Indigenous coalition challenges Peruvian government for environmental destruction

Comunidades nativaskichwa credit Diario Voces
Comunidades nativaskichwa credit Diario Voces

Indigenous coalition challenges Peruvian government for environmental destruction

A coalition of over a dozen rural and indigenous communities, in the San Martin and Loreto regions of the Peruvian Amazon, has issued an open letter challenging the Peruvian Government’s allocation of extensive forest lands for oil palm plantations and calling for immediate measures to restore their contaminated waterways.

The coalition is comprised of 14 communities, including several Kichwa indigenous communities, from across the Huallaga, Shanusi and Caynarachi valleys, which are suffering the negative impacts from oil palm plantations operated by Palmas de Shanusi S.A. and Palmas del Oriente S.A, members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) since 2016. In their letter, the communities state that the Peruvian Government’s promotion of oil palm plantations, rather than recuperating degraded soils as intended, has in reality resulted in the clearance of mature forests, wetlands, marshes and important water sources.

“This is not development, so much as the destruction of what genuine possibilities we peoples have to generate our own development.”

In particular, the communities question the role of the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture and its decentralised regional offices for allocating over 10,000 hectares of forest lands in 2006 and 2007, which were subsequently deforested for the installation of the Shanusi and Oriente plantations. This is supported by independent satellite analysis conducted in 2015 which documented the deforestation of 6,974 hectares of primary forest between 2006 and 2011 within the project area, in contravention of Peruvian legal requirements to retain at least 70% forest cover within ‘agricultural lands’.

Furthermore, the letter states that the palm oil companies have been able to accumulate lands and avoid strict legal restrictions on forest conversion and sanctions for deforestation by using loopholes in Peruvian law governing the way in which lands are adjudicated, for instance, by acting through individuals who acquire and clear lands in order to obtain “certificates of possession” which the companies later acquire and convert to property titles in order to gain ownership and evade being held accountable for forest conversion. This practice was previously documented by the Attorney’s Office for the Ministry of the Environment, which described the much greater financial incentives offered by Grupo Palmas for lands which had already been deforested: S./1,000 per hectare for deforested land, as opposed to S./600 for forest. The communities also denounce that many people are being pressured to give up their lands and are becoming landless due to the use of intimidatory and violent tactics.

“We have been affected and we continue to be affected, though neither the State nor the companies assume responsibility.”

In addition to calling upon the Peruvian authorities to revise how Palmas de Shanusi and Palmas del Oriente acquired the lands for their plantations and the original environmental impact studies which were approved, the communities demand an investigation into the impacts the plantations have had on their local water sources:

“Give us back the water sources which provided for our communities. We never lacked good water with which to wash, bathe, cook, nor did we lack fish to eat. Today, water is brought to a few communities by tanker truck with no guarantee of its quality.”

Moreover, they call for a series of further environmental damages to be investigated, including the destruction of wetlands in Jorge Chavéz and San Pedro de Mayrujay and extensive deforestation, and the restoration of communities’ access to their lands. 

In 2016, the plantations’ parent companies joined the RSPO, the world’s leading certification body on sustainable palm oil. RSPO standards strictly prohibit conversion of primary forest, as well as operations that infringe national laws and any operations conducted on indigenous peoples’ lands without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of affected communities.  According to the RSPO’s remediation and compensation procedure, any clearance of primary forest or High Conservation Value (HCV) areas after 2005 will require environmental compensation, whether or not the company was a member when the land clearance and plantation development took place, with social remediation also required where social HCV areas were cleared. Furthermore, any community lands taken without consent over which there are disputes must also be remedied, as the continued possession, occupation and use of lands belonging to communities without their consent constitutes a continuing violation. It now remains to be seen how the companies will bring themselves into line with these standards.

Forests for wildlife, plantations for people

The territorial conflicts caused by the allocation of community-held forests and lands for plantation development in the Huallaga, Shanusi and Caynarachi valleys are indicative of broader patterns of top-down land use planning prevalent elsewhere in San Martin and Loreto, which fail to take in account communities’ customary rights over their territories. In San Martin, there are currently at least 90 indigenous communities with pending titling requests, as well as a further five requests to expand unsatisfactory titles which fail to adequately recognise the entirety of communities’ traditional lands. At the same time that communities press the Regional Government of San Martin to legally protect their lands, local and national government have established hydrocarbons concessions as well as conservation areas on indigenous lands, without any formal procedures of prior consultation with the affected communities, let alone respect for their right to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent. For instance, the ancestral territory of the Kichwa people is today simultaneously superimposed by both hydrocarbons Block 103 (est. 2004) and the Regional Conservation Area “Cordillera Escalera” (ACR-CE, est. 2005) – the latter of which is currently being challenged in the courts by Nuevo Lamas de Shapaja and indigenous organisation, the Ethnic Council of the Kichwa Peoples of the Amazon (CEPKA). Nuevo Lamas is just one of approximately 17 Kichwa communities whose way of life and livelihoods, culture and territorial rights are being directly impacted by the ACR-CE.


Additional Information

  • Both Palmas de Shanusi S.A. and Palmas del Oriente S.A. are part of the Grupo Palmas, which is in turn wholly-owned by the Peruvian business conglomerate Grupo Romero. Both companies are RSPO members since April 2016. RSPO Principles and Criteria strictly prohibit the conversion of primary forest, operations that infringe national laws and any operations conducted on indigenous peoples’ lands without their free, prior and informed consent. Environmental compensation is required for the clearance of primary forest and HCV areas after 2005, as well as social remediation where social HCV have been cleared.
  • A 2015 satellite analysis by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project documented the clearing of over 16,800 hectares of primary forest for oil palm plantations within and adjacent to the lands acquired by Palmas de Shanusi and Palmas del Oriente.
  • A 2015 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency revealed that the Grupo Romero’s plans to expand its oil palm operations to four additional plantations in Loreto threatened the destruction of 23,000 ha. of primary forest. These projects were subsequently suspended in light of protests and legal actions led by civil society.