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Forest crimes persist in Peru following Indigenous leader’s murder

An operation against illegal mining in La Pampa. Image by FEMA Madre de Dios.

  • The leader of an Indigenous community in Peru’s Huánuco region was murdered when he went fishing earlier this year. Despite this, criminal groups have reportedly continued to operate in the area.
  • The death of Arbildo Meléndez Grandes is one of a series of environmental crimes reported since the COVID-19 state of emergency began in Peru.
  • Operations against illegal mining and logging have been carried out in the Madre de Dios, Loreto and Ucayali regions in recent months.

A gunshot ended the life of Indigenous leader Arbildo Meléndez Grandes in Peru. On a Sunday in early April this year, he went hunting and fishing for his family and was allegedly shot by the person accompanying him. Meléndez was the leader of the Indigenous Cacataibo community of Unipacuyacu, which is located near the border between the Ucayali and Huánuco regions.

“Ever since he assumed the role, he has received threats,” said Zulema Guevara Sandoval, Meléndez’s wife, in an interview with Mongabay Latam. Guevara said that when her husband was named president of Unipacuyacu, he decided to push for the land title to their communal territory — a request that had gone unaddressed for more than 20 years since the community was recognized in 1995.

Indigenous leader Arbildo Meléndez was murdered on Sunday, April 12, 2020. Image by AIDESEP.

Meléndez also faced land-grabbers entering the community’s territory to illegally cultivate coca plants. Unipacuyacu is one of the communities in the region that has fallen victim to narcotrafficking. In November 2019, Mongabay Latam reported on the same problem in the community of Puerto Nuevo, located in the same area.

Meléndez’s death is one of a series of environmental crimes associated with criminal groups that have been reported since a state of emergency sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic began in Peru.

In the Madre de Dios region, various operations undertaken against illegal miners reveal how they have managed to continue to operate, despite the lockdown measures imposed by authorities. In Ucayali and Loreto, recent seizures of timber confirm that illegal loggers have found the emergency to be an easy way to evade justice.

The murder of an Indigenous leader

“I feel indignant,” Zulema Guevara said of the account given by Redy Rabel Ibarra Córdova, the settler who confessed to the murder. “First he said my husband had shot himself by accident and then, when he contradicted himself during his statement to the police, he admitted that he was the one who had fired the shot. He said he mistook him for an animal.”

Arbildo Meléndez was the leader of the Indigenous community of Unipacuyacu and demanded the land title for their territory. Image by AIDESEP.

Guevara said Meléndez had recently hired Ibarra to assist him with reforestation efforts using Guazuma crinita trees. “They had gone out a few times together. This was the third time that he accompanied him to hunt and fish,” she said. She said she doubted Ibarra’s initial account from the start because her husband was an experienced hunter.

Guevara said she suspects the land-grabbers involved in illegal coca cultivation and land trafficking are the ones who might be behind the murder. She said that since her husband took on his position, he had fought for a land title and against the land-grabbers, so that they would leave the community’s lands.

“Our community is being invaded by illegal coca growers. We almost have no land to cultivate,”  Guevara said of the illegal land occupation in Indigenous communities.

The public prosecutor handling the case, Verónica Julca from the Puerto Inca, Huánuco, told Mongabay Latam that Ibarra was released after a court decided there was insufficient evidence for a charge of premeditated murder, as Julca had argued.

Indigenous leaders have demanded that the murder of Arbildo Meléndez be investigated. Image by AIDESEP.

“To the court it’s a matter of manslaughter, the sentence for which is four to six years of prison,” Julca said. “The judge has issued an order for restricted release.”

In a statement, the Regional Organization for AIDESEP-Ucayali (ORAU) condemned the shooting death of Meléndez, whom it recognized as a defender of Indigenous peoples’ human rights and land rights.

Berlin Diques, president of ORAU, recalled a public statement Meléndez made during a visit to Peru by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, in January this year. Meléndez condemned the threats he was receiving as a result of his fight to obtain a land title for his community’s lands.

On social media, Forst mourned the murder of the Indigenous leader. “I met with him a few months ago in Peru. The circumstances of his death must be made clear. Highly concerned by the situation in his community, threatened for opposing illegal cultivation and logging,” he tweeted in Spanish.

Diques indicated that various Indigenous leaders in the region have been threatened. He recalled attacks against community leaders of Nueva Austria, located in Puerto Inca, Huánuco region, on the border with Ucayali, as well as the murders of environmental leaders Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quintisima Meléndez, and Francisco Pinedo Ramírez more than five years ago in the Indigenous community of Alto Tamaya, Saweto.

Transportation of illegally logged timber has continued during the emergency lockdown due to COVID-19. Image by FEMA Ucayali.

