- Peru has more than 80 legally recognized private and communal conservation areas, covering some 250,000 hectares, and some landowners have set aside additional land for conservation or tourism without obtaining official designation.
- Private property in remote areas may suffer the same illegal incursions by loggers, miners, poachers, and farmers as public lands do, even though it is generally better protected under the law.
- Because parts of the Peruvian Amazon are hours — or days — by boat from the nearest town where there are police or judiciary personnel, law enforcement is weak or nonexistent. Government officials also acknowledge that corruption is a problem in some places.
Murilo Reis was guiding a group of tourists on his private nature reserve in a remote part of northeastern Peru two months ago when he came across more than a dozen people who were digging up turtle nests on the riverbank to steal the eggs.
When they refused to leave, he called in the police, but the law-enforcement officer sided with the poachers, and Reis told Mongabay he was powerless to stop the pillaging. He worries that illegal logging, hunting, and fishing not only jeopardize his tourism business, but also threaten an area that he is preserving as a refuge for animals fleeing illegal human activity in the forest.
He is not alone. Although news reports have highlighted illegal logging and mining, drug crops, squatters, building of unauthorized roads, and poaching in government protected areas and on indigenous lands in the Peruvian Amazon, owners of private conservation areas face similar problems, but get less attention.
“Much of the problem has to do with a lack of land-use planning,” Bruno Monteferri, director of the private conservation program of the non-profit Peruvian Environmental Law Society (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental, SPDA), told Mongabay. That is often aggravated by conflicting land claims and lack of law enforcement.
Peru has more than 80 legally recognized private and communal conservation areas, covering some 250,000 hectares, Monteferri said. In addition, some landowners, such as Reis, have set aside land for conservation or tourism, even though they have not obtained official designation as a private conservation area from Peru’s National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Nacionales Protegidas por el Estado, SERNANP).
Although private property is generally better protected than state lands because of legal protections for landowners, Monteferri said, private lands in remote areas may suffer the same illegal incursions as public lands. Because parts of the Peruvian Amazon are hours — or days — by boat from the nearest town where there are police or judiciary personnel, law enforcement is weak or nonexistent. Government officials also acknowledge that corruption is a problem in some places.
A former nature guide in the Pantanal region of his native Brazil, Reis moved to the Amazon to help a friend set up a tourism business on some newly acquired land on the Tapiche River in the Loreto region, in northeastern Peru. When the friend decided to sell out, Reis bought the land for conservation and tourism.
Of the property’s 6,000 hectares, he and colleague Deborah Chen are currently actively managing 1,640 as a nature reserve. A long day’s travel by fast boat from the regional capital of Iquitos, a city of about half a million people that is a magnet for nature tourists, the place seemed perfect, with trees and waterways that attract a variety of birds, monkeys, and other wildlife.
It is also near the Sierra del Divisor, an area where a new national park is planned. But announcement of the park has been delayed, leading to a campaign pressuring the government to issue a formal decree, as satellite images show areas of the putative park being cleared, probably by loggers and farmers.
Reis said illegal loggers seem to be trying to haul as much timber out of the area as possible before the park is created and comes under government protection.
Loreto is the country’s most heavily forested region, but it is also the target of illegal loggers who “launder” timber to make it appear to have been harvested legally, according to a 2012 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“It gets worse every year,” Reis said.
Flavia Prato has seen similar events unfold on the 18,000 forested hectares her grandfather bought decades ago in Peru’s central Amazon region. Her father, one of Peru’s early forestry engineers, had a vision of sustainable logging and reforestation, and set up a sawmill on the property. Prato lived on the property as a child, in the family homestead.
“I grew up with the idea that the forest is sacred,” Prato told Mongabay. “You have to know how to use it intelligently, so you can conserve it.”
But beginning in the 1960s, farmers cleared swaths of her family’s property to plant crops that included coca, the raw material used to make cocaine. Between the 1970s and 1990s, attacks by subversive groups that targeted landowners finally forced Prato’s family to move to Lima, although they maintained ownership of the land.
Now she and her sister are trying to reclaim it, with the goal of making it a conservation refuge in an area where there has been a great deal of deforestation in recent decades.
But Prato said small farmers continue to clear fields for crops on the property, sometimes encouraged by local politicians trying to curry favor with voters. She estimates that around 100 families are now living on her family’s land.
