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Peru: the man who overcomes fear to defend the forest

  • The vice president of the Tambopata National Reserve management committee has reported invasions and threats on several occasions.
  • Demetrio Pacheco says that he has found burned and fallen trees inside his concession.

MADRE DE DIOS, Peru – It is 6:28 in the evening and everything is already dark in the middle of the rainforest of Madre de Dios, in the south of Peru. I’m about to go to sleep after having talked all day with Demetrio Pacheco. He told me about his love for the forest, about his life, the death threats he has been receiving in recent months, and the bullet he found on the table.

“You are not afraid?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he answered.

(Long silence)

“How can you sleep here?” I tell him.

“Since the last time they threatened me with death, this is the first time I’ve stayed here,” he said.

I look at the clock. It’s 6:32. Only four minutes have passed. Ten more hours until sunrise.

When the sun hides in the jungle, the darkness becomes more intense and the mood turns serious. Crickets, bats, frogs, birds and hundreds of insects seem to gossip all night, like an endless murmur. An echo that can lull you to sleep, but also bring you closer to your deepest fears. But sleeping with fear is like not sleeping at all. Any sound can wake you up. The rain slowly and mysteriously approaches. The wind is mistaken for a jaguar’s roar or a group of tapir or white-lipped peccary searching for food. Everything can disturb you when you live with fear. Even worse, when you want to see, everything around you is pitch dark.

People are entering and invading the concession from several directions, says Pacheco. Photo by Jack Lo for Mongabay

A peasant who fights

Demetrio Pacheco is the lieutenant governor of the Association of Agricultural Producers San Juan, vice president of the management committee of the Tambopata National Reserve and president of the Association of Forestry Concessions of Reforestation of Madre de Dios. He is a father of four children and has been married for more than 30 years. His hands, rough like sandpaper and hard like a shovel, are representative of his life working the land. Currently, Pacheco has a Forestry Concession for Reforestation of a little more than 800 hectares (1,976.84 acres), at kilometer 70 of the Interoceanic Highway. There, just one hour from Puerto Maldonado, life is becoming a game of Russian roulette.

Demetrio Pacheco in his concession. In this area, they burned everything and then planted banana. A crop that grows fast, so invaders use it to file charges against the concessionaires for alleged land use change. Photo by Jack Lo for Mongabay

Even past his 60, Pacheco keeps walking at a steady pace and appears to be analyzing you at all times. His time in the Army working on intelligence issues made him more curious, daring and outspoken but also distrustful and very analytical.

He remembers everything. He writes everything down. He takes pictures of everything.

Pacheco has had a varied life. Born in the heights of the Moquegua region, in Carumas, a Peruvian district located more than 3,000 meters above sea level with a little more than 5,000 inhabitants, according to population projection and geographical location studies by the National Institute of Statistics and Information (also known by its acronym in Spanish, INEI).

The people of Carumas are farmers or ranchers who live among green hills, deep canyons and crystal-clear waters. As a boy, Pacheco helped his parents farm mainly potatoes, barley and corn. He also became an expert farmer looking after the sheep, goats, cows, donkeys and horses they had at home.

When he turned 18, he joined the Army. When he finished his compulsory military service he moved to Arequipa to study business management at a local institute. It was there, at only 20 years old where he realized that if he wanted to progress and make the most of his life he had to do everything he could.

He got a job reading the newspaper to a terminally ill patient; he took on the challenge without thinking twice. Then he was a gardener at a colonial house in one of the most affluent districts of the city. His knowledge of farming meant that he had no problems looking after some grass and flowers. When he felt he needed more money to continue studying, he also mended shoes and made leather key chains at night. Everything changed for Pacheco one Sunday when he reunited with a fellow student that had suddenly stopped attending classes. It was a defining moment that changed the direction of his life.

A trip to the jungle

In Madre de Dios there are several land defenders who are unwilling to surrender their fight. Víctor Zambrano, president of the Management Committee of the Tambopata National Reserve, is someone who fights for life in the southern Amazon region of Peru. When I asked about fear, he answers firmly.

“I’m also a regular visitor of San Pedro,” Zambrano said. They look for me to threaten me, but at this point in my life, what can I do? I can’t go back. We already have our lives planned. We are never going to give up. We are a group of people who fight.”

Zambrano was recognized in 2016 by the National Geographic Society as an anonymous leader in conservation and has also received recognition in Peruvian Congress for his commitment to the country, childhood and conservation.

“Fear stays in the background,” he said. “What we defend is more important. The environment. Natural resources. We defend life, the generations that are to come and that we need to benefit. We can’t be afraid. That feeling is not part of our lives. And I’ve known Demetrio for decades since we started working for Madre de Dios. He is someone who will never give up.”

