Eye on the Amazon

The Right to Live in Peace in the Peruvian Amazon

Zulema, Indigenous leader of the Kakataibo people, seeks justice after the murder of her husband, Apu Arbildo Melendez

Photo credit: Handrez García Gonzales

"The only thing I ask is for justice for my husband"

Zulema Guevara, Indigenous leader of the Kakataibo people

Over the last seven years the Indigenous community of Unipacuyacu – inhabited by members of the Kakataibo people within the central region of the Peruvian Amazon – has lost five of their people at the hands of land-grabbers, who are linked to drug networks. This is the price they have paid for not ending their pursuit to secure legal titles for their ancestral territories.

Arbildo Meléndez was murdered in early April of last year and is the most recent Apu, or leader, to be assassinated. Today his wife, Zulema Guevara, is receiving death threats from the same group of people who killed Arbildo. Given this dangerous situation, she had to flee from their community to the jungle city of Pucallpa along with their young children –who she now has to raise and educate on her own.

Amazon Watch spoke with Zulema on Monday, February 15 to hear directly from her, on what has happened since she initiated her search for justice, what it means to be recognized by the Peruvian government as a human rights defender, and what she confronts on a daily basis.

In Pucallpa, she receives support from Indigenous organizations as a member of the Indigenous people of Unipacuyacu. Zulema has had to take matters into her own hands to keep her family from danger and to make sure that the people who took her husband's life are held accountable.

Amazon Watch's Peru team has been accompanying the case since May of last year, supporting our partner ORAU, the Ucayali regional organization of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP). ORAU has led the strategy of maintaining consistent pressure on the Peruvian government. They amplify Zulema's calls for justice for her husband and another 14 Indigenous leaders who are under serious threat from narcotraffickers and illegal loggers trying to expand their illegal operations into Indigenous territories. The President of ORAU himself – Apu Berlín Diques – is one of those 14 who has been threatened.

In early December of last year, ORAU arranged meetings with Ministers, Congresspeople, police, and other high-level officials. This was a part of ORAU's long-term strategy to force the Peruvian government to comply with their responsibility to guarantee the right of these leaders to live in peace and to secure the territories that belong to them. In all these discussions, the message from Zulema and the other leaders was the same: Investigate and hold the perpetrators accountable, provide police protection, and, most importantly, issue urgent legal land titles for their territories. Requiring this formal recognition of their land would require government authorities to respond and implement measures to keep their lands free from drug trafficking and illegal logging, as well as prevent Indigenous peoples from being forcibly displaced from their territories.

As a result of these meetings, the Peruvian government registered Zulema and other threatened leaders as "human rights defenders whose lives are at risk." Zulema provided powerful testimony and evidence that she had received direct verbal threats when she traveled to the city of Puerto Inca to follow-up on Arbildo's case. Zulema also shared that she received threatening phone calls and was targeted prior to Arbildo's murder, when a boat purposely crashed into her on the river near their community injuring her and her 8-year-old son.

Given that a return to her community poses a threat to her life, Zulema requires financial support to be able to sustain her family. She is also trying to balance her children's education and avoiding having them lose an entire school year, given that they don't have access to computers or a stable internet connection in the city. Amazon Watch has provided solidarity funding for Zulema and her family via our Amazon Defenders Fund. ORAU and other allies have also called on the government to provide some type of governmental support. For example, Peru's Women's Ministry has a program designed specifically for women who are human rights defenders at risk.

Regarding her current situation, Zulema told us, "I'm living in a rental house that I was paying for thanks to work I found as a kitchen assistant in a restaurant. Unfortunately, here in the city Dengue fever rapidly spreads. I got sick, along with one of my children. I couldn't go to work for five days and I was fired."

Peru's health system – one of the most precarious in the world – has completely collapsed due to the second wave of COVID-19. At the same time, Pucallpa city, where Zulema and her family have relocated to, has seen an increase in cases of Dengue fever, a widespread mosquito-borne viral disease across the region. Attending a medical appointment and purchasing medicine for Dengue can mean standing in lines for over five hours. Zulema now has to choose between competing priorities: attending to her own health, taking care of her children, or going to work. All in addition to working to secure justice for her late husband, Arbildo.

Responding to this urgent situation, the Amazon Defender's Fund has sent a new grant to purchase land on which Zulema can build a house and her own restaurant. Ideally, she won't need to leave her three young children in the care of her eldest daughter (12 years old) in order to go to work.

We asked Zulema what has happened since the Lima meetings in early December, in which she was able to explain her situation to high-level officials:

"Nothing has been effective so far. I was proclaimed a human rights defender, but never provided police protection. Once a police officer came to my house and asked me some questions. I didn't receive any follow-up. After a significant effort, we secured a meeting with the Women's Ministry so they could provide me with some support, as a mother and a defender. Since then, they came to visit and offer help. They asked for photos and I signed some documents but no real help has arrived to date. If it weren't for the work of ORAU and allies like Amazon Watch, all of this would be impossible."

"I have formally requested that the Public Ministry and the Ministry of Justice remove the Prosecutor and Judge on Arbildo's case. In addition to not having issued an arrest warrant for the person who murdered my husband, they are trying to accept his defense, which was that he mistook Arbildo for an animal when he fired his rifle. That version, however, contradicts the forensic report, which indicates that the shot was fired from less than 100 meters away. We want the case to be transferred to another jurisdiction. This all happened in Puerto Inca where public officials are bought off by drug traffickers."

In mid-February, ORAU sent a new letter to the Ministry of Justice, responsible for the implementation of protection for human rights defenders like Zulema. The Ministry has committed to participate in a new meeting in order to address the demands of all of the threatened leaders.

"It's very difficult," says Zulema, "to be in so many meetings and have nothing happen. But I want justice for my husband and I have to keep going."

Under pressure to adhere to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) human rights standards – and of course under the constant campaigning of ORAU – the Peruvian government has started to develop a policy for the protection of human rights defenders. Additionally, the Peruvian Congress is discussing a new proposed law to support the Ministry of Justice, in compliance with their responsibility in this area.

Amazon Watch accompanies Indigenous Earth defenders in Peru and stands in solidarity with our Indigenous partners and organizations, in advocating that this law address the threat against Indigenous peoples and women under threat. It is important to assure that the Ministry of Justice has the power to require that the police protect leaders within their communities and not just when they are forcibly displaced and move into the city. Additionally, it will be important that the Women's Ministry support Earth defenders such as Zulema with financial support, so Zulema can continue demanding justice in the case of Arbildo, and the other Earth Defenders.

ORAU is clear that they won't achieve progress solely with high-level meetings. They are preparing several citizen mobilizations over the course of 2021 to demand urgent attention. They have never been defeated by those who are trying to displace them from their territories and this year won't be different. International solidarity can help maintain the pressure and lift up their struggles. Together, we can unite behind Earth defenders in Peru as they secure the right to their territories, and the right to live in peace.

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