Brutal Murder of Activists Raises the Stakes for Amazonian Tribes

Tomajau 6
JUNGLE PATROL: Illegal logging activity near to Tomajau in the Peruvian Amazon has driven the local Ashéninka to arm themselves in fear of violent reprisals Peter Guest

Pucallpa is the end of the road – the last town before the Amazon becomes impenetrable overland. From here, logs floated down the river are loaded on to flatbeds and driven to Peru's Pacific ports for export. Huge, gnarled tree trunks ­traverse the town, loaded from sawmills that line the riverbank. Some of the logs are two metres in diameter, ancient hardwoods culled from the primary rainforest.

This heartland of the timber trade in Peru's Ucayali province has become an unlikely haven for the survivors of a massacre that shocked the conservation movement in Latin America and pulled into sharp focus the long – and often violent – struggle of communities on the front lines of climate change.

In September, four activists who were from the Alto Tamaya-Saweto Ashéninka indigenous community – Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Francisco Pinedo and Leoncio Quinticím – were returning on foot through the Amazon from a meeting with another community close to the Brazilian border. As they reached a "tambo" – a shelter in the forest – they were ambushed and executed. Their bodies were dismembered and scattered into the forest: a mode of murder that recalled the atrocities of Peru's Dirty War. The men's remains have only been partially recovered, and are awaiting DNA identification.

It was a brutal conclusion to a 12-year battle for the legal title to their land, which they believed would finally grant them respite from the illegal logging that is destroying their ancestral forests. No one from the Ashéninka community doubts that it was the same loggers who paid for the murders.

Their widows and children are now camped in Pucallpa, without the means to pay for the six-day boat trip to Saweto to reclaim the bodies, honour their dead and elect their successors.

Diana Rengifo, Ríos Pérez's daughter, a short round-faced woman in her early 20s, had a child with Edwin Chota – polygamous families are common amongst the Ashéninka – and is mourning both. "It feels like a knife in my heart. Nothing will cure it. It will last forever," she says, her voice breaking. "My father fought, and we will go on until we get change or we die."

IN HIDING: Ergilia Lopez is the widow of activist Edwin Chota, who was one of four activists killed in September. She holds a picture (R) that her husband took of illegal loggers. She now lives in a safe house in Pucallpa. Peter Guest

Since they left Saweto in the aftermath of the killings, they have been shunted from place to place, surviving on charity. They are now crowded into a small wooden house set back from a dirt road in the backstreets of Pucallpa, under constant police guard. In this house, funded by ProPurus, a local rights group, they have achieved a kind of stability, and they are intent on getting justice for the killings and demanding that the state finally gives them the legal rights to their land. "If we had the title, this would never have happened," says Julia Pérez, Chota's first wife, who is eight months pregnant. "If we had titles, we could have kicked the loggers out."

The Amazon is a globally critical sink for carbon dioxide, and its survival is vital to international efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change. Peru, which in December will host the 20th 'Conference of the Parties', where leaders will attempt to thrash out a new deal on carbon emissions, has nearly 75 million hectares of forest. Research from Stanford University estimates that those forests store nearly 17bn tonnes of above-ground carbon, more than three times the US' annual emissions.

Over the past decade, Chota and his companions had articulated to an international audience that putting the forests in the hands of the indigenous communities, who have a long-term stake in their survival, is the most effective way of keeping them standing. On November 17, the community of Saweto was presented with the Alexander Soros Foundation Award for its ­contribution to conservation. Diana Rengifo flew to New York to attend the ceremony.

The Peruvian government has an international legal obligation to give titles to indigenous communities like Saweto, but the process has stalled for decades. Local and national bodies have found ways to hold up the process by layering on zoning regulations and dragging out mapping initiatives. In the meantime, they have sold concessions on Ashéninka land.

Peru's economic development has been driven by a huge expansion in its natural resource sector. According to research from the Munden Project, more than 40% of Peru's total land area has been given over to mining, logging or oil concessions. Indigenous communities, and their claims on the land, stand in the way of these developments. In the rush to develop new assets, Peru has opened up the Amazon to logging, mining and drilling. As recently as July 2014, the government passed "law 30230", which allows investors to expand in previously protected areas. Already politically and economically marginalised, many indigenous communities feel that they are being pushed aside to make way for commercial ­projects in which they have no stake and see no benefits for them.

