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Fear and neglect
in Saweto

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.

Survivors

“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?”

“Edwin.”

“After his father?”

“Yes.”

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.

Julia Pérez with her children and new partner. Photo: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pe

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.

The women of the Saweto community with their children. Left to right: Ergilia Rengifo, Teresa López and Diana Ríos. Photo: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pe

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.

Impunity and timber trafficking

The evidence available points to five persons as alleged perpetrators of the murder of the Saweto leaders, including the Brazilian logger Eurico Mapes. However on February 23rd 2018, the prosecutor investigating the case, Julio Reátegui, unexpectedly requested that the accusation against four of the suspects be archived. Nine months later, on November 19th 2018, the Superior Prosecutor of Ucayali issued provision N°037, which demanded that Reátegui’s controversial request be rectified, and that a new prosecutor be appointed to issue a new requirement, in order to broaden the request for accusation against the other individuals involved.

Shortly thereafter, Reátegui designated his deputy prosecutor Otoniel Jara – his subordinate - to take over the case. In response, on March 1st 2019 the lawyer for the slain leaders, Óscar Romero, requested that the Specialized Corporate Provincial Prosecutor against Organized Crime cancel Jara’s appointment, arguing that he was expected to maintain his superior’s stance.

According to Reátegui there is sufficient evidence to accuse the logger Eurico Mapes, but not the other four individuals, all Peruvians - Hugo Soria Flores, Joé Carlos Estrada Huayta, Josimar Atachi Félix and Segundo Atachi Félix - for alleged homicide. 

“We do not have any proof pointing to them. It is one thing for the relatives to have theories, and another to prove them. We were not even able to establish if the individual or individuals were in that location on the date of the homicides,” Reátegui told Convoca.pe

In the next few days, prosecutor Otoniel Jara is expected to comply with the request by the Superior Prosecutor of Ucayali and broaden the accusation to include the four other persons involved in the murder of the Saweto chiefs.

En el camino a Saweto encontramos madera talada a orillas del río. Foto: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pee

While this occurs in the offices of the Pucallpa Public Ministry, on the border with Brazil the Saweto widows continue to live neglected in the jungle. Margoth Quispe, former ombudsman in Ucayali and legal director of the Peru program at the US-based foundation Rainforest, explains that for security reasons and “on the recommendation of their lawyer” the women are not informed about the development of the investigation, as they still live “alongside the enemy.” Saweto lies only a few minutes from the village of Putaya, home to the murder suspects.

The women are aware of the risk hanging over them, as they remember the constant threats that dogged the murdered men: where, when and by who these took place.

“Eurico Mapes (the Brazilian logger) is the only suspect who said this openly, but it could also be his relatives (his father Adeuso Mapes) and Juan Carlos Estrada, since their forestry concession was nearby," says Ergilia Rengifo López, speaking alongside Juana Pérez. They are the widows of Edwin Chota and Jorge Ríos, respectively.

Only months before his murder, Edwin Chota had accused Eurico Mapes, the representative of the company Eco Forestal Ucayali S.A.C, Juan Carlos Estrada Huayta and other individuals of illegal logging. These denunciations were well-documented, comprising photographs and georeferenced location of the environmental damage.

Chota had a direct confrontation with Eco Forestal Ucayali S.A.C, as the company had a forestry concession overlapping Saweto’s ancestral territory. Estrada Huayta took revenge, accusing Chota of drug trafficking.

The efforts by the Asháninka community leader to defend the forest reached the attention of the Forestry Resource Monitoring Agency (Osinfor), after numerous years of insistent requests. Chota could read and write, and had learnt how to navigate bureaucracy, dispatching letters, reports and complaints.

On May 22nd 2014, Chota and five other members of his community were received by the Osinfor authorities at the head office of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, as is accounted for in various documents to which Convoca.pe had access. Shortly afterwards, the public officials and the leader agreed to a supervision date verify Chota’s report of illegal logging: August 15th 2014. Chota was finally being listened to.

That supervision began with the forestry concession of Ramiro Edwin Barrios Galván and continued on August 25th with the inspection of the activities of Eco Forestal Ucayali, in which Edwin Chota himself participated as an overseer. The proceedings lasted until August 29th, in a climate of insecurity and uncertainty. Three days later, on September 1st, the Amazonian leader was shot dead. 

Chota’s last report on the pillaging of the forest was confirmed two weeks following his death. On September 17th 2014. Osinfor issued supervision report N° 092-2014, which stated that the inspections conducted the previous month had identified illegal logging activities: the disappearance of trees of the tornillo, cedar, lupuna, copaiba, ishpingo and tolu species, among others.

En el camino a Saweto encontramos madera talada a orillas del río. Foto: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pee

“The acts of unauthorized use (illegal logging) are considered serious due to the quantity of trees displaced, and because they affect the natural populations of species protected by specific legal provisions (cedar, ishpingo and lupuna), without any possibility of measures being implemented in the area to mitigate and/or compensate for the damage caused to the forestry heritage,” the document declared. Now, just like those trees, Chota was dead.

