On 12 April, Arbildo Meléndez, the chief of a Cacataibo community in Huánuco, Unipacuyacu, lost his life just as a 30-year process of securing a land title appeared to come within reach. The suspect, who has confessed, is a colonist from a neighbouring village. With backing from the Defensoría del Pueblo, the local indigenous organisation, ORAU, has appealed for support for the family and guarantees for the community as the criminal investigation unfolds.
According to Lizardo Cauper, the leader of AIDESEP, Meléndez faced threats from drug-runners, as well as traffickers and those invading indigenous lands. He compared the crime to the murder in September 2014 of Edwin Chota, the Asháninka chief of Saweto, who also sought territorial rights for his community bordering Brazil. Chota was shot down in the forest alongside three other leaders by traffickers of hardwoods.
Cauper also observed that in November last year the leader of a neighbouring community, Nueva Austria de Sira, was set upon by a group of 30 colonists, but survived.
Meléndez was one of several indigenous leaders who gave testimony about his struggle for land rights to UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Michel Forst in April 2020. Forst’s official UN visit was in response to the alarming increase of violence against human rights defenders in recent years in Peru. Commenting on the death of Meléndez, Forst praised the human rights defenders in Amazonia while warning that the context they face is of total insecurity alongside the impunity of their opponents.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also called attention recently to the responsibility of the government to address human rights abuses in the area.
Cauper comments that the security issues raised are now spread across all Amazonia, no longer limited to their supposed source in the VRAEM, the stronghold of the remnants of Sendero Luminoso on the borders of Cuzco, Ayacucho and Junín and the country’s only permanent emergency zone. “There are many indigenous leaders threatened… We appeal to the Ministries of the Interior and Defence to address a situation that has developed over years”, Cauper says.