In Wake of Leaders’ Murders, Fighting for Land Title—and Justice—for Indigenous Ashéninka in Peru
In September of 2014, just before thousands of politicians and climate activists flooded the streets of New York for the United Nations Climate Summit, four indigenous leaders were shot to death by illegal loggers in the Ucayali region of Peru’s Amazon Rainforest.
Among the slain heroes was prominent anti-logging activist Edwin Chota, who had lobbied Peru’s government for more than a decade to gain legal title for his community’s land, which he saw as a critical step toward saving the carbon-sequestering forests of the Amazon from the mobs of illegal loggers who raid indigenous land for timber.
Indigenous partners in Peru contacted Burness via Facebook to help spread the word about this tragedy, the latest in a string of attacks on environmental defenders in tropical forest regions.
As Peru was scheduled to host international climate talks (COP20) in December, the activists’ murders cast the Peruvian government as ineffectual forest governors at best, and conscious participants in an illegal and violent timber laundering scheme at worst.
After verifying the story, Burness urgently drafted a press release and sent it out globally. Our staff in Lima also met with the widows of the indigenous leaders to determine a media plan that would help meet their objectives of obtaining justice for their husbands and land title for their forests.
To build an evidence base for our work, we helped identify several new studies with scientific data that supported the messages of the widows, and of Indigenous Peoples globally.
Working with more than 10 partner organizations, including Rainforest Foundation New York, Global Witness and Handcrafted Films, we held numerous press briefings, coordinated several interviews, launched new studies, helped filmmakers document the activists’ struggle and conducted media outreach around a prestigious environmental award presented to the community in November.
Results and Impact
The initial story of the murders was covered by Associated Press, BBC, El Comercio (Peru), El Pais (Spain), the Guardian (UK), the New York Times and Al Jazeera, among others. It was picked up widely and inspired global outrage, as thousands of Indigenous Peoples worldwide saw the Peruvians’ deaths as emblematic of their own experiences in the battle to protect their forests.
In the months leading up to COP20 in Lima, a steady drumbeat of coverage continued to highlight the failure of governments to respect indigenous land rights, leading to deforestation and human rights violations. The recent murders in Peru became a story with global implications.
The story was covered in hundreds of outlets—in more than 10 languages and 20 countries—which put tremendous pressure on the Peruvian government to address the demands of the widows.
Just a month after the COP20 in Lima came to an end, the community of Saweto received title to the land that had cost them so dearly. Two suspects in the murders had been arrested, and the government found helicopters to carry the widows back to their community for a visit and to elect new leaders. Under pressure from the federal government, the regional government of Ucayali canceled logging concessions around Saweto, which had to happen before title to the land could be formally transferred to the community.
The widows now fear reprisals from illegal loggers who oppose titles for the Ashéninkas, who continue to ask for help communicating their plight to the world.