One day, Peruvian electrician Edwin Chota abruptly abandoned the life of the city, and the various children he had failed to raise, for the jungle and for an indigenous tribe whom he adopted as his own. He helped the natives of the community of Saweto to organize, and rose to be their leader. For over a decade he lived under death threats for denouncing illegal logging on his lands. His pleas for protection were ignored. In the end, the timber traffickers murdered him. A profile by Joseph Zárate:
Those who knew him said that Edwin Chota had a wide, exaggerated and contagious smile, with a prominent gap where a front tooth was missing. Alberto Chota Tenazoa, his father, tells the story of how, two years before the eldest of his six sons, Edwin Chota, was killed, he had lost that tooth while eating a bowl of noodles with turtle. “He bit a bone,” he recalls, “but he just laughed, tossed the tooth away, and kept eating.” Jaime Arévalo, a hunter and member of the Asháninka, one of the largest ethnic groups in the Peruvian jungle, remembered that missing tooth when he finally unearthed his friend’s skull. He had spent all morning with the police, half-immersed in a pool of brownish water near the Brazilian border where the river had dragged Edwin Chota’s body, ripped at by buzzards and alligators. First a femur emerged from that seven-meter pool, followed by some ribs, a shirt torn to ribbons, a worn-through boot, and a colorful bracelet still tied around the wrist bone. These belonged to one of Arévalo’s four friends who had been murdered two weeks prior in a nearby stream. Arévalo then saw the detail that confirmed it: the skull was missing a tooth.
Despite his 53 years and the fact that he was as skinny as a whip, Edwin Chota was a sturdy farmer and a capable hunter with a rifle. He had a hooked nose like an eagle, a shock of black hair without a single lock of gray, and skin toasted under the sun. He could imitate a sparrow’s call or a bobcat’s growl, was a skilled soccer player, and would dance huaynos and the Brazilian forró by moving his scrawny frame like a marionette. The space where his upper right incisor used to be stood out even more whenever Edwin Chota smiled. Also whenever he protested. As the chief of Alto Tamaya-Saweto, a community of some 30 families in the Amazon region, Chota –the only adult there who knew how to read and write– would grow furious and raise his fists when he called out the illegal loggers exploiting the natives and ransacking the forest in which they lived. “That was the only time he was ever serious,” remarks Julia Pérez, his widow. “He was always a joker”. Though at times, smiling can be an act of diplomacy, Chota never turned up the corners of his mouth toward a timber trafficker.
It is a seven-day trip by boat to get to Pucallpa, the second-largest city in the Peruvian jungle where Edwin Chota was born and grew up. Chota would travel to visit his father and bring him motelo, a tender-fleshed turtle that had become his favorite dish. The last time they saw each other, on Father’s Day, Chota told his father about how he was going to make the trip to Lima to see if they would listen to his pleas, once and for all. The death threats were coming more frequently, now. His father begged him to stay.
“I can’t,” he said. “They’d have to kill me to stop me.”
Two months later, on September 1, 2014, Edwin Chota was killed along with three other Asháninka leaders: Jorge Ríos, Francisco Pinedo, and Leoncio Quintisima. They were killed in the Alto Tamaya jungle as they traveled to an assembly in Brazil to organize for the defense of their territories. A 16-guage shotgun slug – specially used for hunting wild animals – struck him in the chest. Another shell opened his skull. Jaime Arévalo, another community member who had made his way to the meeting earlier, came back along the same path when his friend failed to appear. Five days later he found the bodies in a stream, a 12-hour walk from the border, and ran back to his community fearing for his own life, too. The widows and children of these slain Asháninka leaders made the 3-day trip by boat non-stop to Pucallpa to report the killings. There are no police in Saweto. The two-channel radio in the community, their only contact with the world, barely works.
The last time that Edwin Chota traveled to Lima to denounce the loggers that were threatening him, he called his 82 years old father and promised to visit. He had sent along a photo of himself: he stood sternly in the photograph, wearing his brown tunic and feathered hat, his face painted with red lines for one of the many meetings that he presided over as an Asháninka chief. “So you can still see me, even if something were to happen to me”, he told his father before saying goodbye.
