According to official Corah figures obtained through overflights and satellite image analysis, deforestation has exceeded 6,500 hectares (16,000 acres) in less than three years, not counting the primary forest that has been cleared to make room for coca fields. Ninety percent of this loss is concentrated in the buffer zones of two protected natural areas: Bahuaja-Sonene National Park and Tambopata National Reserve, both of which are also surrounded by illegal mining.

According to testimonies collected by Mongabay, coca crops are being cultivated dangerously close to the two protected areas, their expansion driven by producers in San Gabán. The areas that should function as a protective belt for biodiversity have become a drug-trafficking target.

San Gabán: A history of failures

The last time the government intervened to eradicate illegal coca crops in San Gabán was in October 2016. According to Corah figures, 2,787 hectares (6,887 acres) of plantations were removed. Two and a half years later, that eradication effort is just a memory.

Image courtesy of the Ombudsman's Office.
Image courtesy of the Ombudsman’s Office.

Today the proliferation of businesses selling agricultural inputs to feed coca production is evident in the area. Víctor Rucoba of the Peruvian National Police and director of Corah, says that 100 percent of this production serves the illegal market. “Previous eradication efforts found that no farmer from San Gabán delivered their coca to the National Coca Company (Enaco),” he said.

In San Gabán, a district nestled in northwest Puno, on the border with the departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios, eradication has taken place three times in the past: in 2004, 2015 and 2016. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that the expansion of illicit crops began in 2002, and that by 2004, before the first eradication campaign, San Gabán already had 2,700 hectares (6,670 acres) of coca farms. This immediately turned the district into the main illegal coca-producing area of Puno.

The deaths registered in April were not the first in the area due to this problem. In October 2004, three coca farmers who were part of a mass protest against eradication were killed by the police. After months of dialogue and marches, the eradication was carried out, but it did not take long before new crops were seeded.

Eleven years later, in 2015, coca crops proliferated and reoccupied 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres), as indicated by the UNODC. This reseeding was also detected by the National Service of State Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP), an institution that between 2013 and 2014 brought this case before the environment ministry’s public prosecutor, Julio César Guzmán, in light of the proximity of these crops to Bahuaja-Sonene.

Intelligence reports from the Inambari River also pointed in the same direction: coca crops and illegal mining had begun to invade the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park.

“You know that it is no longer self-consumption when the crops no longer occupy half-sized plots far from each other and instead occupy four to five hectares [10 to 12 acres] close together and in large quantities,” Guzmán says.

All the reports and claims indicated the same thing: the illegal coca problem had returned to the area and begun to expand.

Paul Guimarey, an analyst at Corah, says this is the only area of the country where two illegal activities converge at such a large scale: illicit coca cultivation and gold mining. According to the UNODC, mining alone was responsible for deforesting 1,031 hectares (2,550 acres) in 2015. Ten years before, there were barely 11 hectares (27 acres) cleared.

Corah’s coca eradication efforts in San Gabán in 2015 and 2016 helped slash the area of the illegal crops from 1,000 hectares to 398 hectares (2500 acres to 983 acres), according to UNODC figures.

The problem seemed under control; however, Guimarey says the reseeding is something the farmers fall back on, and that the only way to prevent it completely is by supporting them with alternative livelihoods. “After the eradication, the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (Devida) is the one in charge of putting into place alternative crops to avoid falling back to coca,” he says. Devida says it has invested more than $2.42 million in the past four years, but there seems to be little sign of this on the ground.

Some 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) of illegal coca crops stretch from San Gabán in Puno to Inambari district in Madre de Dios, according to the data collected by Corah in February 2019. Counting for the 2,787 hectares that were eradicated, and subsequently replanted, in 2016, that means an estimated 6,502 hectares (16,000 acres) of land has since been newly deforested. Ninety percent of this deforestation has occurred in the buffer zones of Bahuaja-Sonene and Tambopata.

Lechemayo is where these illicit crops have grown the most: in October 2016, 148 hectares (366 acres) were eradicated, but today around 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) have been detected. The deforestation has also spread to eight more sectors of the Bajo Inambari valley.

In the case of Bahuaja-Sonene, the buffer zone begins in the Inambari River. In the case of Tambopata, this area expands from the Interoceanic Highway.

The arrival of the Armed Forces in January this year in La Pampa, an area controlled by illegal miners from Madre de Dios for years, has indirectly benefited drug trafficking.

Many of those employed in gold mining moved to towns such as Lechemayo and Puerto Manoa, also in San Gabán district. Where before they earned between $30 and $60 a day, with coca they now earn between $17-$23 dollars, either clearing land for new fields or harvesting mature leaves. It’s less money, but it’s an activity that, initially, wasn’t as prominent on the authorities’ radar.

Corah sources confirmed that the announcement of Operation Mercury at the start of the year pushed many miners from La Pampa to southern areas such as San Gabán, where they bought land and opened new areas for cultivation. There, a unit of coca leaves weighing an arroba (11.5 kilograms, or 25 pounds) sells for $40. The average yield is 2,415 kilograms per hectare (about 2,155 pounds per acre), and three to four harvests are carried out a year, according to the UNODC. Those figures demonstrate how attractive the business can be.

