On September 1, 2014, Edwin Chota, an indigenous leader of the Ashaninka people was assassinated for opposing illegal logging and fighting for collective title for his peoples’ land. Prior to his death, actors who were illegally logging the Peruvian jungle had threatened Chota on various occasions. Chota was assasinated together with three other indigenous people on the border between Peru and Brazil, one of the most problematic areas of Latin America. Here, corruption of local authorities mixes with the expansion of illegal logging, seeking mahogany, copaiba, ishpingo, ironwood, and Amazon maple trees, which are later sold in European and North American markets.
Chota’s death is not an isolated incident within Peru, but rather is yet one of many instances of violence in the history of violence perpetuated against local leaders who fight for the protection of their lands, forests and jungles. Violence in Peru been can be categorized into two types: one exercised by the State and another exercised by illegal actors.
State-sponsored violence has two sides. The first is violent, criminal repression of social movements that oppose large scale exploitation of natural resources. An example of this is the criminal case that the Peruvian attorney general opened against protesters who participated in the Baguazo. In June 2009, thousands of indigenous people occupied the road that connects Chiclayo with Bagua, in the Peruvian Amazons, to protest a series of legislative decrees passed by the administration of Alan García, which permitted the exploitation of oil within the Amazons. The State’s response to this mobilization was violent, and resulted in a confrontation between police officers and the protesters, which ended in the death of 23 police officers, 5 indigenous people, and 5 Bagua villagers. Nonetheless, the criminal process that was opened against 53 protesters has not protected their right to due process, preventing victims and the accused from obtaining justice.
The other side of state violence is lessening the protection of fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. For example, state regulation regarding the right to prior consultation violates international standards regarding this right and leaves indigenous people without adequate protection. With this measure, Peru weakened the right of indigenous people to participate in decisions that affect their lands. This has led to protracted discussions regarding the exploitation of natural resources and the right to prior consultation, for example in the case of Lot 192. This lot is one of the largest oil extraction projects in Peru (representing 20 percent of national production), and four indigenous federations have opposed it due to the effects it has on their lands and livelihoods.
The second type of violence is that exercised by legal and illegal actors that exploit, for example, wood or gold in Peruvian forests and jungles. According to Global Witness, Peru has the fourth highest assassination rate in the world for social leaders who protect forests. Between 2002 and 2013, 58 leaders were assassinated, with 2009, 2011, and 2012 being the most violent years. This type of violence is carried out by people who illegally exploit wood in the forests, as is the case with Chota, and miners seeking gold.
The type of violence found in Peru is the result of socio-environmental conflicts. Of the 32 socio-environmental conflicts registered in 2014, 26 were due to mining projects that expand through the Peruvian Andes and Amazons. 72 percent of these socio-environmental conflicts (23 cases) directly affect indigenous communities because the projects have been developed within territories that the State has formally or informally recognized as indigenous lands.
Such violations form the backdrop for the celebration of COP 20 this December in Lima, in which one of the central issues will be forest conservation. While Peru criminally represses local leaders that oppose exploitation in the area, makes difficult indigenous peoples’ participation in prior consultation processes for extractive projects and leaves local leaders unprotected while failing to investigate their murders, it presents itself internationally as one of the countries at the forefront of environmental protection. Nonetheless, to fulfill the COP objectives, Peru should start by protecting its local leaders and communities that have historically protected forests and jungle, thus contributing to conservation.
*Carlos Andrés Baquero is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia)