LIMA, Peru (AP) — An outspoken Peruvian opponent of illegal logging and three other native Ashaninka community leaders were shot and killed in the remote region bordering Brazil where they live, villagers and authorities said Monday.
The activist, Edwin Chota, had received frequent death threats from illegal loggers, who he had tried for years to expel from the lands for which his community was seeking title.
Illegal loggers were suspected in the killings, said Ashaninka regional leader Reyder Sebastian. Pervasive corruption lets the loggers operate with impunity, stripping the Amazon region's river basins of prized hardwoods, especially mahogany and tropical cedar.
"He threatened to upset the status quo," said David Salisbury, a professor at the University of Richmond who was advising Chota on the title quest and had known him for a decade. "The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead."
Chota and the others were apparently killed on Sept. 1, the day they left Saweto, the village he led on the Upper Tamaya river, to hike to a sister Brazilian Ashaninka community, said the village schoolteacher, Maria Elena Paredes.
When the men did not show at the Brazilian village, worried comrades who had traveled ahead of them returned and found the bodies — apparently killed by shotgun blasts — near some shacks on the Putaya river, Paredes said.
She said by phone that vultures had begun to feed on the bodies, which were found a six-hour walk from the 45-inhabitant village.
Paredes identified the other slain men as Jorge Rios, who was Chota's deputy, Leoncio Quinticima and Francisco Pinedo.
She said no villagers had seen the killers.
"The community has always and continues to be threatened by the big loggers," she said from Pucallpa, the Ucayali regional capital, where she arrived Monday night after a three-day boat journey with widows and children of the slain men.
Peru's main indigenous federation, AIDESEP, expressed outrage at police and the judiciary in a statement for "doing absolutely nothing despite repeated complaints" to protect the slain men, who it said had joined "the long list of martyrs who fell in defense of their ancestral lands."
Peru's deputy minister for intercultural affairs, Patricia Balbuena, said authorities planned after police debrief the delegation to fly by helicopter to Saweto to investigate and retrieve the bodies.
Chota had campaigned for years for the title for his community, emboldening other settlements along the Tamaya to similar seek legal claim to traditional lands, said Sebastian.
Now, he said, people in those communities fear for their lives.
"We have been fighting for 12 years and now look what happens," said Paredes.
Sebastian said he would demand a meeting with President Ollanta Humala to obtain assurances for his people's safety.
The Ashaninkas are Peru's leading Amazon ethnic group and Sebastian says violence against them has been rising since they began agitating for titles to their territories.
Chota had written more than 100 letters to state institutions about illegal logging and titling efforts in Ucayali, said Salisbury, "and he was an incredible incredibly dynamic and charismatic leader who gave hope to not just his community but many others by his courage and convictions."
He said he and Chota personally met with Peru's national forestry director, Fabiola Munoz, in July and that forestry inspectors had just visited forestry concessions that overlapped with Saweto that were being logged without permission.
Telephone calls to Munoz seeking comment on the progress of Chota's titling efforts were not immediately returned.
So widely known was Chota, who was in his early 50s, that foreign reporters sometimes accompanied him into the jungle.
Journalist Scott Wallace last year described him in National Geographic as "a sinewy, 52-year-old firebrand with rakish, jet-black hair and a hawk's beak of a nose."
Chota's region is home to about 80 percent of illegal logging in Peru, which thrives on a web of corruption involving the widespread issuance of counterfeit logging permits.
The wood from a single old-growth mahogany tree can fetch more than $11,000 on the U.S. lumber market, the Environmental Investigation Agency nonprofit said in a 2012 report on Peru's trouble forest concession system.
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