The man who died for his Asháninka community had not always been Asháninka. When they told Perla Chota that her father was the chief of an indigenous tribe, she thought it must be a joke. How could it be possible that the man she had last seen at age 9, who loved to dance to the Bee Gees and John Travolta, the man who never walked out the door without his shirt ironed and his shoes shined, could now wear a tunic, feathered crown and sandals, and live in a straw hut in the middle of the Amazon? Edwin Chota’s sisters in Lima were just as surprised. “We couldn’t believe it” Sonia Chota said. “My brother even spoke this strange language.” His family in the city said that to this day they still do not understand why Edwin Chota decided to defend a people who were not his own. They speak of the sudden death of his mother, when Edwin was 10 years old, as a moment that spurred his concern for others. In a house full of children but short on money, the future Asháninka leader who would face down a forest mafia grew up as a shy boy, outstanding in school, and would always lend whatever he had to make friends with others. His brothers and friends repeat this: Edwin Chota helped others so that they would like him.
The memories of his youth are incomplete. We know he finished secondary school in Pucallpa, that he stopped working on the farm for his father –an oil drilling worker– to join the army. He fought with the marine infantry in the war between Peru and Ecuador, and worked as an electrician installing high-tension lines in Iquitos. His romantic relationships were short-lived. During the war he had an indigenous girlfriend. He then had two children –whom the Chota family does not recognize– with an older woman from the Israelites sect. Some say that Edwin Chota let his beard grow and began to speak of the Bible. After they separated, Chota had a child with another woman, who left him, and he returned to Pucallpa.
Elva Risafol was his partner at the time when he returned to the city. Together they had a child, who is now a police officer. Elva remembers that Chota had wanted to go to the jungle some day to do something for the vulnerable communities he had encountered during the war. “He built his sandcastles, he was so idealistic. I was more practical. I told him, joking, that if he married a native woman he would live happily ever after. I guess he took my advice.” Chota and Risafol separated in 1997. Then Edwin Chota simply disappeared from the city. Early one morning four years later, Edgar Chota heard a knock on the door at his house in Pucallpa. It was Edwin, his older brother, who had come for a visit. “I was so happy,” Edgar remembers, “We all thought he was dead”.
The record of what he did during those four years is unclear. Some say that at the end of the 1990s Edwin Chota made it to the jungles of Alto Tamaya on his own. Others say that he went with some friends to work as a farmhand or a peccary leather salesman. They say he came to forget his failures, and that he stayed because he fell in love with a native woman. In any case, by the time Edwin Chota arrived, Saweto already existed. Or at least its foundations.
The Asháninka had come in from the jungles of central Peru to settle this frontier region on the Brazilian border in the early 20th century in the midst of the rubber boom: Europe and the United States were buying latex from these tree by the ton to manufacture automobile tires. The Asháninka in Saweto were descendents of the natives who had moved in to the region with the old plantation owners. For centuries the indigenous groups there had been exploited as cheap labor. When the rubber ran out, exotic animal furs were next. When that ran out, timber extraction followed.
The indigenous leaders complain that they continue to suffer the same treatment that they have for decades: Plantation owners give token material gifts to the native people –clothes, rifles, outboard motors, radios, food– in exchange for hundreds of logs of timber. Since most of the local communities are illiterate, they are cheated on quantities and prices, and always end up cutting even more wood to pay their debts. When the loggers come in, the animals flee from the sound of the chainsaws. Community members must walk into the forest for days to hunt for food, and at times they come back empty-handed. As the tractors drag logs through the forest, they leave in their wake unserviceable land that cannot be used to plant crops. Loggers have even brought diseases that the indigenous groups had never encountered before. For seasons, community members would die by the dozens from a simple cold.
Many Asháninka lived this way in Saweto until 1999. When Edwin Chota arrived, some families had already decided to stop this exploitation and seek official state recognition for their community. That way, they could take advantage of their resources themselves, and finally have access to something even more valuable: a school.
“We used to each live our life,” remembers Diana Ríos, Chota’s ex-wife. “But he told us we should come together in order to stop getting cheated. He taught us to read, to write. He took me to trainings for indigenous women. Now I know my rights. He was different. That’s why I fell in love with him.”
