Article | 04 Nov, 2019

Celsa Ortiz, the first female ranger of the Yanesha Communal Reserve, Peru

Away from the busy CAPLAC III events in the capital of Lima, Celsa works steadily as the first, and so far only, female ranger in the Communal Reserve. She supports the IUCN Green List approach for the Yanesha Communal Reserve and its people's surrounding cultural landscape.

“My father was never content with my early choices and my dedication to learning. He always felt I was turning away from a traditional role as a Yanesha woman. However, when I received my first recognition, I clearly remember his statement 'I am so proud of you' – that was worth more than any award!…” she smilingly informed James Hardcastle who works with the IUCN Green List programme.

Celsa works to educate and train community members in the ways to protect the environment and the traditional practices that help maintain a healthy Yanesha territory. She especially works with youth, and has a strong following of women and girls who join her in educational activites and events.

She has already won coveted awards in Peru, including the prestigious Carlos Ponce award for service to nature.

“I see the Green List as an opportunity to use an international standard to help think through what is good practice and that we should follow, and what is best implemented by our own methods and values.”

Celsa believes that the Green List framework can be used to help the community make an informed judgement about how they can manage their territory better.

“I can use the criteria on gender equity to justify why more women should be engaged in the Reserve work, but that also means we should use the Reserve efforts to strengthen our cultural practices as women, such as the learning rituals and teaching about our sustenance and benefits we can have from the forest…”

The Yánesha people are a small indigenous nation of around 10,000 people. Their recent history tells the story of wave upon wave of disruption that has crashed over the Andes and swept into the Amazon basin, since the arrival of the Spanish invaders in 1526, to the malign influences of oil and gas extractors and the poisonous impacts of illicit gold mining, today.

Their cultural memory is passed down orally, and through rituals and celebrations that date back into antiquity. The Yánesha retain a living memory of their past lands, past heroes, and a collective story of their exodus as a people into their current customary landscape, to the forest-covered slopes and river valleys of the Andean Amazon, in central Peru. The Yánesha language reflects this diaspora, being a mix of Andean Quechua and Amazonian Arawak origins. The Yánesha’s culture reflects the eclectic mix of Peru itself, of the Andean mountains and the Amazon jungle.

One of the principle Yánesha heroes and ancestral patrons is Yampor Santo, known to the world as Juan Santos Atahualpa. Yampor Santo led a widespread and successful indigenous revolt against the Spanish in the 1750’s, driving them from the Andean Amazon and taking back control of a large area of Peru for more than 30 years. The Yánesha are truly a ‘Peruvian’ people.

As such, Yáneshan cultural heritage is spread across central Peru, often in the domains of other peoples and of recent colonizers. Many of these places are not well protected, and cannot be maintained through the proper rituals and protective rites. Many are areas of natural beauty and significance which are being lost to development, land conversion and deforestation.

A spatial representation of Yáneshan cultural awareness would span half of Peru. However, a number of significant cultural heritage sites are present in the defined map of their cultural landscape that Instituto del Bien Comun (IBC) helped to portray through participatory GIS work with the community. It spans a large part of the districts of Pasco, Junin and Huanuco districts.

Celsa clearly believes, however, that the Yáneshan perspective of cultural heritage is also dynamic, not sentimental. New areas can gain significance and become cultural havens, while restoring a ‘lost’ cultural heritage area is not often possible, as the lack of care and upkeep has caused the area to ‘die’ and it cannot be resuscitated.

In this regard, Celsa’s work inspires change, but she also encourages a return to traditional values. She advocates for both “You don’t need to escape your chaca (literally, your backyard) … but you can believe in yourself, and believe that you can make a change, and it will happen” she says.

Celsa shares stories of cultural practices and teachings, and engenders respect for the old stories and rituals, among her counterparts and youth charges. She also helps young Yanesha to search for education and find opportunities elsewhere in Peru and abroad, but calls for youth to later come back and give back to the Yánesha and their heritage.

The IUCN Green List programme, through support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Andes-Amazon Initiaitve, will now work with the people managing the Yanesha Communal Reserve and engaged in the wider cultural landscape to help them achieve certification for their collective efforts at successful natural and cultural heritage conservation.