Arbildo Meléndez Grandes, leader of the Cacataibo Indigenous community of Unipacuyacu, is the latest Indigenous leader of the Peruvian Amazon to be murdered for defending his Indigenous territory. He was a defender of his community – demanding that the government provide a land title – and had received death threats from land-grabbers and narco-traffickers who wanted to control the same territory.
The circumstances of Arbildo’s killing are murky. On Sunday, April 12th he went hunting with a hired assistant, Abel Ibarra Córdova. The assistant returned later to his house, saying Arbildo had died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Arbildo’s wife, Zulema Guevara, immediately suspected Ibarra’s version of events as Arbildo was a seasoned hunter. Several days later, Ibarra confessed it was he who had shot Arbildo, but only because he mistook the leader for an animal. There isn’t much more information about Ibarra or motives.
According to an article published in Mongabay LatAm, Zulema believes that land invaders are behind the killing: “Ever since he assumed his leadership role, he has received threats.” This view is also shared by Berlín Diques, president of the Regional Organization of AIDESEP in Ucayali (ORAU), who stated that “We demand that the Public Ministry continue their investigation. They have the person who is materially responsible, but they need to discover who the intellectual authors are.”
This tragic event must be seen in the broader context of deadly land conflicts that are not slowing down in the age of Coronavirus. As Greenpeace recently detailed, “Land-grabbers, loggers, and miners don’t self-isolate.“
Arbildo’s killing is just the latest of at least nine Indigenous leaders who have been murdered in the Peruvian Amazon since 2013 (out of 17 total killings of environmental defenders across Peru). As detailed by the Peruvian investigative journalist cooperative Ojo Público, the responsible parties are often land invaders, miners, illegal loggers, and other mafias.
An emblematic case is the Asháninka community of Saweto, which survived the horrific loss of four leaders in September of 2014. The massacre shocked the world’s conscience in the immediate lead-up to the annual UN climate summit to be hosted that year in Lima. One of the leaders, Edwin Chota, had meticulously documented the threats against himself and the community posed by loggers (both illegal and official companies), and he had appeared in various international media reports like this National Geographic article about logging in this part of the Amazon.
In direct response to the massacre, new leaders emerged. The widows and daughters of those killed took leadership, including Diana Rios, daughter of Jorge Rios. Since then Diana has emerged as an effective spokesperson for the community within international spaces, traveling to the United Nations and the U.S. Congress to speak out and press for justice. She has, in turn, been the target of further threats and runs great risks through her advocacy.
Red alert for ongoing threats
If what’s past is prologue, we can anticipate further acts of violence against other community leaders. In fact, ORAU is sounding the alarm, denouncing threats against a host of others who could well be the next targets:
- In addition to Arbildo, other Cacataibo Indigenous leaders with the federation FENACOKA have received threats as they advocate for land titles for a number of communities.
- Shipibo leaders with the federation FECONAU have been threatened for years related to their support for base community Santa Clara de Uchunya, which has been fighting the expansion of palm oil plantations into their territory.
- Shipibo leaders with the federation CODECONADIT have been told, “Don’t oppose this, we can shut you up” when denouncing threats caused by illegal logging and the construction of the Yurua-Puerto Italia-Bolognesi-Atalaya road.
- Asháninka leaders with the federation ACONAMAC have been directly threatened by colonists and land traffickers, who said, “Don’t mess with us, it could cost you dearly” when the community denounced the existence of a clandestine landing strip within their territory.
- Shipibo leaders with the federation FECONADIT have been told, “If anyone tells the police or the authorities interfere, someone from the community will have to disappear.”
What Amazon Watch is doing to help
In close collaboration with local Indigenous authorities and ally organizations, we are accompanying efforts to secure justice for past murders and supporting strategies to prevent future violence.
- For the Saweto case, we partnered with Rainforest Foundation US and Eaton Workshops to bring Saweto leader Diana Rios to Washington, DC in December 2019 to raise the profile of her community’s case and garner political support from U.S. congresspeople;
- We are coordinating with other international human rights and environmental groups to generate international political pressure for the Peruvian authorities to bring those responsible in the Saweto and Arbildo cases to justice;
- We have provided emergency support through the Amazon Defenders Fund to Arbildo’s widow, Zulema, and their four children in the aftermath of the killing; and
- We are collaborating with ORAU and other groups to devise a preventative strategy to make sure that the threats listed above to Cacataibo, Shipibo, and Asháninka leaders don’t aren’t made into reality.
The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another threat in addition to to the ongoing violence and danger Indigenous peoples face for defending their territories in the Amazon. Indigenous peoples are still on the front lines of the climate crisis, facing mounting threats including deforestation, industrial extraction, and palm oil plantation expansion. Governments must do more to answer the demands of Indigenous peoples and hold land-grabbers and corporations accountable. Too many lives have already been lost, and they cannot be allowed to operate with impunity.