Eye on the Amazon

Forced to Resist in the Peruvian Amazon

How the War on Drugs placed a target on Indigenous Earth defenders

Arbildo Meléndez Grandes. Photo credit: AIDESEP

A year has passed since the assassination of Indigenous Earth defender Arbildo Meléndez, a leader of the Cacataibo people in the Peruvian Amazon. On Sunday, April 12, 2020, Arbildo went into the rainforest to hunt and never returned with food for his family. The next day his wife, Zulema Guevara, went searching for him and found his body. In between tears, she begged two young men nearby to help her carry him out of the rainforest. Zulema has been demanding justice for her husband Arbildo ever since.

Zulema shared that, despite the fact that the prosecution has already identified the alleged perpetrator, he was never sentenced. "To ensure that the murderer did not flee, I requested that they detain him while the process continues, but they have not done so." Zulema's fear is that the case will be shelved like many others and will end up unsolved. "The judges have had conclusive evidence in their hands, but justice has not been delivered," says Zulema.

She remembers that Arbildo always told her that, "even if my blood is spilled, my community's land is going to be titled." But despite the progress he had already made, the entire process was interrupted due to his death and the state of emergency caused by the pandemic. The titling process remains stalled to this day.

Before Arbildo was murdered, he presented his case to the United Nations. The Peruvian government was also made aware of Arbildo's struggle to title 22,000 hectares of the ancestral territory of the Cacataibo people. This process turned him and his young family into targets, and they began to be threatened and harassed by drug traffickers who wanted to use this same territory to plant coca and build clandestine airstrips.

Today, we know that there are 46 new clandestine airplane runways in the area from satellite images used by the Peruvian government to monitor deforestation in the Amazon, with support from international funding. Three of these runways are in the territory belonging to Arbildo's community, Unipacuyacu.

Only four months into 2021, two more Indigenous Earth defenders have already been murdered: Yensser Ríos and Herasmo García. These latest cases prompted Indigenous organizations and the Earth defenders at risk to launch an emergency campaign to draw the attention of Peru's president and prime minister. This decision was not easy to make, since denouncing drug trafficking increases their exposure and the risks that they face.

But the campaign is succeeding. The cases reached the media in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and all of Latin America, in addition to the most influential press outlets in Peru. Alongside this campaign to increase international attention, Amazon Watch supported a security plan to keep leaders safely hidden because as press coverage increased and exposed the international scandal, so did the threats against these Earth defenders.

Responding to pressure, the Ministry of the Interior recently gave an order for a covert operation to burn illegal coca crops throughout the area with the support of the army. The operation will continue to coordinate directly with Indigenous leaders to carry on with eradication.

This was the first major blow to the area's drug traffickers in years. Indigenous leaders were warned that there could be retaliation, and Amazon Watch stepped in to support our partners Regional Organization of AIDESEP in Ucayali (ORAU) and Native Federation of Cacataibo Communities (FENACOCA) to meet with the national police to provide a protection plan for the leaders who had come forward to share their stories with the press.

The Peruvian government also created a new working group to follow up on all the commitments that it has not fulfilled including roundtables with Indigenous organizations on Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) processes, among other priorities. This government response is a signal that it may finally be recognizing the urgent need to listen to Indigenous communities.

The government is also making progress with the creation of a policy on human rights defenders. Indigenous organizations are pushing for a specific focus and defined plans to protect Indigenous peoples who are located in remote regions.

These initial steps by the government, of course, are a partial victory. But we must look carefully at new developments. Today, communities are consistently harassed by armed men who arrive in vans with dark windows to ask where the leaders who led the campaign are hiding.

These new working groups and commissions still exist only on paper. We have not yet seen a comprehensive security plan for all the communities in the area, and there seems to be no progress or update on when the land titling processes will be completed. However, Indigenous organizations do expect that the judicial processes against land traffickers will advance.

Resistance must continue. In the new phase of this campaign, you may not see as many headlines anymore, but it is essential to remember that at this time there are Indigenous leaders who are now spending their lives in and out of hiding until they and their families are no longer at risk. We must remain vigilant and we must keep up the pressure. Amazon Watch will continue to assume the responsibility and honor of accompanying Peruvian Earth defenders in whatever they need, but your voice and attention can make the difference between perpetual impunity or justice and accountability.

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