13 Oct 2014

Death and corruption in Peru’s Amazonian rainforest

Latin America Correspondent

Edwin Chota was one of four friends who died trying to protect the land in one remote area of Peru from illegal loggers. Now his people also fear for their lives.

Edwin Chota Valera, Leoncio, Quincima Melendez, Jorge Rios Pérez and Francisco Pinedo had been fighting for land rights in the remote Peruvian region they call home for many years.

The community of Saweto is deep in the Amazonian forest, close to Peru’s border with Brazil. It’s been home to the Asheninka people for generations and is rich in the kind of hardwoods that sell for big money around the world. The men who harvest the timber there illegally had threatened them before, but the threats simply hardened Chota’s resolve to fight for his people’s rights and move the loggers off the land.

But their struggle ended in disaster.

Photo gallery: protecting Peru from the loggers

Eaten by vultures

The four men were ambushed while they rested on their way to a meeting in Apiwtxa, an Asheninka town on the Brazilian side of the border. Jaime, another member of the tribe, was waiting for them. But after nearly a week of no news, he decided to travel back to Saweto on the Peruvian side. While walking he saw the bodies of his four friends being eaten by vultures. They had been lying dead for six days.

He ran across the jungle all the way to Saweto. The community was terrified. Too afraid to go and pick up the remains of their leaders. But the men’s widows and the local teacher immediately left with seven of their children in a canoe down river to the capital of the region, Pucallpa. They navigated 48 hours non stop, day and night.

We had pratically no food but we did not stop. We had to come here to look for justice for our husbands. Julia Chota

“It was the worse trip of my life. We could not eat because of the pain in our hearts, the kids were crying, we had practically no food but we did not stop. We had to come here to look for justice for our husbands,” Julia, Edwin’s widow, told me in a hotel in Pucallpa.

It took the Peruvian government several days to react. When they finally flew to the area, the four men had been lying dead for nearly two weeks. The same forest that they had tried so hard to protect had consumed them.

“It was sad to see the government take such a long time to come here. If those killed had been white people from Lima, they would have sent helicopters much faster. They did that because we are indigenous Indians and they don’t really care about us,” Diana Rios, Jorge’s daughter, told me in Saweto.

Watch more reports from South America by reporter Guillermo Galdos

Forced to react

Edwin Chota himself had written hundreds of letters to the authorities denouncing the illegal logging activity. He even followed an illegal load of logs downriver from Saweto to Pucallpa and told the authorities about it – but nothing happened.

Corruption is rampant in Peru, and in places like Pucallpa illegal logging and drug trafficking literally move the economy. According to the World Bank nearly 80 per cent of Peru’s logging exports is harvested illegally.

If those killed had been white people from Lima, they would have sent helicopters much faster. Diana Rios

But the news of the killing forced the Peruvian authorities to react. Since then two men have been arrested and are being investigated for the murder of the indigenous leaders. But while corruption remains and institutions not strengthened, the guardians of the forest will continue to be the victims of the appetite for hard Amazonian timber.

More than 900 environmental activists have been killed around the world over the past decade. Peru is the third most dangerous place in the world for people who defend the environment, after Brazil and Honduras.