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Death of 'Irrepressible' Forest Defender Prompts Investigation

Illegal loggers suspected in killing of Edwin Chota, other leaders

Edwin Chota attending a meeting on land titles and illegal logging in the Chambira community. (Photo: Emory Richey)

Authorities in Peru are investigating the murder of environmental activist Edwin Chota, a leader of the Ashaninka Indian village of Saweto, who was killed along with three other men in a remote area of the Amazon jungle that they were attempting to protect from illegal logging.

Chota was murdered on September 1 after he left his home in Saweto to meet with other indigenous leaders and anti-logging activists who lived deeper within the jungle, a few days' walk away, near the Brazilian border. His body, and that of the other three men who were killed with him, was discovered by villagers several days later. The distance from the village to the regional capital, Pucallpa, delayed news of Chota’s death for over a week.

Illegal loggers are suspected in the killings, according to Ashaninka regional leader Reyder Sebastián. Chota often spoke of receiving death threats due to his activism and told the New York Times in 2010 that “the law does not reach where we live.”

“They could kill us at any time,” Chota said.

Chota had long fought for the rights of indigenous people to reclaim their land and ban loggers who illegally cut trees and raided the region’s rainforests.

Reports of how the men were killed have differed. Some have said they were bound and shot in front of other villagers, while others have said they were dismembered. Chota’s widow, Julia Perez, who is pregnant with the couple’s third baby, told the Times, “We will see when they bring out his body if he was killed with gunshots or by machete.”

The Associated Press said the other slain men were identified by police as Jorge Rios, who was Chota’s deputy, Leoncio Quincicima, and Francisco Pinedo.

“The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead,” University of Richmond environmental professor David Salisbury told Al Jazeera.

Salisbury, who had known Chota for 10 years, told NPR that the activist was often able to accomplish a seemingly impossible task — “to motivate the authorities to fulfill their functions and also to confront these well-armed, extremely powerful individuals.”

“This is not an easy thing to do… But he was unafraid,” Salisbury said.

While the U.S. and other countries have banned the trafficking of mahogany, which loggers raided the forests for, Salisbury said, products made of the valuable wood still find their way into the world market.

The Guardian reports:

A 2012 World Bank report estimated that as much as 80% of Peru’s logging exports are harvested illegally [PDF] and investigations have revealed that the wood is typically laundered using doctored papers to make it appear legal and ship it out of the country; while a 2012 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency indicated at least 40% of official cedar exports to the US included illegally logged timber.

Peru’s largest indigenous federation, Aidesep, excoriated the police and the courts for "doing absolutely nothing despite repeated complaints" to protect the men.

"Our village has always defended our resources and it has confronted illegal loggers who see our reserves as a place to exploit," Peru's El Comercio quotes Sebastián as saying. 

Chota’s activism was borne of passion and strength of character, rather than training, Salisbury told NPR.

“Edwin was irrepressible,” Salisbury said. “He always had incredible energy, incredible charisma and a real sense of right and wrong.”

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