For 12 years, in an attempt to protect the forest from timber traffickers, Edwin Chota sent letters, over a hundred of them, to different Peruvian state institutions-demanding that the community be granted legal title to its lands: 800 square kilometers of jungle, nearly one quarter of the area of Lima, crossed by rivers flowing over the border into Brazil. But the government refused. It had already promised 80% of that territory to two Peruvian lumber companies. In the year 2002, one year before Saweto was recognized as an indigenous community, a public official working from his desk in Lima granted a 20-year permit for those lands, without bothering to find out who lived there.
For Saweto to gain legal deeds to their land, they need the government to annul or relocate those logging concessions. Until that occurs, the Asháninka communities of the area do not legally have the right to prevent others from pillaging the forest that they inhabit. They are not alone in their demands. Over six hundred native communities in Peru, fully half of the native communities in the country, are still not the legal owners of their lands.
Edwin Chota did not speak fluent Asháninka, but he managed to get his community to receive much more than the lean package of food aid and social programs that the neighboring village received. Saweto got electricity with solar panels, a two-channel radio to communicate to the city, a raised tank for water, and a small school for young children. The community members also got ID documents. Before he died, Chota was working to get a building constructed for the primary school which, until then, had been operating out of his own home. The Asháninka leader was able to make these gains as a result of his persistent engagement with the municipal and regional government, and, above all, thanks to the alliance forged with the Asháninkas in the community of Apiwtxa, in Brazil. Chota wanted the same things that the Brazilian indigenous communities had wanted: a turtle egg hatchery and a fish hatchery, a flower garden for export, and reforested jungle areas. To him, this was “development”.
His work, nonetheless, didn’t depend only on his charisma in order to gain allies, or on his tenacity to make his demands. The environmental anthropologist Mario Osorio, who wrote his Master’s Degree thesis on Saweto for Kent University in England, remembers that Chota used to fast before going out to file papers, and he used ayahuasca. He said that this hallucinogenic plant, sacred for the natives, helped him to connect to the forest. “For Edwin, protecting the forests was a spiritual struggle” Osorio recalls. Mario Osorio became friends with Chota, and taught him to use Microsoft Word and to send emails. The Asháninka believe deeply that evil exists. Edwin Chota had learned from them that there are invisible enemies in this world that must be overcome.
“You don’t have to be Asháninka in order to be the chief; you must only have love for us and our culture” explained Ergilia López, Chota’s neighbor. “One man is no different from any other.”
During those twelve years, Edwin Chota seldom spoke of his other family, the one he left behind in the city. Only his inner circle –his community board and his wife– knew that he once had another life. Chota had split his reality in two: his children Perla and Edwin were in the city; Kitoniro and Tsonkiri were in the communities. It was better that way, he said. He didn’t want to put them in harm’s way.The loggers were on his trail.
His father recalled: “Sometimes he would tell us: ‘What are you doing suffering here? In the city you can’t eat if you can’t afford it. In the forest it’s different. We have animals, yucca, fish. Everything you need.’ He wanted to take us there so we could be Asháninka, too. He got upset if we spoke ill of them.”
One night, Edwin Chota gathered with his brothers to go and dance the cumbia at a party in Pucallpa. To his brothers’ dismay, he arrived with two barefoot native women. “Edwin scolded us and told us that we are all equal, that we should accept our race, and that we were indigenous, too,” his brother remembered. “He loved that culture.”
Chota said that he had an Asháninka teacher in high school who taught him not to be ashamed of his indigenous roots. He also swore that one of his grandmothers had belonged to an Amazon ethnic group from Iquitos, but that her family would not admit it. He was outraged to realize that people –governors, businessmen, citizens– truly believed, deep down, that being an indigenous person meant you were poor and inferior.
Perla Chota knew how important being Asháninka was to her father when she turned 18 years old and saw him again in Pucallpa. Edwin Chota apologized to her “for having been a bad father” and for abandoning her when she was a girl. He wanted her to understand that he had left to fight for something important. The reconciliation worked, but would not last. A few days later Chota was having lunch with a group of foreigners and saw his daughter on the street. He called out to her to come over so he could introduce her; she did not hear his call and continued on her way. When they met several hours later Chota reproached: “You are ashamed of me because I am Asháninka”. They shouted. They fought. She gave back the bracelet he had given her, and left without saying goodbye. Eight years later as the passengers filed onto a bus where she worked as a money-collector in Lima, she once again heard news of her father. Her cell phone rang: her father had been on the news.