“That time, I wanted to know who killed my father, who was involved. I wanted to know this clearly. So when I took ayahuasca (a plant that produces hallucinogenic effects and is used in the Amazon for its healing properties), I concentrated and saw my father, standing there just as you are now. He came closer, touched me and said “Don't cry; they had intended to kill me for a long time.” I asked him: ‘Who are they?’ He replied: ’Mr Eurico and his sons were involved.’ That was his answer,” remembers Diana, the daughter of Jorge Ríos.

Edwin Chota and Jorge Ríos had received multiple death threats. One of these incidents was recorded in a report to the Ucayali Prosecutor in April 2014. The communal leader claimed that after a raid that immobilized the wood extracted illegally by the company Forza Nuova E.I.R.L, its representative Hugo Soria Flores threatened him and Jorge Ríos, promising that “someone from Saweto was going to die.”

A number of documents from the legal file to which Convoca.pe had access shed light on the background of the crime. Superior provision N° 037-2018 from the Prosecutor states that the Third Court of Preparatory Investigation, chaired by judge Melina Elizabeth Díaz, argued that “it is possible that in this case, the motive for the murders was to conceal a continuing offence (a murder to cover up another crime), including illicit timber trafficking and the entire criminal organization behind it.” This situation was "not taken into consideration by the prosecutor in charge of the case,” the judge highlighted.

We spoke to prosecutor Julio Reátegui in Pucallpa, and asked him why the Superior Prosecutor had ordered him to correct his accusation.

“Of course, [the Superior Prosecutor] considers that there is command responsibility involved; a mastermind behind the crime. He believes that this can be proved, but I disagree. (…). I believe that this accusation will not get anywhere, procedurally speaking.”

Meanwhile, in the depths of the jungle, insecurity still looms over the female leaders and survivors of Saweto. The illegal logging continues unabated.

The ongoing threat

A map of the loss of forest cover in 2016, produced by the foundation Rainforest, revealed that a forestry concession in the north of the community, San Jorge E.I.R.L., was logging beyond the limits of its property.

“There are illegal loggers there. We have a large territory (…) They are further down there (…) but they give the impression that they are only working on that side, not this side,” explains Karen Shawiri, the current chief of the community and half-sister of Ergilia, with whom she shares a mother.

Karen, 28 years old, with a dark complexion beneath her brown cushma, understands that her responsibilities are to serve her people, only leave the village when necessary, share her results with her community, fight for her forest and delegate functions to her colleagues.

“I carry a heavy burden (…) We have to struggle to live peacefully, happily and united within our community,” she says.

“Who do you have to struggle against?”

“Against the illegal loggers,” she responds, before requesting that the authorities provide assistance. “We should not be forgotten simply because we are on the border.”

Convoca.pe gained access to a map analyzed by Serfor using Planet images from December 2018 and February 2019, which reveals the areas experiencing deforesting and possible illegal logging within Saweto’s territory. However the authorities need to carry out a field visit to determine the scale of this threat. We also contacted the Communications department at Osinfor several times, regarding the latest supervision operations conducted on the forestry concessions beside the Saweto community after the murder of the four Asháninka leaders, but received no response.

Insecurity has crept into the Saweto territory. The natives tell us that they cannot determine precisely how many workers are involved in timber extraction. Some calculate that it is over 30 loggers, all armed with a machete or firearm. Whenever the Saweto inhabitants enter these areas to supervise them, they prefer to ignore suspicious situations out of fear for their safety.

“It frightens them. Sometimes when they see logging within their territory they do not say anything. If ever they do, the logger responds: ‘I will kill you. You are a snitch that is going to report us [to the authorities],” relates Karen Shawiri.

Milton Vásquez is 25 years old, dark-skinned and of medium height. He sits down and listens at the Saweto Communal House, beside a handful of men who silently watch the governing committee chaired by women. He is one of the few men to have assumed a support role, as president of the parents’ association at the primary school.

Vásquez says that despite the threats, and the fact that there are only 20 men, they take care of the forest. On the other hand, “the Brazilian loggers outnumber us. They make threats, fell trees and leave. If ever we complain, they come knocking on our doors and could kill us if they wanted to. Sometimes we look for food, for fish, but up there in the hills they could ambush us,” he adds.

Every three months, five men, fearful for their lives, carry out protection tours of the Saweto territory. But this is not always possible. They have not travelled to the border of their land since October 2018. “We do not do it often, because we do not have enough gasoline. It is a two-day boat journey to the edge of our territory, or a week on foot, then another week to return. It is a long way," explains Vásquez. There is indeed a total of 80,000 hectares of land to monitor.

The sound of heavy machinery carrying the felled trunks does not only frighten the villagers. Even the animals that they hunt for food have fled to safer parts of the forest. “The animals have become cautious, whereas they used to be as tame as lambs. Now they run away as soon as they see you. (…) There used to be abundant fish, but all the animals have fled since the loggers started operating here,” relates Guillermo Arévalo, brother of the murdered leader Jaime Arévalo, standing beside Roger Shawiri, the father of chief Karen Shawiri. The men and women of Saweto have become a single family of survivors.

