August 19, 2015 was a historic day for the Ashéninka people of Peru. After fighting for over a decade, the community of Alto Tamaya-Saweto has acquired the title to its ancestral lands. Diana Rios and Ergilia Rengifo—relatives of the leaders of Saweto killed for advocating for their land rights, and current leaders of the community represented Saweto at this event. For over ten years, Edwin Chota and the community of Saweto have been leading the community’s fight against illegal logging and other threats to the Amazon rainforest. The community of Alto Tamaya – Saweto has been in the international spotlight since September of 2014, when illegal loggers killed Edwin Chota and three other Ashéninka leaders.
Almost one year after the murder of Saweto’s leaders, the community’s rights to their ancestral lands have finally been recognized by the Peruvian State, which has granted Saweto the title to almost 200,000 acres of their ancestral land, delivered to the community at 11:30 am on August 19th, 2015.
While elated at the news of the title, Diana Rios, the community’s treasurer and spokesperson, insists that this success must only be seen as the beginning: “They thought they could treat us badly forever. But no! We are human beings! We don’t want more bloodshed… We ask the State to support us and to support other communities too. It’s not just Saweto—there are other communities that don’t have title.”
Saweto’s long fight to obtain its title illustrates just how difficult it is for Indigenous communities in Peru to have their rights to their land recognized by the State. The community initiated the process more than 10 years ago; at that time they realized that, because no one from the Peruvian State had ever bothered to go to their village to register their births or to give them IDs–they, effectively, did not exist according to the State. This meant that they could not ask to have the rights to their ancestral lands recognized. The community began by registering all its members; then, year after year they made the four-day trip by boat to the regional capitol, Pucallpa, to fill out yet more paperwork, pressuring the State to recognize their claims. As they got closer to their goal they faced increased intimidation by illegal loggers and others who wanted the right to extract whatever they could from the rainforest the Ashéninka had lived in and cared for for hundreds of years. This violence came to a head last September when four of Saweto’s leaders: Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quincima Meléndez and Francisco Pinedo were murdered while on their way to consult with a fellow Ashéninka community on the other side of the Peru-Brazil border. The international attention that these murders garnered, along with the help of Margoth Quispe, a lawyer dedicated to helping the community obtain their title, seemed for a time to be pushing the government to act. However, after being assured they would get the title to their lands quickly, months passed and more and more excuses were made as new requirements were insisted upon by the State. While increasingly disillusioned, the community Saweto never gave up but continued relentlessly in the pursuit of their title until it was finally granted.
As Tom Bewick, our program manager who has been working with the community ever since their leaders were murdered last September, explains “the titling of Alto Tamaya Saweto is a victory for the community, which has fought and sacrificed so much to attain it. It is a great success that 200,000 acres have been titled, thereby recognizing all of Saweto’s ancestral land. We hope this action will push the State to recognize the land rights of all indigenous communities in Peru. According to AIDESEP there are more than 1,600 communities whose titles have yet to be recognized”.
The Peruvian State’s lack of action against deforestation and illegal logging in the Amazon, as well as the impunity that persists for environmental crimes and crimes against indigenous peoples, coupled with the State’s demonstrated lack of interest in legalizing indigenous territories are some of the many obstacles faced by indigenous communities seeking the recognition and titling of their ancestral lands. The murder of Edwin Chota and the other Asheninka leaders is a perfect example of this, as there has been virtually no progress in bringing the murderers to justice and the community of Saweto still continues to receive death threats and live in fear of violence by illegal loggers.
Despite the obstacles ahead the community is energized and ready to continue shaping its future and protect its forest. Ergilia Rengifo, Saweto’s leader notes, “Now, we can finally focus on plans we have had for years. We need to train the youth in our community… and continue to make our vision for our community a reality.”