On September 1, four Ashaninka indigenous people were killed in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Peru and Brazil. One of them – a native of the Ucayali region in eastern Peru where the battle against deforestation has been raging for several years – had been threatened last year after showing authorities proof of illegal felling within his community. According to Osinfor, a forest and wildlife organization that supervises wood production on 32 percent of Amazon land, criminal logging topped $31 million between 2009 and 2013. But Interpol reports that Peru loses $250 million every year to illegal wood production – 1.5 times what the legal industry is worth.
“No one has been held responsible and the state did not want to open an investigation,” says Ruth Buendía, president of the main Ashaninka organization, in reference to the threats chief Mauro Pío received from illegal tree fellers working in the central forest. Pío was killed in 2013. His community, Nuevo Amanecer Hawai, was subject to the terms of a forest land lease that the Peruvian government had granted to the firm Balarín. After Pío’s death, the state canceled the contract.
In 2012, an Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report showed that the public contracts system in Peru was corrupt and sometimes based its operations on false claims, even in the case of exports of internationally protected species such as cedar and mahogany to the United States.
Edwin Chota was one of the four activists killed earlier this month. His community, Saweto, faces a similar challenge. Chota had asked the state to provide a title and draw a demarcation line around its land. In 2003, the official parameters were registered in the public records. But a year before, the state had given some private companies a 40-year lease on the land.
“The problem is that there is one authority granting titles and another granting leases. The community exists for one but not for the other,” says Deputy Minister of Interculturalism Patricia Balbuena from Pucallpa, where she is coordinating the search for Chota’s remains and those of the three other Ashaninka victims. “We are paying the consequences of the chaos caused by the state’s transfer of certain powers to regional authorities.”
Mario Osorio is the coordinator for the Instituto del Bien Común (IBC) in Oxapampa. This non-governmental organization provides legal assistance to Amazon communities. According to Osorio, “there have been many changes and gaps in the administration of land titles” since the government of Alan García (2006-2011). A group of regional agricultural organizations hold the power to grant titles. But they usually say their small budget does not allow them to make the necessary trip to survey and demarcate the land.
According to the Colectivo Territorios Seguros, which unites 26 civic groups, the government has not issued titles for 18 million hectares of land in the Amazon that belong to Peru’s indigenous communities. “Illegal tree fellers need to get in and launder their production,” says the EIA’s Julia María Urrunaga. “They corrupt the institution: there aren’t only wood mafias. Other criminals also come in to take over in the government’s absence. It’s tragic that Edwin Chota was killed for playing a very active role against these mafias.”
The Peruvian researcher also questions the basis for the five million hectares in concessions that the government is expected to grant. “With this system, which has proved to be a failure, they grant more land without oversight, which means more opportunities for illegal wood production. Customs does not have the capacity to check if the type of wood the company says it is exporting is correct. If it does not say mahogany or cedar, no one looks.”
Osinfor’s 2014 report cites a document from the internal revenue office that says there is no “regulation that requires a basic description for wood exports on customs forms.”
Laura Martín from Sustainlabour met Chota a few weeks before his death. “He told his story to various authorities and he showed them the documents he had prepared,” she says. “He brought proof of criminal activity, which is the job of the state. He made it very easy for them but they were careless.” On April 25, Chota filed another report at the regional Prosecutor General’s Office after illegal logging in his native Alto Tamaya increased. But he received no reply.
“Whoever brings a complaint must provide the necessary logistics for the investigations,” says Max Silva, an advisor at Organización Regional Aidesep in Ucayali (ORAU), the main umbrella group for indigenous forest communities in Peru.
Osinfor says it found fraudulent documents in the official records for wood production in areas where native communities hold forestry contracts that are operated by third parties.
The gangs have also found a new way to operate: they get authorization from regional governments to log trees that have fallen and been dragged down the river. Osinfor does not have the capacity to monitor this kind of activity, but says the category is being excessively used in the case of trees that, given their natural characteristics, could not float in water. The quantity of wood logged under this category is growing every year.
A government source who asked to remain anonymous says most of Peru’s precious wood has been exploited and the loggers now “have to go further and further each time. Earnings don’t cover costs, which is why the illegal wood channels are now shared with drug traffickers.”
Translation: Dyane Jean François