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On Peru’s border, the Tikuna tribe takes on illegal coca growers

  • Members of the Tikuna indigenous people in Peru’s border region with Colombia and Brazil have chosen to guard their forests against the rapid expansion of illegal coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is derived.
  • Equipped with GPS-enabled cellphones and satellite maps, they confront loggers and drug traffickers who have threatened them with death.
  • The community wants the government to do more to help them, including assisting in their transition to growing food crops from which they can make a legitimate living.

The last time the Peruvian government swooped in to eradicate coca crops in its northern Amazonian border region near Colombia and Brazil was in 2015. For the indigenous people of this area, who made a living harvesting the leaves, there was a sense of despair at the prospect of having to start all over again.

The affected areas included the indigenous Tikuna communities of Buen Jardín de Callarú, Nueva Galilea and Cushillococha, among others, here in Mariscal Ramón Castilla province, in Peru’s Loreto department. But for Pablo García, a community leader in Buen Jardín, that 2015 raid presented an opportunity to turn a new leaf: to abandon an illicit livelihood and, along with three of his friends, to become a forest monitor. Since then, equipped with a GPS-enabled cellphone and a satellite map, he follows deforestation alerts whenever they appear on his screen.

Yet since that 2015 raid, illegal coca cultivation has resumed, sprouting up in Buen Jardín and the other Tikuna communities. The problem Pablo now faces is that he has to confront the loggers and drug traffickers who invade his territory from the other side of the river. He knows that it’s not just his livelihood that’s at stake, but his very life itself. For Pablo and the others like him, the question they face is, what’s at stake when you want to take care of the forest?

Deforestation patch detected by environmental monitors with the use of a drone. Image by: Buen Jardín monitors.

‘He said he would kill us’

The deforestation that takes place on their indigenous territory doesn’t go unnoticed by Pablo or the other forest monitors. They know very well the limits of their territory, not only because they patrol it, but because they’ve been able to see, for the first time, its full extent on a satellite map.

During a visit by Mongabay Latam to Buen Jardín, the monitors took us to one of the patches of most concern. They took out a drone, which they’ve learned to use with the help of the Rainforest Foundation US, a New York-based NGO that has trained them in the use of this and other technologies, and turned it on to show the deforestation. Almost 300 square meters (3,200 square feet) of forest had been lost.

When they received their first alert, in mid-2018, they immediately went to investigate the area.

“We went to the boundary and we found an invader from Bellavista,” Pablo says. He says the monitors confronted him and told him they would call in the authorities, but the invader “kept threatening us, saying he would kill us.”

Because he didn’t leave and continued threatening them, Pablo and Jorge Guerrero, the apu, or spiritual leader, of Buen Jardín, went to talk with the apu of the Tikuna community of Bellavista de Callarú, whose territory borders theirs. But they returned to Buen Jardín with very little hope, especially because before going into the meeting they were threatened again: “We are going to hang you.”

Deforestation patches detected inside the Buen Jardín community territories. Video by: Rainforest Foundation.

In 2014, the Corah Special Project, a government initiative to eradicate illegal coca crops throughout the country, began to operate in Mariscal Ramón Castilla, inside the region known as Bajo Amazonas, or the Lower Amazon. That raid and the one in 2015 succeeded in reducing the area of illegal coca cultivation in Bajo Amazonas to 370 hectares (914 acres), according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). However, in 2017 there was a significant replanting effort, and the cultivated area expanded to 1,823 hectares (4,500 acres). More acreage has since been added.

Coca production here feeds the Colombian market thanks to the proximity of the border and the lack of drying equipment in this part of Peru, which suggests the coca leaf is processed “green,” as is customary in Colombia, according to the UNODC.

Police in Peru told Mongabay Latam that Colombian individuals pay Peruvian communities in this border region to plant coca, and then buy all their harvest from them.

The prosecutor’s arrival

Fed up with the threats, the residents of Buen Jardín decided to take the evidence they had gathered — GPS coordinates, photographs and videos — to the authorities. The Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO) helped them file their complaint, which reached Alberto Yusen Caraza, the provincial prosecutor for the Loreto branch of FEMA, the office of the Special Attorney for Environmental Matters (FEMA).

In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Caraza confirmed the deforestation that was occurring and the presence of illegal coca crops, and attributed both to the security situation in the region.

“It is a coca-growing area that is always guarded by armed people,” Caraza said, adding that this wasn’t the only complaint his office had received this year.

The residents of Buen Jardín, at a loss for what to do, now have to deal with a newly discovered patch of deforestation, spanning 30 hectares of the 1,771 hectares (74 acres out of 4,376 acres) that belongs to the community. “Before, there was no coca; now it’s full of it,” Pablo says of the deforested area.

“Here we can’t talk openly about what the mafia is,” he adds. “If we go report them to the police, the police sell us out. In what way? They go and warn them. You go to make a deal in Tabatinga (in Brazil), and you disappear.”