Corah also detected a dozen artisanal laboratories where the coca leaf is macerated, or steeped in pools to be processed as cocaine base paste, many operating within 200 meters (660 feet) of the Interoceanic Highway. From here, the product travels by road to Peru’s borders with Brazil and Bolivia. In 2018, police detected the presence of at least one clandestine airstrip in the buffer zone of Manú National Park, near this drug-trafficking axis, another possible exit route for this illicit product. Mongabay reported that year that there are also clandestine airstrips used by drug traffickers inside Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, which borders Bolivia.

Tambopata in the spotlight

The migration of illegal activities has also flowed the other way, from San Gabán northward. A hundred and eighty kilometers (110 miles) north of Lechemayo, about an hour and a half away, the community of Villa Santiago in Inambari district, Madre de Dios, has begun to experience the first consequences of the appearance of illegal coca crops. In the past two years, 100 hectares (250 acres) of forest have been razed for this purpose. There was no illegal cultivation in 2016, according to Corah, and none in 2017, according to the UNODC. The threat posed by the problem is exacerbated by the fact that Villa Santiago is part of the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve, which in recent years has lost around 11,000 hectares (27,200 acres) of forest due to illegal mining.

La Cumbre is a town that borders the community and is located at the highest point of the buffer zone, between Villa Santiago and Santa Rosa. At an elevation higher than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), it’s a desired location for drug trafficking.

The first coca crops appeared in Santa Rosa in 2017. Demetrio Pacheco, vice president of the Tambopata management committee, says that during a crackdown on illegal logging carried out in 2018 with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, they found a hut with a coca maceration pool and several gallons of fuel, one of the main components in the production of cocaine. “We found coca. They were going to create new plantations,” Pacheco says.

By January this year, coca growers had started to open the forest on the other side of La Cumbre. From the Interoceanic Highway, it’s a 20–minute walk to the foothills of the mountain. From there, after a 90-minute climb up a rocky slope, the new coca farms are visible. Among the plantations, we see a young man fumigating illegal crops, and a hut where the seedlings are kept. We confirm that at least 2 hectares (5 acres) have been cleared in the area and that it’s likely the same will happen with another half hectare (1.2 acres) where the trees have already been cut. “Possibly to expand the cultivation area,” says Pacheco, who accompanies us on this expedition.

The reserve’s committee is with us because a group of residents has reported a massive influx of strangers into the area. There have been constant threats.

Guillermo*, a young man who had a reforestation area that was turned into a coca plantation, says he was told by a coca grower to forget about the area, that “from now on it’s ours.”

The person told him that if he talked, he says, almost whispering, “we’re going to kill you.”

Andrés*, one of the leaders of Villa Santiago, says that almost every day unknown people leave their vehicles lined up along the road, and in the afternoon they move in large groups, something he hasn’t seen before in this small town. “How long have we taken care of this area preventing people from invading it so that in the future we can use it for reforestation and conservation? Now nobody respects it, nobody respects us,” he says. Every time they raise their voices, the outsiders threaten them with death.

At the beginning of April, Guillermo entered this part of the forest again to see how far the coca cultivation had expanded. “There was a small laboratory with a maceration pool,” he says. Andrés is convinced that the people who have arrived in Villa Santiago come from San Gabán, especially from Loromayo. “We know who the coca growers of that area are and suddenly, since last year, they started visiting some settlers. We need to have an investigation,” he says.

Drug trafficking has encroached into the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve. Those who are conservation allies have witnessed the invasion and also fallen victim to the violence that is beginning to appear, yet the government appears to have not responded to their demands.

The dismantling from the government

Four days after Ángel Quispetupa Chumbilla and Héctor Velásquez Polanco died, the conflict continued in San Gabán, in the sector of El Carmen, where the Corah camp was installed. Farmers continued their road blockades and protests, saying that if the coca is destroyed, they will be left without any economic sustenance.

That was the same argument echoed by the sister of Ángel Quispetupa in an interview with the local radio station Onda Azul. “In the jungle we only live from coca, with that we educate our children, we feed ourselves, we dress. We do not produce another crop, only coca,” she said.

Without a sustainable development plan for the area, the current coca eradication campaign could end up much like the 2005 or 2016 campaigns. Mongabay looked to Devida to learn about the development plans executed in San Gabán. Although it did not provide a version of those plans by the time this article was published, it issued a statement indicating it had invested more than $2.4 million in the district of San Gabán over the past four years alone. This money, according to Devida, has been allocated to the improvement of roads, community management projects, improvement of agricultural technology, cocoa crops, and assistance for producers of pineapple, papaya and banana.

But the mayor of Lechemayo, Jaime Quispe, disagrees. In an interview with a local radio station, he said the national commission has failed to provide alternative crops to coca. “The incursion of Devida is a hoax,” he said.

Rubén Vargas, the president of Devida, said in an interview with the newspaper El Comercio that the main impediment to executing its actions is that the coca farms are found inside Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, and it cannot promote alternative development inside a protected area.

However, Corah’s actions have been carried out in the buffer zone of the park, outside the protected area, where the government has direct responsibility.

Banner image by Vanessa Romo/Mongabay Latam.

*Surnames have been hidden to ensure the safety of those interviewed for this story. Mongabay maintains the full names and recordings of the interviews.

This is a translated version of a story that was first published in Spanish on April 15, 2019.

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