Environmental defenders:

Peruvian indigenous leader killed

Santiago Contoricón Antúnez fought for indigenous rights and greater security in the area of the Amazon where he lived. Now his voice has been silenced.

KILLED: Indigenous leader and activist Santiago Contoricón Antúnez was shot dead at Easter. He is the latest figure in a gruesome statistic: Between 2020 and 2022, 21 environmental activists were killed in Peru. Photo: Private

By Borghild Tønnessen-Krokan and Kristin Rødland Buick.

The murder of the indigenous leader and activist Santiago Contoricón Antúnez happened on the night of Saturday 8 April. Criminals are said to have entered the home of the Asháninka leader and shot him five times before fleeing the scene on a motorcycle, according to the newspaper RPP Noticias.

He was killed in Satipo, in the Junín region near Ucayali in Peru's rainforest, in an area of extensive coca production and illegal logging.

Antúnez worked for better rights and greater security for indigenous people. He was part of the local self-defense committee and has been mayor three times.

Antúnez was also recognized for leading his people's resistance against the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas in the 1990s. Shining Path is said to have killed more than 400 Ashaninka, according to Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes DW.

A LEADER: Santiago Contoricón Antúnez was part of the local self-defense against invaders to his territory, he led his people's resistance against the Shining Path guerrilla group in the 90s and was elected mayor three times. Photo: Private

- We offer our condolences to the Asháninka people and especially to the family of Santiago Contoricón Antúnez who was cruelly murdered by hooded assassins, said Berlin Diques, president of ORAU, the Rainforest Foundation's partner organization after the murder.

ORAU is an indigenous organization working in the Ucayali region of the Amazon, an area with a high level of conflict over land and drug production.

- None of our environmentalists are safe now, due to the serious threats from gangsters who are behind illegal activities in our territories, Diques continued.

Diques has for many years worked closely with the late Antúnez. Diques himself has received threats. Several important spokespeople in Peru with whom the Rainforest Foundation collaborates to preserve the rainforest are being attempted silenced.

An example is the female environmental activist Lucila Pautrat from the organization Kenè. After uncovering forest crime and criticizing the companies involved, Pautrat experienced legal harassment and was accused of gross defamation.

CLOSE FRIENDS: Berlin Diques (right) president of the organization ORAU was close friends with Santiago Contoricón Antúnez (left).

According to a report from 2022, developed by the organizations ORAU and DAR, the drug trade negatively affects around 30 percent of the indigenous communities in the Ucayali region. Even more are affected as a result of illegal roads, land grabbing, and illegal logging. It is assumed that there is considerable under-reporting and that the figure is therefore higher.

- Our impression is that it has become more dangerous to defend the land and human rights in Peru in recent years, where criminal actors have tightened their grip under the cover of the pandemic and the deep political crisis in the country, says Torris Jaeger, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Since 2014, 25 environmental activists in Peru have been killed, Kené writes on Twitter in connection with the murder.

- Abusers must be prosecuted

Peru's government has condemned Antúnez's murder. A special team from the homicide department in the police and the Directorate-General for Human Rights has been sent to the indigenous community to investigate the case, according to Infobae.

- It is important that the Peruvian authorities quickly get to the bottom of this case and prosecute the abusers. Peru must put an end to impunity and give a clear signal that such atrocities have consequences, says Jaeger in the Rainforest Foundation.

In February this year, Peru's Supreme Court convicted several loggers for the murder of four land rights defenders from the Asháninka people in 2016. It was seen as a historic victory after years of fighting for justice.

But the battle is not over. In the period 2020 to April 2022, 21 environmentalists have been killed in Peru, according to the Rainforest Foundation's partner IDL (2022).

At the end of March 2023, Rainforest Foundation relayed this to the authorities in Peru, Norway, UK, and Germany as well as USAID in a joint letter with the partner organizations IDL, Kené, ORAU, CORPI, and DAR.

- We ask the Peruvian authorities to strengthen the protection of human rights and environmental defenders. Environmentalists must be given access to information, participation, and protection. We also demand that indigenous peoples are given formal land rights to their traditional areas and that separate protected areas are created for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation, says Toerris Jaeger, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

The Rainforest Foundation Norway asks the Peruvian government and Congress to:

  • Promote mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders and the environment.
  • Ratify the Escazú Agreement with a strong and coherent implementation to ensure environmentalists access to information, participation, justice, and protection in environmental matters.
  • Promote land rights to indigenous peoples as a prerequisite for the implementation of carbon markets in indigenous territories and the establishment of reserves for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation as part of this process.
  • Promote sustainable road connectivity in the Amazon, from the early stages of the investment cycle, reducing pressure on forests and the increase in illegal activities in the Amazon. This should happen through the incorporation of environmental, climatic, and social criteria in national and regional policy, plans and strategies on infrastructure, climate change and forests.
  • Identify appropriate mechanisms and incorporate these into national legislation that ensure the recognition of indigenous peoples, legal recognition of their territories and the implementation of autonomous governance in these areas.