Peru weighs deporting rainforest defender after 20 years in the Amazon

/ Commentary by Fiona Mulligan

There are very few times in life that you get to see a priest on a motorcycle. Fewer still that same-said priest zips off from a training session on REDD and forestry law back to his school for Indigenous youths located in the heartland of the Amazon, next to a prison and down the road from the rapidly growing city-center of Iquitos, Peru.

Maybe it’s the Motorcycle that’s the Problem?

There are very few times in life that you get to see a priest on a motorcycle. Fewer still that same-said priest zips off from a training session on REDD and forestry law back to his school for Indigenous youths located in the heartland of the Amazon, next to a prison and down the road from the rapidly growing city-center of Iquitos, Peru.

Meet Brother Paul McAuley. Striped button-down shirt neatly tucked in, ropes of semilla (seeds, for the grigos) necklaces laced around his neck, this man is one of the most outspoken individuals there is when it comes to campaigning for indigenous rights in Peru.

And after 20 years, the Peruvian government has finally decided that they’ve had enough–they want this so-called agitator to go home to his native Britain and have accused him of “shatter[ing] democratic values” by inciting the indigenous groups in the area to stand up for their legal rights, explaining the potential dangers of oil exploration and logging, and educating them about the power they have to influence the government’s decision-making process.

Courtesy of Survival

Of course, “home” is a relative term. After 20 years, one might wonder exactly what McAuley would consider home these days. And if educating people about their rights is an example of inspiring unrest, then brother Paul is decidedly unapologetic. As he told the BBC,

“Education is often accused of inciting people to understand their rights, to be capable or organizing themselves to ensure their human rights…if that’s a crime, then yes I’m guilty. As a member of a Catholic order, my life’s been dedicated to human and Christian education.”

On June 11th, 2010, the government of Peru issued a ministerial resolution canceling his residency without reason or option for appeal. In response, McAuley mounted a legal defense that resulted in a negation of the resolution and the continuation of his residency. One battle temporarily won, McAuley began the process of extension for his legal residency, only to come up against a new, and more subtle, form of resistance. A procedure which for the past 20 years had taken a matter of hours is still being processed–after it’s submission on August 9th.

There has been local as well as international backlash against McAuley’s situation. Everything from public protests to local marriage offers have been proffered to support the man who has become an integral part of this community. In a recent letter to the Peruvian government signed by 15 organizations including Amazon Watch, Center for International Environmental Law, the Rainforest Foundation, and Survival International, groups expressed their “…deep concern over potential political motives behind the challenges and delays in the process of renewal of residence. [There is concern] that it is an attempt to oust the country’s Brother Paul McAuley through administrative action, without giving him the opportunity for due process. [This case is viewed] in a context of concern about the restriction of freedom of thought, expression, association, assembly and movement in Peru, and the right to defend human rights…”

McAuley’s battle is just one piece of the puzzle. Peru has over 65 million hectares of Amazon tropical forests, 9 million hectares of which are covered by titled indigenous territories in various regions throughout the Amazon.

Annual emissions of carbon from deforestation and degradation mapped from time-series CLASlite imagery and LiDAR data. Image courtesy of Asner et al. 2010. Click image to enlarge.

Since 2000, Peru has been updating and changing its existing forestry laws. New laws seek to establish management plans as mandatory for all harvesting activities, re-define land classifications, and seek to characterize “forests” through economic value. Current permit systems for timber extraction often promote illegal timber trade by creating legally binding contracts between indigenous communities and timber companies with links to illegal logging practices. Oil and mineral extraction are still rampant, destroying swaths of the Amazon without consequence—while the land may be owned by indigenous groups, land products certainly are not. At the moment, people are fighting lack of transparency above all other issues—while newly implemented legal systems may have destructive consequences, the result of not being informed of their existence or being prohibited from participation is even more alarming.

People are up in arms over current practices, and the thought of another Bagua is starting to rest heavily on people’s minds. McAuley’s is one of the key players in a much larger picture. At the moment, his residency is in question, a fact that did not prevent him from participation in a recent sub-committee meeting over the new “ley forestal” in Peru, a law that, if passed, may prove to be a further menace to indigenous rights to land and resources. Paul McAuley is trying to help people understand what is happening in their own lives and give them some mechanism to take control back—and given these circumstances, threatening to exorcise a man for his outspokenness against lack of transparency seems—well, oddly transparent.

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