Indians near Brazil frontier seek protection as officials investigate allegations
Ashéninka indigenous leaders are calling on authorities to guarantee their safety after receiving alleged death threats from irate loggers whose wood was impounded this week at a sawmill in the timber hub of Pucallpa on the Ucayali River.
National Police agents and investigators from the environmental crimes prosecutors office seized more than 750 logs (930 cubic meters) at the Forza Nova sawmill on the Manantay River this week after members of the Alto Tamaya-Saweto indigenous community claimed the wood had been illegally extracted from their land. As I reported in “Mahogany’s Last Stand,” in National Geographic, April 2013, the natives of Saweto have been locked in a struggle to gain title to their land and expel illegal loggers who have been pillaging their forests in a remote headwaters region along Peru’s border with Brazil.
Official documents from the prosecutor’s office in Pucallpa recorded statements from Saweto community chief Edwin Chota Valera and treasurer Jorge Ríos Pérez indicating they had received death threats from the man who claimed ownership of the wood, which officials valued at $100,000.
“Someone from Saweto will die, and I will denounce you as a drug trafficker,” logging boss Hugo Sorio Flores allegedly told Chota, who claims to have GPS coordinates to identify the exact locations where the timber was extracted. A third community official, Leandro Comacho Ramírez, says he was threatened last Friday, April 5th, by Eurico Mapes Gómez, one of the loggers the Ashéninka accuse of cutting the timber and selling it to Sorio Flores.
Chota said the people of Saweto hope the regional Ucayali government will soon title their homelands and shut down logging operations in the Alto Tamaya region. In the meantime, the community is living through moments of high anxiety.
“The timber and loggers are now under investigation,” Chota wrote in a statement from Pucallpa. “But who will protect the people of Saweto and their leaders from the armed and dangerous loggers?”
Lumberjacks have long since hauled off the most valuable timber from the Alto Tamaya watershed. The haul impounded by officials this week includes several lesser-known species that are nonetheless of incalculable value to the ecology of the Amazon rain forest, including ishpingo, copaíba, tornillo and estoroque.
According to University of Richmond professor David Salisbury, who serves as an advisor to the Ashéninka of Saweto, officials from the prosecutors office and the environmental protection service are at odds over what to do with the timber. Fearful the logs could vanish if left in the hands of local environmental protection agents, prosecutors are urging the Ashéninka to dispose of the timber. Salisbury says such a plan is fraught with risks for the natives, underscoring the need to move forward with final titling of the land and a definitive expulsion of the loggers.
Scott Wallace writes about the environment and indigenous affairs for National Geographic and other publications. He is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes. For more information, please visit www.scottwallace.com.