In addition to spearheading their community’s struggle for justice, Saweto’s women bring up their children at home. Photo: Anthony Quispe / Concova.pe

Female guardians of the forest

It is midday on Wednesday February 6th 2019. In the Saweto Communal House a lunch of wild pig is being prepared, in this village where former chief Edwin Chota once drank masato, ate, made his bed and brought up his children. The governing committee and the villagers gather to speak about their future and their needs.

Ergilia Rengifo López, 5’2”, with dark-skin and wavy jet-black hair, declares that the Saweto tragedy left her a widow and mother of nine children. She does not know how old she is, claiming that the registry office recorded her date of birth incorrectly, though her ID card states that she is 42. 

Saweto’s widows have not abandoned their struggle, but this does not mean that they will be mourning forever. Life carries on. Ergilia Rengifo López has had a new partner for two years. Julia Pérez has a daughter with her new husband, in addition to the three children fathered by Edwin Chota. Lita Rojas often travels to the village of Apiwtxa, where her parents live. As for Avelina Vargas, she now lives in another Amazonian village far from Saweto.

Five years after the murder of the village leaders, Ergilia confesses that the devastating incident drove her to seek justice for her loved ones and, despite being illiterate, complete the dealings that Edwin Chota had undertaken for Saweto: the land titling of the community territory and installation of a cell phone antenna.

Karen Shawiri aims to remain in her post as long as she can, as she has heard rumors that there may be attempts on her life.

The closest police station is in the hamlet of Putaya, a 15-minute peque-peque journey downstream.From there can be reached the control post for river traffic.However, Convoca.pe visited this checkpoint and discovered that it is not always guarded by police officials.

The closest police post to Saweto is in Putaya. It was not manned when the Convoca.pe team visited it. Photo: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pe

Margoth Quispe at the foundation Rainforest, and former ombudsman in Ucayali, alerted the police to this situation. At approximately 5:30pm on Wednesday February 6th, the police arrived at the Saweto Communal House to put on record that they were always on call to protect the villagers. Yet Karen Shawiri tells a very different story.

“Do the police officials accompany you on the monitoring circuits?”

“No, they do not. They are at the police station not far from here [fifteen minutes away], in Putaya.”

“And do they protect that area, and this one?”

“No, not at all. I doubt that they are even manning the control post.”

“When you receive a threat, do they make a report?”

“Yes, they say that they send the report to the Prosecutor. Recently there was an incident, and I will travel to Pucallpa to make sure that they are doing their job properly.” 

During our visit, the Police committed to assisting the villagers every Sunday, to share out gallons of gasoline that would enable them to travel to the borders and thus protect their territory. This was the promise made at the time of publishing this article. 

The director of the 13th Macroregion of Ucayali at the National Police of Peru, General Miguel Fernando Lostanau Fuentes, declared that police officers were patrolling 24 hours a day. “We use boats from the Navy or the Army, in the areas in which they are based, so the government is present, but I admit that there is not 100% cover.

Margoth Quispe mentions that “the Putaya police station is the only institution that controls and maintains security” in Saweto. It is therefore crucial that it fulfil its responsibilities. “So long as the government lacks a permanent presence in the border zone surrounded by organized crime, the inhabitants of Saweto will continue to live in this dangerous situation.”

The assistance provided to Saweto was put to the test again on April 8th when four children  disappeared from the community. A week later they were found by a special team consisting of the Peruvian Police force, native residents and the Navy. This events sparked another period of public interest, at the possibility of another tragedy, but the village has since returned to its forgotten state.  

The community of Alto Tamaya - Saweto is not safe. It has land titled in two parts: 64,432.49 hectares of jungle (Land Title A) and 13,696.73 hectares (Land Title B), which are not fully protected. This is the background to a reality of shortages and unfulfilled promises.

An unfinished plan

“Perhaps someone needs to die in order for them to pay attention to us,” Edwin Chota once warned.

His words rang true. In the first week of September 2014, the news of the death of the four leaders of Saweto spread across the world. The case triggered an unexpected response from the president at the time, Ollanta Humala. Ergilia Rengifo recalls that “only after the chiefs were murdered did the government reach out to support us. They ignored us before that.”

Ergilia gives us a tour of the buildings that the government constructed in accordance with an Action Plan, under the auspices of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers under Ana Jara in 2014, followed by Pedro Cateriano in 2015.

In the Saweto Action Plan, eleven ministries identified the requirements of the native community, and undertook to assist them from the last semester of 2014 until 2015.

Most notable among these new wooden buildings is the tambo (an administrative outreach center), for a budget of over 1 million soles (approximately 300,000 dollars), which would provide several government institutions with an office in the village to respond to Saweto’s requirements. It was expected to be operational by 2018, but Ergilia Rengifo shows us that the roof has broken or twisted gutters, the floor is cracked, and the walls now harbor wasp nests, moss, ants and even bats. The water tank is rusty, while the underground tank is full of weeds. Inside the tambo are dirty cushions. “They left it like this, unfinished. The thing is, the engineer responsible for the works died,” explains Karen Shawiri.

