World Rainforest Movement

Destructive and illegal logging continues to ravage forests and communities in the Peruvian Amazon

Peru’s forests are under siege. Throughout the Peruvian Amazon, illegal and destructive ‘legal’ loggers are engaged in large-scale and destructive extraction of remaining high value caoba: “mahogany” (Swietenia macrophylla) and cedro: “tropical cedar” (Cedrela odorata). Recent estimates suggest that as much as 90% of timber extracted in the Peruvian Amazon is illegal. Official figures report that most Peruvian hardwood timber is exported to Mexico, the USA, Canada and Belgium. Much of this timber is imported in violation of international environmental agreements (like CITES). Extraction of Peruvian timber has also often involved the violation of indigenous peoples’ human rights, particularly their right to property, prior consultation and their right to livelihood and cultural integrity.

As more accessible areas have become logged out, the Peruvian logging mafia has pushed its illegal operations deep into the forest in search of prized timber species. Most of these remote areas form part of the traditional territories of indigenous peoples, including vulnerable uncontacted communities. In Ucayali, for example, illegal loggers have opened logging roads deep inside the Reserva Murunahua, which threatens the integrity of territories of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. In short, the majority of illegal timber in Peru is now being extracted from the communal reserves of Native Communities, reserves for uncontacted indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation or from protected conservation areas.

Organisation of illegal extraction:
The organisation of illegal logging in Peru is based on a long-standing and exploitative regional Amazonian economy known as habilitación, which is financed and controlled by middlemen and a powerful timber mafia. Senior members of this mafia are often linked to local power structures, including regional government. Middlemen (habilitadores) advance credit to small logging gangs who are equipped (habilitados) to go to the forest to fell timber, transport it to “cleansing” sawmills to “legalise” it, and then send to timber yards in urban centres. Illegal logging gangs are mobile and well-armed and are proven to use firearms to resist any attempts to decommission their timber in the forest. Logging is undertaken by impoverished lumber workers, while the trade and commerce in the timber are facilitated by middlemen and large timber barons in towns and cities.

Conflicts between loggers and indigenous communities:
Uncontrolled logging has resulted in conflicts between indigenous communities (titled and untitled) and illegal loggers, who invade their ancestral territories to cut timber without permission. Since 2002, illegal logging bosses in Madre de Dios and elsewhere have promoted annual mass invasions of the territories of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation with the explicit aim of forcibly displacing them in order to claim such peoples do not occupy forest areas rich in valuable timber. Clashes between indigenous communities and loggers are becoming common. Most recently, in May 2005, in Madre de Dios, two loggers were killed by arrows as they logged on the upper Rio Piedra. The deaths caused a national outcry, yet indigenous leaders stress that it is still not known how many indigenous people fell victim to the loggers’ bullets in the confrontation. There are real fears that loggers may be massacring remote indigenous communities, yet such atrocities are still unknown to the outside world.

Throughout the region informal illegal loggers and so-called “legal” timber companies use devious and manipulative strategies to gain access to Native Community resources. Loggers and timber firms often fabricate informal written agreements or make formal contracts with community leaders without the knowledge or consent of the wider community. In many communities, effective collective decision-making structures are absent and loggers take advantage of these weaknesses to make deals with individuals or small groups.

Failed government initiatives:
Under pressure from regional indigenous peoples’ organisations like the Federación Nativa del Rio Madre de Dios y Afluentes (FENAMAD) in alliance with NGOs and civil society organisations, the Peruvian Government has launched a series of initiatives to tackle illegal logging. They have also taken measures to establish protections for uncontacted indigenous peoples. In April 2002, Ministerial Resolution established a Reserve for Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation in headwaters of the Rio Piedra in Madre de Dios. In August, FENAMAD signed an agreement with the government to establish vigilance and control posts on the Southern boundary of the reserve (known as line 343).

