Marlith Mandruma Florès washes dishes outside her family's cooking hut. With no refrigeration, each meal is cooked from scratch with river water. The diet here consists mainly of animal protein and potatoes or plantains. Few people have vegetable gardens and instead farm crops that they can sell, like yucca, cocoa, and banana. Santa Rosillo, San Martin, Peru, December 8, 2022.

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Guardian of the Forest

Sarah Fretwell | Peru

Apu Quinto Inuma was a former lumber trafficker turned park ranger turned rogue Forest Guardian. He became a tireless international advocate for the environment and native rights and his community of Santa Rosillo in the Amazon of Peru.

To prevent the devastation of land, logging, and drug cartels operating in neighboring communities, “Quinto” organized other natives to patrol the forest even after the government denied their ancestral rights to the territory.

They worked to protect their children's future and “their brothers who could not speak” - the trees of the forest.

With old guns, machetes, and rubber boots, the volunteer Forest Guardians risk their lives to monitor the buffer region of Cordillera Azul National Park beside their village in San Martin. On patrols, they look for new burn and grow areas, document it with cell phones, and send the notes back to local officials. 

Struggling to survive in this remote region, many people here work for illegal logging and drug cartels.

In November of 2023, Quinto was shot and killed in retaliation for his environmental work.

His spirit still lives on in the forest.

On November 29th, 2023, I received a Facebook messenger from my translator in Peru, “Sarah, I have some very sad and horrible news…Today, they killed Quinto Inuma.”

While returning from a conference on ancestral knowledge and environmental defense, the founder of the Santa Rosillo “Forest Guardians” was traveling in his small boat when he was assassinated in front of his wife Marlith and their two daughters.

A year earlier, I had traveled in that same boat with Quinto in what became a tumultuous overnight journey after someone sabotaged the boat engine in retaliation for reporting lumber traffickers to the Peruvian government.

After reporting a coca field while on patrol, he was brutally beaten by his neighbors. Quinto and his family were evacuated by helicopter to a town several hours away. They bravely returned to their home of Santa Rosillo three months later.

The creation of Cordillera Azul National Park and the resulting $87 million carbon deal brought income to the Peruvian government and carbon developers and made it practically impossible for natives to secure the title to their ancestral land. The park and carbon project are being shared globally as a conservation success by REDD+.

While new “settlers” to the area were able to purchase land and secure land titles, Quinto's tribe and family were denied. The one man who tried to help Quinto was fired right before he was going to sign the title. With hundreds of hectares of remote land to monitor, it took over a year for a government official to visit and check the reports of coca fields.

After recovering from his beating and returning home, Quinto was assassinated in November of 2023. His family is still living in the community where the neighbors murdered their father.

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