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An oil palm front advances on an Indigenous community in Peru

Comunidad Nativa Santa Clara de Uchunya, distrito de Nueva Requena, Ucayali. Plantacion de palma aceitera, actualmente son 7 mil hectareas, se espera llegar a las 100 mil

  • Indigenous Shipibo leaders in Peru’s Ucayali region say they live under the threat of attacks from suspected land traffickers who continue to invade their territory.
  • The Indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya says these invasions have been exacerbated by the advancement of oil palm plantations in the Amazonian district of Nueva Requena.
  • In August 2020, an outside group was caught cutting down trees that belong to the community.

“The invasions do not stop, the deforestation does not stop, and the threats do not stop,” Iván Flores Rodríguez said by phone from the Indigenous Santa Clara de Uchunya community. A leader of the Shipibo people, Flores Rodríguez outlines the history of his community in the Peruvian Amazon, when, in 2012, the oil palm company Plantaciones de Pucallpa S.A.C. (now Ocho Sur P S.A.C.) settled on the far side of the Aguaytía River, less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) from their homes.

Since then, threats from and intrusions by land traffickers into their territories have increased. Santa Clara de Uchunya’s inhabitants say Ocho Sur P bears some responsibility for these violent events. They say the company encourages third parties to invade their ancestral territories and cut down community-managed forests, and they say they have detected a pattern to their actions. Typically, the invaders present themselves as farmers , after which they request proof of ownership or property deeds from the regional authority, which they then sell to the company to expand monoculture planting of the oil palm.

Flores Rodríguez recounts the most recent illegal intrusion, which occurred on Aug. 17 this year. On that day, Santa Clara de Uchunya community members surprised a group of people who were cutting down trees within their territory in the department of Ucayali on Peru’s eastern border with Brazil. This encounter occurred just as Santa Clara de Uchunya’s Indigenous peoples were reviewing the boundaries of their lands, after the Ucayali regional government’s agriculture agency, the DRAU, approved the expansion of their territory by 1,544 hectares (3,815 acres) in January 2020. Members of the community say the incident is evidence of their vulnerability to outside interests.

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On Aug. 17, 2020, Santa Clara de Uchunya community members caught a group of people illegally cutting down trees within their territory. Image by Iván Flores.

At 8:30 a.m. that day, Shipibo community members surrounded and rebuked the strangers who, in the middle of the forest and with machetes in hand, had already gathered the bolaina (Guazuma crinita) trees, often used as an inexpensive building material, that they had cut down. Flores Rodríguez said the men tried to justify their presence, saying they were “cleaning the path.” The community members recorded the intervention and arrest of the invaders on video and in photographs that the community’s lawyer, Linda Vigo Escalante, presented as evidence hours later before Ucayali’s environmental prosecutor.

“This is not the first time this has happened,” Vigo Escalante said in an interview with Mongabay Latam. “They are always trying to seize the community’s land in different ways. Since Santa Clara de Uchunya started to establish the borders of its territory, the community has found a lot more deforestation, land seizure and even coca plantations.”

After the complaint, the police and prosecutors visited the community where the men were detained. The prosecutor’s office asked for preventive detention of the defendants, Vigo Escalante said, but the judge released them due to the COVID-19 crisis.

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The public prosecutor’s office and police carried out an inspection in the territory of Santa Clara de Uchunya on Sept. 17, where they found evidence of illegal logging. Image by Iván Flores Rodríguez.

In early October, another complaint for land seizure was also filed against someone the community identified as working for Wilfredo Caballero Carrasco. Caballero Carrasco is currently being investigated for alleged membership in a criminal organization led by Dennis Melka, a Czech-U.S. businessman and primary financier of Ocho Sur P’s predecessor, Plantaciones de Pucallpa. The investigation is now in the hands of the federal public prosecutor specializing in organized crime.

Mongabay Latam looked into the challenges that the inhabitants of Santa Clara de Uchunya have faced for years from land invaders, traffickers and an oil palm grower accused of deforestation. While the Shipibo wait for a ruling in their case, Ocho Sur P continues to operate without environmental certification from the Peruvian government for its activities on a land that the community claims as its own.

Living with the threat

Carlos Hoyos Soria, 35, an Indigenous leader and former head of Santa Clara de Uchunya, said he survived two attacks by suspected land traffickers: one in December 2017 and another in July 2018. On both occasions, armed assailants shot at Hoyos Soria and his companions as they monitored the community’s territories. According to Hoyos Soria, without permanent protection, the community lives in constant fear with the threat of these dangers looming over them.

“This whole situation has affected me quite a bit,” Hoyos Soria told Mongabay Latam. “First of all, as an Indigenous person, it has affected my culture and my way of being in the community, as now I cannot live in peace and I cannot walk freely in my territory.”

In 2018, he said, the prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into alleged land trafficking by key regional government officials. According to the Cocha Anía case, in 2015, government workers for the region of Ucayali allocated to private individuals 128 plots of land, amounting to approximately 3,600 hectares (8,900 acres) of the territory claimed by the Santa Clara de Uchunya community.

