- An irregular land titling system is behind the deforestation of a swath of Amazon rainforest now occupied by a Mennonite colony in Masisea municipality, in Peru’s Ucayali department.
- In 2015, more than 40 land registry files were filled out with false information to give forests titles that made them appear to be farmland.
- This system, used in several places in Ucayali department, allowed for the deforestation of more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of forests in Masisea and within Indigenous communities.
In September 2015, officials from the agriculture agency of Peru’s Ucayali department arrived in the district of Masisea with one goal: to create a rural land registry in a forested area along the edge of the Masisea-Imiría Highway, a road that runs through a section of the Peruvian Amazon.
That was the beginning of an intricate system of irregularly ceding public and Indigenous lands that later ended up in the hands of a Mennonite colony in Ucayali department.
Some authorities from the departmental government participated in this process by using their positions to grant titles to forested land illegally. Some of them are now under investigation and under house arrest. This story is an example of how, in Peru, some forests are deforested first on paper, and then in real life.
The Ministry of the Environment’s public prosecutor, Julio Guzmán, calls this is a form of land trafficking, in which the allocation of land appears legal on paper, but is based on fraudulent information. “This is what happens in the Amazon and in Ucayali; that is, people serve as frontmen so that they can receive the properties and later sell them,” Guzmán said. “In this search, we are going to find acts of corruption by regional governments, which is no secret. We know that regional governments have used agricultural titles to restructure government property that had primary forests.”
More than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) of forests in eastern Peru were demarcated as private properties and later registered in the names of people who do not recall becoming owners of the land.
Mongabay Latam accessed 47 of the land registry files prepared in 2015 by the team from the Ucayali departmental agriculture agency, or DRSAU, that traveled to Masisea that year. The numbers of these land registry files can be found on the list of the 64 properties that Guzmán’s office has included in its investigation into the Mennonite colony’s role in the crimes against these forests.
Using the 47 files in the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Irrigation’s Registry System for Rural Properties (SICAR) — the official database for rural properties in Peru — Mongabay Latam determined that 29 of them overlap with the territories of two Indigenous Shipibo-Conibo communities: 25 of them with the community of Buenos Aires, and four with Caimito.
“That was a very big business. The agriculture [agency] workers themselves are to blame,” Adán Sánchez, president of the Border Federation of the Indigenous Communities of Lake Imiría and Chauya-Masisea (FECONALICM), said in a phone interview with Mongabay Latam. “[Isaac] Huamán, who was the [regional] director of agriculture, has given the properties to those people. They did this in coordination with the municipality. The mayor of Masisea had a meeting with the workers, explaining that they were going to title the properties.”
How, then, did those 47 properties end up in the hands of the Mennonite colony?
Deforestation on paper
This story begins with the group of DRSAU agriculture officials in the field, filling in dozens of land registry files according to what they were supposedly observing at that moment. One plot of land, for example, was separated into sections: 20% each for corn, plantains and cacao; 10% for yucca; and 30% for purma, or fallow land. This is how the DRSAU technicians were completing each land registry document, according to a former employee whose name is not being revealed for security reasons.
In each file accessed by Mongabay Latam, the percentages and types of crop varied. In any case, the common theme across these files is that hundreds of hectares of forest had supposedly been replaced by agricultural land.
However, satellite images contradict this. Experts from the Common Good Institute (IBC, or Instituto del Bien Común in Spanish) analyzed the 47 land registry files, which contain information on a total of 1,136 hectares (2,807 acres). The team determined that on the dates the properties were registered as being used for agricultural activities, the same land was actually still covered in primary forest.
This was corroborated by a witness from the Office of the Public Prosecutor, which opened an investigation into Isaac Huamán Pérez — at the time the regional director of agriculture in Ucayali and currently under house arrest — and other officials. The case has come to be known as “Cochanía,” and involves the concession of properties in Nueva Requena district, also in Ucayali department. It is currently with the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office against Organized Crime.
El caso que actualmente se investiga —conocido como Cochanía– y que involucra a Huamán y otros exfuncionarios de la Drsau corresponde a la entrega de predios en el distrito de Nueva Requena. En la actualidad este caso se encuentra en la Primera Fiscalía Supraprovincial Corporativa Especializada Contra la Criminalidad Organizada.
The investigation focuses specifically on the illegal titling of properties owned by Indigenous communities and by the Peruvian government, in a way that favors the relatives of DRSAU officials and of mayors in Ucayali department. Some individuals also simply lent their names to facilitate the titling process, and planned to later sell or transfer the properties.
The anonymous former regional government official closely witnessed this system of titling land based on false information. In an interview with Mongabay Latam, this person confirmed that in Masisea, this method of granting rural properties was also used in an area that was still forested and untouched by people. “[The DRSAU] proceeded as if it were a market,” the former official said.
“In 2015, under Huamán Pérez’s management, several teams were formed for the titling of properties; one of them went to Masisea to measure some unoccupied areas so that they could later be sold to some foreigners,” the former official said. “The same mechanics were used. The same thing that they did here [in Cochanía] was also done there [in Masisea]. But here, it was sold.” In Masisea, the former official said, “those properties were sold to the Mennonites.”