This tambo was built as part of a government action plan to address Saweto’s needs. However, it is not yet in working order. Photo: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pe

The Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion (Midis), which took over the construction of the tambo, informed Convoca.pe that “there was a significant delay following the unexpected passing of the work supervisor (for reasons unconnected to the project) in October 2018.” 

Tambos in the most isolated areas of the country exist to ensure that the social programs and state benefits effectively reach Andean or native communities.  However, in Saweto the building is only 70% completed, which Midis explains by “the remoteness of the zone and its specific climatic and geographic characteristics.” 

Ergilia takes us to the village water source: a stream from which she drinks and refreshes her head by filling a bowl with water. “We drink from here,” she tells me. The masato prepared by community elder and mother of Ergilia and Karen, Teresa López, contains the best of Saweto’s macerated cassava, mixed with murky stream water. “It is not always clean, but we have to drink it anyway,” Karen adds. 

The inhabitants also use these streams to wash clothes, pans and dishes, and to clean and shower themselves. Saweto lacks both drinking water and electricity. Though in 2010 Edwin Chota convinced the Provincial Municipality of Coronel Portillo to provide an elevated tank connected to two basins, one in the community kindergarten, the other in the primary school, neither currently work, and now have patches of rust and moss.

“The water tank has not worked for years either," says Julia Pérez.

The Ministry of Housing, Construction and Sanitation committed to “repair the two basins, install a treatment plant, repair all the pipes and acquire a chlorination system to disinfect the water and avoid infections caused by contamination.” However, these promises are still unfulfilled.

There is no electricity. The Saweto inhabitants go to bed when the sun sets, at 7pm. Sometimes they stay up later to read messages on their cell phones, having charged the batteries with the electric generator. Solar panels have been installed, but they take two to three days to charge even a sliver of battery.

Interior view of the tambo, showing its state of neglect. Photo: Anthony Quispe / Convoca.pe

Powering 12 hours of electricity is expensive: if inhabitants are lucky, half a can of gasoline in an electric generator will charge four cell phones. Each drop of gasoline, like every drop of water, is a jealously guarded commodity in the community. One gallon of gasoline costs 35 soles (10.7 dollars) if brought from Putaya, despite it being the neighboring village. Only in Pucallpa can it be purchased for 10 soles (3 dollars), which involves a three-day journey. 

According to a commitment made by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, 1,000 photovoltaic systems should have been installed in the community homes throughout the entire district of Masisea in which Saweto is located, for a referential investment of 1 million dollars. Nonetheless, there is no evidence of these yet. The men, women and children of the border regions retire to bed early because their only source of light is the sun, which has now deserted us. 

Walking home barefoot at night is a dangerous endeavor. Chief Karen Shawiri has just been pricked with a splinter in the sole of her foot. The pain will endure into the night, but there are no Ibuprofen tablets in the community. The only medicine kept in the moss-covered storeroom at Saweto’s only health center is a box of 10 mg enalapril to treat high blood pressure.

That establishment has to face both rain and termites. “If we need emergency care we have to travel to the Putaya health center, because we could not obtain it here," Ergilia Rengifo tells us. Unfortunately, Saweto has a tense relationship with its neighbor. According to testimonies by inhabitants, the persons involved in the murder of the four environmental leaders live in or are linked to the hamlet.

The Ministry of Health set out a plan to improve the equipment and furniture of the health center, in addition to conducting seven health campaigns between 2014 and 2015, for a referential budget of 112,000 soles (approximately 34,000 dollars). Yet the problem persists. The Saweto residents have to travel by peque-peque for 15 minutes to reach the edge of Putaya or, for more severe cases, journey for three days to Pucallpa during the rainy season.

The Saweto elders insist that the border village needs its own health center. Guillermo Arévalo suffers from an unusual illness that makes his entire arm tremble. “Recently I had a severe bout. I am now taking vitamins for it,” he says.

Night is about to fall in the Asháninka village. The sun sets on Wednesday February 6th, as Julia Pérez breastfeeds her youngest daughter in her house and gently blows on her brown hair. She is wearing a light blue blouse that stands out against the child’s white t-shirt. Both are barefoot, and go everywhere together. Julia is not afraid to defend the forests, but she is concerned about the future of her children Tsonkiri, Edwin and Luz, and Kitoniro, the son of Edwin Chota and Diana Ríos.

“How is Kitoniro?”

“Sometimes he visits me and plays with his siblings,” Julia replies. 

The children and teenagers are enjoying themselves playing football in the last rays of light. Kitoniro, 12 years old, wearing jean bermuda shorts, a green t-shirt and boots, walks alongside them. He has a shaved head, tanned skin and his father’s broad smile.

“Kitoniro, did you know that your Dad is seen as a hero?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to be like your Dad?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I want to be an engineer.”

