Empty promises, dangerous lies

One of our guides, Guillermo, is a mechanic and has a chainsaw part for one of the new farmers, so we take advantage of the opportunity and follow him up the steep riverbank to a new clearing. It looks to be only a few months old and about 2 hectares (5 acres) in size. Partially burned logs lie in the ash among manioc plants and a few skinny papaya trees. A couple and two young girls are sitting on the roughly sawn floorboards of an open-sided house with a palm-thatched roof. A deer skin is drying next to several plastic gas containers and three chainsaws.

Despite the ugliness of the clearing, these are not the threatening narcos I expected. The younger girl holds a parrot in front of her to hide her smiling face, and the man, who says his name is Carlitos, seems friendly enough. We make small talk as Guillermo and Carlitos hunch over a chainsaw. Theirs is the typical story. They arrived six months ago from VRAEM. I ask if the land is theirs. 

“No, we aren’t the owners, it’s the state’s,” Carlitos says. “We heard it was available, so we came with the head of the association. They are going to build two towns here, one for each association, with schools, everything. Soon there will be 5,000 people living here.” 

Settlers on land newly cleared for agriculture along the Sepahua River. Photo by Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.

We learn that the farmers were recruited by land traffickers to join agriculture associations focused on growing cacao, yet the associations don’t have any rights to the land. Carlitos tells us that engineers from Peru’s protected areas agency, SERNANP, marked and mapped the parcels. However, this is obviously false as that function is not within the agency’s jurisdiction. He said he then paid a fee of 2,400 soles ($800) to occupy his parcel. His hope is that the government will see that the lands are being used and eventually grant him ownership. This scenario could be possible in lands not already set aside for other uses, but the Sepahua is zoned for forestry as Permanent Production Forest Units and divided up into forestry concessions. Unfortunately for Carlitos, the law dictates that he has next to zero chance of ever legally occupying his parcel.

The tone of our conversation takes a dramatic turn when we pull out our cameras. The wife and girls disappear, and Carlitos grabs a sweatshirt, pulling the hood over his head despite the sweltering heat. Then the older of the girls appears with a phone and points it in my face taking pictures. I notice that Guillermo is already making his way down the path. “Chris, it’s time to go,” he says.

Later that day I ask Pascual about Carlitos.

“We don’t know the people making that farm,” he said. “The truth is that I don’t understand how they came here, how someone sold this land … if they keep coming, making more farms, we won’t be able to fish or hunt on this river. I don’t want any more people to come. You’ve seen what they have destroyed. Maybe you can help stop this?”

Sepahua Community Vigilance Committee Coordinator Pasqual Miqueas Murayori. Photo by Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.
Drone photograph of deforestation for agriculture along the Sepahua River, Peru. Photo by Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.

The previous day we talked to two fishermen from VRAEM who in two days netted 160 fish totaling more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds), which they sold in town. If the fish and peccary and deer disappear, people like Pascual worry they will have to abandon traditional subsistence lifestyles for wage labor in town or the logging camps or, who knows, on the coca farms. Meanwhile, the isolated tribes who live in the upper Sepahua have already been displaced by logging, road construction and other invasions happening in other parts of the  Purús-Manu corridor. Where will they go when the Sepahua is full of armed coca farmers?

Local people try to avoid the Mascho-Piro, the biggest of Peru’s isolated tribes, for the most part, and don’t go upstream in the dry season from May through October, when the tribe leaves seclusion to collect turtle eggs and often aggressively defends its territory. We interviewed a man who two years ago agreed to take a European couple upstream during the dry season. He and the woman were both struck by arrows at the very spot where Carlitos now lives, he said; both survived.

This part of the Urubamba and the adjacent Alto Purús National Park have long been a transport route for crude coca paste from the Andean foothills to clandestine processing camps and airstrips in Brazil. But drug-related activities like the Sepahua invasion have increased exponentially in recent years. Farms and airstrips are appearing in new areas, and local sources are reporting more frequent sightings of strangers on foot, most likely mochileros or coca backpackers in the remotest native communities. In 2014, a tribe that left isolation described an attack by men with automatic weapons who killed dozens of their people. The transformation of the Sepahua and other Urubamba tributaries into a coca-growing region could mean an increase in these deadly conflicts. Arrows are simply no match for automatic weapons.

