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Peru: four outstanding indigenous leaders



A tribute to four consistent and committed indigenous leaders in Peru.

by Servindi. Translated from the Spanish original by Luis Manuel Claps.

2 January, 2015.- The year 2014 comes to an end and the personalities of Edwin Chota, Máxima Chaupe, Santiago Manuin and Ruth Buendia stand out for impeccable trajectory in the public eye and advocacy in favor of their peoples.

While it may seem unfair to highlight individuality, behind these names are noble and social causes that result from collective action. In addition, public figures have a role in history and are bound to the social imaginary.

As Servindi, we appreciate these men and women as much needed signs for the youth, in times of political and moral crisis where corruption, betrayal and lack of loyalty prevail and the interest of individuals are put before the common good.

Here is our tribute to four consistent and committed indigenous personalities, who have been able to face great economic and political interests with admirable courage and dignity at the risk of losing their own lives.

Edwin Chota

Edwin Chota was the indigenous leader who gained the most visibility in 2014, though sadly he is no longer physically with his family, community and people. His assassination in early September while fighting illegal loggers transcended internationally.

Chota was an apu of the Ashéninka community in Saweto, Ucayali. Along with three other leaders, they were intercepted and killed by mafia hitmen when traveling to a meeting with colleagues from Brazil.

The 53 year old leader had been threatened before because of his tenacious defense of the forests. He has claimed the communal titling of their lands and denounced illegal logging in the region for the past twelve years.

Unfortunately, actions for environmental protection received no response from the Peruvian government, until news of his death began to gain notoriety shortly before the COP20, held in Lima during the first half of December 2014.

The Peruvian government then promised access to justice for the bereaved relatives and the immediate titling of the community lands. Three people linked to the crime were arrested.

For the National Coordinator of Human Rights, the Peruvian State is co-responsible for the deaths because it had breached its obligation to protect the community.

In mid-November, Diana Ríos, daughter of Jorge Ríos, one of the leaders killed along with Chota, was honored in New York City by the Alexander Soros Foundation in tribute to the communal fight against illegal logging and drug trafficking.

In December, the widows of the deceased Ashéninkas attended the COP20 to demand action from the Government for the lack of results in the investigation of the case and the search of the bodies. They denounced that the conditions to return to Saweto were unclear, because “the threat of illegal loggers is still there”.

Santiago Manuin

The awajún leader Santiago Manuin Valera, from the Amazonas Region, has ample experience in defending the rights of his people, from the many places and positions held throughout his life, either in his pastoral work or through his indigenous leadership.

His name transcended the local sphere when he was seriously wounded in 2009 during the unfortunate events known as the “baguazo”, a violent confrontation that ended a lengthy indigenous protest against a series of decrees that they considered detrimental to their rights.

Manuin was shot five times by the police while trying to dialogue during the eviction of a road that remained blocked by the indigenous protesters for several weeks. Five years later, despite the physical scars left by the conflict, his untiring work was recognized by the Angel Escobar Award 2014, given annually to the most outstanding rights defenders by the National Coordinator of Human Rights (CNDDHH).

The executive secretary of the CNDDHH, Rocio Silva Santisteban, considered Manuin´s award as a just recognition of his work exerted from different positions and spaces.

Meanwhile, Manuin is being criminalized by the State, as he faces a trial for which he could be sentenced to life imprisonment as the alleged mastermind of the “baguazo”, where 34 people died.

However, civil society organizations that follow the case say that the prosecution did not provide any evidence to make such an accusation. The awajún leader showed no embarrassment or remorse for the 2009 protest. On the contrary, in a recent interview he said that his people will do it again if their territory is threatened and there are no alternative means for legal defense.

Máxima Chaupe

A peasant woman from Cajamarca has become the symbol of resistance against economic powers and big business in Peru. Máxima Chaupe Acuña has succeeded in stopping the encroachment of Minera Yanacocha mining company on to her lands.

Máxima is an example of consistent struggle for those who refuse to see their region transformed into a mining district. She has also been instrumental in the peasant resistance against the Conga gold-copper project, providing shelter and food to the “keepers of the lakes” -community members who monitor the four Andean lakes that the mining company pretends to empty out to mine.

Mrs. Acuña has suffered constant attacks by the police and Yanacocha security personnel because her land is within the project area, in a region of the Celendín province called Tragadero Grande. The worst aggression occurred in 2011 when the police entered her property, assaulted her family and burned her house.

Surprisingly, the mining company filed a lawsuit against the Chaupe family and accused Máxima of violent usurpation. The justice system of Cajamarca sentenced Máxima to two years and eight months of suspended prison, payment of a compensation to the mining corporation and the surrender of the property.

But on 17 December, following an appeal by attorney Mirtha Vásquez, the Supreme Court in Lima ruled in her favor and acquitted her of all charges because it considered that none of the alleged acts were proven to be of her doing.

Despite the setback, Yanacocha announced it would appeal the ruling. Máxima Chaupe and her family will continue to resist with the solidarity of those who fight for justice and dignity.

Ruth Buendía Mestoquiari

The indigenous leader of the Ashaninka people, Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari, was honored in 2014 with the Goldman Prize, one of the most prestigious environmental awards.

Her merit was having unified her people to reject two hydro-power projects that threatened to flood lands and displace thousands of indigenous people who were never consulted.

The Pakitzapango dam, approved in 2009 by the government of Alan García, would have flooded ancestral lands of the communities of the Ene River Basin, in the so called selva central (central jungle), also the buffer zone of the Ashaninka Communal Reserve and the Otishi National Park.

Ruth Buendia, president of the Central Ashaninka del Rio Ene (CARE), led a powerful campaign against large-scale dams that threatened to evict her people, just as terrorism previously did in the 1980s. Thanks to social opposition, the plans for building hydroelectric plants are currently suspended.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), about 10,000 Ashaninka (out of 55,000) were forcibly displaced from their valleys during the internal war. Some 6000 died and 5000 were kidnapped by Shining Path. Over 30 communities simply disappeared.

One of the victims was Ruth´s father, who died when she was only 12 years old. After that tragic event she was sent to Lima. Years later, she returned to her homeland and devoted herself to the leadership that made her winner of the Goldman Prize, which is awarded annually to “environment heroes” from the five continents.

Translated from Spanish for IWGIA and SERVINDI by Luis Manuel Claps.

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