The mood of impunity in Bellavista is a far cry from the climate of fear that reigns in Buen Jardín. The town’s small port is full of motorboats, well-stocked restaurants and stores — different from any of the other Tikuna communities in the region. Witnesses indicated to Mongabay Latam that people arrive from different areas of Colombia and Peru every day to work as raspachines, coca harvesters, or to operate processing laboratories that have popped up within the community, on the outskirts of town.

Patrolling activities in Buen Jardín. Video by: Alexa Vélez.

The area underwent the same coca eradication campaign as the rest of the region under the Corah Special Project, followed by the same spurt in replanting, as alternative crops promoted by the government failed to catch on. “Around here, the majority of the people are dedicated to [growing coca] because there is no alternative,” says Teodoro Ayde Lozano, Bellavista’s apu, referring to the indigenous community members. “We plant coca to survive, because if we waited for the cacao [to mature], how long would it take?”

The Rainforest Foundation US’s Peru program has equipped 36 indigenous communities in Loreto, including in Buen Jardín, with technology to monitor deforestation. But the community members who serve as monitors are vulnerable because of the work they do, says program director Tom Bewick.

“The important thing for us is that the government takes action to protect the indigenous environmental advocates who put themselves on the front lines to protect the forests,” he says.

‘You’re a snitch’

Every three days, Isaac Witancor and Leidi Valentín patrol their territory, guided by the deforestation alerts they receive on their phones. They live in the Tikuna community of Nueva Galilea, and they face an enormous challenge: the protection of 2,787 hectares (6,887 acres) of forest.

Between 2001 and 2017, according to the Rainforest Foundation US, the community lost more than 682 hectares (1,685 acres) of forest to invaders who cleared the jungle.

Valentín, the only female monitor in the community, says the loss of forest is regrettable, primarily because the birds, peccaries and tapirs have been driven out. Now, she says, her only chance to hear the animals’ calls is when she goes on patrol in the mountains.

Being a forest monitor in an area gripped by drug trafficking can be risky, but 19-year-old Valentín, who says she’s obsessed with protecting Nueva Galilea’s forests, isn’t daunted by the risks.

Darwin Isuiza is the oldest of all of Nueva Galilea’s forest monitors, and he’s fully aware of the dangers that they all face during patrols.

“Sometimes they say that someone is a ‘snitch’ — you’re a snitch because you use GPS, because we can spread the word. That is what they’re telling me,” Isuiza says. He adds he’s considering abandoning his work as a monitor: “They can do something to me there.”

The residents of Nueva Galilea are inevitably moving into a gray area: even though they want to conserve their forest and make a legitimate living, they haven’t been able to find a stable market for the cacao that they produce. There’s nowhere for them to take the crop and no one to buy it. A large portion of it usually ends up rotting because, according to the residents, the government only assisted them at the start of their transition away from cultivating coca.

Community leaders say this has compelled the residents to continue working as coca leaf harvesters, at least twice a month. Even then, they invest some of the money they earn into their own cacao crops.

Isaac Witancor is one of the Bellavista environmental monitors who has seen the deforestation patches. Photo by: Alexa Vélez.

The forgotten people on the border

A Tikuna woman who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Sara, citing security reasons, says she clearly remembers the day the coca eradication campaign came to Cushillococha.

“There were not many people injured, but there were lots of confrontations, fights, and arguments. We told them that it is not fair to do these things to us, and that we live from that,” Sara says, adding that she vividly remembers the look of desperation on the people’s faces.

She also recalls that DEVIDA, the government institution in charge of national anti-drug strategies, and PEDICP, a Ministry of Agriculture initiative to develop the Putumayo River Basin, arrived a year later.

Both agencies, according to those interviewed, proposed the same projects to all the communities in the area: planting cacao or cassava, known locally as yuca and used to produce fariña flour. Most people remember the intervention in the same way: the arrival of the campaign workers in the communities, training sessions, large amounts of fertilizer left for the communities — and a lack of food.

Mongabay Latam attempted to ask DEVIDA about how the organization plans to meet the needs of the indigenous communities, but it refused to grant us an interview.

Its official website, however, indicates that its strategy has made progress in at least 15 indigenous communities in Bajo Amazonas. It has announced the development of fariña production chains, community development, leadership training, capacity strengthening, technical advice, and more. It also mentions the three indigenous communities highlighted in this article. But members of these communities tell Mongabay Latam that there has been barely any progress; nor were any improvements evident when we visited the region.

In Buen Jardín de Callarú, Nueva Galilea and other indigenous Tikuna communities, the neglect is manifested in the details: a lack of medical clinics, or clinics without enough medicine; single-room schools with three teachers for five different grades; basic needs that go unmet; a dependence on an illegal crop to survive poverty; a lack of confidence in the authorities; drug trafficking; and many lives hanging by a thread.

With everything seemingly against them — no near-term opportunities, and threats coming from all directions — the forest monitors nevertheless persevere in conserving their forest, even as the constant sound of the coca growers’ chainsaws endures.

Banner image: Pablo García, surrounded by coca crops. Photo by: Alexa Vélez.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam. Edits by Erik Hoffner.