Demetrio shows the bullet they found on the table of his camp. Image courtesy of Demetrio Pacheco

At the end of November 2015, about 25 kilometers (about 15.5 miles) from Demetrio’s forestry concession, forestry concessionaire and environmental activist Alfredo Ernesto Vracko Neuenschwander, who confronted illegal miners, was murdered. The miners invaded his land at kilometer 93 of the Interoceanic Highway.

Pacheco says that his son Carlos had a shotgun pointed at his chest in March of this year, something that was noted in a formal complaint. Days later, he adds, they found a bullet on their dining table and asked for protection.

Demetrio Pacheco came by chance to Madre de Dios. Which brings us to Pacheco’s reunion with his friend in Arequipa. The friend explained his absence and showed Pacheco a small rock and several sheets of gold. In that moment, Pacheco knew that if he finds gold he would be able to pay for his studies.

Pacheco thought he would never return to the classroom. It was the end of the 70s and Puerto Maldonado was a small town full of free land that was populated by people from Cusco, Arequipa, Puno and Moquegua in search of a place where “there was nobody.” It took him more than a week to arrive and walk in the jungle for the first time. He started working with his friend’s partners. According to Pacheco, in those times the artisanal miners were more conscious about the environment.

They did not cut down the forest; they only worked on the beaches that were formed next to the Madre de Dios River, in a calm, peaceful way and without harming the environment.

After a while, in 1982, he convinced his parents to move to the rainforest. Later, they asked the government for a Reforestation Concession — which is the one he currently manages — and left mining.

“Seeing the trees grow and working the land attracted me more,” Demetrio says as he walks through his 835-hectare concession and begins to show me banana plantations, 30-meter-burned trees and the remains of camps which people — invaders according to Demetrio — have left behind.

With his eyes overflowing with tears, he points out fallen and burned chestnut trees. He desperately searches for the fruits. “Look what they have done,” he tells me angrily.

Who maintains order?

Since 2012, Demetrio Pacheco has reported seven invasions into his concession and threats for illegal logging, burning of primary forest, cutting down chestnut trees — which are considered a flagship product of Madre de Dios — for depredation of secondary forest, destruction of forest regeneration and for usurpation of rights.

“I have all my papers in order, but it seems that the authorities support those who commit crimes,” he said. “They ignore the complaints. This mafia continues to threaten, invade and destroy all concessions.”

Pacheco says that those who invade his land also go to the Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources and Wildlife (also known by its acronym in Spanish, Osinfor) to file charges against him for alleged land use change. Osinfor visits and verifies a change of land use, and penalizes the concessionaires with massive fines. No investigation is opened. He said the agrarian institute then validates these false associations, and that he’s even had his work tools destroyed.

Burned Brazil nuts. Pacheco holds them with sadness. Photo by Jack Lo for Mongabay

In the office of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (also known by its Spanish acronym, SPDA) in Puerto Maldonado, Eddy Peña says more order is needed.

“Audits are not done in the best way,” he said. Peña is an agronomist who specializes in the native communities’ conservation, and is part of the technical team of the SPDA in Madre de Dios. “Osinfor, what do they do? They arrive at the site, inspect the concession and, without any contemplation, impose extremely disproportionate fines. It is normal for people to feel discouraged and helpless.”

A burned Brazil nut tree. Photo by Jack Lo for Mongabay

At the Osinfor headquarters located in Lima, they also say they are very worried about this situation.

“There is inaction by the prosecutor’s office and the regional government,” said Ildefonzo Riquelme, director of the Forestry and Wildlife Supervision Division of Osinfor. “Even though we identify the invaders, we can’t sanction them.” In effect, Riquelme says responsibility for sanctions lies with the prosecutor’s office and the regional government. He also says claims against Pacheco were cleared.

“He was reported twice,” Riquelme said. “We traveled in 2013 and 2016 to verify. We quickly realized that he was not breaking his contract, but that others were damaging his forest. That is why, in his case, we didn’t fine him.”

Riquelme points out that fines for concessionaires who do not comply with forest protection laws can amount up to over $1,200 and adds that the lack of budget in the regional governments is the main excuse for not being effective.

“As they don’t have money, they fall into shady acts that prevent things from improving,” Riquelme said. “The issue is people and their will. Everything is justified by money. The police themselves tell us that there are police officials who have also been contaminated with all of this. We are aware of everything that happens and that fines can be disproportionate in many cases, but we are working to make sanctions more and more just and fair.”

However, Carlos Alberto Salazar, responsible for the area of ​​planning and budget of the Regional Directorate of Forestry and Wildlife of the Regional Government of Madre de Dios tells Mongabay that there is just no money for the work.

