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Illegal logging behind deaths of indigenous leaders
Cecilia Remón
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Assassination of forest defenders highlights extensive network of logging and the illegal timber trade.

“In the forest, the silence at night is absolute,” says Sara, a settler who owns a plot of land in the middle of Peru’s central jungle. “But suddenly, at 9 p.m. you start hearing chainsaws in the distance.  I get up immediately and go quietly with my gun and my dogs to see where they are cutting down my trees. But I don’t find the loggers. They hide. In the morning I find felled trees and cut planks that they were unable to take away.”

Sara, 54 years old and originally from Lima, received 187 Ha (462 acres) in the 1980s in the community of Puerto Bermúdez, in the central department of Pasco, to develop agroforestry and protect several tree species. In July she learned that, without warning and without being present, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture had changed the boundaries of her land using falsified maps that do not match the area’s physical reality. She has the property titles registered and can reclaim them, but that isn’t the case for the more than 500 indigenous Amazonian communities that for decades have been demanding ownership of their lands — the only way they can protect their forests from illegal logging.

But the Peruvian government is not interested in speeding up the delivery of those deeds. According to Julia Urrunaga, director of the Peru Program at the US-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), to the Peruvian authorities in Lima, “the jungle is a huge, tree-filled space where there are no people.”

Laundering machine
In 2012, the EIA published “The Laundering Machine: How fraud and corruption in Peru’s concession system are destroying the future of its forests.” The report reveals the bureaucratic jumble that legalizes, through documents that the authorities never verify, the marketing of timber from unauthorized areas in the Peruvian Amazon.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations, the government has done little if anything to curb illegal logging. “The only thing that has progressed in two years is that now all the documents are computerized. So, they passed from laundering in the trough, to laundering in the washing machine,” Urrunaga told Latinamerica Press.

The killings of four indigenous Ashaninka men in the community of Alto Tamaya Saweto, in the department of Ucayali on the border with Brazil, brought to the forefront not only the danger in which the Amazonian native peoples are living, but also the existence of a very profitable business that involves companies, officials and illegal loggers.

Edwin Chota, head of the community, and leaders Jorge Ríos, Leoncio Quinticima and Francisco Pinedo had denounced for years what was happening on their lands.

“Chota was a well-known leader and was active against illegal logging,” said Urrunaga. “He filed several complaints in Pucallpa [capital of Ucayali] and Lima, but they were always filed away. He had documentation, videos, GPS [location]. He accused people, identified them with names, with photos. With these deaths, the illegal logging mafia’s message to those who oppose this activity is ‘let us operate, not even the authorities are bothering me.’ The message is ‘shut up’.”

One of the first people to expose what was happening in Alto Tamaya Saweto was David Salisbury, a geographer at the University of Richmond in the US state of Virginia. For more than 10 years he counseled Chota and his community in their struggle for property titles.

According to Salisbury, Chota had written more than 100 letters to Peruvian and Brazilian institutions demanding protection and attention for their claims, and he wanted to take his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Enslaved loggers
The international impact of the case, rather than its local effects, forced the authorities to act. Indigenous and human rights groups, international organizations including the IACHR, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, demanded that the government protect indigenous communities and arrest, prosecute and punish those responsible.

The government announced that it had identified the alleged murderers of the indigenous men. Would be illegal loggers, but Urrunaga believes capturing the logggers doesn’t solve the problem. “They are usually people who work almost as slaves, who cut down trees to survive,” she said.

“Behind it is a much more complex organization and the goal is to meet the demand of the international markets for exotic wood,” she added.

However, Urrunaga also believes that “illegal logging is not the activity that devastates forests, but it is the spearhead that opens the way to other illegal activities.”

Fabiola Muñoz, director of the National Forest Service (SERFOR) under the Ministry of Agriculture, confirmed that in areas where there are reports of illegal logging, there are also drug corridors and areas of coca crops. In fact, the community of Alto Tamaya Saweto claimed that drug traffickers use illegally harvested timber to conceal drugs.

Between March and May, Peru’s customs and tax agency, the Superintendencia de Aduanas y Administración Tributaria (SUNAT), seized more than 6 million boardfeet of protected wood species that did not have documentation to ensure its legal origin. The wood was valued at more than US$20 million. But these operations are not permanent.

The World Bank estimates that 80-90 percent of the wood exported from Peru, primarily bound for China and other Asian markets, is illegal. According to figures from the Loreto Regional Government, Peru loses $250 million annually because of illegal logging.

In addition to committing to deliver the land titles to the Alto Tamaya-Saweto community, on Sept. 15, Interior Minister Daniel Urresti named a high commissioner to combat illegal logging throughout the country and will answer to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. A questionable retired general from the National Police, César Fourment Paredes, will fill the role despite having no knowledge of logging and the timber trade. He also worked closely with senior police chiefs linked to Vladimiro Montesinos, the embattled security adviser to imprisoned former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).
—Latinamerica Press.


Indigenous communities demand land titles to confront illegal logging. (Photo: Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental-SPDA)
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