In October the same year, the government set up the Comisión Multisectorial de Lucha Contra la Tala Ilegal en el Perú, which later drew up an action plan to combat illegal logging. The government has also invited proposals on how to combat illegal logging as part of its national and regional roundtables on forest policy. Numerous governmental decrees and resolutions have been passed to regulate logging activities, sanction illegal loggers and investigate corruption.

Despite all the commitments on paper and all the decrees, resolutions, laws and action plans, there is little action on the ground. The government has over 50 Puestos de vigilancia: “vigilance posts” in the Amazon region, but these are largely ineffective due to corrupt staff that allow the traffic of stolen logs and sawn timber in return for bribes (coimas). Even where government staff are not corrupt, the posts are unable to operate due to a severe lack of resources. Where decommissioning of illegal logs has taken place, such official confiscation of logs cut by timber companies has so far been limited in scale and infrequent.

The police and forest authorities have not supported the vigilance posts manned by FENAMAD on Line 343 and as a result illegal loggers continually invade the protected area. In May 2005, it was estimated that no less than 150 logging camps were located inside line 343, yet the government has taken no effective action to remove the loggers. Some of the vigilance posts have been sacked or burnt down by illegal logging teams.

At the local and regional levels, the timber mafia and big business are major obstacles to progressive reforms. For this reason, numerous proposed reserves for uncontacted indigenous peoples, including Napo Tigre, Yavarí Tapiche and Cashibo Cacataibo, have yet to be legally established.

Delays in designation of these areas are partly due to lobbying by powerful commercial and industrial interests that strongly oppose all protected forest areas, including reserves for uncontacted indigenous peoples and further extensions to existing Native Community Land titles.

Flawed timber concession system:
A central part of the government response to illegal logging has been the introduction of a new Forestry Law since 2001. This law was supposed to promote sustainable timber harvesting in Peru’s forests. Regrettably, implementation of the law has been rushed, safeguards for indigenous peoples’ rights have been flouted, and destructive logging and illegal logging have continued unabated. Indigenous peoples’ organisations like the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP) point out that the government agency charged with overseeing the demarcation and sale of concessions, known as the Natural Resources Institute (INRENA), has violated numerous requirements under the forest law. They complain that the government agency has designated concessions without prior consultation and without prior social and ecological zonification in contravention of State obligations under ILO Convention 169 and several environmental laws and legal protections for Native Communities. As a result, timber concessions have been imposed on indigenous lands in many parts of the Amazon region.

At the same time, concession holders are using the concession system to launder illegal timber stolen from adjacent indigenous lands and protected areas. Legal and illegal timber are mixed together using the transport permits from legal timber concessions to avoid detection. An increasing number of timber companies now proactively and eagerly offer to support Native Communities to obtain a Timber Extraction Permits in order to ‘legalise’ and launder (blanquear) their own illegal timber extracted from outside the permit area. As the late Kruger Pacaya, former President of ORAU, explained in 2004:

“It is tragic! The new concession holders are using their contracts with the government to cover up illegal logging. They continue to enter into indigenous territories and protected areas adjacent to their concessions in order to harvest mahogany and cedar. They are doing the same with Native Community timber permits and tax codes which they use to launder illegal timber taken illegally from other areas. All they leave behind is an impoverished forest and huge tax liabilities that the community has no way of paying…”

The companies pay the communities desperately low prices for their timber and discount the greater part of the company’s costs as “credit” extended to the community, which the communities must repay in labour or timber. The degree of gross exploitation and abuse is demonstrated by recent reports from the Alto Purus region that reveal how indigenous communities are paid $30 US for a mature mahogany tree, while the same tree is traded for $11,000 US in Pucallpa. As Arlen Ribeira, a Huitoto leader and member of AIDESEP explains:

“The scale of illegal logging and the theft of timber through fraudulent transactions is massive in the Alto Purus. Each day our brothers become poorer. They are suffering severe damage to their lands, leaving them worse off. It is a terrible situation of exploitation that must be stopped…”

Indigenous reports from the Alto Purus confirm that the government agency IRENA and the military are involved in the illegal timber trade. Government officials are accused of being complicit with the logging mafia extracting mahogany and exploiting the Native Communities.