“He never cared about me, but knowing all that he did makes me feel better,” says Perla Chota as her voice cracks. “I am going to be great, he told me. He had to die for it to happen.”
It is hard to express passion for the trees when one is surrounded by indifference. Since the late 90s, Edwin Chota and the Asháninka felt helpless against the groups of armed loggers that came to steal their trees. They logged the headwaters of the Alto Tamaya and Putaya rivers, navigating downstream for a week until they reached the sawmills in Pucallpa. When Chota denounced what was going on, the authorities said that they would investigate only if he paid for the boat, fuel, and food for his inspectors to go take a look.
“Who will defend us? Who will defend our forest?” Chota demanded in an interview with journalists from the New York Times who had come to a sawmill to investigate the timber trafficking business. “There is no law. There is no money to investigate. There is only money to destroy.”
There was a man who met him and tried to do justice. In April 2013, Edwin Chota appeared in state prosecutor Francisco Berrospi’s office to report that nearly 900 logs had been illegally extracted from his community and were sitting at a sawmill in Pucallpa. Berrospi remembered that when he met the Asháninka leader, he understood that a public official’s job went beyond just gathering evidence to charge lumber traffickers before a judge. “He had an intense connection with the forest”, he said. He took the report. That morning in his office, Berrospi, who had only been on the job as an environmental prosecutor for five months in Ucayali, the region with the most sawmills in Peru, decided to listen to Chota and go with him to the sawmill.
“Touch it,” Chota told him as he put his hand on an enormous tree trunk. “Doesn’t it feel as if a family member has died?”
Back at the office that afternoon, the Asháninka leader found a death threat waiting for him. Hugo Soria, the supposed owner of the logs that would be seized, told him: “Someone from Saweto will die, and I’ll report you as a drug trafficker.” Edwin Chota had begun to anger the mafia.
Timber trafficking could be the forest version of drug trafficking, save for one detail: It operates on the basis of legal documents. An Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report from 2012 entitled “The Laundering Machine” details how the system works. According Peruvian forestry norms, timber companies must present a yearly inventory of the trees in their concession site, and the trees that they plan to fell during that yearly period. But companies often include trees growing in other territories, and are able to gain approval to harvest and sell hundreds of cubic meters of wood that do not belong to them. Nobody oversees their work in the field, so the trick is simple: They report that they have felled a tree in an allowed forest, when it was in fact extracted from native community lands. According to a study published by Scientific Reports, over 60% of the concessions granted by the State of Peru have been a frontto whitewash timber extraction. “Trees are cut from everywhere except where the law says they can be taken,” says Julia Urrunaga, Director of the EIA Peru Program. Fraud occurs every day with the permission of the authorities. The documents for timber laundering are official permits full of false information, easy to buy on the black market.
“We cannot see if that timber is legal, because we simply do not have the resources to do so”, Marcial Pezo explained when I visited his office in Pucallpa. “If the timber has official documents, it goes through. I’m no fortune-teller.”
By international norms, only the origin of shipments of endangered trees, such as cedar and mahogany used in fine furniture in the United States, must be recorded. But when lumber shipments from other commercial species come into the customs office already sawn and packaged, investigating their origin is like trying to track ant footprints.
In the yards at the Executive Department for Forests and Wildlife in Ucayali, the institution that Pezo oversees in charge of issuing logging, hundreds of seized logs rot in the humidity of the rainy season. Some of this wood is returned to its owners once they show up with the “proper documentation” to claim it. A pair of chairs made from seized cedar sits in Pezo’s office.
The Regional President of Ucayali is facing over 100 accusations of misappropriation of funds. The Vice-President owns a logging company that has been fined by the state for laundering illegal timber. The forest inspectors who sign fraudulent permits stay in their posts. The fact that nine out of ten reports of illegal logging that the prosecutors receive end up locked away in a filing cabinet is only the logical result of a corrupt system. The World Bank reports that up to 80% of the timber exported from Peru comes from illegal origin. In early 2014, Interpol and the World Customs Organization undertook an operation against illegal logging in the country. In just three months, they seized enough logs to fill nearly 700 moving trucks. Timber exports fell by half during the operative. Each year Peru loses some 250 million dollars in taxes evaded by illegal loggers. This sum is greater than what the legally operating lumber industry produces.
