OUR FIGHT – Chris Moye, Global Witness campaigner reflects on recent press conference in Lima.
In September 2014, in Peru’s remote Amazon region of Ucayali, four Ashéninka leaders of the Alto Tamaya Saweto community – Edwin Chota Valera, Leoncio Quincima Meléndez, Jorge Ríos Pérez and Francisco Pinedo – went missing while travelling to neighbouring Brazil for a meeting on how to address the region’s illegal logging crisis. Edwin Chota and his other Ashéninka colleagues had fought for over a decade to protect their territories from illegal logging, having been continuously ignored by the State authorities.
As far back as 2002 the community began a land titling process, in an effort to protect their territory from two logging concessions that were suddenly approved and which overlapped their land, and to protect it from illegal logging. To this day the community still has not received its title, signalling the stifling inefficiency and indifference of the State. Parallel to this effort, Edwin and co, between 2005 and 2013, placed numerous complaints with the police of illegal logging on their lands, but most were shelved and ignored. The last complaint Edwin placed in 2013, eerily pictured the same illegal loggers that would eventually kill him and his colleagues.
The widows of the four leaders, and their children, spent days traveling from their community to the nearest town, Pucallpa, to report the crime. To this day the widows have not returned to their community, after having been threatened, in fear for their lives. As the media furore erupted after the killings, two suspects were arrested and the community was promised its land title, but as the media interest died down, the investigation into the killings and land title promise remained unfulfilled.
To tackle this a press conference was organised in Lima, where a new film would be shown on the community’s struggle to gain their land title and on their fight against illegal logging, so as to maintain the media pressure on the Government to hand over the community’s land title and stop their forests from being gutted. The press conference was strategically timed to happen in November, weeks before Lima was to host the 20th Climate Change Conference of the Parties, so as to maximise exposure.
The press conference took place on the 17th of November in the beautifully adorned halls of the Museum of Anthropology and History in Lima. It was tightly packed with journalists from across the world, eager to attend the widows’ first public appearance since the murders of their husbands. They were sat on a panel at the front of the room, babies in hand, breastfeeding, cameras flashing all over – Lima an unfamiliar city to them. Julia Urrunaga from EIA introduced the widows, followed by a presentation from Global Witness on the murder of environmental and land defenders in Peru. The power point highlighted the contradiction between the Peruvian Government’s stated aim to conserve 54 million hectares of forest, while handing over almost half of that to oil and logging concessions, as well as failing to process 20 million hectares of pending land title applications to indigenous communities like Alto Tamaya – Saweto, who have been shown to be the best conservationists of forest across Latin America. The presentation also highlighted that Peru is the second most dangerous country to be an environmental and land defender in Latin America, and the fourth in the world.
After this sober reminder, came the documentary, as part of the If Not Us Then Who project. The struggle of the Alto Tamaya – Saweto community, was poignantly depicted, showing how the murder of some of their most active leaders affected the community, who were nonetheless steadfast in their determination to continue the fight of those they had lost. The last scene, of the most softly spoken widow Ergillia (Jorge Rios’ wife) talking direct to camera about going to Lima to see about the community’s land title, perfectly captured their at times quiet, but strong resilience.
Then came the moment the journalists had been waiting for – the moment the widows spoke. When Julia first provided the microphone to the widows to speak, there was silence. Initially they seemed overwhelmed by the camera flashes and the recorders. But soon, confidence gained and Ergillia in particular began enumerating all of the struggles the community had gone through. She said how Edwin would go days without eating, as he documented the illegal logging around. She mentioned how scared she still felt, that she would be killed, but of how she would rather die than give into fear, and that her life was in God’s hands. She ended calling for their land title – a simple and effective message that shot to the heart of Peru’s stated forest conservation efforts: if you want to conserve forests, give it to the people who know how.
The floor then opened to the journalists, who fed questions to the widows. A particularly poignant response to one question about how they felt being in Lima came from Ergilia again, who asked, while traveling through Lima and seeing the opulent palaces and Hotels around the capital, where the money had come from to build all of it, and why the indigenous communities never saw any of it, despite conserving the ecosystems that provide cities with their water and that regulate their climate.
As the event came to a close, the widows moved on with their babies back to the Hotel, even while the media story they had just promoted, spread around the world. As in response to the renewed media interest, the very next day the Public Prosecutor tasked with investigating the murders, announced that a third suspect had given himself up to the authorities, and a few days after that the authorities announced they were going after the intellectual authors of the crimes: the concession owners that are alleged to have had hired the illegal loggers. One had apparently fled, and no one knew his whereabouts. The purpose of the conference, to highlight their case, seemed to have an effect, even though their central claim remains pending: their coveted land title.