Grassroots struggle to combat illegal logging:
Faced with the widespread corruption of government authorities and their reluctance to confront powerful and dangerous logging mafias, indigenous forest communities have taken direct action to decommission logs stolen from their lands and adjacent protected areas. In the Selva Central, for example, Ashaninka communities have formed their own Comites de Vigilancia, Control y Defensa Forestal. These territorial defence groups have confronted armed loggers and expelled them from indigenous forest lands. Similar local actions have taken place in Loreto, Ucayali and Madre de Dios, yet too often the government has not rewarded the community and has in some cases even taken the timber away and sold it as government property!

Native Communities and support NGOs have also established their own independent local monitoring initiatives. One example is the work of the NGOs CEDIA and Shinai who have used independent vigilance posts and GPS field monitoring to prevent illegal loggers entering the Kugapakori-Nahua Reserve. Shinai has worked directly with indigenous communities to help them collect their own GPS field data to present evidence of illegal incursions to the government authorities. In a few cases, this grassroots evidence taken to authorities in Lima has pressed the government to take action to decommission timber and expel illegal loggers.

Despite these successes, most grassroots initiatives still lack resources and do not enjoy official recognition. Indigenous organisations and local civil society groups are becoming increasingly frustrated with numerous government decrees and plans that promise action, but do little or nothing to stop illegal logging on the ground.

“We are fed up with all the policy dialogues and forest roundtables. The government wants to keep talking about ways to combat illegal logging, but is not prepared to take serious action. Even the new concession system has promoted the laundering of timber. What we need now are real measures to enforce the law and uphold legal protections for indigenous peoples’ forest lands. It is time all the Decrees, Resolutions and agreements were actually implemented.” [Jorge Payaba, President, FENAMAD, September 2005]

In their long struggle to tackle the illegal logging and forest crisis in Peru, indigenous organisations and support NGOs continue to call for:

– Immediate removal of illegal loggers from State Reserves for Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation
– Urgent action to establish effective control and monitoring on the borders of reserves for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation
– Investigation and sanction of illegal logging operators active within indigenous territories and protected areas
– New mechanisms and resources to ensure existing laws and protections for indigenous peoples and forests are properly enforced
– Importing countries should stop buying Peruvian hardwoods until illegal logging and violation of indigenous peoples rights is stopped
– Reform of the Forest Law and changes in its implementation to ensure proper respect for indigenous customary territorial, land and resource rights
– Greater recognition and legal and technical support for the territorial defence and local monitoring initiatives of indigenous and local communities
– Comprehensive capacity-building and institutional strengthening programmes for Native Communities and their organisations affected by the forest crisis

Article compiled by Tom Griffiths, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail:
Sources: (1) FENAMAD (2005) Vulneración de los derechos de los pueblos indígenas en aislamiento vountario Pronunciamiento: 26 de mayo de 2005; (2) ORAU, ARPI-SC, FENAMAD (2004) Resumen de talleres sobre la situacion forestal en las organizaciones regionales de AIDESEP (en colaboración con el FPP y Racimos) Lima, septiembre de 2004; (3) AIDESEP (2004) Contra el abuso y la propotencia de funcionarios del Estado y concesiones forestales en la region Ucayali Declaración pública; (4) Griffiths, T (2004) Indigenous Peoples in Peru call for forest policy reform and major changes in implementation of Forest Law ; (5) Garcia, A (2004) “Peru y Bosques: privatismo y derechos indígenas” Kanatari(431)VII:14-15; (6) Chirif, A (2002) “Controles y descontroles: extracción ilegal de madera en el Pacaya Samiria” Ideele (2002) 148:81-85; (7) Amazon Alliance (2004) Illegal logging in Peru: working group report Amazon Alliance Annual meeting, Iquitos, June 2004