FUENTE: AGENDA PROPRIA
A DEADLY INHERITANCE: THE PIO’S FIGHT FOR THE FOREST
19 November, 2020.
By Ralph Zapata
Seven years ago, Gonzalo Pio Flores mourned the death of his father, an environmental activist who was dedicated to protecting the lands of the Asháninka community of Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii in central Peru. Later and up until May 2020, this young indigenous man continued with his father’s mission until he was also assassinated.
This story from the #DefendingWithoutFear series shows how trying to protect the forest can become a death sentence.
If she had fallen face down when they threw her into the creek, her body badly beaten and her hands tied behind her back, Maribel Casancho would have suffocated and would not be here to tell what happened on that Sunday, May 17, 2020. In a trembling voice she says it was the hardest seven hours of her life.
She and her husband, Gonzalo Pio Flores, were taken to the forest and tortured before being shot. The indigenous leader bled to death and Maribel, seriously injured, was thrown into a small nearby stream.
The death of Gonzalo, an activist dedicated to protecting the environment in central Peru, was not an isolated event. According to the National Coordinator of Human Rights, 12 environmental leaders have been assassinated in the country during the last seven years. Gonzalo had inherited this mission from his father, Mauro Pío Peña, who was also killed while trying to help the Ashaninka obtain title to their land in Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii, a community located on the triple border between Junín, Pasco and Ucayali.
It is one of the most biodiverse areas of the Peruvian Amazon jungle and also one of the most devastated. Defending the land, like his father, first earned Gonzalo threats from drug traffickers and loggers who operate illegally in the area, and then death.
On the afternoon of the crime, Gonzalo and Maribel left their house in San Pascual and headed for Alto San Pascual, which is half an hour away on foot. Both are communities in the Peruvian Amazon, an area that is home to 51 indigenous groups, including the Asháninkas, the Awajún and the Shipibos.
It was hot, but that didn’t stop them from going to look for workers to harvest coffee on their farm. When they arrived, Gonzalo and Maribel went to see some old friends. They were asking for suggestions on who to hire when they heard gunshots coming from the Ernesto Paredes family home. It was not the first time they had problems with them. Since 2017, the family wrongly blamed Gonzalo for the death of one of their relatives. However, Rocío Meza, who is a lawyer, says that the alleged problem seems like an excuse and insists that it was planned to hide the apparent link between the crime they were about to commit and Gonzalo’s role in defending the environment.
At that moment, the shots sounded closer and closer. Frightened, Maribel and Gonzalo ran to take refuge in Felipe Ernesto Anacina’s house. He was someone trustworthy, but he is also the uncle of the Ernesto Paredes brothers. When Maribel and Gonzalo arrived at Felipe’s house, they told him that they had come to town to hire workers and not to look for trouble. He seemed to be listening to what they were saying; that is, until Bruss, Rosalinda, Erica and Sheryl Ernesto Paredes arrived with machetes and sticks.
They hit Gonzalo on the head with a stick, knocking him down, and threatened Maribel with a machete. Ernesto Anacina did not intervene. Several neighbors, including Francisco López, wanted to defend the couple, but their assailants threatened to kill anyone who tried to stop them.
With the few forces they could muster, Maribel and Gonzalo managed to run to a nearby coffee plantation, but they didn’t get very far. Their assailants soon caught up with them. Then, while being told that they would be killed like dogs, Gonzalo and Maribel were tied up, tortured and forced down a wide, dusty road. Maribel remembers that they walked for half an hour with their hands tied behind their backs, pushed and pushed along the path, until they reached an isolated place. Speaking in Asháninka, the language of her people, she begged for their release, promising not to say anything to anyone or report them to the police.
“Shut up or I’ll blow your husband’s head off,”Bruss Ernesto Paredes yelled, while hitting Gonzalo.
THE BURDEN OF A LEGACY
The story of Gonzalo Pio Flores, who lived to be 45 years old, was marked by misfortune. In 2013, in the midst of a historic fight for title to the lands claimed by Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii, his father, the town’s founder, was murdered in a protest against illegal logging.
The dispute over their land had begun three decades earlier. In 1987, during an internal war against the Shining Path guerrillas, the inhabitants of the community (located between the regions of Junín, Pasco and Ucayali) were evicted by the terrorists. Mauro Pío and his family took refuge first in San Pascual and then in the town of Satipo.
In San Pascual he left a house and a farm that was eventually occupied over the years by his son, Gonzalo, who used the land to grow coffee. The family was exiled there for thirteen years, until members of the Peruvian Army told them that their community, then known as Piliari, had been pacified. This news prompted Mauro to encourage other indigenous members of the community to return home. When they did, three years later, they renamed the town Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii (New Hawaiian Dawn) in honor of the remains of a Hawaiian pineapple plantation that were found nearby. It is also a metaphor for a new beginning.
Gonzalo’s father later became the local chief and held that position until he was killed. Seven years earlier, he had convinced the Pasco Regional Agricultural Authority to recognize his community and begin the process of granting them title to their land.
At that time, the community also began to have problems with a group of business owners of logging concessions. “Mauro was supposed to meet again with the president of the Council of Ministers a week later to continue with the titling process. But he was shot in the head on May 27, 2013.
Those who were illegally logging wanted to prevent us from obtaining the title [for our land],” says Julio Tunque, a friend of the Apu and now a community representative. The police identified the intellectual author of the murder of Mauro Pío as Víctor Romero, who was the manager of a company known as Productos Forestales SRL. The two men who perpetrated the crime were also identified, but the authorities released them all for lack of evidence. Rocío Meza, a lawyer from the Legal Defense Institute (IDL), told OjoPúblico that “the case has gone unpunished.”
