Unidentified sources reportedly sent messages to Washington Bolivar suggesting that his life and the lives of his family will be in danger if he continues his work questioning the legality of an oil palm plantation in the region of Ucayali.
Satellite data indicate that Plantaciones de Pucallpa and another company, Plantaciones de Ucayali, has stripped the region of more than 9,400 hectares of primary forest. United Oils, the parent corporation of the two companies, denies clearing primary forest and threatening Bolivar.
Since 2002, approximately 60 people have been killed related to their work campaigning for human rights or forest protection in Peru.
An activist in the Peruvian Amazon has received multiple death threats, reportedly in response to his protests against the clearing of thousands of hectares of primary, indigenous-held forest for oil palm.
According to a press release from the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a human rights group based in the United Kingdom, unidentified sources have sent messages to Washington Bolivar suggesting that his life and the lives of his family will be in danger if he continues his work questioning the legality of an oil palm plantation in the region of Ucayali.
Bolivar is an indigenous activist who has been working with the Shipibo community from the village of Santa Clara de Uchunya for the past year to oppose the destruction of what the community members say were their “traditional forests,” said FPP in the release.
Activism to protect forests can be dangerous. Since 2002, approximately 60 people have been killed related to their work campaigning for human rights or forest protection in Peru. In September 2014, four indigenous leaders from the Asháninka community, Peru’s largest tribe, were reportedly killed in the Ucayali town of Saweto for their opposition to illegal logging.
FPP published the text of the latest threat that Bolivar received. It reads, “Washington…we are going to kill you if you keep on screwing us. Those lands are not yours…you and your family will not live. Let us work if you do not want all of you to die…”
“I am concerned but won’t remain silent,” Bolivar said in the FPP release. “[T]he world should know what Melka’s companies are doing to our lands.”
Plantaciones de Pucallpa, the company responsible for the plantation near the village, contends that it’s within its rights to install an oil palm plantation on this land, and that the release is based on biased, subjective and unprovable content.
“Our organization is respectful of Peruvian and international laws, of people and of the environment,” wrote Ulises Saldana, institutional relations manager with United Oils, in a letter to FPP that the company shared with mongabay.com. United Oils is the holding company for several oil palm subsidiaries in Peru, including Plantaciones de Pucallpa.
In May 2015, satellite analysis by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project showed that Plantaciones de Pucallpa and another United Oils-controlled company, Plantaciones de Ucayali, had stripped Ucayali of more than 9,400 hectares of primary forest, an allegation Saldana flatly denies.
“These lands in no way can be defined as virgin or primary forest,” he wrote.
However, on September 4, Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture suspended all activity on the Plantaciones de Pucallpa plantation until the company can provide evidence of the proper environmental studies to show the land is suited for agriculture, following an investigation in late August.
United Oils is based in the Cayman Islands and is headed by Czech-American businessman Dennis Melka. Melka formerly ran an oil palm plantation company in Southeast Asia, and he is also CEO of United Cacao, a company with a Peruvian subsidiary that has also been accused of clearing primary forest for plantation agriculture.
Melka is intent on bringing large-scale agriculture to Peru. “What we’ve done is we’ve taken the agro-industrial model of planation, which is very common out here in Southeast Asia,” Melka said to the business newspaper, The Edge Singapore.
In another press release on November 2, FPP said that most of Santa Clara de Uchunya’s more than 500 residents rely “almost entirely on hunting, fishing and gathering of forest resources” for survival, which Bolivar said has been impacted by the development of the plantation.
“Our lands have been devastated, all the forest is gone, and the streams are completely churned up and blocked,” said Bolivar. “[T]here is now only one stream we can still use for clean drinking water.”
Plantaciones de Pucallpa acquired this land in 2012 from “the regional government of Ucayali in complete disregard for their legal rights to their traditional lands and with no process of consultation or consent,” said Robert Guimaraes in the November 2 FPP release. Guimaraes is the president of the Federation of Native Communities of Ucayali (FECONAU), an indigenous organization that FPP says represents the village of Santa Clara de Uchunya.
But the plantation does appear to have its supporters. In a video posted on the United Oil website, Grimaldo Villacorta, the president of the Federation of the Cacataibo Native communities (FENACOCA), questions Bolivar’s intentions and said Bolivar does not speak for his organization.
When an unidentified, off-camera interviewer asks, “So Washington Bolivar is an opportunist who takes advantage of the public to be able to gain credit in his favor?” Villacorta agrees, though he does not offer any specific examples of how Bolivar may be profiting.
Ulises Saldana called FPP’s November 18 release “totally irresponsible.” He also said that “press” that was “the product of biased and subjective information” could “generate irreparable consequences of social injustice and violence.”
In addition to asserting the company’s right to develop the area in question, he said that the Ministry of Agriculture’s suspension was based on “misinformation,” the company had submitted evidence of the plantations legality, and it has requested “reconsideration” of the suspension.
In an interview in April, Roberto Espinoza, a forestry advisor with the group AIDESEP that advocates for indigenous peoples in Peru, expressed his concern that the government would allow such development – particularly, oil palm, which he called “an ecocide” that’s left “green deserts” in its wake in Indonesia and Malaysia – on what are claimed to have been lands customarily held by indigenous communities.
“We are not against trade or agriculture. Our communities want this too,” Espinoza said. “But this can be done maintaining standing forest.”
One of the issues, he said, is that 20 million hectares of indigenous lands await titling. When these lands end up in the hands of agricultural, mining or energy companies, it calls into question the government’s commitment to its indigenous people, as well as to the international community.
Peru has promised to eliminate net deforestation within its borders by 2021. And leaders are expected to announce another voluntary commitment to forest protection at the upcoming UN Climate Summit in Paris, COP21, according to FPP.
“The prestige of Peru is in jeopardy because it’s making commitments…to be a serious, responsible country that wants to reduce deforestation,” Espinoza said. But if the government continues to allow the development of indigenous-held forests, he added, “No one is going to believe that, and Peru is going to look ridiculous.
“We don’t want Peru to repeat what Malaysia and Indonesia have done,” Espinoza said. “It would be the greatest misfortune if such massive destruction of those two countries was repeated in Peru, and that should be stopped this year.”