LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvian police investigators and a deputy minister met Tuesday with widows of four slain indigenous leaders who had resisted a steady onslaught by illegal loggers in their remote Amazon jungle homeland.
The Ashaninka community's slain leader, Edwin Chota, had for years led efforts to obtain titles to its traditional lands near Brazil's border. He constantly confronted the loggers who strip the region's river basins of prized hardwoods, especially mahogany and cedar.
Tribal authorities say they suspected illegal loggers in the killings, and described an intensified climate of fear.
Pervasive corruption lets the illegal loggers operate unhindered in the region, and environmentalists said they only hope the death of Chota and the three others will be a catalyst for reform.
"We'll see what we can do to change this horrible tragedy into hopefully a small victory for indigenous rights and environmental justice," 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.
Peru's deputy minister of intercultural affairs, Patricia Balbuena, told The Associated Press from Pucallpa, the Ucayali state regional capital, after meeting with the widows that she was organizing helicopter transport to the region on Wednesday so police could investigate and retrieve the bodies.
The four men were killed Sept. 1 after leaving Saweto, their village on the Upper Tamaya river, to hike to the sister Brazilian Ashaninka community of Apiwtxa, said the village schoolteacher, Maria Elena Paredes.
When the men did not show at Apiwtxa, 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 said no villagers had seen the killers.
Chota's campaigning for title to his community territory had emboldened other settlements along the Tamaya to similar seek legal claim to traditional lands, said Reyder Sebastian, a regional Ashaninka leader.
Now, he said, people in those settlements fear for their lives.
"The community has always and continues to be threatened by the big loggers," said Paredes, who arrived in Pucallpa on Monday night with the widows and children of the slain men after a three-day boat journey.
"When you see your strongest leaders murdered I can only imagine the feeling of impotence," said Julia Urrunaga, country director for the nonprofit Environmental Investigations Agency, which has researched Peru's troubled forest concession system.
Balbuena said she would propose putting a police post in the region. Communities in Peru's vast jungles are essentially lawless, the nearest police stationed often days away.
After receiving death threats, Chota would sometimes flee to Apiwtxa for refuge.
The country's main indigenous federation, AIDESEP, issued a statement Monday expressing outrage at police and the judiciary 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."
The Ashaninkas are Peru's leading Amazon ethnic group and Sebastian said violence against them has risen since they began agitating for titles to their territories.
Chota, who was in his early 50s, had written more than 100 letters to state institutions about illegal logging and titling efforts in Ucayali, said Salisbury, "and he was an incredibly dynamic and charismatic leader who gave hope to not just his community but many others by his courage and convictions."
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 said in a 2012 report.
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