Laundering timber is a profitable business. Illegal logging moves up to 20 billion dollars per year, the same amount that the Wall Street companies earned in 2012. Laundering is even less risky than the stock market: a study in Brazil, Philippines, Indonesia, and Mexico discovered that illegal loggers face a 0.084% probability of being punished for their crimes. This happens especially in countries that are inefficient, corrupt, or victims of political violence.
Unlike money from drug trafficking, illegal logging proceeds are easier to launder because they appear to be innocuous. Cocaine kills, but wood from the Amazon sits as our living room table. Few people would know that in the Alto Tamaya jungle, as well as other areas of the Peruvian forests, native peoples are cutting trees under conditions resembling slavery: women cooking in the timber camps are raped by the loggers; indigenous chiefs and officials are threatened and killed when they do not accept bribes. The United Nations has described timber traffickingas similar to the “blood diamonds” that have financed wars and driven massive human rights violations in Africa. However,the authorities in Lima and Pucallpa,a city built on the edge of the forest, continue to receive complaints that nobody reads. No logger has gone to jail for trafficking trees in Peru.
Ex-prosecutor Francisco Berrospi remembers how most of his investigations required travel to remote areas, but his office had no boats or helicopters to reach otherwise inaccessible forest plots. If he confiscated trucks, chainsaws, and trees, the judges often forced him to return the property. Bribes were so common that even an anti-corruption prosecutor encouraged Berrospi to take the 5,000 dollars he was being offered to stop an investigation. “Listen,” his colleague confided, “you can make enough in a year here to build a house and buy yourself a car. It’s better this way.” His greatest disappointment, however, came from the judges who sided with the loggers. On one occasion the ex-prosecutor confiscated 70 logs. A judge ordered him to return them to the logger immediately.
“Do you know what he told me?” Berrospi asked sarcastically. “How am I going to send a man to jail for 70 logs when there are millions of trees in the forest?”
Berrospi became a nuisance, a piece that didn’t fit into the puzzle. He would get threatening phone calls at night: “You’re going to die, dog.” “Who do you think you are, a hero?” Until one day in August 2013, he was relieved of duty for “internal reasons.” Soon, the 900 logs confiscated with Chota’s help were returned to the logger. Another case returned to the filing cabinet.
“I felt frustrated, I was so angry I could scream,” Berrospi said. “But not Chota. He would fight, but then calm down, nod his head, and ask why the investigation would not proceed. He said that I stewed in my anger because I didn’t have contact with nature. He said I should go barefoot to connect with the earth. I will always remember when he had me touch that log at the sawmill. I felt so sad, the way you feel at a funeral.”
The last time that Edwin Chota was in Lima was for the Independence Day celebration in 2014. In Pucallpa his pleas were ignored, so he went to visit various government offices in the capital to present his complaints: the Parliament, Council of Ministers, People’s Defense Office, and forest authorities. “From sunup to sundown, sometimes with nothing to eat, Edwin would wait at the offices for an answer,” recalls Margoth Quispe, a public defender in Ucayali and an advisor to Chota on legal issues. Out of all of the institutions, only Osinfor– the department in charge of sanctioning illegal logging – said it would visit Saweto soon.
On August 30, two days before he was killed, the Osinfor inspectors came to the community. Chota accompanied them to the forest. In their report –published after the deaths of the four Asháninka leaders– the inspectors concluded that in the two concessions that fall within Saweto lands –ECOFUSAC and Ramiro Edwin Barrios Galván– non-authorized species were being felled, with no work plan and no taxes paid on these activities. That marked the first time that the authorities had arrived to verify what Chota had been saying for over a decade. Chota’s companions –now also dead– told his wife that he was weak during the field visit, that he almost didn’t make it out of the forest. The loggers had confronted them. “Like it or not, we are coming into the forest” he told an armed logger. “We’ll see who wins: the community or us,” was the response. He was killed two days later.
José Borgo, the coordinator of ProPurús, an NGO that supports Saweto in its efforts for land legalization, was a good friend of Edwin Chota. He always hosted Chota when he came into Pucallpa to file papers or visit offices. Upon hearing about the killing, Borgo spent days armed with a file of over 200 pages: letters, proposals, requests, and reports that Edwin Chota had filed in the last decade. All had been ignored. Borgo also wrote five names down in his notebook: His list of suspects.
