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The Kichwa woman fighting drug traffickers and loggers in the Peruvian Amazon

  • Marisol García Apagüeño is the first woman to serve in the leadership of her Indigenous federation in the Peruvian Amazon, where she has made it her mission to support the struggle for the recognition and land titling of the Kichwa people.
  • Drug traffickers and illegal loggers have encroached onto Indigenous lands and threatened community leaders, including García Apagüeño, for reporting the problems to the outside world.
  • Indigenous leaders and legal experts say a key obstacle to driving out the criminal groups is the government’s failure to issue land titles to the Indigenous communities, which leaves them with no legal standing to complain about the invasions.
  • García Apagüeño says the communities need government support and economic livelihood alternatives to avoid being co-opted by the loggers and traffickers.

“They may kill one, two, three of us, but others will come to defend the forest, they will not exterminate us,” says Marisol García Apagüeño, an Indigenous Kichwa leader from the Lower Huallaga region of the Peruvian Amazon.

García Apagüeño is the only woman leader of the Federation of Indigenous Kechua Chazuta Amazonian Peoples (FEPIKECHA). It’s a position that she’s proud to hold, but one that’s not easy, as she takes on the complicated and dangerous task of representing 14 communities threatened by illegal logging, drug trafficking, and a lack of land titles.

García Apagüeño has served as the recording secretary at FEPIKECHA since 2018, when she was elected to represent the Kichwa Indigenous communities of the Lower Huallaga in Peru’s San Martín department. She uses the position to campaign for greater public awareness of Indigenous peoples’ issues and to denounce illegal activities using all her knowledge, including her studies in graphic design and computer science.

García Apagüeño also established the community radio station Voces de la Selva–FEPIKECHA (Voices of the Rainforest) and supported the launch of a Facebook page for the federation, which has led to threats from criminal groups operating in the region.

Kichwa environmental defender Marisol García Apagüeño in her community of Túpac Amaru. Image courtesy of Marisol García Apagüeño.

“I keep knocking on doors and I’ve presented myself before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to speak about the dangers we face,” she says. “We’ve also met with human rights organizations because my people are threatened — they’ve kidnapped Indigenous defenders and I know what it’s like to live in fear, when you can’t even leave your house because they could kill you.”

García Apagüeño remembers her childhood in the district of Chazuta very well, around 30 years ago, when the area was notorious as a production hub for coca leaf and cocaine paste. Things eventually changed following a series of state-led eradication drives in the 1990s and 2000s. According to García Apagüeño, it was only since 2005 that the residents of the area began to gain some semblance of peace, believing the nightmare was over. But adversity has returned, and is once again stalking the Indigenous communities.

“That’s why I’ll speak if I can, as the problems have only grown with the pandemic and they don’t listen to us, the authorities do nothing,” García Apagüeño says.

Residents who Mongabay Latam spoke with confirmed that the threats such as drug trafficking and illegal logging have returned to the Kichwa territory.

Marisol García Apagüeño meets with Kichwa women from across San Martín. She is always seeking to campaign on and promote women’s leadership. Image courtesy of FEPIKECHA.

No land titles

Indigenous peoples’ territory is part of the heritage of their ancestors, the land’s original occupants who domesticated plants and adapted to environmental conditions. García Apagüeño inherited the territory from her grandparents, along with pottery skills to make pitchers that store cold water, as well as a knowledge of plants, cocoa cultivation, and the use of medicinal plants. Although the Kichwa have occupied the Lower Huallaga for thousands of years, none of the 14 communities associated with FEPIKECHA have land titles, and three are not even officially recognized as Indigenous; they’ve initiated the process to obtain official recognition, but it’s stalled with the San Martín departmental government’s agriculture office, according to the federation’s leaders.

“We are older than the Constitution, we arrived on this land before any legislation, that’s why we have a right to it,” García Apagüeño says.

William Ríos, head of the departmental government’s office for land titling and registration, agrees that invasions and illegal activities pose a threat to the communities that lack title deeds. “We’re doing our best to provide land titles, but the costs are high,” he says. “For each community there is an estimated cost of 33,000 soles [about $8,100] to carry out the process, but we are trying to move forward within what’s possible.”

The situation in the communities is worsening every day. Residents report that timber trafficking has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and warn that drug trafficking has reappeared and threatens their lives once again.