One of the people involved in this case is Isaac Huamán Pérez, the former director of the DRAU, the Ucayali agriculture department. Huamán Pérez was arrested in 2018 on charges of being the head of a land-trafficking criminal organization. The investigation held him responsible for authorizing the issuance of certificates of ownership to people connected to DRAU staff so that they could then sell them to “an international palm company” — in this case, to the former Plantaciones de Pucallpa, and he was arrested. Huamán Pérez has been under house arrest since May 2020.

Isaac Huamán Pérez, the former regional director of agriculture, was arrested during a raid on Ucayali’s agriculture office. Image by José León/Diario Ímpetu.

Hoyos Soria said his community’s main struggle is to achieve ownership of all their ancestral territories, which covers an estimated 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres). This includes an area of more than 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) occupied and deforested by the former Plantaciones de Pucallpa company for oil palm plantations. In December 2018, the Shipibo leader and his delegation took their struggle to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

The community filed a request for protection filed with the Constitutional Court, Peru’s highest court, on May 26, 2016, against the DRAU, the National Superintendency of Public Registries (SUNARP), and the former company, Plantaciones de Pucallpa.

“We are not asking for a favor; we are claiming our right,” Hoyos Soria said. “Land trafficking continues, which is why we are asking for an immediate response from the regional government of Ucayali. We are also awaiting the ruling of the Constitutional Court.”

The request demands the annulment of 222 certificates of ownership issued to people from outside the community who then sold those lands to Plantaciones de Pucallpa.

The request also demands that the former Plantaciones de Pucallpa immediately cease all activities that cause deforestation and forest degradation. In a Constitutional Court document pertaining to the request, the chamber says that “the claims related to the right to ownership of Indigenous, rural or native communities are especially urgent if it is considered that, in many of them, the place where they live has a special connection with obtaining natural resources for the development of their own environment.” A hearing was held on Sept. 25, 2019, but the court has yet to make a ruling.

Meanwhile, the Indigenous Shipibo continue to live with the threat of violence. Efer Silvano Soria, 34, the current leader of the Santa Clara de Uchunya community, said he has faced death threats that have left him feeling vulnerable. However, he said the commitment to defend his territory comes before his personal safety.

“Not only is my life in danger, but so is the life of the entire community,” he said during a telephone call. Silvano Soria said he was also there on the day in August when the community members found the people illegally cutting down trees in his territory. He said the arrest and complaint did not deter the invaders, as they have returned to the community’s forests.

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Efer Silvano Soria, 34, the current leader of the Santa Clara de Uchunya community, said that he lives in constant fear because of threats he has received against his life. Image by Iván Flores Rodríguez.

“The land trafficking continues, which is why these people keep at it,” Silvano Soria said. “A week ago, we went to the same area and found them making huts. I do not think the state pays attention to us. We sacrifice a lot every time we leave the community to make a complaint; it is an investment of time and money that we do not have, sometimes at the cost of leaving our families without food.”

On Sept. 1, 2017, six farmers were murdered in the hamlet of Bajo Rayal, highlighting the dangers that community members face in the Ucayali district of Nueva Requena.

“They told me, ‘You are going to be next,’” Flores Rodríguez said. The farmers were killed in a conflict between land traffickers who were disputing the possession of 450 hectares (1,100 acres) of a permanently protected forest. Flores Rodríguez said the forests in the region have become very attractive to the traffickers.

“The community is willing to take its own action because we feel disappointed and abandoned,” he added. “It is as though we are living through an internal war in our own country. It is very painful for us because we must look after trees. It is not right to deforest, but we are facing an oil palm monster that is causing this and there is no penalty.”

The long road to justice

The first complaint registered in Ucayali against Plantaciones de Pucallpa was on May 29, 2015. At that time, the Cashibo-Cacataibo leader, Washington Bolívar Díaz, and Iván Flores Rodríguez, as leader of the Santa Clara de Uchunya community, warned that a foreign company was deforesting an area in the Tibecocha sector. Both Indigenous leaders warned that the primary forest that had been cut down was part of Santa Clara de Uchunya’s ancestral land.

Days before, on May 23, an on-site inspection and review by the forests and wildlife management office of the Ucayali regional government found that Plantaciones de Pucallpa had deforested 180 hectares (445 acres) of forest without requesting a change of land use for agricultural purposes.

On Aug. 7, 2017, an Ucayali environmental prosecutor formalized the investigation against Czech-U.S. citizen Dennis Melka, the owner of Plantaciones de Pucallpa, along with 24 other individuals. The evidence gathered by the prosecutor’s office revealed that Plantaciones de Pucallpa bought the Indigenous communities’ lands by corrupting DRAU officials to allow it to plant oil palm in areas without land-use change permits.

The Ucayali environmental prosecutor’s office argued that those involved should be investigated as a criminal organization for alleged crimes against forests, because the deforestation of primary forests since 2013 (between the villages of Naranjal and Unión Progreso in Nueva Requena) occurred following the endorsement of regional officials, including former DRAU director Isaac Huamán Pérez, to illegally establish large-scale oil palm plantations without environmental certification.

“Due to its complexity, the investigation was transferred to the Supranational Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime in 2017,” said José Luis Guzmán, an environmental prosecutor in Ucayali. “Everything went to Lima; we no longer follow the case from Pucallpa.”