The source added that in Masisea, the files were filled out using the names of the mayor of Masisea, town council members, municipality employees, the governor of the district, and agricultural officials.
The Office of the Public Prosecutor alleges that an illegal land trafficking system was instituted; that it was managed by agriculture officials in Ucayali; and that people who sought agricultural land in the Amazon took advantage of this system.
The Mennonite colony in Masisea
The irregular registration of land between 2015 and 2016 and their subsequent ownership by the Mennonite colony in Masisea is now being investigated by the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office in Ucayali.
When the Mennonite group acquired the 47 properties, which were supposedly agricultural lands, the forest was still standing, according to satellite images and a witness from the Office of the Public Prosecutor. The Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office in Ucayali maintains that the Mennonite colony destroyed about 1,000 hectares of forest in the area around the Masisea-Imiría Highway.
Who sold this land to the Mennonite colony? In 2015, DRSAU officials registered the individual properties in the names of Masisea municipal employees, district authorities, and their family members. This was verified by Mongabay Latam upon reviewing the names that appear in the land registry files. The Mennonites then bought these properties, which was confirmed by one of the witnesses from the Office of the Public Prosecutor and by David Ojanama, an attorney advising the Mennonite colony.
One name that appears in the SICAR registry is that of the former mayor of Masisea, Raúl Marden Contreras. “One person offered me a property, but I have not been able to acquire it,” Contreras told Mongabay Latam by phone.
The SICAR portal shows a property (number 113827) named “Fundo La Amistad” (“The Friendship Fund”) that is registered in Contreras’s name. According to satellite images from SICAR, this 20-hectare (50-acre) lot also overlaps with the territory of the Indigenous Shipibo-Conibo community in Caimito.
Contreras said the person who offered him the land had died and that between 2015 and 2016, the DRSAU organized rural property titling campaigns in his area. “We only provide facilities for them to work. The municipalities only take responsibility for the urban properties; they have nothing to do with rural land,” Contreras said.
At the end of the interview, Contreras said he was “informed” that the property was registered in his name, but that he had nothing to do with it. “I never received it. I have not signed anything,” Contreras said.
Contreras added that the Mennonite colony arrived in Masisea in 2014, a year before the fraudulent land titling. At first, only a few Mennonite individuals arrived, and they bought land close to the town. More of them arrived later.
Contreras also said that some people received property titles during public ceremonies from Manuel Gambini Rupay, who was the regional governor of Ucayali at the time. “Many people have sold their land,” Contreras said, adding that the Mennonite colony has been dedicated to planting rice and soybeans. “The last time I visited Masisea, I realized that they are producing lots of rice.”
Mongabay Latam reached out to Gambini Rupay for his version of how these public and Indigenous forested lands were ceded into private ownership. As of the time of this article’s publication in Spanish, however, we did not receive a response.
Farms where Indigenous forests once stood
“Everyone knew that there were overlapping properties in the territory, but there was no proof,” said Adán Sánchez, the Indigenous leaders. He said it took 40 days to conduct georeferencing work in the Indigenous communities of Caimito, Buenos Aires, Junín Pablo and Nuevo Loreto.
On the trip, a team from the Directorate of Legal Physical Sanitation of Agrarian Property (DISAFILPA),which is part of the DRSAU, and Indigenous leaders confirmed that there were titled individual properties that had been deforested by the Mennonite colony inside the Caimito Indigenous territory. These properties were titled in 2015, one of them in the name of Edgardo Chafloque Urbina, a legal adviser at the time to the Mennonites.
Individual properties have also been titled in the Indigenous community of Buenos Aires, adjacent to Caimito. This overlap can be seen on the SICAR platform, along with the names of the people who received the rural property titles in 2015.
Sánchez said that during the georeferencing process, it was possible to verify that the land acquired by the Mennonite colony was, indeed, inside the Indigenous communal territory. “When we did the georeferencing work, the Indigenous communities learned the locations of the GPS points that mark the [territorial] limits,” he said. “Then, we found that the Mennonites’ properties were within the communities of Buenos Aires and Caimito.”
Sánchez said that before the Mennonites arrived, at least 200 hectares (500 acres) of the now-damaged land were primary forests within the communal territory. “They have done damage to the primary forests,” he said.
Samuel Del Castillo, the DISAFILPA director, said three of the four georeferencing studies for the affected Indigenous communities are complete. “One report must still be finalized before it is sent to the Indigenous communities area [of the government] and the corresponding evaluation is done,” he said. “There should also be an evaluation of the land registry about the properties that may be overlapping.”
In that case, according to Del Castillo, if properties within the community are found to have been irregularly granted, their titles will be nullified.
Pedro Tipula, the coordinator of the Information System on Peasant Communities in Peru (SICCAM) project at the Common Good Institute, agreed with the proposal. “What matters first is that they are Indigenous peoples. They have the priority in titling their properties,” Tipula said.
