LIMA, Peru – An outspoken Peruvian opponent of illegal logging and three other native Ashaninka community leaders were slain in the remote region bordering Brazil where they live, authorities said Monday.
The activist, Edwin Chota, had received frequent death threats from illegal loggers, who he had tried for years to expel from the lands for which his community was seeking title.
Illegal loggers were suspected in the killings, Ashaninka regional leader Reyder Sebastian said by phone. Pervasive corruption lets the loggers operate with impunity, stripping the Amazon region's river basins of prized hardwoods, especially mahogany and tropical cedar.
"He threatened to upset the status quo," said David Salisbury, a professor at the University of Richmond who was advising Chota on the title quest and had known him for a decade. "The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead."
Chota and the others were killed a week ago near Saweto, the community he led on the Upper Tamaya river, said Sebastian and Patricia Balbuena, Peru's deputy minister of intercultural affairs.
They said information remained preliminary but that it appeared the men were killed while inspecting community land. Sebastian quoted a Saweto villager as saying via radio that the bodies were found dismembered. Balbuena said an attempt may have been made to hide the bodies.
The other slain men were identified as Jorge Rios, who was Chota's deputy, Leoncio Quinticima and Francisco Pinedo.
Sebastian and Balbuena spoke by phone from Pucallpa, the Ucayali regional capital, where they were awaiting a delegation from Saweto including Chota's widow and children.
Balbuena said the group was expected late Monday after a three-day river journey.
Peru's main indigenous federation, AIDESEP, expressed outrage at police and the judiciary in a statement for "doing absolutely nothing despite repeated complaints" to protect the slain men, who it said had joined "the long list of martyrs who fell in defense of their ancestral lands."
Balbuena said authorities planned after police debrief the delegation to fly by helicopter to Saweto to investigate and retrieve the bodies.
Chota had campaigned for six years for the title for his community, emboldening other settlements along the Tamaya to similar seek legal claim to traditional lands, Sebastian said.
Now, he said, people in those communities fear for their lives.
He said he would demand a meeting with President Ollanta Humala to obtain assurances for their safety.
The Ashaninkas are Peru's leading Amazon ethnic group and Sebastian says violence against them has been rising since they began agitating for titles to their territories.
Chota had written more than 100 letters to state institutions about illegal logging and titling efforts in Ucayali, said Salisbury, "and he was an incredible incredibly dynamic and charismatic leader who gave hope to not just his community but many others by his courage and convictions."
He said he and Chota personally met with Peru's national forestry director, Fabiola Munoz, in July and that forestry inspectors had just visited forestry concessions that overlapped with Saweto that were being logged without permission.
Telephone calls to Munoz seeking comment on the progress of Chota's titling efforts were not immediately returned.
So widely known was Chota, who was in his early 50s, that foreign reporters sometimes accompanied him into the jungle.
Journalist Scott Wallace last year described him in National Geographic as "a sinewy, 52-year-old firebrand with rakish, jet-black hair and a hawk's beak of a nose."
Chota's region is home to about 80 percent of illegal logging in Peru, which thrives on a web of corruption involving the widespread issuance of counterfeit logging permits.
For years, said Salisbury, large amounts of timber have been taken from Saweto — and from the Brazilian side of the Tamaya River — and floated downriver to saw mills in Pucallpa.
The wood from a single old-growth mahogany tree can fetch more than $11,000 on the U.S. lumber market, the Environmental Investigation Agency nonprofit said in a 2012 report on Peru's trouble forest concession system.
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