Illegally logged timber in Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu territory. Image courtesy of the Lower Huallaga Indigenous patrols.

“How is it possible that they tell us that we are not Indigenous?” García Apagüeño says. In December 2020, Geyner Silva Macedo, the mayor of the San Martín district of Huimbayoc, said Kichwa communities that did not speak the native language did not deserve to be recognized as Indigenous, and effectively ignored the existence of native peoples in the area. Luis Hallazi, a lawyer at the Instituto del Bien Común (Institute of Social Good) says this kind of denial is not unintentional.

In the case of San Martín, Hallazi says, there has not been much progress in the titling of Indigenous lands. He says the problem lies in the overlapping of some Indigenous territories with protected areas, as in the case of the Cordillera Escalera Regional Conservation Area. The lands of eight FEPIKECHA communities in the Lower Huallaga area overlap with this conservation area, according to the federation’s president, Wilger Apagüeño Cenepo.

“Without a land title we can’t claim anything because when we go to the regional government they ask us for documents that we don’t have,” García Apagüeño says.

Ríos notes that in the case of the overlap with the Cordillera Escalera Regional Conservation Area, the final decision lies with the San Martín environmental office. He says his own office has initiated a process to improve its system for issuing titles to the communities and plans to review the FEPIKECHA case.

Hallazi says the national government has promoted regional and private conservation areas without respecting the boundaries of Indigenous territories. He points to a direct relationship between illegal activities and the lack of titling: without a legal document that supports their ownership of the territory, Indigenous residents cannot complain to the state about invasions and are thus denied their own rights. In San Martín, and the Peruvian Amazon region in general, invaders encroach into Indigenous territories, deforest the land, sell the timber, and plant coca. Once settled, they’re difficult to remove, and the situation becomes dangerous.

Deforested areas of the Anak Kurutuyacu community, where extracted timber has been found. Image courtesy of the Lower Huallaga Indigenous patrols.

García Apagüeño says two communities that have requested her support the most: Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu and Anak Kurutuyacu, whose problems have worsened in the last four years due to deforestation and the encroachment of illegal coca farms. “It’s so serious that they can’t leave, it’s as if they’ve been abducted by the mafias — they follow them, they know about all of their movements,” she says.

If the communities had a land title, García Apagüeño says, they could push to get the invaders evicted. “But [officials] constantly discriminate against us, they ask us to confirm that we are really Indigenous, questioning whether we are natives,” she says, adding they no longer know what to do in the face of the increased timber and drug trafficking taking place during the pandemic.

The community members of Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu say the invasions of their territory started with private concessions being granted in what they consider ancestral forests. Loggers arrived in areas close to these boundaries and began destroying primary forests. According to Hallazi, the communities are also suffering invasions by settlers, who convert the forests into farmland, which they then to grow coca. Some FEPIKECHA communities have also chosen to rent their lands to third parties to earn an income, and the latter then cut down their trees. According to the FEPIKECHA leaders, “the strangers arrive, start to settle, and start to produce coca, since this is the crop that brings in the most money.”

Surrounded by illegal loggers and drug traffickers

Cristina del Rosario Gavancho, a lawyer with the Instituto de Defensa Legal, a legal aid organization, confirms what García Apagüeño says about deforestation and illegal logging, pointing out that the Kichwa communities have repeatedly complained about this problem. In 2019, the Anak Kurutuyacu community filed a complaint with the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Alto Amazonas province, in the Amazonian department of Loreto, citing the presence of loggers in their territory. The Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu community did the same in 2020. Community members took photos and videos of felled trees and cleared forests on land they consider their ancestral territory.

“The case has been going on for years, but inspections have not been carried out since the last complaints made to the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, because they stated that the area is dangerous and has drug traffickers,” Gavancho says.

The timber traffickers bring in machinery to fell commercially valuable trees such as mahogany, ishpingo and cedar. According to FEPIKECHA president Apagüeño Cenepo, the communities are resisting and have carried out operations to expel the loggers and protect their territories. However, these actions have caused conflict and prompted threats against the lives of community leaders.

Mongabay Latam learned from the communities of Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu that timber traffickers are razing their forests. Local residents confirmed that the criminal groups have threatened them to the point that they cannot move around or carry out their activities as normal. “We’re afraid for our lives because they could disappear us,” says a community leader who asked not to be named for safety reasons. “We know they are watching us, and they know we have complained about their illegal activities, but the authorities don’t listen to us. What else can we do?”