“When the functions of forestry control were transferred to the regional government it unfortunately didn’t come with a budget,” Salazar said. “We don’t have resources and our work is scarce. However, we try to make alliances with other organizations. We try to work well, but imagine, a few days ago they also invaded the livestock center of the regional government. Nobody is safe. It is very difficult for us to police everyone.”

In Demetrio Pacheco’s concession, there are a variety of trees: achiguas (Huberodendron swietenoides), fine-leaf wadara (Couratari guianensis), moenas (Qualea paraensis), pashacos (Macrolobium acaciaefolium), tornillos ( and tall Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excels), but unfortunately, they have been burned and knocked down before 2012. There have been years of constant struggle, and the forest has been weakened.

Inside the concession he still has a primary forest from which he continues to take resources and reforest afterward. It is a completely different panorama. Photo by Jack Lo for Mongabay

The office of the National Forestry and Wildlife Agency (also known by its acronym in Spanish, Serfor) in Lima is the government agency responsible for combating deforestation and illegal trafficking of forest resources.

“We understand the importance of the matter and share the concern to these complaints which must be managed through the Public Prosecutor’s Office with the appropriate support of the police force and the regional authority,” a Serfor spokesperson wrote in an email. “Even more so now that there is an initiated process in the aforementioned prosecutor’s office, they claim for the sentence.”

In addition, they add that “for this reason, the Regional Government of Madre de Dios was also informed of the opened process in the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and through an official enquiry they requested that in view of the transferred forest competences, they report on the actions implemented in this case —given that the verification proceedings were carried out— and although precautionary measures have been issued, they have not been implemented and the eviction of the occupied areas have not been carried out.”

“They even have the nerve to build,” says Demetrio. Photo by Jack Lo for Mongabay

Mongabay contacted Americo Bautista, the environmental prosecutor of Puerto Maldonado, to consult him about Pacheco’s and other concessionaires’ complaints in this part of the Interoceanic highway, but an interview could not be arranged. At Osinfor, Riquelme says that all regional governments have an agreement to share information with one another.

Private citizens describe the situation is out of control.

“The rule of law is upside down, and it does not help the citizen,” says Víctor Zambrano, who owns the first Private Conservation Area (ACP) of Madre de Dios which he christened with his daughter’s name K’erenda. “When the illegals file charges against the concessionaires, the authorities immediately run to verify the alleged crime. When the concessionaires make a denunciation, it stays on paper. We feel frustrated by the things that are happening, but we don’t have where else to go. The fight continues.” He has planted more than 20,000 trees in his concession, converting what was once pasture into a healthy forest.

Zambrano’s statements and the situation in this region of Peru call the attention of the authorities in the Regional Government of Madre de Dios.

Salazar says it’s a matter of policy control. “There is an inoperability of the authorities, not only here, but also from the central level. Everybody knows it, but what are they really doing? Maybe the regional authority in charge has other priorities, but there is a national forestry policy that is not met.”

According to Pacheco, Peña and Zambrano, 43 concessionaires in the vicinity of the Interoceanic Highway between kilometers 65 and 80 have been impacted. According to Demetrio Pacheco, he has made several complaints.

“The people living in the area where Pacheco lives are very vulnerable,” Eddy Peña said. “They are near La Pampa (mining center) and are close to the area allowed for mining. The biggest problem is that they are systematically invaded by a mafia of land dealers that are constituted in pseudo-associations of farmers which they register to obtain legal status.”

Peña says concessions are illegally entered, areas are delimited for produce farms for mainly fast-growing banana, and after land-grabbers take possession they request the areas from the agrarian directorates. The weak response of the government and the complaints of the concessionaires form a vicious circle.

“Some are already tired of fighting and have abandoned their concessions or have begun building relations with the mafias because they have no other choice,” he said.

Salazar, from the Regional Forestry and Wildlife Directorate of the Regional Government of Madre de Dios, says there is a plan for a solution.

“To avoid these overlays that are a consequence of the disorder that exists, we are going to launch 14 units of timber harvesting —these are the smallest administrative units used for planning and reporting the harvest of timber— to give greater security to the concessionaires,” Salazar said. “We are talking with Osinfor so that they can make their inspections faster.”

La Pampa is the name of a mining center 30 kilometers (over 18 miles) from Demetrio’s concession. A cradle of illegality and chaos, it is located along the Interoceanic Highway, it is a social and environmental disaster. It’s a place where few can enter and where the mafias do what they want. There’s garbage everywhere, prostitution, fuel barrels and horrifying views of a desert that, until recently, was a forest.

Cover photo by Jack Lo Lau

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on July 7, 2017.

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