When his father died, Gonzalo, Mauro’s third son, was elected as a member of the security and territorial defense committee of Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii. In other words, he was entrusted with the mission that his father had begun: to defend the land from intruders, land traffickers, drug traffickers and illegal loggers.
To help achieve that goal, Gonzalo began studying elementary education in 2018 at a university in the town of Satipo. “He wanted to defend our rights, our territory and educate the youngest, the new generations,” says his wife.
WAITING FOR THE LAND TITLE
Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii is located in the triple border area along the Junín-Pasco and Ucayali junction, in a region known as Gran Pajonal, which is home to tropical forests that have attracted illegal logging and land traffickers. The Asháninka had already settled in the area when a well-known drug and wood trafficking route was established there, according to police reports.
Eighty families live in an area of 32,000 hectares that was recognized by the Regional Board of Agriculture in 2006. However, as Julio Tunque explains, 12,000 of those hectares were invaded two years later by illegal loggers. That’s when the community problems started. The Organization for the Formalization of Land Ownership (COFOPRI) was relieved of its function as cadastre, and that responsibility was assumed by the regional government authorities.
Forestry companies arrived soon after and sparked a conflict over land rights. “The regulations say that forest concessions cannot be granted in jurisdictions where indigenous communities coincide, and even less so where their limits have not been defined,” explains Rocío Meza. In 2012, Mauro Pío met to discuss this problem with Óscar Valdés, who was president of the Council of Ministers during the administration of President Ollanta Humala (2011-2016).
At that meeting, an agreement was signed to grant titles to several communities, one of which was Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii. Although their leader was assassinated a year later, efforts to obtain title to the land did not stop and Gonzalo continued the process, along with the new community leader, Jhover Melendez Flores.
At the time of writing this article, the community had filed a protection claim to defend their rights as an indigenous group, with the support of the IDL. “It was filed after the death of Mauro Pío; however, two years later, the Constitutional Court had still not ruled on the case.” explains the lawyer. The regional director of the Agricultural Authority of Pasco, Ismael Cusi Ramón, told OjoPúblico that Nuevo Amanecer Hawaii is included in a group of communities scheduled to receive title to their land through COFOPRI. The procedure, however, has been suspended due to the pandemic. The new community chief says that COVID-19 is an excuse to delay the titling process and favor more forest concessions.
CRIME WITHOUT PUNISHMENT
“Don’t cry, Marita. What can we do? Let’s leave it in God’s hands,” Gonzalo told his wife, Maribel, moments before he was shot in the back. Maribel saw Gonzalo fall to the right and, wounded but not fatally, collapsed to the left. Stunned and on the ground, she saw that Gonzalo was still breathing. But his kidnappers did not take long to finish him off.
And seeing that Maribel was still alive, they beat her with the butt of a shotgun until she was disfigured, they hung her up and then threw her into the stream. She stayed there for about two hours, until she managed to regain her strength and return to her community to seek help. The police report from the Satipo police station indicates that Rosa Márquez Maldonado, a neighbor, called Police Lieutenant Rosario Suazo Pariona in Santa Rosa de Cashingari, who was already participating in the search for the couple. Hours earlier, one of Gonzalo’s nieces had reported his disappearance to the police at the same station.
A witness told the police that he saw Bruss, Rosalinda, Erica and Sheyrli Ernesto Paredes take the Ashaninka couple away by force. While the police removed the body of Gonzalo Pío, prosecutor Jhon Barrón discovered signs that he had been hanged and then shot. His left ear was cut off and his hands were tied behind his back.
The case is being investigated by prosecutor Martha Baldeón Berrocal, but there has been little progress. The Ernesto Paredes brothers are known to have attacked Pío while claiming that he had murdered one of their relatives in 2017. However, the authorities are investigating whether the family is involved in any type of illegal activity. Maribel Casancho does not rule out the possibility that her husband was killed for defending his territory from drug traffickers and loggers and miners who operate illegally in the area. “He received many threats from people linked to these activities,” she says.
Rocío Meza, the lawyer advising Maribel, agrees. She believes that the motive for revenge does not fit with the crime. Gonzalo and his father were defenders of their territory and seen as an obstacle by those who engaged in illegal activities who wanted to settle in the Junín forests. “They were surrounded by a very hostile environment, due to their environmental struggle. So the alleged revenge seems more like an excuse to divert attention from the real motive,” he says.
On the last Thursday of August, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights, Extrajudicial Executions and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reported that they had not yet received a response from the Peruvian government regarding the murders of environmental leaders Gonzalo Pío Flores and Arbildo Meléndez, both from Huanuco. These crimes occurred during the pandemic. “We are concerned that environmental defenders are at greater risk because the attacks are focused on people working to obtain title to their land,” they said in a press release.
Meanwhile, Maribel fears for her life. She and her three children have taken refuge elsewhere. “I have received death threats and I had to leave my community,” she says, as she asks for help in the process of seeking justice. She feels that the case is at a standstill. She has asked the prosecutor for the file, but she refuses to show it to her because there is nothing new. “The defendants are fugitives and have not been questioned. That’s what she told me”, says Maribel.
Note. This article is part of #DefenderSinMiedo, a journalistic series that tells the story of women and men who fight to defend the environment in times of pandemic. Developed by Agenda Propia, in coordination with twenty journalists, editors and allied media in Latin America, the series is possible thanks to the support of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global NGO