Kitoniro does not yet know the scale of the struggle that ultimately claimed his father’s life. He and his family have learnt to survive, to remain standing and resist, like the last trees on the border.

"He said he would kill us"

To travel at the beginning of the year to the indigenous communities of the Lower Amazon, in the triple border with Leticia and Tabatinga (cities in Colombia and Brazil), you have to do it by 'peque peque,' small rustic boats that navigate the Amazon basin every day. This is the best moment of the year to visit the flooded forests of the Peruvian Amazon because the creation of new ox-bow lakes (cochas) and the rise of the river’s water level permits navigation.

To get to Pablo García’s house we had to literally navigate through the streets of the community. The pillars of his house were under water and we were forced to jump mid-stairway to disembark. Pablo was already waiting for us, ready to go out to patrol. He had high rubber boots, worn-out jeans, a cell phone case hanging from his belt, a small black bag crossed from side to side to enable mobility, and contagious enthusiasm.

Perhaps due to his optimism and courage to face the invaders, the inhabitants of Buen Jardín proclaimed him the apu of the community in the previous period. Today the position is in the hands of another Tikuna; however, from Pablo García’s current position as secretary, he is still involved in the tasks and decision-making processes of Buen Jardín. The respect and attention the community show him make it seem as if he is still the apu.

When he saw us, the first thing he said was that two days ago they detected a new patch of deforestation now filled with illegal crops: 30 hectares of the 1771 that the community owns.

"Before there was no coca, now it’s full of it. We barely grow coca. It’s Buen Jardín’s territory," says Pablo.

Deforestation does not go unnoticed by Pablo or the other monitors. They know very well the limits of their territory not only because they patrol it, but because they saw the extent of it for the first time on a satellite map. Every day, with their cell phones and an application that allows them to receive alerts, they go out to check for potential forest invasions.

That morning they guided us to one of the patches of most concern. The boat moved slowly along a stream, skirting the tree trunks and crossing the rays of light that smoothly penetrated the forest canopy. We were six people on board a 'peque peque' navigating through the community's flooded forest.

Half an hour later we disembarked and walked 10 minutes until we were surrounded by coca leaves. Pablo took out his reading glasses and together with Camila Flores, Miguel Rivera, and Enoc Chanchari began to identify the location. The GPS indicated that we were a few meters from the patch, but the water became an obstacle. The monitors took out a drone, which they have learned to use with the help of the Rainforest Foundation —an American foundation that has trained them in the use of this and other technologies— and turned it on to show the deforestation.

The drone rose above the treetops and suddenly a fully stripped quadrant appeared on the screen of the cell phone. The sticks thrown on the ground contrasted with the abundant vegetation of the area and with the cocoa crops of the community. There was an island of bare land in the middle of intense green. Almost 300 square meters of forest had been lost. 

When they received the first alert, in mid-2018, they immediately went to investigate the area.

"We went to the boundary and we found an invader from Bellavista," says Pablo García. He says that they faced him and told him they would bring the authorities but the invader "kept threatening us, saying he would kill us."

Because he did not leave and continued threatening them, Pablo García and Jorge Guerrero, the apu of Buen Jardín, went to talk with the apu of the Tikuna community of Bellavista de Callarú, whose territory borders with theirs.

"We don’t want you to invade our territory and damage it. Stop it. If you have that farm, cultivate that little chacrita [farm] but don’t destroy any more bush. If not, our territory is going to turn to bare land," said Pablo to Bellavista’s apu, who agreed to stop the problem.

However, Pablo returned to Buen Jardín with very little hope, especially because before going into the meeting they threatened him again.

"You know what, Pablo, right now they're going to grab you, tie you up, and give you a beating. I replied: Why are you going to grab me and beat me? Am I invading your territory? I’m not, but you are, and we have to stop it." This is how Pablo García remembers that scene, which remains fresh in his memory.

He has not forgotten the last words they said to him before going to the meeting: "We are going to hang you.” 

The inhabitants of Buen Jardín are not tired of repeating, almost like a mantra, that in Bellavista drug trafficking is still present.

In 2014, the Corah Special Project in charge of illicit crop eradication throughout the Peruvian territory began to operate in the province of Mariscal Ramón Castilla, in the Lower Amazon. It eradicated 1,816 hectares of coca. That year they did not reach Bellavista de Callarú. Nevertheless, a year later, in 2015, the intervention was much larger and removed 13,805 hectares of coca from the province; 1,426 hectares distributed in 795 plots from Bellavista alone. The 2014 and 2015 campaigns, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), reduced illicit crops in the Lower Amazon to 370 hectares; however, in 2017 there was a significant reseeding and the hectares rose to 1,823. To this figure, we must add last year’s coca plantations.

"The highest concentration of the crop has been found in the towns of San José de Cochiquinas, Alto Monte, San Pablo, Cushillococha, Bellavista and Erene," states the UNODC report. According to the UN agency, cocaine production is "linked" to the Colombian market by two factors: the proximity to the Colombian border and the absence of dryers in this area of ​​Peru, which suggests that the coca leaf is processed in "green" (as its customary in Colombia).

