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After years of struggle and bloodshed, Peruvian community wins back its land

  • Year after year, community members made a four-day boat trip to the regional capitol so they could fill out the paperwork to register all the community’s members and urge the state to recognize their land rights.
  • During the process, four of the community’s leaders were ambushed and killed.
  • While threats to the community and their forest still exist, their new title will help them preserve the land on which they depend.
Members of the Saweto community display the title granting them rights to 81,000 hectares of their land. Photo courtesy of the Rainforest Foundation.

In August this year, after a decade-long struggle, over 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) of land was handed back to the Asheninka community of Saweto in Peru. The Asheninka are an indigenous community that lives in the Amazon rainforest in both Peru and Brazil. In the village of Saweto, which occupies a 275-square-mile headwaters region of the Alto Tamaya river in the Peruvian Amazon, their fight for their ancestral land began more than 10 years ago at a time when the Peruvian government did not recognize their community. Without state-issued identification, the Asheninka community of Alto Tamaya-Saweto, as they are also known, could not ask that their rights to their ancestral land be recognized.

Year after year, they made a four-day boat trip to the regional capitol so they could fill out the paperwork to register all the community’s members and urge the state to recognize their claims. Undaunted by the intimidation they faced from groups of illegal loggers who had encroached upon their land, the Asheninka continued their struggle until finally, in September 2014, the community received international attention.

While on their way to consult with a fellow Asheninka community on the other side of the Peru-Brazil border, four of the community’s leaders were ambushed on a jungle trail and executed. The bodies of Edwin Chota, Jorge Rios Perez, Leoncio Quincima Melendez and Francisco Pindeo were found dismembered and scattered through the forest. Loggers who might be connected to drug-trafficking are believed to be responsible for the brutal murders and two men – Adencio Mapes and his son – were in taken into custody in September 2014 as investigations continued.

The governor of Ucayali gives the community the title to their land. Photo by Margoth Quispe.

For more than 10 years, Edwin Chota and the community in Saweto had been fighting against illegal logging and other threats including drug-trafficking in the Amazon rainforest. Then, on the morning of August 19, almost one year after the quadruple murders, the Asheninka in Saweto finally received the title to nearly 81,000 hectares of their ancestral land.

Diana Rios and Ergilia Rengifo – relatives of the leaders who were killed for advocated for their land rights – are the current leaders of the community. Rios, the community’s treasurer and spokesperson, insisted that this success must only be seen as the beginning.

“They thought they could treat us badly forever. But no! We are human beings! We don’t want more bloodshed…We ask the State (Peru) to support us and to support other communities too,” Rios said. “It’s not just Saweto – there are other communities that don’t have [a] title.”

According to AIDESEP – the largest national organization of indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon – there are more than 1,600 communities whose titles have yet to be recognized. One-eighth of the world’s forests, or roughly 513 million hectares, are legally recognized as community-managed forests globally. A 2014 report by the World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative found that land held by local communities and indigenous peoples tends to be significantly less impacted by deforestation than land managed by governments or private entities. Indigenous communities rely on forests for food, water, medicines and building materials. The report attributes the health of community-managed forests to the vested interests members have in sustainably using them given that these communities depend on forests for their livelihood and culture.

Many parts of the Peruvian Amazon have been deforested. Here, cattle pasture cuts into the surrounding rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The title to their land was formally handed over to the Alto Tamaya-Saweto on September 22, and with it came a general sense of relief. But the community’s lawyer, Margoth Quispe, told mongabay.com that since illegal logging still continues in the area, there is also a sense that the title was one step of many to come. Wife of slain community leader Jorge Rios, Ergilia Rengifo is now leads the Alto Tamaya-Saweto community. “If it hadn’t been for the murders,” she said, “the State wouldn’t have ever come to see what was happening in our community.”

The community is angry, Quispe said, about the government’s lack of interest in apprehending the murderers. Although an investigation was initiated, little has happened.

“They have identified the remains of three leaders – Edwin Chota, Leoncio Quincima and Jorge Rios,” she said. “The first two were returned to their families and buried in Pucallpa.”

In the case of Rengifo’s husband, Jorge Rios however, the community is still waiting for the repatriation of his remains.

“Ergilia has asked the government to return his remains to the community where he will be buried,” Quispe explained. “The Central Government claims not to have the resources for a helicopter to return the remains. The Ministry of Defense has yet to grant a helicopter for the investigation despite the importance of deploying investigators to the area in order to investigate, gather statements from witnesses, and identify some suspects,” she said.

Quispe believes securing land and resource rights to the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples is not only the right thing to do, but it is also now proven to be one of the most effective strategies for protecting forests.

“The difference [between community-managed forests and those managed by government or private entities] is dramatic,” she said. “In many countries where we work, deforestation rates are lower on titled indigenous lands than they are on any other type of protected areas, including national parks.”

According to Global Forest Watch data, Peru has lost nearly 1,750,000 hectares of its tree cover between 2001 and 2013. A 2012 World Bank report estimates that 80 percent of Peruvian timber exports stem from illegal logging. In addition, data from the Brazilian government show that between 1997 and 2000, the percentage of deforestation of the Amazon was one percent in indigenous areas compared to 24 percent outside of them.

Global Forest Watch shows the community of Saweto is surrounded by large areas of primary forest called intact forest landscapes, much of which have been allotted for timber harvesting.
Peru’s forests are home not only to indigenous communities, but also a wealth of wildlife, such as this monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor). Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Now that they have the title to their lands, the Asheninka people of Saweto plan to create indigenous handicrafts for export, cultivate cacao and dragon fruit, and take on aquaculture projects. They are meeting with another Asheninka community in Brazil that already has extensive experience exporting items produced within the community, Quispe said. The community has coordinated with the regional government so that they can work with the Peruvian government. However, “recognizing the State’s limited interest in safeguarding its border regions, Saweto has asked the Asheninka [and] Asheninka communities to help by sending members of the community to their territories and asking them to help patrol their boundaries until the State assumed its rightful role.”

Through meetings with government agencies and ministries, Quispe said, “it became clear [that] there are financial resources; the issue is [a] lack of political will and a lack of a strategy of intervention along the border to eliminate and dismantle organized crime prevailing in the area.” The will to effectively tackle illegal logging is also absent, she said. “To date, there are still illegal loggers in that territory, as well as others engaged in illegal activities such as drug-trafficking and arms-trafficking.”

While the title may grant the Asheninka of Saweto the legal rights to their ancestral land, the community continues to battle for justice for their four lost leaders as well as continue to receive death threats and live in fear of violence from illegal loggers. But Rengifo won’t back down.

“The State doesn’t help us and doesn’t consult with us. It makes me angry! There are so many problems,” she said.

Yet, despite the obstacles they continue to face, the community is enthusiastic and ready to shape its future and protect its forest.

“Now we can finally focus on plans we have had for years,” Rengifo said. “We need to train the youth in our community…and continue to make our vision for our community a reality.”