The Sepahua River isn’t the only place experiencing a surge in deforestation. Satellite data show small clearings growing in number, as well as an airstrip, in the area immediately south the Sepahua. As of November 24, deforestation here had reached within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of the buffer zone of Manu National Park. Data source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch; satellite imagery from Planet Labs.

Shirked responsibility

Reports show that the invasions are the result of a combination of factors, including high prices for coca, few alternatives for poor farmers, and the lack of state presence. Oversight of the region is shared by a slew of government agencies involved in law enforcement, forest management, land tenure, indigenous rights and protected areas. However, the first level of responsibility falls on the logging companies working in the concessions being invaded. Peru’s Wildlife and Forestry Law No. 29763 states that concessionaires are responsible for being custodians of the forest under their management, ensuring proper and only authorized use of the forest. Furthermore, the law dictates that logging operations located in buffer zones of protected areas, like those in the upper Sepahua, must be certified as being sustainably managed and never clear-cut.

A representative from the company that manages several of the Sepahua concessions claims it filed a formal complaint about the invasion with the government. But another logger admitted, “Those people aren’t our problem. We want the wood inside the forest, not along the river. Plus, those people are dangerous.” The Sepahua situation highlights the risks of a forest management system that relies on timber companies to comply with forest management laws in remote areas lacking state presence.

The Agency for Supervision of Forest Resources and Wildlife (OSINFOR) is ultimately responsible for ensuring that concessionaires are complying with the law. When shown evidence of the invasions, OSINFOR representatives seemed surprised and concerned about the deforestation along the Sepahua, and said they had not received any complaints from the concessionaires. They added that for OSINFOR to organize an investigation, they need to receive evidence in a signed, formal complaint. However, they admitted it’s a tall order to expect anyone living or working near the Sepahua to sign their name to a complaint against those affiliated with narcos.

On our last night we stop to camp at a small beach elevated above a bend in the river. Here the canopy is thick and almost reaches across the river, and for the first time in days I feel the calming wonder of being deep in the heart of the Amazon. I sit next to the fire and watch Guillermo pole the canoe across the narrow river to the far bank. On his first cast of the net, he catches a meter-long (3-foot) doncella catfish (Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum) along with several species of smaller catfish, piranha and a small stingray. We spend the early evening eating fried fish and watching pairs of squawking macaws fly overhead to roost.

My thoughts turn to a proposal to protect the headwaters as a conservation concession, an idea enthusiastically supported by the local tribes, but not the pro-timber government that has resisted the necessary rezoning of the area from timber to conservation. The protected area would cover 65,000 hectares (160,000 acres) of one of the most important unprotected places for isolated tribes anywhere in the world. It would provide protected connectively between Alto Purús National Park and the overlapping Mashco-Piro Indigenous Reserve with the Kugapakori Territorial Reserve and Manu National Park.

Drone photograph of the proposed Sepahua Conservation Concession near the border of Alto Purús National Park. Sepahua River, Peru. Photo by Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.

The tranquility is interrupted by the dull hum of a motor downstream. A few minutes later a large boat comes fast around the bend. Six men are seated around various bags, cardboard boxes and gasoline containers. Several are holding shotguns, most likely for hunting caiman. Their cheeks bursting with coca leaves, they barely seem to notice us and speed by. Eventually the sound of the motor fades somewhere upstream but is soon replaced by the higher pitch of a chainsaw.

I turn to Pascaul seated next to me at the fire. “Why are they using a chainsaw in the middle of the night?”

He doesn’t hesitate: “They are clearing a place to sleep in the forest, in their new parcel.”


Editor’s note (1): This story was updated on Dec. 20, 2019, to reflect more recent information on coca eradication efforts.

Chris Fagan is founder and director of the Upper Amazon Conservancy. He has been working to protect the people and forests of the Peruvian Amazon since 2002. He can be reached at [email protected]. Funding for this fieldwork was provided by the Andes Amazon Fund.  

Banner image: Drone photograph of deforestation for agriculture along the Sepahua River, Peru. Photo by Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.

Editor’s note (2): This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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