The recent murder of four leaders of the Amazonian Ashaninka community allegedly at the hands of illegal loggers, has once again highlighted the dangers surrounding this lucrative trade.
The four men were travelling from their homes in Saweto on the Peruvian border to attend a meeting with other indigenous leaders in Brazil when they were shot and killed.
According to reports, the four men Edwin Chota Valera, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quinticima Meléndez and Francisco Pinedo were killed at the beginning of September, but it took several days for news of their deaths to filter out due to the remoteness of the location.
Edward Chota was a prominent anti-logging campaigner and leader of the Ashaninkas, and had received death threats from illegal loggers.
The president of the Ashaninka organisation Aconamac, Reyder Sebastián Quinticuari, said: “Our people have always defended our resources and have faced illegal loggers who see our reserves as places to exploit.”
Peru’s Amazonian indigenous federation, AIDESEP Asociación interétnica de desarrollo de la selva peruana), 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 defence of their ancestral lands”.
AIDESEP also published a recent interview with Edward Chota, who complained that the Peruvian state has left local communities in the region abandoned.
Leaders from the Alto Tamaya-Saweto community were repeatedly asking for protection from the Peruvian authorities because they were receiving death threats from the illegal loggers operating in their area, according to Julia Urrunaga, Peru director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international conservation group.
Chota had long fought to expel to expel illegal loggers encroaching on his communities native lands by trying to secure official land titles for native villages, but he died without obtaining a land title for his own community of Saweto, added Reyder Sebastian, who worked with Chota for many years.
“He threatened to upset the status quo,” said David Salisbury, a professor at the University of Richmond who was advising Chota on his community’s quest for land titles and had known him for a decade. “The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead.”
According to a 2012 World Bank report, an estimated 80% of Peruvian timber exports stem from illegal logging.
The absence of state authority and pervasive corruption allows the loggers operate with impunity, stripping the Amazon region of prized hardwoods, especially mahogany and tropical cedar.
The wood from a single old-growth mahogany tree can fetch more than $11,000 on the U.S. lumber market, the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency said in a 2012 report on Peru’s troubled forest-concession system.
These slayings are not an isolated occurrence. According to a recent report by Global Witness, more than 900 people were killed from 2002 to 2013 while trying to protect the environment and land rights.
While this violence has spread around the globe, Brazil accounts for almost half this total, with nearly 450 cases. Peru was the fourth worst offender, with some 60 deaths since 2002.
As illegal loggers penetrate still further into the Amazon region to extract valuable hardwoods, clashes are increasingly occurring with indigenous communities. In Brazil, the Ka’apor tribe has lost roughly one third of their land since the 1980s to deforestation and cattle grazing, which often follows in the wake of the illegal logging.
The Ka’apor have responded by seizing the loggers, taking their equipment, and forcing them to leave their reserve.
The authorities in the Peruvian capital Lima, several thousand kilometres from the Amazon region where the deaths occurred have proved slow to react.
Apart from the statement on behalf of the Ministry of Culture condemning those responsible for the deaths and promising a thorough investigation, and the dispatch of police helicopters to retrieve the bodies of the four men, the Humala government has apparently done little to address the wider issue of the illegal trade in hardwoods.
But according to Global Witness, the responsibility for the continuing illegal deforestation does not end there. As their 2012 report concludes: ‘the lack of accountability at the national level is compounded by an inadequate international response. NGOS, donor governments and international bodies have so far failed to collectively recognize, monitor or address this problem”.