“Do you know what bothers me the most?” Borgo asked me. We were sitting in a bar in Pucallpa. His voice shook after reading from his list. “None of the reports that Edwin filed against these assholes was ever heard. Not a single one.”
The conservation expert gave his information to the widows’ lawyer. By November 2014, two loggers had been arrested. But the police have nearly paralyzed the case and the search for the last body, citing budget shortages. Borgo says that he has his knapsack ready to go to Saweto and investigate his friend’s death on his own.
In one of the few interviews with Edwin Chota that can be found on Youtube, the Asháninka leader announced: “I will lead my community. Maybe someone will have to die for them to truly pay attention.” It was not his first warning. In the year 2005, Chota asked the Peruvian government to protect him and the families in Saweto, because the illegal loggers had threatened to kill them. He received no response. One year later he denounced a logger who was intimidating indigenous leaders. The justice system again offered no response. The cycle continued for years: Edwin Chota denounced illegal loggers, and they responded with death threats. The government did nothing. In the year 2012, Chota again reported deforestation activities in his territory, filing a report to the environmental prosecutors in Pucallpa. The report was again filed away. The next year, the Asháninka leader documented the location of each illegal camp using GPS and took photographs of the loggers with their chainsaws as they took 30 minutes to fell trees that had stood for over 100 years. This file was closed on this case, too. In 2014, five months before his death, Edwin Chota gave one more warning: the same loggers, the same death threats, the same mute rejection. The authorities said that they didn’t have the money to go to Saweto to investigate whether the Asháninka chief was telling the truth. To avoid land titling for the Asháninka community, the timber traffickers tried to get Edwin Chota out of the way. They offered him bribes of up to 10,000 dollars, and they accused him of taking money from organizations that supported native people. Then they tried threatening him. They stole the outboard motor of the community boat in Saweto, sacked the local farms and livestock, and fired bullets into the welcome sign at the entrance of the community and through the Peruvian flag that the Asháninkas hoisted each week as they sang the national anthem. At night, the loggers would drive by the community homes and fire shots into the air. Rumors spread that “somebody” in the community would die if he “kept making trouble”. In Saweto, everyone knew that somebody was Edwin Chota.
After the sudden death of a loved one, we often tend to believe that their last words, dreams, or even a birdsong is a sign of things to come. One day before he was shot, Edwin Chota had a dream: he was in a field in the middle of the forest, together with his mother, grandmother, and uncle, all of whom had passed away years before. “They were calling him,” said Julia Pérez, his seven-month pregnant widow. That morning she woke with the moans of her sleeping husband. It was 4:00 in the morning. Chota was shaking as he rolled out of bed. He put on a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved white shirt, and a pair of rubber boots. He packed his mosquito net and clothes in a black bag, tucked in his folder of documents, and got ready to go to the Asháninka community of Apiwtxa, in Acre, where they were coordinating the defense of their lands together with Brazilian leaders under fire from the same loggers.
Edwin Chota was acting strangely that morning. “He seemed sick, he almost didn’t speak at all”, his widow recalls. The Asháninka leader refused to eat the breakfast his wife had prepared, so she packed the rice, meat, and yucca in a bag for the two-day trip to the border. Chota was not entirely a loving father, but he embraced his children, seven year old Kitoniro (scorpion) and two year old Tsonkiri (hummingbird) before boarding the boat. Julia Pérez thought her husband may have been hung over thanks to the masato he drank the night before in the inauguration ceremony of a local farm, as was the Asháninka custom.
Ergilia López, the wife of Jorge Ríos who was the treasurer of Saweto and who was killed along with Edwin Chota, remembers that the morning when the leaders left for the border, the chicua bird called louder than usual. For the Asháninka, the chicua bird is a bearer of bad news. When this squat bird with brown feathers flies through the jungle singing “chicua, chicua!” the Asháninkas believe that something terrible will happen: Someone will drown in the river, be bitten by a snake, or felled by witchcraft. López warned her husband and said it would be best if they didn’t make the trip. “I was upset, those birds are never wrong”, Ríos widow said. Days after the death of her husband, she reported seeing Eurico Mapes, one of the illegal loggers and suspected killer, navigating up the river in his boat. Mapes looked closely at the Asháninka leaders, as if counting them.