Diques also said the person responsible for Meléndez’s murder was still walking free. “We demand that the public prosecutor’s office continue the investigation. There is a person directly responsible for the crime, but the instigators must be found out.”

Alicia Abanto, deputy of the Ombudsperson’s Office for the Environment, Public Services and Indigenous Peoples, said there’s a structural problem. “Community leaders live in areas where the state is not present. This leaves them undefended against the activities taking place around them.”

She said that when there is an incident like that of the murder of an environmental leader, the investigation takes a long time and in many cases the responsible parties go unpunished. “One terrible example is the proceedings for the murder of Edwin Chota and another three community members. There is a systematic violation of the rights of Indigenous leaders; there are no preventative measures and when a regrettable act occurs like this one, those responsible are not investigated or punished.”

Illegal mining has not stopped

“We have carried out around 40 operations against illegal mining during the quarantine,” said public prosecutor Karina Garay, from the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office (FEMA) of Madre de Dios.

Around 40 operations have taken place in La Pampa, in Madre de Dios, during the quarantine. Image by FEMA Madre de Dios.

In this region of the Amazon, illegal activities have not stopped. According to Garay, who leads operations in La Pampa as part of Operation Mercury, almost every day they have to take action against illegal miners entering the area.

In an operation carried out on March 17 they destroyed 29 balsas carrancheras and eight balsas gringas — both types of rafts used for mining — as well as motors, generators and fuel. “It was a total of 37 rafts in just one operation,” Garay said.

In Loreto, public prosecutor Carlos Castro from the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, said the police constantly patrol the Alto Nanay River to ensure that the pequedragas, or “little dredgers,” small boats used for illegal mining, are not operating.

Operations in La Pampa have seized large amounts of supplies. Image by FEMA Madre de Dios.

Castro said that in February they found and destroyed various dredgers on Alto Nanay and also seized communications equipment used by the illegal miners. “We found high-end radios and cellphone devices that are often used to warn of our presence on the river.”

For this reason, he said, recent operations on the Nanay have employed civilian transport vessels to avoid discovery by illegal miners. “We have made use of the element of surprise, but such logistics are more costly,” Castro said.

“Illegality lives day to day. Especially now that the price of gold has increased, gold extraction is fully profitable,” said César Ipenza, an environmental lawyer.

Illegal miners use mercury to process gold. Image by FEMA Madre de Dios.

Ipenza said that globally, given the uncertainty the world is experiencing, the price of gold will continue to rise since it reflects the desire to accumulate money and ensure capital reserves. “The state has shifted police and military personnel for emergency security and assistance, and illegal actors are taking advantage of this situation,” he added. Despite this, Ipenza said, the operations against illegal activity continue.

Operations against illegal timber trafficking

In early April, the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Loreto together with the police, Peruvian navy, and personnel from the Regional Management Office for Forestry Development and Wildlife took control of a boat that was illegally transporting timber on the Huallaga River, near the Jeberillos-Yurimaguas highway. According to the report from the public prosecutor’s office, the cargo of 5,000 board feet (12 cubic meters) of wood came from Lagunas district and did not possess documentation to confirm it was legally sourced.

Timber without transportation documentation was seized in Ucayali. Image by FEMA Ucayali.

During the patrol, three people were detained and the timber was seized. The motorboat was also secured and disinfected for coronavirus. Those arrested were placed in quarantine, following health sector instructions.

“The rivers are being guarded by navy personnel,” said public prosecutor Castro. “Therefore it is more difficult to transport illegal timber; it is easily spotted since boat traffic is completely prohibited.”

Castro said that any vessel transporting timber will immediately be detained, even if it has its permits and documentation in order, since emergency measures have prohibited the transport of any non-essential goods. “No ship is authorized to set sail; even if the timber is legal, they are still in violation.”

Prosecutors carry out operations at sawmills in Ucayali. Image by FEMA Ucayali.

In the Ucayali region, operations have also been carried out against illegal logging. On March 28, a vessel was seized transporting approximately 100 board feet (0.2 cubic meters) of timber on the Manantay River, in Coronel Portillo. The cargo was valued at about $37,000 on the local market. Four people were arrested during the operation.

During the quarantine, sawmills have also been searched and timber found that did not have the documentation to confirm their legality.

Ipenza said he believes the illegal loggers are taking advantage of reduced controls and river levels to try to move the timber.

After the operations, the public prosecutor’s office secured the timber. Image by FEMA Ucayali.

Castro indicated that, while security resources are being allocated for the health emergency, the presence of police and navy personnel on the Amazonian rivers means the transportation of illegal timber can be more easily detected.

The operations carried out in Peru’s Amazon region are showing that illegal activity has not stopped, despite the lockdown measures ordered nationwide.

Banner image: An operation against illegal mining in La Pampa. Image by FEMA Madre de Dios.

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