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In Peru's Amazon, protecting a village from drug traffickers, loggers - and COVID-19

by Christine Murray | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 29 October 2020 10:54 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Jesus Cahuasa, leader of the Native Community of Unipacuyacu, poses for a photograph in October 2020 while living outside his village.

Image Caption and Rights Information

An indigenous village in the Amazon has been under threat from drug traffickers, loggers and farmers for years. The pandemic has made securing its future even more complicated

By Christine Murray

Oct 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After one leader was murdered and another died of the novel coronavirus earlier this year, Jesus Cahuasa was reluctant to take charge of his small indigenous village in the Peruvian Amazon.

The 42-year-old's home has been under threat from drug traffickers, loggers and farmers for years, but the global pandemic has made securing its future even more complicated.

"I didn't initially want to take on the responsibility," Cahuasa said on a video call, wearing a headpiece and large necklace made from local seeds.

"With all this pain, I took it on, and had the strength to say 'no', enough killings, enough abuses by outsiders who don't recognize our culture."

Part of the Kakataibo indigenous people, his 130-strong village Unipacuyacu has been fighting for a collective land title for more than 20 years to drive out the different groups he calls the "colonists".

Indigenous and local communities hold more than half the world's land under customary systems. Yet they only have secure legal rights to 10%, according to advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

In October, Cahuasa and other indigenous leaders spoke in an Inter-American Commission of Human Rights hearing where they told of the violence, corruption and lack of government protection they have faced against land invasions.

In the online hearing, representatives of Peru's government said it had promoted policies that respect the rights of indigenous groups, that it recognized the communities' losses and had to work to win people's trust.

Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to the virus due to poor healthcare access, rights groups warn, with hundreds of deaths from COVID-19 recorded among Latin America's native people, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

"We feel we're going extinct," Cahuasa said. "We're not that many left in the Kakataibo people and that's why right now we're fighting for survival."

After the hearing, Cahuasa received an anonymous phone call threatening reprisals if he kept talking. He has been living under police protection several hours' drive away from his village for weeks.

The coronavirus pandemic means seeking permission to travel under protection to visit his community - which doesn't have phone reception.

He said he misses moving freely around the territory and ancestral rituals like fishing, but is also worried about money, as lockdowns have made it harder to drive the four hours to the nearest town to sell produce.

"If I don't sell, say, a fish, I don't sell a bunch of bananas, I'm not going to have anything to live off," he said.


Cahuasa grew up canoeing and fishing in crystal clear rivers with expansive territory for hunting and growing yucca plants and other crops. He barely wore any clothes until he was 11 years old.

"We didn't have any kind of obstacle or threat," he said. "It was marvelous, but not any more."

Now his people's land is being invaded by drug traffickers planting coca leaves and illegally cutting down trees, he said. 

The amount of Peruvian land dedicated to coca cultivation grew 17% to some 49,900 hectares during 2017, according to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) crop monitoring report.

The drug trade has fueled violence in the region. Cahuasa's cousin Arbildo Melendez had been the leader of Unipacuyacu for almost three years when he was murdered in April - the fourth member of the village to be killed since 2011.

He had spoken out against the drug mafias operating in the area and was fighting for his community's land title, Cahuasa said, his voice breaking.

The man first elected to take over - Robert Pereira - died of COVID-19 within weeks. Cahuasa himself also caught the virus and was bedridden for two months, he said.

But despite seeing his brothers fall along the way, Cahuasa feels he has to speak out and secure the collective land title.

"We want them (the government) to respect our ancestral rights, we live in defense of the Peruvian Amazon," he said.

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COVID-19 fears grow for isolated indigenous people in Brazil's Amazon

(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)