A few minutes before leaving for the border they spoke of the most recent threats they had received. “I’ve earned this sentence myself” Edwin Chota confided to Ergilia López.
September 1, 2014. 10:00 am.
Six hours until the men are killed.
Three weeks after the murder of the Asháninka leaders in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, a flag with the image of Edwin Chota’s face waved in the streets of New YorkCity. Nearly one half-million people from different cities around the world gathered for the largest environmental march in history, organized in the days leading up to the UN Climate Summit. Journalists, politicians, activists, and celebrities –from ex-Vice President Al Gore and Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, to Leonardo DiCaprio and Sting– all took the streets to demand that their governments do something to stop their countries from contaminating and preying upon the planet. Peruvian activists waved the banner with Chota’s face and signs with the names of the Asháninka leaders killed, demanding that the perpetrators be found. By then, the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, BBC, and El País had published reports on Chota’s murder and his attempts to stop the plundering of the forests where he and his family lived. An article in La Folha de Sao Paolo called Chota “the Chico Mendes of his time”, comparing him to the famous activist on the rubber plantations killed in the late 1980s for defending the Amazon.
The press in Lima called Edwin Chota a “martyr for the jungle”. For the Peruvians there in New York, the Asháninka leader represented something more: How far one can go to defend something one believes is just. Nonetheless, more than 5,000 kilometers from that march, on the other side of the Andes mountains in the Pucallpa port, in the city in Eastern Peru where Chota was born and raised, few people knew who he was. When questioned, the local vendor Francisco Muñoz replied: “Chota? I think I saw something on the news. He’s that achaninga that they killed, right?” Photographer Jorge Aliaga said: “He was with the savages, they’re not civilized. They used to eat people, now they just attack you. They’ll shoot you with a bow and arrow.” Santiago Luna said: “I brought him in my boat, once. Nice guy.” Richard Romaina, a watchman on the boardwalk remembered: “Nobody here in Pucallpa knew him. They are community leaders, but they don’t come here often.” “He is the man who wore the colorful tunic,” food vendor Luisa Rivera identified. “Do you know why they killed him?”
Rumors about Chota abound. That he came from Vraem, the central valley controlled by narco-terrorists. That he trafficked cocaine to Brazil. That he bought houses in Pucallpa with illicit money. That he exploited the natives. That he poisoned the river to kill his opponent’s cattle. That he was the one trafficking timber. That Edwin Chota Valera wasn’t his real name. All of these accusations were made by the representative of one of the land concessions in Saweto in mid-2013, in revenge for the Asháninka leader’s reports. The prosecutors investigated Chota for a year, finding nothing. The case was closed, but the death threats –and rumors– continued.
“Chota was altering the status quo,” said David Salisbury, a geographer and professor at the University of Richmond, USA, who knew the leader for over 10 years and helpedto spread the word about his struggle outside Peru. “The illegal loggers wanted him dead.”
Today, being an environmental activist and defending a territory means accepting that you may be killed. An average of two environmentalists are killed each week somewhere in the world. But only 10 people have been convicted of these crimes: 1%. The list of victims is eloquent in and of itself. In the year 2001, Colombian paramilitary personnel killed the indigenous leader Kimy Pernía for opposing a hydroelectric dam. In 2003, the Ecuadorian man Ángel Shingre was kidnapped and gunned down for suing an oil company. In 2009, the Mexican indigenous leader Mariano Abarca was shot in the doorway of his own home for protesting against a mining company. In 2011, the Congolese man Fréderic Moloma Tuka was beaten to death by police during a protest against deforestation. That same year, the Honduran woman Diodora Hernández was shot dead for denouncing the contamination of water sources with mining waste. In 2012, two soldiers shot the Cambodian activist Chut Wutty for denouncing timber traffickers. That same year, the Philippino leader Jimmy Liguyon was riddled with bullets in front of his wife for opposing a mining project. According to the international NGO, Global Witness, over 900 environmentalists have died around the world in the last 12 years. In a planet that wrings dry its resources, defending a forest or a plot of land is no longer an affair for blind idealists: in 2011, after killing a pair of Brazilians who were defending a natural reserve, the assassins cut off their ears in an attempt to use fear to stop the spread of complaints of illegal logging.
