The Peruvian government said on Tuesday it is investigating the deaths of four indigenous leaders who were fighting illegal logging in their Amazonian home and were apparently murdered near Peru's border with Brazil.
Native leaders said Edwin Chota, a well-known environmental activist and a leader of the Ashaninka indigenous group, was shot and killed along with three of his colleagues about a week ago in a remote corner of the rainforest in the Peruvian region of Ucayali.
Police and other authorities were traveling to the border area to recover the bodies and investigate the deaths, said Deputy Culture Minister Patricia Balbuena.
A local man who found the bodies described them as marked by bullet wounds, Balbuena said, adding that authorities will look into the death threats from loggers that relatives say Chota received for years.
Chota had long fought to keep illegal logging operations from encroaching on native Ashaninka land.
One of his goals was to secure official land titles for native villages so they could better defend their territory from intruders.
Chota died without having obtained a land title for his own community of Saweto, near the border with Brazil, said Reyder Sebastian, an Ashaninka leader from Ucayali who worked with him.
Sebastian said illegal logging in the border area has surged as a gang of Peruvians and Brazilians took control of large swaths of pristine forest.
The World Bank has estimated that about 80 percent of Peru's timber exports come from trees that are cut illegally.
Chota had just returned to the border area from the Peruvian capital, Lima, where he pressed for government action on illegal logging. He was headed to Brazil to discuss the problem with a nearby Ashaninka community when he disappeared, said Elio Franco, who works with the indigenous group ORAU in Ucayali.
Days later, vultures circling overhead led locals searching for the missing men to the bodies, Franco added. "All of this could have been prevented if the government had listened," he said. "They were tired of reporting so many death threats from illegal loggers."
Peruvian police did not respond to several telephone and email requests for comment.