This coincides with what police sources in the area pointed out. In a conversation with Mongabay Latam, they stated that Colombian citizens put money into the Peruvian communities of the Amazonian Trapeze to plant coca and then buy all their harvest from them.

Pablo García and Jorge Guerrero argue that in Bellavista they are seen as informants of the narcotics division, although they have explained more than once that they do not report to the police, instead, are only interested in protecting the forest. 

Due to Bellavista's background and threats like this one, Pablo García is convinced that coca crops will soon appear in the recently deforested area.

We asked Teodoro Ayde Lozano, Bellavista’s apu, about these accusations. "We have requested an expansion of territory; after that expansion, it is actually Buen Jardín that is invading Bellavista's land," he replied.

"Buen Jardín denounces that in that area they are planting coca,” we tell him. "Nothing, just yucca, nothing else," the apu responds bluntly. "Nothing happens here, people work well," he continues. The interview takes place inside his house but he does not stop looking constantly towards the street. During the 30 minutes of the conversation, at least three Colombian citizens who passed by his house greeted him. "Before, there were problems but now everything is quiet," he concludes.

The GPS coordinates do not lie: that forest belongs to Buen Jardín of Callarú.

The prosecutor’s arrival

At the end of 2018, the apu of Buen Jardín received an unexpected visit. A group of Colombians wanted to talk to him.

“There were many Colombians who told me: Come on, apu, I’ll give you some [money], get the land! That was in the month of October 2018.”

“Did it scare you?”

“Yes, that's why I have not accepted their proposal. I didn’t accept to destroy and plant coca. They wanted to give me money but I said no.” 

Fed up with the pressures and threats, the inhabitants of Buen Jardín made the decision to take the gathered evidence to a prosecutor (geo-referenced points, photographs and videos). The president of the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO) helped them channel their complaint, the same that got to Alberto Yusen Caraza’s hands, provincial prosecutor of the Specialized Public Prosecutor's Office in Environmental Matters (also known by its acronym in Spanish, FEMA) of Loreto. 

Caraza arrived at Buen Jardín of Callarú at the beginning of February of this year, accompanied by members of the national police. Although they did not find invaders in the area, they walked through the forest and recorded images of the deforestation with the help of a drone. In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Loreto's FEMA prosecutor said that due to the presence of coca crops they also detected "a danger zone 200 meters away."

Photo: Rainforest Foundation.

After confirming the deforestation and recognizing the presence of illicit crops, the environmental prosecutor spoke about the area’s security.

"There is a personal security problem in the area, it is a coca-growing area that is always guarded by armed people," Caraza said, adding that it is not the only complaint they have received this year.

The inhabitants of Buen Jardín don’t know what else to do and now they even have to deal with the 30 hectares of coca plantations that have been recently found in their territory.

“They are cutting down trees up to right here. I don’t know how we’re going to solve this. I will have to go speak with the apu, and with those in Bellavista, so that they aren’t coming through here any farther,” says Pablo García, who knows that each visit puts his life at risk.

“Here we can’t talk openly about what the mafia is; we can’t talk. If we go report them to the police, the police betray us. In what way? They are going to warn them. You go to make a deal with Tabatinga (in Brazil), and they disappear,” says García.

In Bellavista, far from the fear of those living in Buen Jardín, there is an air of impunity. The town’s small port is full of motorboats, well-stocked restaurants, and stores — which is not the case in any of the other Tikuna communities in the area. The testimonies gathered by Mongabay Latam suggest that every day, people come from different areas of Colombia and Peru to work as “raspachines” (people who harvest coca leaves) or to operate cocaine processing laboratories that have popped up within the community, far from the center of the town.

Photos by: Vanessa Romo.

The few indigenous people who still live in Bellavista typically prefer not to clash against the lifestyle of the rest of the inhabitants, because many of those Colombians and Peruvians have stayed to live in the community. “The population is growing; there are foreigners who come to live here, and they stay with the Tikunas,” says Leonel Ayde, the deputy mayor of the community.

The area’s illicit coca eradication took the same route as it did in the rest of the Amazonian Trapeze, since after the Corah Special Project, the reseeding of coca plants escalated and alternative crops failed. “Around here, the majority of the people are dedicated to that because there is no alternative,” says Ayde, referring to the indigenous community members. “We plant coca to survive, because if we waited for the cocoa, how long would it take?”

Mongabay Latam requested an interview with the National Police of Peru to discuss how they aim to control violence and illegal activity along the border, but there was no response before the time of this article’s publication. 

According to Tom Bewick, the director of the Rainforest Foundation’s Peru program, the forest monitors who live in the area are vulnerable because of the work they do to conserve the forests. The program has equipped 36 indigenous communities in Loreto —including Buen Jardín— with technology. 

“The important thing for us is that the government takes action to protect the indigenous environmental advocates who put themselves on the front lines to protect the forests,” says Bewick. 

