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Illegal Loggers Suspected In Death Of Peruvian Activist

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Edwin Chota wanted to stop illegal loggers from operating on his community's land in the Peruvian Amazon. His efforts gained international attention and also death threats. This week we learned he and three other community leaders were killed and dismembered at the beginning of the month.

The news of the murders was delayed because of the remote location where they occurred. People in the area say illegal loggers are suspected in the killings. Here, to discuss Chota's life and legacy is his friend, David Salisbury. He's a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond. Welcome to the program.

DAVID SALISBURY: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: First, I want to say sorry for the loss of your friend. Can you tell us a little bit about how you met?

SALISBURY: I first met Edwin a decade ago when I was doing my doctoral dissertation research in the remote borderlands of Peru. It's a community of Ashaninka indigenous folk, people practicing a largely subsistence lifestyle with agriculture, hunting, fishing, but also extracting some hardwoods so that they could buy much-needed supplies such as clothing, soap, medicine. But unfortunately, it was also an area that was filled with illegal loggers who are actively looking to take as much timber out as possible.

CORNISH: These hardwoods that you mentioned - mahogany and cedar, right? I mean, how widespread is illegal logging?

SALISBURY: Illegal logging is very widespread in all of the Amazon, and particularly in Peru. Commercially-sized trees of mahogany and tropical cedar are essentially gone, and now the loggers are moving down a list of valuable hardwoods.

CORNISH: I was reading that an old-growth mahogany tree can get upwards of $11,000, right - per tree?

SALISBURY: Yes, that would be what you might get in a lumberyard in a developed country, but of course once, you know, it's parceled out into furniture and other goods, you're talking about up over $100,000.

CORNISH: But the U.S. does have a ban on these kinds of imports, does it not?

SALISBURY: It does. There's an international ban on the traffic of mahogany, but they seem to reach not only the United States, but also Europe. China is increasingly a player. So there seems to be a way to circumvent the control of these particular species.

CORNISH: Tell us about Edwin Chota's activism because he wasn't an official investigator. He didn't have a lot of resources. I mean how did he actually go about trying to stop this activity?

SALISBURY: Edwin was irrepressible. He always had incredible energy, incredible charisma and a real sense of right and wrong.

CORNISH: There was one story we heard about him actually floating down the river with the illegal timber.

SALISBURY: Well, what he would do at times is he would notice when the timber was being taken out - floated downstream. And he would follow it until it got to the sawmill where he would confront the sawmill owners, the loggers themselves, and get the authorities to seize the timber. This is not an easy thing to do - to motivate the authorities to fulfill their functions and also to confront these well-armed, extremely powerful individuals. But he was unafraid.

CORNISH: David Salisbury, what's been the response in the region or from Peru's government?

SALISBURY: To date, there's been very little response from the Peruvian government. In fact, no authorities have actually arrived at the scene of the crime, however, today, just across the border in the Ashaninka village of Apucha (ph)...

CORNISH: And this is the border of Brazil?

SALISBURY: This is in Brazil. So the Brazilian Ashaninka, the cousins of the people who were murdered - Edwin (ph), Jorge (ph), Francisco (ph) and Leoncio (ph) are moving across the border to recover the bodies and ensure the safety of the people of Soweto because Edwin was not the only person with a death threat on his head. The entire community is threatened by the illegal loggers, and now they've lost their charismatic leader.

CORNISH: David Salisbury, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SALISBURY: Thank you.

CORNISH: David Salisbury - he's a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond. He was speaking to us about his friend, Edwin Chota, an outspoken Peruvian opponent of illegal logging who was killed earlier this month. POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, it was stated that the U.S. has a "ban on mahogany imports from Peru." It does not. Peru has an annual export quota on bigleaf mahogany. The U.S. monitors imports from Peru against that annual quota. The volume of mahogany wood imported into the U.S. from Peru has decreased over the past nine years from over 22,000 cubic meters in 2005 to 224 cubic meters in 2013. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 19, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
During this conversation, it was stated that the U.S. has a "ban on mahogany imports from Peru." It does not. Peru has an annual export quota on bigleaf mahogany The U.S. monitors imports from Peru against that annual quota. The volume of mahogany wood imported into the U.S. from Peru has decreased over the past nine years from over 22,000 cubic meters in 2005 to 224 cubic meters in 2013.
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