Global Witness also indicates that Peru is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for these activists, following Brazil, Honduras, and the Philippines. In 2008, Julio García Agapito, the Lieutenant Governor of a town near the Bolivian border, received eight gunshots in the office of the local forest authority after stopping a truck carrying illegal mahogany. In 2013, two assassins killed Mauro Pío –an historic leader for the Asháninka people– firing shots from the back of their motorcycles. Pío had been demanding legal deeds for their lands for 20 years, and fighting to drive away the logging company that had invaded his community. From 2002 to 2014, 57 Peruvians were killed for similar causes. And this number only includes known cases.
“The greatest danger we feel as leaders is that the state, far from defending us, will betray us,” explained Ruth Buendía, a well-known Asháninka leader upon learning of Edwin Chota’s death. “They leave our destiny in the hands of the criminals.”
Up until the day he died, Chota was preparing to take his community’s case to the Inter-American Human Rights Court. “As long as we don’t have a deed, the loggers will not respect native property,” he explained to Scott Wallace, a journalist from National Geographic who traveled to Saweto in 2013 to follow a story on mahogany trafficking. “They threaten us. They intimidate us. They are the ones with the guns.” In his report, Wallace tells how Chota had to hide among his Asháninka companions in Brazil, a two-day walk away, until the death threats died down for a time. They would later find him dead along that same trail.
Two days after the first news of the killing came out, sub-officer Carlos Napaico was boarding a military helicopter to travel to Cusco to quell a social conflict when his commander called to assign him another mission: He and his 70 men –all anti-subversive police– were to travel to the jungle in Alto Tamaya on the Brazilian border to look for the bodies of some Asháninka. After five days of tracking with the help of community member Jaime Arévalo, the police found Edwin Chota’s body at the bottom of a pool of water.They had no radio to call it in, so they put Edwin Chota’s remains in a sack and waited for two days for the army helicopter to arrive. For Sub-Officer Napaico, the body of the famous indigenous leader was his ticket out: once he found the body, his superiors had told him, he could get out of there.
When a leader becomes a martyr, people remember him as the incarnation of their own struggles. Now that he has died, Edwin Chota means many things for those who follow him: resistance to illegal logging, defense of indigenous rights, the lonely fight for justice that never comes, or the strange bravery of a man facing down the state. For the four widows in Saweto, the deaths of their husbands is proof of what they were capable of doing in order to be heard.
“Without a deed I’m worth nothing” said Ergilia López, one of the widows, when she went to Lima to share her case with the press. “We take care of the water and the forests, and not just for us, but for everyone living in Lima, too. We’re not the poor. I’m rich, I have everything I need on my land. Poor are the loggers who have to steal what we have.”
Now the women of Saweto have decided to continue the struggle of their husbands until they receive deeds for their lands. The daughter of one of the slain leaders traveled to New York to receive the annual award from the Alexander Soros Foundation –a posthumous award for the indigenous leaders as environmental heroes– along with a sum of money to finance the projects that Edwin Chota did not have the opportunity to finish. His death has lead the government of Peru, as well, to begin the process of land titling in Saweto and invest nearly 300,000 dollars in plans to produce cocoa, grow medicinal plants, and to reforest the area.The President of the Republic promised a full investigation of the murders, but by November, 2014, the case had ground to a halt due to lack of budget. There is still one body to be found. The widows are afraid to return to their community,with no deed and no protection:The loggers could take revenge.
Edwin Chota had warned of this: “Maybe somebody has to die in order for them to pay attention.” But those who knew him said that it wasn’t a great concern of his. “He said he had already come to terms with it, that he could die at any moment,” said Margoth Quispe, a lawyer for the community. What worried Chota, the only leader who knew how to read and write, was that there weren’t other Asháninkas educated enough to face the loggers. “That’s why he educated the other leaders”, Quispe explained. “But now they are dead, too.”
Ergilia López, the widow who became the new leader of Saweto, says that she is not afraid. She says that she will continue to defend the forest and denounce the timber traffickers, even if it means putting her life at risk. Just one thing worries her: “The problem,” she told me, “is that I don’t know how to read.”
Joseph Zárate Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.
27 Feb 2015