Since the murder of the environmental leader Edwin Chota and three chiefs of the Alto Tamayo-Saweto community in Pucallpa by illegal loggers, the women of this Asháninka village on the border between Peru and Brazil have been defending the forest. They are standing up to organized crime, as the men are afraid of being murdered like their companions. The Peruvian government offers scant protection, and has failed to improve the infrastructure and carry out the social projects scheduled to begin in 2015.
Five years after the horror that swept Saweto, Convoca.pe travelled to this Amazonian village in the Ucayali region, to learn about these women’s struggle and the constant danger that they face to defend the last trees on the border.
“How long did it take you to reach Pucallpa (the capital of Ucayali)?”
“Three days (…) We traveled day and night (…) without rest in a peque-peque (motorized canoe),” related Julia Pérez, 42 years old, standing barefoot at the corner of the Saweto Communal House.
“It was nighttime. Wasn’t it dangerous?”
“No, we were not afraid. There were four of us: Ergilia, her daughter, the boatman and I.”
“Did you stop to eat during the journey?”
“Not once. Later, we were helped to get some food.”
“One of the widows on that journey was pregnant. Who was that?”
“That was me. I was seven months pregnant at the time. My son’s father died while I was expecting.”
“And how did you travel to Pucallpa?”
“We found a way; what else could we do? Where there’s a will there’s a way. Nothing could stop me.”
“What name did you give to your son?”
“After his father?”
With a child in her womb and filled with fear, Julia Pérez traveled down the river for three days from Saweto to the city of Pucallpa after learning that her husband Edwin Chota and three other community leaders had been murdered. Julia still remembers the scream of one survivor of that horrific incident.
“They have killed Chota, they have killed our chief!” shouted Jaime Arévalo, spokesperson for Alto Tamaya-Saweto, at around 6pm on September 5th 2014. He and his wife Hilda Cushimba were out of breath when they rushed in to notify the community that Edwin Chota, Jaime Arévalo, Leoncio Quintisima and Francisco Pinedo had been murdered.
Estefanía Arévalo, daughter of Hilda and Jaime, had to repeat the news to the community, because her father “was nervous; he could not walk,” she remembers. He was a devastated man, and she had to bear the weight of the story in his place. She related to the widows the dreadful scene that her parents discovered in a gully eight hours away on the road to Apiwtxa, Saweto’s twin community in Acre, Brazil.
Hilda Cushimba told the prosecutor that she was carrying her baby in her arms when her husband Jaime Arévalo described the scene on the slope: the bones lying close to the Putaya river with vultures gnawing the clothes, boots and bags floating in a puddle of water. Horrified, they decided to return to Saweto on a different route to that taken by the four murdered leaders.
“My in-laws (...) caught sight of a corpse, but did not recognize who it was or the clothes that they were wearing. They were deeply alarmed, and returned immediately to the community,” Alex Ríos, son-in-law of Jaime Arévalo, related in his testimony to the Ucayali Prosecutor. He told the authorities that he had accompanied his in-laws to the native community of Apiwtxa on August 29th 2014, because they were due to participate in an assembly in that Brazilian district to coordinate the defense of the forest.
Jorge Arévalo had arrived early at the meeting in Apiwtxa and, retracing the same route to determine what had happened to the other community leaders, he found the hideous scene.
When Estefanía Arévalo described what her father saw to the other community families, the fear started to spread. The circumstances of the murders, coming on the heels of the death threats, pointed to the illegal loggers near to Saweto as the likely perpetrators. The families began to flee to Apiwtxa, in Brazil, or Pucallpa, in Peru. Diana Ríos, the daughter of another of the murdered leaders and former partner of Chota, mentioned that Alex Ríos, Arévalo’s son-in-law, never returned to the village “out of fear.”
Today there are 29 families left in Saweto, of which 20 live permanently in the Asháninka community. The others come and go to other places of work or family commitments, explains Karen Shawiri, the 28-year-old current head of the community.
After the murder of the four leaders, the women led Saweto’s struggle against the wood trafficking. The majority of the village’s men preferred to take a back seat, out of fear of being the next victims. As a result, following the tragedy, Ergilia Rengifo López, widow of the slain Jorge Ríos, became the first woman to be elected chief of the Asháninka.
Ergilia’s first mission, in the midst of her grieving period, was to lead a commission to Pucallpa, capital of Ucayali, to report the leaders’ death. “There was no time to cry”, she recalls. It was nighttime. Ergilia made a firm decision and told her daughter Diana: “Stay here. If anything happens to me, if I do not return within five days, you must send out word by radio,” relates Diana, as she slips on her blue cushma (traditional dress) and paints red lines on her face before a mirror with a plastic frame.
The committee led by Ergilia consisted of her eldest daughter, Juana Ríos, the widow of Leoncio Quintisima and Julia Pérez, seven months pregnant, the widow of Edwin Chota. The women took three days to reach Pucallpa. “We even travelled at night, but if it rained we slept wherever we could find shelter. On the first night we slept on the beach in Ucayina, and the next morning we heard an engine [a sound regarded as a threat]. The following night we slept in a house in the village Nueva Amazonía Tomahao, two days from Saweto,” Ergilia recalls.
Reaching Saweto from Pucallpa in a peque-peque could take locals three days on an abundant river in the rainy season, and up to seven days in the dry period. Convoca.pe travelled for 30 hours on a launch with a 65-horsepower engine from Pucallpa port to the Asháninka community. We sailed along one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon river, the Ucayali, followed by its affluents Tamaya and Putaya, weaving between floating pieces of wood. Over the course of this journey we passed several ships, carrying passengers, gasoline or the coveted Amazonian wood.
Ergilia’s committee travelled along this same route in the opposite direction to seek help and a justice that is still painfully elusive. The case is still underway at the Ucayali Prosecutor’s Office, and no convictions have been secured of the persons responsible for murdering the four leaders of this increasingly threatened village in the Peruvian Amazon.
Every day, Peru loses 427.2 hectares of rainforest, according to the governmental body Serfor (Forestry and Wild Fauna Department). In 2017 alone, 155,914 hectares of forest cover were logged, and, according to a historical revision by Serfor, 7.7 million hectares of forest have been lost. This equates to 6% of the Peruvian territory, or the entire area of the imperial region of Cusco.
The provinces of Ucayali, Madre de Dios, Huánuco and Loreto have seen 60% of the zones deforested in 2017. These regions are targeted by the million-dollar illegal mining and timber trafficking businesses.