He added that if the georeferencing confirms that these properties do overlap with the forests of the Indigenous communities, then the land must be returned to the Indigenous peoples. “The land that has always belonged to them should be respected,” Tipula said.
He also raised a common complaint: the absence of a modern land registry for Indigenous communities, with cutting-edge technology, similar to what exists for mining and oil concessions. “It is not a problem of a lack of funds; there was access to loans. This is a lack of political willpower to solve the problem,” Tipula said.
The lost forests
The Mennonite colony now stands accused of deforestation. Guzmán, the prosecutor from the Ministry of the Environment, said anyone who has been in contact with these formerly forested properties and removed trees without complying with the appropriate procedures for tree removal may be held responsible for the forest loss.
“Although [the trees] have been cut down, the forest’s aptitude is still conserved,” Guzmán said in reference to the land where the Mennonites have settled. He said that according to Peru’s Forestry and Wildlife Law, an area that loses forest does not necessarily lose its designation, or “aptitude,” as a forest. “Only areas that have lost their forest and their forest aptitude can be recognized for agricultural activity by regional agrarian managers,” Guzmán said.
Sandra Ríos, a researcher from the Common Good Institute, agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment. After reviewing information about these properties spanning 1985 to 2020 using satellite monitoring platforms, Ríos concluded that “the reviewed satellite images do not present changes.” In other words, the forest was still standing when these properties were registered as agricultural land.
Yet the land registry files prepared in 2015 claim those forests were occupied and transformed many years earlier, between 2005 and 2008, in spite of what the satellite images show. “According to satellite images in the area, changes in [forest] cover are not visible between 1985 and 2017, much less any changes related to deforestation. The change clearly occurs in the year 2017, with clear patterns of the advancement of mechanized agriculture. It does not correspond to the agricultural pattern of migrants or of small agriculture,” Ríos said.
The advisers to the Mennonite colony
Mongabay Latam visited Masisea before the COVID-19 pandemic and spoke with Edgardo Chafloque Urbina, the former legal adviser to the Mennonites. According to Isaac Zacharías, the patriarch of the Mennonite colony in Masisea, Chafloque was in charge of legal matters regarding their land during the registration process in 2015.
At the time, Chafloque claimed that the members of the Mennonite colony bought titled land that had already been dedicated to agriculture. “Masisea is surrounded by Indigenous communities and reserved areas; the only lands dedicated to agriculture and livestock are those that are close to the town. Since the Mennonites are farmers and ranchers, little by little, they have bought them,” he said.
Chafloque denied knowing of any irregularities in the inspection, titling, or granting of these properties. “That is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. We buy titled land and also some possessions. If there are problems with the properties, the solution corresponds to the agricultural sector,” he said.
Chafloque did not mention that three of the properties granted by the DRSAU in 2015 appear under his name, or that one of them overlaps with the territory of the Indigenous community of Caimito, according to satellite images and property demarcation information from SICAR. Mongabay Latam attempted to reach Chafloque to discuss the properties in his name, but did not receive a response.
As of last year, Chafloque is no longer the adviser to the Mennonite group, several sources told Mongabay Latam. Lawyer David Ojanama said he is now in charge of legal matters for the Mennonites of Masisea.
Prosecutor Guzmán said that if the properties do have a fraudulent origin, then other crimes may be added to the charges: general falsehood, false declarations in administrative procedures, illegal authorization of rights, illegal logging, and illegal timber trafficking are some possible additions.
“There is a range of several crimes. There may even be crimes of corruption, collusion, or influence peddling that involves officials,” Guzmán said. He added prosecutors could even request the termination of ownership of the properties if there is proof of their illicit origin. In that case, ownership of the land would return to the government.
Ojanama said the problem is not how the properties were acquired or in whose names they were registered, but rather the way in which the trees were cut down. “The law says that the government protects primary forests. I am arguing that the forests, upon being attached to the people of Masisea, were no longer primary forests,” Ojanama said.
Ojanama acknowledged, however, that the Mennonite colony had caused deforestation in Masisea. “They have not wanted it to come to this; they have presented their application for a change of [land] use, and unfortunately they were told, through a report, that it is not possible because they do not meet all the requirements, but they were never told to make up for it,” he said. “At the time, they were not guided; they have not had real advice, and the same authority — the GERFFS [the Regional Management of Forests and Wildlife] — has told them that [the authorization] is coming, and that they are working.”
Ojanama added that he has contested the administrative fine of about $2.9 million that the GERFFS has imposed for not having permission to change the use of the land.
Vladimir Rojas, a prosecutor with the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office in Ucayali, said the case is “a complex investigation because it involves so many people. The area is very extensive, with more than 1,000 hectares and 46 families settled in that area.”
Rojas added that three Indigenous communities have also reported Mennonite properties overlapping into their territories.
The truth today is that the properties that were irregularly granted in 2015 are now extensive fields of rice, soybeans, and other crops being cultivated by the Mennonites. This irregular land titling system in Masisea has given rise to an expanding wave of deforestation.
Banner image of the land on which the Mennonite colony has been established, by Sebastian Castañeda