Amazon Indians report more death threats after activists slain

by Mitra Taj and Caroline Stauffer | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 8 December 2014 14:00 GMT

Ashaninka Indians pose for a photograph in the village of Kokasul along the Envira river in Brazil's northwestern Acre state, March 16, 2014. REUTERS/Lunae Parracho

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Rising deforestation in the Amazon comes with concerns loggers will target opponent tribes

By Mitra Taj and Caroline Stauffer

LIMA/SAO PAULO, Dec 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indians on the Peru-Brazil border say they continue to receive death threats from loggers after the murder of four local chiefs in a remote forest region overrun by illegal felling.

The September slaying of Ashaninka leader Edwin Chota and three of his companions followed rising deforestation rates in the Amazon last year, and has deepened concerns that loggers will target tribes as they become more active opponents.

The tensions highlight the lawlessness of one of the world's most biodiverse borders, long a flashpoint for competing visions of development and conservation.

In recent years, Indians in the borderlands have clashed with outsiders seeking timber, oil, gold and control of drug trafficking routes to Brazil, where the soccer World Cup fuelled demand for Peruvian cocaine.

Campaign group Global Witness says the violence questions Peru's commitment to protect its carbon-rich forests and grant land rights to native communities.

Peru, which is hosting U.N. climate change talks through this week, is holding three loggers in connection with the murders.

But the arrests have not slowed rampant illegal logging in the border area, nor put an end to the kind of harassment that preceded Chota's death, villagers say.

"There have been even more threats," Ashaninka leader Reyder Sebastian said by phone from the border region.

Loggers warn villagers to stay quiet or face the same fate as Chota, using radio or shouting across rivers, said Sebastian. He has received a barrage of death threats on his cellphone since replacing Chota as a local leader, he added.

Peru said police posted near the border after the murders would help ensure protection, and promised to send additional staff and resources soon.

Brazil's federal police also sent troops to the region temporarily.

Chota's widow Julia Perez, who gave birth to his third child last month, said Peruvian police are posted in a settlement where loggers live, across the river from her native village.

"It is still not safe in the community," she said.

Many villagers have stopped venturing deep into the forest to hunt and gather materials, fearful of a run-in with illegal loggers, said Sebastian. Others have abandoned their homes and moved to Brazil.

JUSTICE ELUSIVE

Many fear the murder investigation will close without all perpetrators brought to justice.

Isaac Piyako, an Ashaninka chief of Apiwtxa, Brazil, where Chota and his companions were heading the day they were gunned down, said three boats carrying eight armed men were seen near the crime scene.

"There are others who financed and organised this crime," Piyako said. "They could be in Brazil or Peru."

Peruvian Prosecutor Edder Farfan echoed those concerns. He said he has three arrest warrants for men linked to logging rights in the area whom he suspects ordered the murders.

"The police still have not found them and that is worrisome," Farfan said.

Two logging concessions overlapped with Saweto, where Chota lived. He said the felling of trees far surpassed legal limits.

Days before the murders, a government commission from Lima inspected the concessions for the first time at the behest of Chota, according to local NGO ProPurus, which had been helping Chota.

Chota had also been meeting with Ashaninka communities in Brazil, which unlike Peru has a constitutional mandate to set aside large swathes of territory for Indians. He hoped to follow their efforts to gain formal land rights, which would give the Ashaninka more power to keep out loggers.

In Peru, some 1,160 native communities have sought and failed to secure titles to ancestral lands in the past 30 years, according to indigenous federation Aidesep.

Chota's death prompted Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's government to promise Saweto the land title Chota had sought for more than a decade.

But the titling process has hit snags, with the central and regional governments blaming each other for delays.

Environmental groups say strengthening native land rights slows deforestation and the release of greenhouse gas emissions. Amazonian trees hold vast stores of carbon dioxide and help stoke global warming when destroyed.

ILLEGAL LOGGING MAFIA

In Brazil, prosecution of environmental crimes has weakened under President Dilma Rousseff, local NGO Imazon said, contributing to the first increase in deforestation in nearly a decade last year.

Controls in Peru are even more lax, leading Brazilian loggers to cross the border to fell coveted woods like mahogany, said ProPurus.

"The illegal logging mafia keeps growing," said Patricia Balbuena, a deputy minister tasked with protecting Peru's indigenous communities.

Destruction of the Peruvian Amazon also picked up last year, a trend the country's agriculture ministry sees continuing until 2017.

Brazil recently signed an agreement with Peru to bolster monitoring of the border region, but many believe more effort is needed.

A tribe living in voluntary isolation in Brazil exchanged bananas with a group of settled Ashaninka in June, a rare effort at outreach anthropologists attributed to attacks from loggers or drug traffickers.

Meanwhile, Indians are taking justice into their own hands.

Earlier in the year, Reuters watched a group of some 70 armed Munduruku dismantle a wildcat mine in Brazil's Para state.

Sebastian said the Ashaninka in Peru are now organizing self-defence patrols to purge encroachers from native villages with bows and arrows.

"This will not remain unpunished," he said.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj and Caroline Stauffer; editing by Megan Rowling)

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