Dryland Forestry

WeCaN Champion Fiorella Herrera: changing the world, one step at a time


When Fiorella Herrera found a dead dolphin on a beach in 2013, it changed the course of her life forever. She knew there could be several reasons for it: the most likely being that it had been trapped in an illegal net and dragged ashore, or poisoned by mercury released during gold prospecting operations. Either way, the cause of its death was probably man-made, and she was determined to do something about it. 

Fiorella, who was a student of marine biology, started by getting involved in conservation projects along the coast and in the forests of her home country, Peru. There she witnessed first-hand the destruction of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, seeing the consequences of deforestation, illegal hunting and animal trafficking.

This drove her to apply to the Peruvian government for a conservation concession of 25 000 hectares of land. Conservation concessions are areas of government land that assigned to non-profit and civil society associations who have vowed to manage them sustainably and protect their high biodiversity value. Fiorella’s aim wasn’t to prohibit communities from using the natural resources on this land, but to support them in using it sustainably. 

Community conservation

A couple of years ago she started her non-profit We Can Be Heroes, a volunteer-led organisation that develops socio-environmental projects and initiatives. It operates in remote places, involving communities in conserving their local environments. Peru has the ninth-largest forest resource in the world, but according to the World Resources Institute, about one-third of Peru's forest estate is considered either degraded or secondary forest, meaning that it has been regrown after a timber harvest or the land being used for agriculture.

“I wanted to work alongside local communities and develop ways to coexist harmoniously with nature, so we launched the Salva tu Selva conservation programme,” she said. “There are 17 communities surrounding the concession, all of which we work with to extract the natural resources of the place in a sustainable way and create bio-businesses that supply their basic needs. On top of that, we incentivize good practices on plastic reduction and train communities on why conservation is so important, in order to leave a good legacy to the country.” 

In doing so, Fiorella has made a big difference. Among the most outstanding projects in her community are the construction of improved kitchens, dry toilets, the planting of quinoa, improvement of a school, workshops on responsible consumption for fishermen, beach cleaning, education workshops environment in different parts of the country for young people and children, orchard workshop for school children and a municipal ordinance to reduce plastic, among others. 

Fiorella collaborated with two of the communities alongside the local police to stop the illegal wood commercialization on the main river. This resulted in a stop in wood transportation without permission on the river, although the illegal sale of timber and illicit forest cutting is still a problem in the broader context.

Many challenges remain

Great progress has been made, but it has not been an easy journey. Being a young woman, she faced resistance from communities with ‘traditional’ values, who found it difficult to trust her as a woman leader. But Fiorella was undeterred and educated herself on how best to learn from the local communites' knowledge and gain their trust. She studied anthropology and rural sociology to ensure she took the right approach that included the important knowledge and experiences of tribal communities.

Fiorella also struggles against a lack of funding. “I have zero funding, and all my work is voluntary,” she said, which limits her power to bring about change. However, Fiorella’s progress against the odds is evidence that money is no guarantee of results. All it takes it a community of people determined to create change. Fiorella has managed to harness the immense power wielded by everyday heroes through We Can Be Heroes, and utilising enhancing the knowledge and skills of volunteers who want to do their bit for protecting the environment in their countries. 

“For me a hero is a person who puts his soul, life and heart towards others. I show others that to achieve any change we want to see, we have to do it ourselves and united”, she said. “We need to leave our comfort zones... and connect again with our culture and nature, living passionately every day.”

(c) Fiorella Herrera

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