Bewick explained that, because the work that they do clashes with the interests of those who carry out illegal acts in the area, the forest monitors are seen as a danger. For this reason, he emphasized that it is necessary to keep a record of the threats and gather more evidence so that the information can be handed over to the authorities. “I believe that they’re going to receive more threats because they are working to take care of, and to conserve, their territory,” he concluded.

“We kill snitches”

Every three days, Isaac Witancor and Leidi Valentín patrol their territory, guided by deforestation alerts they receive on their cell phones. They live in the Tikuna community of Nueva Galilea, and they face an enormous challenge: the conservation of about 2,787 hectares of forest.

Between 2001 and 2017, according to the Rainforest Foundation, the community lost more than 682 hectares of forest at the hands of invaders who came to clear the jungle.

Witancor recalls that six months ago, while patrolling the area, he came across a group of Colombians cutting down trees in Nueva Galilea. “They were knocking down trees and making a farm with cocoa and plantains, and above all, it’s purely illicit,” said the 23-year-old. He claims that 10 women and men loiter around the area all the time.

“They come and set up here, put together a camp, and work. We are going to warn them, so that they don’t touch the mountain again, and we’ll do that so that there are no more invasions,” he says.

Valentín, the only female monitor in the community, also regrets the loss of forest. Above all, it’s because she has seen birds, collared peccaries, white-lipped peccaries, and tapirs abandon the community. Recently, her only chance to hear the animals’ calls has been when she goes on patrol in the mountains.

Like Witancor, Valentín has also noticed illegal crops in her area.

“What is it that they are planting?”

“What they’re planting is coca.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“We are going to that spot, but they aren’t there; they are far away from the farm. Right now, there are rumors that we give information, and they threaten us. My co-workers did tell them that they are ‘sapos’ —snitches or tattletales— and something can happen to us at any time.”

Being a forest monitor in an area gripped by drug trafficking can make a person vulnerable, but 19-year-old Valentín, who is obsessed with the protection of Nueva Galilea’s forests, isn’t daunted by the risks.

Neither is Darwin Isuiza, the oldest of all of Nueva Galilea’s forest monitors. He is conscious of the dangers that they all face during patrols. 

“There is a difficulty that I am analyzing: sometimes they say that someone is a ‘snitch’ — you’re a snitch because you use GPS, because we can spread the word. That is what they’re telling me,” says Isuiza, who is considering abandoning his work as a monitor. “They can do something to me there.” 

The inhabitants of the Tikuna community of Nueva Galilea are inevitably moving into a gray area. Even though they have clear desires to conserve their forests and live in a legal economy, they have not yet found a stable market for the cocoa they produce. There is nowhere to take the cocoa and no one to buy it. A large part of it usually ends up rotting because, according to them, the government only helps them manage their crops in the first place.

Vistas de la comunidad de Bellavista de Callarú registradas con dificultad porque existe resistencia de parte de los habitantes cuando ven personas fotografiando. Foto: Vanessa Romo.

This forces them, according to the community’s authorities, to work as coca leaf harvesters at least two times per month. In an apparent paradox, they later invest part of the money they earn in their own cocoa crops.

When Mongabay Latam asked Artemio, the semi-anonymous resident of Nueva Galilea, about his cocoa crops, he said “We feel that we are in a crisis.” He is tired of the government helping the community members to simply take care of their cocoa and providing fertilizer, but not providing them with any help to survive.

That is the irony of the community’s life: to maintain their cocoa crops, they end up relying on coca.

Although Nueva Galilea makes an effort to keep invaders and illegal crops from entering their territory, in the last few years, many community members have felt as though they are losing the battle and, in effect, risking their lives.

Edinson Ney is the lieutenant governor of the community. He is Colombian, and arrived over 10 years ago after marrying a Tikuna woman from Nueva Galilea. During his time in the community, he says that he has seen everything from the eradication of crops to the rise in drug trafficking.

Today, he tells of how difficult it is to confront those who invade the forests.

“They are people with money who arrived two or three years ago and have seized power here. Today, you can go and tell them something, and they respond: ‘We kill snitches.’ I can’t bring myself to go there; I don’t feel like going,” says Ney. According to him, the situation gets more complicated every day. A few days before his interview with Mongabay Latam —he says— they killed someone in the mountains.

“Last week there was a death there, in Nueva Galilea, by Colombians. The person killed was native, from Bellavista,” says Ney. 

The violence has crept into the forests, where activists are now afraid to patrol. Many would like to remove themselves from the situation, but they are obligated to continue in order to survive.

“When someone goes, they go for an entire week. And when we want, we go with our spouse, with the kids, with everything — because you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner there. And when there is no food here, there is food there. I took my kids and put them in the boat, and even the dogs eat there,” says Ney. He says that for each 32-pound unit of coca leaves, they are paid less than $1. An 11-year-old child can earn about $8 per day, and adults can earn between about $16 and $31 per day.

Ney let a few seconds pass, looked the Mongabay Latam team in the eyes, and added: “There is nothing else that earns us money here. Think about it, seriously: if it weren’t for coca, all the houses in this area would disappear. If there weren’t coca, there wouldn’t be anything. The government here doesn’t give anything.”