Mongabay Latam asked Álvaro Rodas, a prosecutor in the federal office specializing in organized crime, about the status of the investigation since his office took it over on Jan. 31, 2018. Rodas, who is leading the case, said they are working to unravel Melka’s financial ties and that they have recruited three collaborators to help with this process. The initial 36-month time frame allotted for the investigation was set to expire in November this year, but Rodas said the deadline could be extended by another 36 months due to the case’s complexity.

Rodas confirmed that on Dec. 18, 2018, staff from the organized crime prosecutor’s office and police officers arrived at the offices of the former Plantaciones de Pucallpa to issue a precautionary measure ordering the cessation of all forest degradation activities, as well as the shutdown of all of its machinery. The cessation of activities, however, did not occur. The company argued that it was no longer Plantaciones de Pucallpa. It said it had been operating as Ocho Sur P since 2016 and therefore had no ties to the former company.

“We took the records and made a note of everything,” Rodas said, adding that even entering the company’s offices was challenging for the authorities because it resembled a bunker.

On Aug. 28, 2020, the prosecutor’s office of the Ministry of the Environment requested a court order for the cessation of all activities by Ocho Sur P.

Oil palm without environmental certification

In June 2020, an office in the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation rejected a February 2020 request from Ocho Sur P for a type of environmental certification known as PAMA for the second time. The PAMA is a certification granted by the federal government to verify that a company’s industrial activities comply with a minimum environmental standard. For Ocho Sur P to obtain the PAMA would effectively mean that the government sees the company’s agricultural activities as sustainable.

The General Directorate of Agrarian Environmental Affairs argued that, starting in 2013, Ocho Sur P, which was then operating as Plantaciones de Pucallpa, began large-scale, gradual deforestation for oil palm cultivation in the Tibecocha estate, the ancestral territory of the Santa Clara de Uchunya community, without authorization for a change in land use. The document was signed by Juan Carlos Castro, the office’s director, and it concluded that the company did not comply with the forestry and wildlife law, which was in force when operations began.

Representatives of Ocho Sur P maintain that agriculture, including the cultivation of banana, yucca, and maize, has been ongoing on the Tibecocha estate since the 1990s, and the soil had been prepared for oil palm trees. But the agrarian environmental affairs office said that, until 2011, only 16% of the Tibecocha estate’s 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) had been deforested. However, by 2013, when the former Plantaciones de Pucallpa began operations, deforestation increased by 54%, which shows that the advance of oil palm was responsible for progressive and large-scale deforestation of the forest.

Ocho Sur P responded that it did not cause the deforestation as it only began operations in 2016, after Plantaciones de Pucallpa’s assets were transferred, and therefore acquired a “free of charge” ownership right. However, the agrarian environmental affairs office clarified that the assessment of the deforestation of the Tibecocha estate does not focus on the ownership of the land, but on the activities carried out to prevent and mitigate the environmental impacts.

Álvaro Másquez, a lawyer from the Institute of Legal Defense who is in charge of the Santa Clara de Uchunya community’s claims, said the company’s strategy is to obtain environmental certification to validate its oil palm planting and harvesting activities, which include crops planted prior to 2016.

Másquez also said the resolution by the agrarian environmental affairs office was sent to several government agencies in Peru, including the Agency for Supervision of Forest Resources and Wildlife (OSINFOR), the Environmental Assessment and Control Agency (OEFA), the National Forest and Wildlife Service (Serfor), the Ucayali regional government and the Government Accountability Office so that they can proceed with sanctions. Mongabay Latam confirmed that the OEFA initiated an administrative sanctioning procedure against Ocho Sur P in August 2020.

Másquez said no specific regulation forces the company to automatically stop its operations despite the existing evidence.

“There is a legal vacuum that must be resolved by appealing the principles of environmental law,” Másquez said. “We do not know of any precedent, so it is important to act immediately.”

The Santa Clara de Uchunya Indigenous community in the district of Nueva Requena, Ucayali. Image by Diego Pérez.

Mongabay Latam repeatedly sought comment from representatives of Ocho Sur P on the rejection of the company’s PAMA application and the accusations of violence and threats that the Santa Clara de Uchunya community attributes to the company, but they did not respond prior to publication. In an interview with Mongabay Latam in March 2018, Jorge Ulises Saldaña Bardales, a spokesman for Ocho Sur P, said there was no link between the company and such threats.

Efer Silvano Soria, the Santa Clara de Uchunya community leader, said the Ministry of Agriculture’s refusal to issue environmental certification to the company was an achievement, but he also urged national authorities to put an end to the violence.

“We have been shot at, condemned, attacked and even humiliated for defending our territory,” Silvano Soria said. “Now, we ask that OEFA sanction this company with a total cessation of its activities, and that the Constitutional Court allow us to recover our ancestral territory. We have been waiting for justice for many years.”

Banner image of oil palm plantations adjacent to the Santa Clara de Uchunya Indigenous community, Nueva Requena district, Ucayali. Image by Diego Pérez.

This article was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Oct. 21, 2020.

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