Some of the greatest threats to private conservation areas are in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region, where overlapping concessions for alluvial gold mining, ecotourism, agriculture, conservation, Brazil-nut harvesting, and reforestation have led to a series of conflicts.
At least two officially recognized private conservation areas there are threatened by gold miners, while others have suffered from escaped fires that were set to clear neighboring lands for agriculture, according to Eddy Peña, conservation specialist in the SPDA’s office in Madre de Dios, the regional capital.
Ecotourism and conservation concessions — granted by the government, on state lands — have also fallen prey to land speculators who take advantage of the lack of a coordinated system for tracking land rights granted by different government agencies, Peña said.
Two conservation concessions — one of which is in the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve, a protected area that is a popular nature tourism destination — have been invaded by illegal loggers, Peña said.
A 2,000-hectare ecotourism concession, also in the Tambopata buffer zone, “has been completely invaded by illegal miners,” he said.
Alluvial gold mining in Madre de Dios has destroyed more than 50,000 hectares of forest and choked watersheds with silt. Studies have also found high levels of mercury in fish and humans.
In two other ecotourism concessions, one of them in the native community of Infierno, small farmers have cleared areas to plant crops, either illegally or with permits from a government agency that did not verify existing land rights.
Many of the conflicts are documented on the Alerta Ambiental website, where citizens can post and comment on environmental problems in Madre de Dios, and the SPDA’s Madre de Dios legal clinic has handled some cases. But some landowners or concession holders do not file legal complaints because they are unfamiliar with the legal system or because they fear retaliation, Peña said. One elderly woman told him she was simply going to give up and move away.
About half of Peru’s private conservation areas were created by small farming communities, Monteferri said. Some hope the official designation will help protect them against possible future claims by mining or oil companies. In other cases, the conservation area is designed to ensure that forest or headwaters remain protected, regardless of changes in community leadership.
Some owners of private conservation areas, like Prato, are children or grandchildren of people who homesteaded in rural areas. Others are young environmentalists seeking to preserve part of the landscape. Some operate lodges or small businesses that use forest products, such as Brazil nuts.
Monteferri and the SPDA spearheaded the formation of a network of owners of private conservation areas called We Conserve by Nature (Conservamos por Naturaleza), which now offers opportunities for volunteers and others to become involved.
Both Reis and Prato are determined to conserve their forest tracts, although neither has obtained official private conservation area status.
And both said they would like to avoid conflict with neighbors who have few legal ways to earn an income.
Establishing property rights in a place where local villagers have been accustomed to farming, hunting, or logging on the land is difficult, Monteferri said. In those cases, landowners may have to negotiate with the neighbors.
Reis said he has hired eight local villagers to work in his tourism operation, but a disgruntled group of locals has accused him of murder in a case that was closed by the local prosecutor months ago.
In that case, a man from a neighboring community disappeared while hunting or fishing in 2014. His body finally appeared in the river about 37 miles (60 kilometers) downstream from Reis’s property. The prosecutor found no evidence of foul play and closed the case.
After Reis protested logging and poaching on his property, however, some local people asked the prosecutor to reopen the case, accusing Reis in the man’s death.
More income-producing opportunities for local people would reduce the encroachment on their properties, said Reis and Prato. Reis is planting açai palm in hopes of stimulating a local market for the fruit and generating employment opportunities.
Prato is also eyeing items that could be produced sustainably from natural products in her family’s forest. Meanwhile, she and her sister hope to rebuild a simple house on the land so they can spend more time there.
“When I went back after so many years, it made me want to cry,” she said of her return a few years ago, after the local leader of one of the subversive groups that supported drug traffickers was arrested. “I returned to a place that I never should have left.”
Reis is also determined to forge ahead with plans for his reserve, even though his tourism operation is not yet turning a profit.
“My family and friends say I’m crazy,” he said, “but I can’t give it up.”
- EIA (2012). The Laundering Machine: How Fraud and Corruption in Peru’s Concession System Are Destroying the Future of Its Forests. Environmental Investigation Agency, Washington, D.C., USA.
Editor’s note: This story was updated shortly after publication to include additional information about illegal activity on private conservation land in Madre de Dios. The inserted material consists of the four paragraphs beginning “Two conservation concessions…”