In April 2014, in a tragic premonition of what was to come, the leaders of Saweto, an Ashaninka village in the Peruvian Amazon, requested urgent measures from the Peruvian government to ‘prevent any attempt on our lives’. The threat had come from loggers ‘in reprisal’ for the community’s longstanding efforts to document and denounce illegal logging in their territory.
In September 2014, Edwin Chota, headman of Saweto, was murdered along with Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quinticima Melendez and Francisco Pinedo. The men had spent over a decade fighting to secure a land title for Saweto and for protection from illegal logging, which they had continued to point out the government was still failing to tackle. ‘’To date, we don’t see any concrete results from the struggle against illegal logging which has intensified in the headwaters of the Cañanya river… and on the upper river Tamaya.” Mr Chota in particular had been the frequent target of death threats from loggers but his repeated requests for protection were never met. Local logging mafia are suspected of carrying out the assassinations.
Although Peruvian law requires the government to legally recognise, title and demarcate indigenous peoples’ traditional lands and to do so before permitting resource extraction, Saweto’s lands remain untitled. This is despite formal applications made by the village since 2002. Consequently their efforts to protect and control their traditional lands have been weakened, as Mr Chota described. “As long as we don’t have title, the loggers don’t respect native ownership…they threaten us. They intimidate. They have the guns.” To compound the problem, logging concessions were gazetted over the area in 2001. Although these concessions are currently not operational, they are home to rampant illegal logging and their existence has been used by the Regional Government of Ucayali as a pretext to block Saweto’s application for title.
Unfortunately, the case of Saweto is not an isolated one. AIDESEP, Peru’s principle national Amazonian indigenous peoples’ organisation, estimates that approximately 20 million hectares of indigenous peoples’ traditional lands remain without legal recognition including 594 indigenous villages without a land title. However, even if communities are titled, legal loopholes permit the government to retain control over forestry and mineral resources, which restricts indigenous peoples’ efforts to protect their own forests and manage their communal resources.
Meanwhile, despite government pledges to tackle illegal logging, independent investigations estimate that approximately 80% of timber exported from the Peruvian Amazon is extracted illegally. Official reports show how over half of logging concessions investigated are extracting timber from outside their concession. This mirrors a standard practice in the Peruvian Amazon where timber is extracted illegally from indigenous territories and protected areas but laundered through legally established logging concessions, which provide all the necessary documentation.
Mr Chota himself repeatedly denounced these shortcomings. The nearest forestry control post to Saweto was several days downriver, which allowed loggers to float their logs out during the rainy season and claim that timber illegally cut in Ashéninka territory was harvested from a nearby concession. “Welcome to the land without law,” Edwin Chota said in April 2014, “From that inspection post all the way back here, there is no law. The only law is the law of the gun.”
A forthcoming study by AIDESEP and the Forest Peoples Programme identifies the real underlying drivers of deforestation in Peru. It shows that the government’s failure to ensure secure legal recognition of indigenous territories and to support community efforts to protect their forests is intensifying forest destruction. The report shows how this destruction (almost 250,000 hectares in 2012 ) has been driven historically by government programmes to build roads and encourage colonisation in the jungle, as well as the granting of concessions to oil and gas companies, which cover over 80% of the Amazon . In addition, a combination of legal loopholes, weak environmental controls and corruption underlies recent government failures to prevent the clear cutting of thousands of hectares of primary forest for oil palm plantations and illegal gold-mining operations. This compounds the issue of illegal logging, which remains rampant.
In 2008, Peru made an ambitious pledge to reduce its net deforestation to zero by 2020, but these trends make this pledge appear increasingly unobtainable; even more so when combined with Peru’s plans to construct over 70 mega dams in the Amazon.
In July 2014, the Peruvian congress pushed through a new pro-investment law (Law 30230) that weakens Peru’s fragile environmental regulations still further by reducing the fines for environmental contamination and shrinking the time allotted for reviewing Environmental Impact Assessments. Crucially, it removes the power of environmental authorities to set standards for levels of pollution. Worse still, the same law establishes special procedures that could enable the government to excise or extinguish indigenous peoples’ land rights where large-scale development projects are planned. It has been rejected by indigenous peoples organisations for whom it represents ‘the best example of the illegal and illegitimate actions being promoted by the government of Ollanta Humala’.
On the eve of its presidency of the latest UN climate conference in Lima (COP20, December 2014), the Peruvian government has been anxious to advertise its commitment to protect forests and respect indigenous peoples’ rights. This includes a $300 million programme financed by the governments of Norway and Germany. This commitment, as highlighted by the tragic events in Saweto and the recent package of legal measures, needs to be questioned.
Indigenous leader Marcial Mudarra, President, CORPI- San Lorenzo, commented, 'It makes me furious, selling off the jungle is a business for the state, but the price is the death of our Asháninka brothers. Despite the fact that they had been denouncing the loggers the government closed its eyes and became deaf, blind and dumb but when they died only then did it start to take action',
‘En represalia, las amenazas de muerte y denuncias sin fundamentos hacia mi persona y comuneros de la comunidad son con mayor fuerza, por lo que pido la prevención de cualquier atentado contra la vida’. Carta CCNN Alto Tamaya a Director Ejecutivo Forestal y de fauna Silvestre Ucayali (23 Abril 2014).
‘que a la fecha (abril 2014) no se percibe resultados concretos de lucha contra la tala ilegal….que ha intensificado en las cabeceras de la quebrada cañanya…y en el rio alto Tamaya’ Ibid: 2014
Finer at al 2014, http://www.nature.com/srep/2014/140417/srep04719/pdf/srep04719.pdf
RAISG 2012, Amazon Under Pressure
Statement of unity - Pact of indigenous organisations of Peru, 7th September 2014. ‘Es el mejor ejemplo de la ilegalidad e ilegitimidad en la que viene incurriendo el gobierno de Ollanta Humala’. http://servindi.org/actualidad/112771