The forgotten people on the border

Sara, a Tikuna woman using a false name for security reasons, clearly remembers the day when the eradication campaign came to Cushillococha. It was 7:00 a.m., and the sound of the loudspeaker echoed through the area. Its message was clear and direct: the armed forces have arrived, and they need to be faced.

“The whole community rose up; there were 300 people. Children, teens, adults, elders — everyone. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I grabbed my baby and arrived. The young people started to have a confrontation with the police. The Corah people arrived behind them. There were not many people injured, but there were lots of confrontations, fights, and arguments. We told them that it is not fair to do these things to us, and that we live from that,” says Sara, who vividly remembers the look of desperation on the people’s faces.

Sara, like the majority of Tikuna people from Cushillococha, feared the beginning of the crisis. “Why do they do this to us if we are the most forgotten community of them all?” she wondered.

She remembers that DEVIDA (a government institution in charge of national anti-drug strategies) and PEDICP (a project by the Ministry of Agriculture that works on the development of the Putumayo River basin) arrived one year later.

Both institutions, according to those interviewed, proposed the same projects to all the communities in the area: cocoa or yuca crops, the latter to produce “fariña,” a type of flour made from small grains. Most people remember the intervention in the same way:  the arrival of the promoters to the communities, the trainings, the large amounts of fertilizer left for the communities, and the absence of food.

“What happened with DEVIDA is that they brought enough material to work with: fertilizers, water pumps, and implementation,” explains the lieutenant governor of Nueva Galilea. “What they did not imagine —the communities— is that food did not arrive. Everyone was informed that there was no food to work with. Then in that moment, everyone went into crisis mode.” 

According to Pablo García, from Buen Jardín, the poverty in the districts along the border is immense. He survives by selling his plantains, yuca, and cocoa, which he has learned to process traditionally. He grinds the cocoa by hand, makes small chocolate balls, and sells them in Tabatinga. Today, he has about three hectares of cocoa in production, but he recognizes that it is not sufficient.

“From money comes more money, but if you have no money, how will you make money? We live all our lives in this situation that we are in, and we want to make progress, but we have no one to support us. We make a farm, we do everything, but… ‘the business?’ is the question everyone asks.

Mongabay Latam requested an interview with DEVIDA about the intervention and about how the organization plans to meet the needs of the indigenous communities in the districts of Ramón Castilla and Yavarí. At the time of publication of this article, there was no response.

We were, however, able to talk with General Víctor Rucoba, the director of the Corah Special Project (which depends heavily on the Ministry of the Interior of Peru). When asked about future eradications in the area, he answered that there will be no interventions in the area this year, despite the reseeding described in the UNODC’s latest report.

“We do not have the operative capacity, nor the economic capacity, to be able to enter all the places that have coca plants,” says Rucoba. Regarding the work coordinated with DEVIDA, he indicated that his project should enter with them, just after the eradication, but there are not sufficient resources. According to him, DEVIDA does not have enough resources to have “the operative capacity to follow us. It is more difficult.”

The official website of DEVIDA, however, indicates that their strategy has made progress in at least 15 indigenous communities in Bajo Amazonas. They have announced the development of fariña production chains, community development, leadership training, capacity strengthening, technical advice, and more. The report mentioned the three indigenous communities that were highlighted in this article. However, community members have barely mentioned any improvements, nor were improvements evident when Mongabay Latam visited the area.

“There are people who are dedicated to planting cocoa and making their yuca, but nothing comes of it,” mentions Sara. She has a brother who completely dedicated himself to cocoa after the eradication. He has about three hectares of cocoa, but “he has done it for fun. What he got from it rotted, because DEVIDA will not buy it. Now, he has begun to plant coca within the past year,” says Sara.

Lorenzo Vallejos, the head of environmental matters for Peru and Ecuador at UNODC, says that planning is the basis for a successful alternative development, and that investigations are the best tool to use. “One real way to pull back the coca-growing activity is to know what types of products or services can be competitive for migrating from the coca-growing economy to a legal economy, through the use of ground aptitude studies or tools like the ZEE (Ecological and Economic Zoning), and even with business plans,” says Vallejos.

Only if the government offers viable and sustainable solutions, he adds, will the communities think of leaving behind coca. “They know that under a legal structure, they will not be worried that the authorities will eradicate their crops, making them lose money.”

In Buen Jardín de Callarú, Nueva Galilea, and other Tikuna indigenous communities, the neglect is seen in the details: nonexistent medical clinics and or clinics without enough medicine, schools with three teachers in one room who teach five different grades, basic needs that go unmet, the dependence on an illicit business to survive poverty, a lack of confidence in the authorities, drug trafficking, and many lives hanging by a thread. With everything seemingly against them, without seeing a close opportunity, and with threats coming from all directions, the group of forest monitors insists on conserving the forest that constantly faces the sound of chainsaws in an attempt to replace it with fields of coca.

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