Illegally logged timber in Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu territory. Image courtesy of the Lower Huallaga Indigenous patrols.

“We’ve carried out different interventions with the patrols we have there many times,” the community leader says. “We’ve identified logging and have made complaints to the media and Environmental Prosecutor’s Office. We’ve been told that the state owns the land, that we’re not the owners.”

In 2018, loggers abducted the apu, or chief, of the Santa Rosillo community and held him for about six hours after he publicized the problem of illegal logging, according to the community members. It’s the community itself that patrols the area, notifies the media and points out degraded areas.

García Apagüeño has also brought the timber trafficking problem before officials in Lima, the Peruvian capital, including at Congress, as well as on the local radio station she manages. She says boat passengers and operators in the Lower Huallaga have told her that the loggers “already had her on the list” and that she had better “stay out of trouble.” Although García Apagüeño doesn’t know the illegal loggers by face, she knows that they’ve murdered, tortured and dismembered environmental defenders in other communities in Ucayali, another Amazonian department.

“I’m showing my face because I know that my community members in the areas farther away from the cities cannot,” she says.

José Ludeña Condori, the national police general tasked with tackling environmental crimes, has said illegal activities continue to grow in different parts of the Peruvian Amazon. He said the pandemic has made things worse, with police units lacking the means to provide adequate support or carry out operations.

“The other big problem is drug trafficking, which is beginning to boom in the face of inaction,” the FEPIKECHA Indigenous leaders say. “We know that traffickers are already established. The worst thing is that they handle weapons. We have no way to defend ourselves against them.”

Coca crops found in the territory of Kichwa communities. Image courtesy of the Lower Huallaga Indigenous patrols.

In August 2020, the community members of Santa Rosillo identified illegal coca farms on their territory and, at the beginning of 2021, confirmed the discovery of a clandestine airstrip on their land built by drug traffickers. Residents say that there are at least 10 hectares (25 acres) of coca being grown. They add the problem is now spreading to neighboring communities, where drug traffickers, taking advantage of people’s needs and lack of food and medicines, have struck agreements with some Indigenous communities.

Mongabay Latam requested an interview with Condori’s office, but didn’t receive a response. The National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA) says it’s aware of the coca problem in these Indigenous territories and is carrying out projects to strengthen leadership capacity and promote cocoa crops, giving the communities alternative economic opportunities.

Ensuring people’s well-being

Mar Pérez, an expert with the National Human Rights Coordinator, says urgent action is needed to protect the lives of land defenders and that the government plays a key role. “At this moment, those who are most at risk are the Amazonian Indigenous people and environmentalists who live in this part of the country,” she tells Mongabay Latam. “Undoubtedly, the direct responsibility is of the loggers and drug traffickers, but we can’t ignore the responsibility of the state — there is negligence and responsibility in what is happening.”

Pérez says the Peruvian government has promoted a policy in which it gives Indigenous lands to settlers, who are the ones linked to the illegal activities. This, says García Apagüeño, is whyher federation is pushing for collective titling of the land. “The settlers have promoted individual titling, and when these requests are made or come from companies, the San Martín departmental government acts quickly, yet it has abandoned us.”

Apagüeño Cenepo has requested the government speed up the titling process for the Kichwa and stop denying them their ancestral rights. “It’s not possible that a company has better possibilities to access land than us, who care for and preserve the forest,” he says.

The community patrols have identified deforested areas and have recorded them to report them to prosecutors. Image courtesy of the Lower Huallaga Indigenous patrols.

García Apagüeño says there need to be economic alternatives for the Kichwa people to prevent them from giving in to pressure to grow coca. Together with her mother, she has created an organic cocoa business and knows other women in her home district of Chazuta who make handicrafts. “What we need is a boost, because during the pandemic our markets weren’t open. We have nowhere to sell, life is becoming more precarious, poverty is hitting us,” she says.

From her community radio station, with cumbia music playing in the background, García Apagüeño continues to report on the Kichwa people’s achievements and hardships. Her words are direct; she isn’t silent, and she’s not afraid. She says there’s still time for help to be offered and for the communities to be able to save themselves from the threats.

Banner image by Kipu Visual.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 10, 2021.