- Since 2013, thousands of hectares of Peruvian rainforest have been cleared for a cacao plantation. Data indicate that clearing is continuing despite federal injunctions – and may be on the rise.
- Researchers say much of the plantation was illegally cleared from primary forest, while United Cacao contends it developed legally.
- However, the updated zoning evaluation finds the land on which the plantation is sited could never have been legally developed because its soil, climate, and topographic conditions make it suitable for forest, not agriculture.
A massive cacao plantation in the Amazon rainforest of northern Peru has been dealt another legality blow. Researchers say that the vast majority of the operation is situated on land officially zoned for forest, not agriculture, making plantation activity there illegal.
The seven-square-mile plantation has been at the center of heated disputes between conservationists and United Cacao, the company operating the plantation (under subsidiary Cacao del Peru Norte). The latest infraction, according to scientists at Monitoring the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), stems from a recently issued resolution. The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MINAGRI) has updated its evaluation of “Optimum Land Use” of the Loreto region, which zones areas based on soil, climate, and topographic conditions.
An analysis by MAAP released this week finds that the 92 percent of the area underlying the United Cacao plantation is zoned as Forest Production, which means that conditions are conducive to forest growth, not cultivation. It also means that this land cannot legally be used for agricultural purposes – like producing chocolate.
“In conclusion, the vast majority of deforestation caused by United Cacao occurred in areas classified as optimally suited for forest production, where changes in land-use and associated deforestation are not permitted,” the authors write.
This is the latest in a string of illegality claims leveraged at the plantation and United Cacao. Previously, scientists showed strong evidence that the cacao plantation – touted by the company as “sustainable” — was developed by illegally clearing primary forest. Human rights organizations also allege that two palm oil plantations overseen by United Cacao (and currently up for sale) displaced indigenous territory.
In May, several dozen organizations issued a letter to the London Stock Exchange urging it to drop United Cacao amid these legality concerns. However, it has yet to do so, and the company’s trading price has risen this month.
The Peruvian government has also gotten involved, issuing a stop work order on the plantation in 2014. However, satellite data and imagery indicate plantation expansion has continued despite the order, with more than 2,000 deforestation alerts recorded in the plantation area since the beginning of 2015. In fact, plantation activity seems to be ramping up, with 435 alerts recorded between January 1 and June 10 this year, compared to just 53 alerts recorded during the same period in 2015.
In late May, Peru’s forest authority (SERFOR) released a statement condemning United Cacao’s activities in Peru, saying it did not obtain required environmental approval before developing the plantation, and that it illegally cleared large areas or primary rainforest. United Cacao has repeatedly denied allegations of legal wrongdoing.
United Cacao and its CEO Dennis Melka have so far escaped any penalties. However, SERFOR Executive Director Fabiola Muñoz told Peruvian news source La Republica (translated by Google) that these zoning results constitute “other grounds” for criminal proceedings against Melka since development permits would never have been granted for Forest Production land.