- Three years ago this month, my friends Edwin Chota and Jorge Ríos were assassinated along with Francisco Pinedo and Leoncio Quintícima as they hiked through their homelands in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest along the border with Brazil.
- This summer I returned to their community of Saweto and hiked the path where they died. The community now holds legal title to their homelands, but their situation is far from secure. Illegal loggers continue to operate in their territory.
- If the most famous titled community in Peru has neither territorial security nor sustainability two years after receiving title, how will the scores of other recently titled communities fare?
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Three years ago this month, my friends Edwin Chota and Jorge Ríos were assassinated along with Francisco Pinedo and Leoncio Quintícima as they hiked through their homelands in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest along the border with Brazil.
This summer I returned to their community of Saweto and hiked the path where they died. The community now holds legal title to their homelands, but their situation is far from secure. Illegal loggers continue to operate in their territory. Nobody is being held or charged for the assassinations.
The Peruvian state established a police post across the river to protect Saweto, but when Jorge’s widow, now Saweto’s chief, requested an armed escort to accompany her to the path her husband died on, the police asked for a boat and gasoline. How can the people and forests of Saweto be protected when the police depend on the indigenous community for gas? In Saweto, seven days by river from the nearest city, gasoline is worth gold.
After the assassinations, Peru’s prime minister traveled to Saweto by helicopter and promised Saweto the community land title the four men died for. A year later, Saweto obtained the title, after more than a decade of struggle. The state also made many more promises: a safe trail, improved health support, solar electricity for each family, new employment opportunities, new houses, a secondary school, a frontier development post, grief counseling for the widows, and a special commission that would stop illegal logging.
Only a few of these promises have been realized. The trail was only safe when I visited because their Ashéninka cousins in Brazil sent a party of warriors to accompany Saweto’s delegation. The health campaigns never fulfilled their promise and the community continues to depend on a technical nurse and part-time logger operating out of a decaying health post in the neighboring town. The community has a handful of portable solar panels, but the residents have no means of plugging their radios, cellphones, or other devices into them. Sustainable job opportunities have not materialized in Saweto, forcing families interested in buying soap, school supplies, clothes, and medicines to be dependent on illegal loggers for meager wages and the accompanying brutal labor conditions. Houses have been built, but the majority are not slept in because their inappropriate design leaks water during the rainy season and magnifies the tropical heat in the dry season.
Saweto now has a secondary school, but the previous two teams of teachers abandoned their post so frequently that some students migrate to find work and leave their education unfinished. During my visit, the half-constructed frontier development building was also on its third cycle of workers, the first two construction crews having deserted the project due to lack of pay. I recently heard that the third group had headed downriver as well.
The women of Saweto are incredibly resilient and received counseling for two years. I worry more about their fatherless children, who grow up surrounded by danger. The anti-logging high commission has failed Saweto. The community needs consistent local level support, not occasional high profile interventions posted on YouTube. Illegal loggers continue to plunder the forests in and around the community.
There are a few bright spots, but even these flicker. The solar-powered cellular mini-tower functioned well until last month, when it became inoperative. Who will fix it and how soon?
This summer in Saweto I met a young extension agent training the residents to raise chickens and build sustainable stoves, but he was just getting started, more than two years after the tragedy.
The Ministry of the Environment has also begun its Saweto project, and thankfully hired the community’s closest ally to ensure some success in strengthening Saweto’s internal dynamics, developing sustainable food security, and supporting the community to monitor their forests and rivers. Unfortunately, the Ministry’s budget for Saweto will dry up in December, potentially leaving the community abandoned once again on the border.
The death of Saweto’s leaders sparked a surge of initiatives to title indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon. In the last three years, millions of dollars from the World Bank, Interamerican Development Bank, Norway, and Germany have flooded into Peru to title Indigenous lands throughout the rainforest. This investment is long overdue, given the more than 500 years of territorial expropriation in the region, not to mention recent research demonstrating inhabited indigenous territories to be a most effective deterrent to deforestation in the Amazon (see Nolte et al. (2013), and Blackman et al. (2017), for instance).
Unfortunately, the current frenzy to title territories has not been matched by the same financial support, training, and enthusiasm necessary to ensure the sustainability of indigenous territories after title. A newly titled indigenous territory is likely to be taken advantage of by illegal loggers and other powerful extractive interests if the community members and leaders do not have an alternative means of generating at least a modest income. All too frequently, loggers entice a titled community into signing a contract and then plunder their forests. The companies usually do not stop there, but also launder other timber with the community’s permits, before deserting the indigenous residents, who are then held responsible by the authorities.
To date Saweto has avoided this fate, but the threat remains. Remember, three years after the assassinations, the illegal loggers continue to operate around Saweto with impunity.
The World Bank named a 5.5 million dollar titling project the Saweto Dedicated Grant Mechanism: Living Memory, but Saweto receives no benefits from the bank: no job opportunities, no education initiatives, no justice…
If the most famous titled community in Peru has neither territorial security nor sustainability two years after receiving title, how will the scores of other recently titled communities fare? Titling is just and absolutely necessary, but territorial security, environmental justice, and sustainability require participatory planning and long-term commitments, not just a title. Just ask the survivors in Saweto.
- Blackman, A., Corral, L., Lima, E. S., & Asner, G. P. (2017). Titling indigenous communities protects forests in the Peruvian Amazon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201603290. doi:10.1073/pnas.1603290114
- Nolte, C., Agrawal, A., Silvius, K. M., & Soares-Filho, B. S. (2013). Governance regime and location influence avoided deforestation success of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(13), 4956-4961. doi:10.1073/pnas.1214786110
Dr. David S. Salisbury, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Richmond, has researched resource conflict, indigenous rights, conservation, and development in the Amazon borderlands for fifteen years. He is currently finishing a book based on his thirteen years of collaboration with the community of Saweto.