-19. Image by Evelio Paz Tume.

Although he had little formal education, Rodríguez was always studying, according to Coquinche. In another lifetime, if he had had access to a better education, he would have used to it to learn more, Coquinche said.

“He would always say that if in his youth there was internet and cellphones and everything, he would have been a doctor,” he said. “Or the president.”

Creation of Yaguas National Park

Although he never made it to the presidency, Rodríguez achieved many other significant accomplishments for his community.

For decades, he was a key player in efforts to lobby for the creation of Yaguas National Park, spanning 868,927 hectares (2.15 million acres) of forest that is home to more than 3,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds, and 550 fish species, making up two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish biodiversity.

Rodríguez also worked alongside Liz Chicaje Churay, a trailblazing female leader who was elected president of the Federation of Native Communities of Ampiyacu (FECONA) and 2018 winner of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights, to ensure the protection of this sacred land. Both were invited to the 2017 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) summit in Bonn, Germany, to speak about their fight to preserve the Amazon and its natural resources.

Yaguas National Park comprises nearly 870,000 hectares (2.15 million acres) of Amazon rainforest in Peru’s northern Loreto region. As deforestation has expanded and approached from the south, this area has remained relatively intact. Data source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

Rodríguez believed this designation would protect the land sacred to these Indigenous communities who have experienced violence, discrimination and invasion of their territories for centuries.

Most residents in the area, including Rodríguez, are descendants of Indigenous people forced into slavery during the Amazon rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century. An estimated 100,000 Indigenous people in the Amazon died when Westerners entered the zone and ran exploitative businesses to extract and commercialize this commodity. The conditions were particularly harsh in the Putumayo region, and have since been called the Putumayo Atrocities.

By the mid-20th century, the rubber trade faded from the region when production shifted to Asia, but the communities were left devastated. Since then, the state has had little presence, and quality education and other basic services are lacking in these Indigenous Amazon communities along the Putumayo River.

In recent years, Indigenous communities have faced new threats: illegal mining, logging, and cattle ranching, often backed by international businesses or criminal groups.

“He understood very well that Yaguas is the heart of this forest area and that being protected as a national park would guarantee that it wouldn’t be meddled with by other threats like illegal logging and mining,” said Teofilo Torres, the director of Yaguas National Park and a friend of Rodríguez.

But Rodríguez knew that his voice was not the only one that mattered.

Freddy Ferreyra of the Institute of the Common Good (IBC), a Peruvian civil society organization that works with rural communities, said one of Rodríguez’s strengths was that he “knew how to listen, relate to people and lead.”

The idea of creating a national park caused some tension within Indigenous communities. Some didn’t want to ask the government for recognition of the right to the land where they’ve lived for centuries. They preferred to declare it a communal land, which would grant them more autonomy but involved a more complicated legal process. Others worried declaring the area a national park would cut off their access to the resources they depend on.

Benjamín Rodríguez Grandez, third from right, traveled to Germany with Liz Chicaje Churay, fourth from left, for COP23: during that trip, Chicaje accepted the Franco-German Prize. Image courtesy of Javier Fernández-Maldonado/FZS Peru.

Six of the 29 communities around the park opposed it during the consultation process, and Rodríguez was instrumental in making sure that these communities resolved their differences. He was a rare leader who could bring together Indigenous communities from all over the Putumayo region, according to those who knew him.

“People agreed because he went to talk to the communities and explained,” Coquinche said. Some of their concerns were unfounded: a national law in Peru protects Indigenous peoples’ rights to use the resources of any protected area for their own livelihood, for instance.

The Peruvian government declared Yaguas a national park in 2018. Torres called Rodríguez’s conviction in the face of resistance “heroic.” In all of Rodríguez’s years as a leader, he was never accused of any form of corruption, and his intentions were never doubted — a rare feat for any local leader resolving tense conflicts, Medina said.

“He was faithful and convinced that the protected areas contributed to the Indigenous way of life because the Indigenous way of life is directly related to what the forest gives,” Torres said.

“This well-being is what we want our future generations to inherit,” Rodríguez told Mongabay in 2018 after the creation of Yaguas National Park.

Although he will not be there to see it, this prosperity will live on in his legacy. “We’re never going to have another leader like him here in the Putumayo,” Coquinche said.

Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist covering immigration, human rights and social issues chiefly in Mexico and Central America. Find her latest writings via @AnnaCat_Brigida.

Editor’s note: In 2021, Rodríguez’s work with Liz Chicaje Churay to create Yaguas National Park was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Banner image: Benjamín Rodríquez Grandez, courtesy of Daniel Rosengren/FZS Peru.

Related listening: Activists and conservationists across Latin America are likely to receive new protections via the Escazu Agreement: