The body of Edwin Chota, a Peruvian activist who campaigned against illegal logging in the Amazon, was found last Monday, along with three leaders of the native Ashaninka community. Initial reports describe the men as having been killed by shotgun blasts.
Chota and his comrades were killed near the Brazilian border, in a region estimated to contain 80 percent of the illegal logging in Peru.
For years, Chota fought against the loggers in his native land, both politically and physically. Friends and fellow activists speak of him facing down gun-toting loggers armed only with his machete, which earned him both infamy and enmity throughout Peru.
“[H]e was an incredible incredibly dynamic and charismatic leader who gave hope to not just his community but many others by his courage and convictions,” said David Salisbury, a professor at the University of Richmond.
Salisbury was advising Chota on how to obtain the title for his native Ashaninka community. The region is estimated to contain 80 percent of the illegal logging in Peru, and Chota was adamant that his people should legally own the land. Over the years he wrote over 100 letters to the government about illegal logging and titling efforts, encouraging communities along the Tamaya river to fight for their rights.
But as more Ashaninkas protested, more became victims of violence from the loggers.
“He threatened to upset the status quo,” said Salisbury. “The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead.”
On September 1, Chota was returning from a meeting with other Ashaninka leaders in the Brazilian village of Apiwtxa. He was returning to Saweto, the Upper Tamaya community he led, along with Jorge Rios, Chota’s deputy, and two other Ashaninka leaders, Leoncio Quinticima and Francisco Pinedo.
When the men did not appear in Saweto, villagers went in search for them. They were found six hours away, near some shacks on the Putaya river. The killers were not seen.
Chota’s loss has devastated native Peruvians, who are now more afraid than ever.
“We have been fighting for 12 years and now look what happens,” said Maria Elena Paredes, a schoolteacher in Saweto.
AIDESEP, an indigenous Peruvian federation, claim the authorities are “doing absolutely nothing despite repeated complaints.” Chota, they say, has joined “the long list of martyrs who fell in defense of their ancestral lands.”
According to David Salisbury, large amounts of timber is felled illegally in Saweto and nearby Brazil. The region is full of desirable hardwoods such as cedar and mahogany. In a 2012 report, the Environmental Investigation Agency writes that one old-growth mahogany can go for over $11,000 on the U.S. lumber market.
Photo: EMORY RICHEY/AP PHOTO