On 8 September 2014, the Peruvian indigenous leader and anti-logging activist Edwin Chota was murdered alongside of three of his Ashéninka brothers.
All four men were from the Alto Tamaya-Saweto community, led by Edwin, and situated in Peru’s Amazon Ucayali region.
For years he had fought tirelessly to demand recognition of his community’s ancestral lands by the state and to expel the illegal loggers who operated with impunity in their forests, located on the Brazilian border.
Edwin never managed to ensure the eviction of the criminal loggers, nor did he obtain full land rights from the state, but he did help us to understand the problems of forest protection in the Peruvian Amazon in the seminars Sustainlabour organised in collaboration with the Peruvian trade union centres CGTP, CUT and CATP this July.
We mourn his death and ask for justice.
Edwin encountered constant procedural problems. The official recognition of the Saweto indigenous community came in 2003, a year after a section of their land was given to a logging company for 40 years.
The logging had "priority", although the government committed to study and solve the case.
"Until we have ownership of the land, loggers will not respect our property. They threaten. They intimidate. And they are armed,” he repeatedly stated.
In April 2014, Edwin filed a complaint in Pucallpa, the capital of Ucayali, identifying illegal loggers by name and presenting photographs of their activity as evidence.
This complaint, along with his tireless years of work, may have cost him his life.
Filing a complaint in the context of impunity of this region is an extreme act of courage.
This is a territory where 80 per cent of illegal logging in Peru takes place.
Despite the fact that he received constant threats from illegal loggers who kept him in the focus of their shotguns, Edwin’s only protection was a knife and his tenacity.
Logging mafias move with impunity and make huge profits, according to the International Environmental Agency (IEA). A grown mahogany tree can cost as much as US$11,000 in the illegal market.
The illegal timber trade is sophisticated and powerful. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), global profits from illegal logging range between US$30 and US$100 billion a year. In fact, between 10 and 30 per cent of the global timber trade is illegal.
In Peru, this proportion is much higher. A 2012 World Bank report estimated that 80 per cent of Peruvian timber for export stems from illegal logging.
Edwin provided an invaluable service to the citizens of Peru.
Thanks to his work and courage this illegal activity was reported and documented. But indigenous activists should not have to take responsibility for protecting the Amazon – that’s the government’s job.
Nonetheless, indigenous communities could play an even more important role in the protection of these forests but only when their rights and ancestral lands are recognised.
Peru has failed both to defend its forests and the lives of the Ashéninka people.
They cannot say they did not know what was happening. According to Central Autónoma de Trabajadores del Perú (CATP), the union to which the four killed brothers were affiliated, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Supervisory Agency for Forest Resources (OSINFOR) and the Public Prosecutor from the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman, had all promised to follow up on Edwin’s allegations.
In fact, an inspection of illegal logging in the area was scheduled for this month. The inspectors never arrived.
Edwin leaves a pregnant widow and a son of eight. But his parting also leaves an indelible mark on everyone who ever had the honour of speaking to or working with him.
Numerous international trade union organisations, including the ITUC, TUCA and BWI, have all sent letters of protest to President Ollanta Humala. We will not rest until justice is done.
This is an edited version of an article first published on the Sustainlabour website.
This article originally appeared in Spanish.