Alberto Curamil: Chile’s ‘environmental Nobel’ winner who saved a sacred river

A Chilean indigenous leader detained for allegedly taking part in a robbery has been awarded a prestigious environmental prize for his role in protecting a sacred river in his community.Alberto Curamil, of the Mapuche community, won the Goldman prize – considered the “Nobel of environmental activism – for mobilising local people, lawyers and scientists in Chile’s Araucanía region to stop the construction of dams which he argued would destroy forests, rivers and wildlife.

In 2016, Chile cancelled plans for the hydroelectric projects on the Cautín River, citing public opposition for one and lack of consent and adequate assessment of environmental impacts for the other.Mr Curamil, who was announced as one of six winners on Monday, could not be present to accept the prize following his arrest last August.He denies any wrongdoing and his lawyers say his incarceration – pending trial later this year – is politically motivated.

Belén Curamil Canio said people must “protect everything that makes existence possible”Speaking from the podium on Monday, she said: “The Mapuche struggle is an ecological struggle, it is a struggle for life and its continuity… We are people of the Earth, whose main mandate is to protect everything that makes existence possible, based on a spirituality connected with the natural elements.”

The 45-year-old is a leader of the Alianza Territorial Mapuche (ATM). The group claims his detention is “the culmination of a long process of political persecution”.Mr Curamil, who has worked to protect local rivers and forests, has also helped the Mapuche preserve their native language (Mapudungun) and defend their culture.

His battle against plans to install dams along the Cautín River began in 2013 after the projects, agreed by the government and two private energy companies, were announced without consulting the Mapuche.

He began a campaign of street protests and rallies, inviting people who were not members of the Mapuche community to participate.He also sought advice from environmental experts and lawyers, before highlighting the concerns of both indigenous peoples and scientists in a court case.Chilean law stipulates that prior and informed consent must be received before undertaking any development project.

The courts later ruled in favour of the Mapuche, stating that the projects would have been detrimental to the communities in the area, altering the environment and the course of a river that was culturally important.
A fellow campaigner and representative of the Mapuche community, Miguel Melín, told the BBC’s Alejandra Martins that Mr Curamil saw the Goldman award as “an acknowledgment not to him in personal terms, but to the struggle that the communities of the territory and the Mapuche people have given in general”.

Police arrested Mr Curamil for alleged participation in criminal activity and he has now been detained for nine months. His lawyer, Manuela Royo, told that his trial was likely to begin in July or August.

Members of the ATM group recently posted an image on Twitter showing Mapuche students “demanding the freedom” of the indigenous leader.The Cautín River, in the heart of the Mapuche community in southern Chile
It is an important part of the landscape in the region, not only for environmental and agricultural reasons, but because it holds spiritual value to the indigenous Mapuche people.

In the parts where the dams would have been located, locals believe the clean waters and vegetation provide remedies used by Mapuche to practice a traditional form of medicine called “machi”.

As Mr Curamil argued, the dam projects were not only illegal, but would have diverted hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the river each day, harming the critical ecosystem and exacerbating drought conditions in the area.