Arcelia in Pucallpa
Arcelia is now able to attend market safely Peter Guest

This tension has boiled over into violence in the past. In 2009, the government led by President Alan García declared a state of emergency after indigenous people in the Bagua Province protested against a change in the law allowing private companies to exploit oil reserves within the Amazon. The army was deployed to break up blockades laid by the protestors, and in the resulting violence 23 security personnel and nine indigenous activists were killed. The case against 53 protestors is still rolling on. At the end of October, in Iquitos, also in the Amazon, 500 members of the Nuevo Andoas and Alianza Capaguari indigenous communities occupied an airstrip to protest the use of their land for oil production by the Argentine company Pluspetrol. They claim that concessions have been given without consultation, and that the company has not done enough to prevent and clean up spills.

The failure to recognise indigenous peoples' rights to their land has potentially been even more damaging, creating a legal and security vacuum into which narco-traffickers and the illegal logging trade can work with impunity. According to new research from Global Witness, at least 57 activists have been murdered in Peru since 2002; 60% of the killings occurred in the last four years. Many of these have occurred after direct confrontations with illegal groups operating on their traditional lands.

The events in Ucayali are, in microcosm, those playing out across the Amazon. Pucallpa is a rich town, with a smart airport, wide, clean streets and hardware shops well-stocked with chainsaws and white goods. It is all bought with the proceeds of the timber trade. By evening the ­riverbank sits under a shimmer of sawdust and diesel. Legal and illegal timber mixes seamlessly in Pucallpa, where illicit traders can acquire official paperwork from corrupt officials. These interests are lined up against the Saweto widows as they take up their husbands' fight.

As Raul Casanto, who heads a regional Ashéninka association in Pucallpa, says: "It would be convenient if the case just went away. All of the power here is in logging." Casanto believes that the Ashéninkas could be heading for a confrontation, like in Bagua. "That's the only way people will listen to us. The only way to get the government's attention is direct action," he says.

Three men, with connections to the timber trade, are awaiting trial for the Ashéninkas' murder. The case has exposed serious weaknesses in the local judiciary. The investigation was slow to start, after the incident was initially dismissed as a fight between narco-traffickers and illegal ­loggers. The current prosecutor's brother-in-law is representing one of the accused – the widows have only just found legal representation in the form of Lima-based lawyer Margoth Quispe, a former human rights investigator.

Quispe believes that the chances of getting justice in the local courts are nonexistent. "Definitely, in Pucallpa, no. In Ucayali province, no," she says. Her strategy is to take the case to the national courts in Lima. Ergilia Lopez, Jorge Ríos Pérez's widow, is travelling to Lima this week to ask for the case to be transferred. "I don't want revenge," Lopez says. "I want the government to deliver justice." That justice, she says, is not just for her husband, but for 21,000 other Ashéninkas in Peru, who are facing the same threats, intimidation and incursions into their territory.

Illegal Camp 5
Wood cut down in illegal logging activities Reuters

From Pucallpa, Tomajau is a 10-hour boat journey along the Ucajali and Tamaya rivers, down curving channels, which at low ebb are strewn with broken tree roots that jut out of the water like sea mines. Like Saweto, Tomajau has recognition but no title, and the illicit timber trade has moved in. Every few miles along the riverbank, low cliffs have been turned into makeshift slipways to load timber into the river. Rafts of a dozen or so logs float downstream, some steered by small motorised skiffs, others left to float free in the current.

The village is set back from the river on a quiet lagoon, where silver fish leap straight into passing boats. It has a small school and a radio in a tin shack to communicate with Pucallpa and the other Ashéninka communities. In the morning, the community's Apo – leader – Amancio Encinas, sets out into the rainforest with four men and two dogs. Armed with roughly-made shotguns, machetes and bows and arrows, they patrol the forest, hacking through overgrown paths to hunt the capuchin monkeys and forest pigs.

After an hour they find a freshly gutted trunk, more than three feet in diameter. Blocks of sawn wood are scattered around it. Another three hours in, a long, straight trail has been smashed through the forest. At one end is the river, at the other, the sawn roots of another huge hardwood. Loggers penetrate deep into the forest to find the largest and most valuable trees to harvest. In the past, Encinas has confronted them and was met with threats on his life.

The murders at Saweto have cast a long shadow. Loggers have warned Encinas not to be like Chota. He remains defiant. "We are afraid," Encinas says. "Our own people were killed, and the same thing could happen to us. But what we have learned from Saweto is that land rights are everything . . . We will fight for them."