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As illegal logging route in Peru nears Brazil, Indigenous groups warn of calamity

  • Loggers are illegally reopening an abandoned road in Peru’s Ucayali region, threatening the dozens of Indigenous territories along the country’s border with Brazil, activists say.
  • The UC-105 road reportedly cut through the Sawawo Indigenous Reserve in Peru last month, stopping just 11 kilometers (less than 7 miles) from the Brazilian border.
  • The project is not authorized by Peru’s government but has forged ahead anyway, with no environmental impact studies or consultation with communities, Indigenous leaders say.
  • Critics of the road say it will bring a surge in deforestation, drug trafficking and river degradation for the region’s Indigenous communities, who have been fighting off the loggers for decades and are now demanding authorities act to stop the advance of the road.

On the western fringe of the Brazilian Amazon, lush forest stretches for miles across a protected reserve that is home to the Ashaninka Indigenous people. Just a few miles away, however, a roughly carved road slices through the Ashaninka’s twin reserve across the border in Peru.

Flanked by felled trees, a pair of tractors stands abandoned. The scene is emblematic of what Indigenous leaders in Brazil and Peru have denounced when it comes to the illegal road being carved by illegal loggers invading the Ashaninka’s Sawawo Indigenous Reserve, on the Peruvian side of the border. Satellite imagery gathered by activists show the project is reopening a web of abandoned trails built during a logging boom more than two decades ago. If constructed, the road will stretch 184 kilometers (114 miles) from the logging hub of Nueva Italia to Puerto Breu, a town of about 300 people in Peru’s Ucayali region.

The road, known as UC-105, is advancing quickly; last month, it encroached deep into the Sawawo reserve, just 11 km (nearly 7 mi) from the Brazilian border, according to a dossier sent by a group of Indigenous leaders to authorities in Peru and Brazil. It halted at the headwaters of the Amônia River, which flows across the border and into the Kampa do Rio Amônia/Apiwtxa Indigenous Reserve, home to the Ashaninka in Brazil’s Acre state.

“There is no oversight, there is no control,” Francisco Piyãko, an Ashaninka Indigenous leader from the Kampa do Rio Amônia/Apiwtxa reserve, told Mongabay by phone. “It’s a calamity.”

In all, about 60 km (37 mi) of the route has already been carved out, according to the dossier, even though the project is not authorized by the Peruvian government. Indigenous leaders say it is being financed by logging companies, who have failed to carry out an environmental impact study or consult the Indigenous communities whose lands the highway will slice through — a requirement under international law.

“They are already moving ahead with this destruction without any participation from the Indigenous communities,” Piyãko said. “This road is completely outside legality.”

The road is expected to affect 30 Indigenous and traditional communities in the Ucayali, Upper Tamaya and Upper Juruá regions of Peru and Brazil, home to more than half a dozen Indigenous groups, including the Asháninka, Apolima-Arara, Kuntanawa and Jaminawa/Arara people. In Acre, the road will pass close to the Arara do Rio Amônia, Kampa do Rio Amônia/Apiwtxa and Kaxinawa do Rio Breu Indigenous reserves, as well as the Upper Juruá Extractive Reserve.

Loggers are reportedly illegally reopening an abandoned road in Peru’s remote Ucayali region, threatening dozens of Indigenous lands along the country’s border with Brazil. Image courtesy of ProPurús and ACONADIYSH.

After the encroachment was reported to authorities in both countries, a Peruvian environmental enforcement agent reportedly seized the keys to the two tractors being used to clear the road and expelled the loggers camping in the forest. But Indigenous leaders say they worry that, without harsher punishment, the invaders will soon pick up where they left off.

Still, in this remote stretch of the Peruvian Amazon, where goods have to be flown in by small planes, Indigenous leaders say the road project has easily won over local politicians. The sparse population has also embraced the road, activists say, seduced by the loggers’ promises that it will connect Ucayali with the rest of Peru and Brazil, bringing trade and prosperity to the impoverished region.

But Indigenous leaders in both countries disagree. They warn the road will only wreak havoc on this untouched slice of the Amazon and the Indigenous reserves that straddle the border. Its advance is already driving deforestation, threatening rivers, and opening up the region to drug trafficking, the groups said in their dossier.

Illegal loggers allegedly invaded the Sawawo Indigenous Reserve in Peru, near the border with Brazil, setting up camp as they cleared the way for an illegal road in the remote region. Image courtesy of ProPurús and ACONADIYSH.

“[As] this is a cross-border area and a possible threat to national sovereignty, mediation and diplomatic agreements with Peru are necessary, since it is a road section under construction only in Peruvian territory,” Funai, the federal body tasked with protecting the interests of Indigenous people in Brazil, said in an emailed statement.

Funai said it is analyzing the dossier sent by Indigenous groups, with plans to forward the case to the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), the environmental enforcement agency (IBAMA), and the ministries of defense and foreign affairs. It added that it will “continue to provide all the necessary support for the preparation of territorial protection plans for Indigenous lands in the region.”

Drought, drugs and deforestation

In Ucayali, Indigenous leaders say they are already feeling the pressure on their territories. Since last year, loggers have reportedly been descending on the area with force, invading Indigenous lands and illegally extracting timber as they reopen the road.

Two airstrips were also recently carved out near the freshly reopened stretch of road, and coca plantations are springing up across the region, signaling the area may be at risk of becoming a new trafficking hub for drugs destined for Brazil, they added.

“Today, the drugs that enter Brazil through Peru in this region … trickle in in small quantities, carried on foot across the jungle,” Evandro José Linhares Ferreira, a researcher with Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), who has studied the region, said in a phone interview. “When this road opens, there will be a flood of trucks trying to get drugs across the border.”

Despite the promises of politicians and logging companies, the economic benefits of the road are likely to be slim, Ferreira said. With few agricultural goods to export to Brazil, he said, the project will most likely serve the much narrower interests of logging companies transporting timber out of the region.

The UC-105 road, which is reportedly being built illegally by loggers in the Ucayali region of Peru, is threatening dozens of Indigenous communities along the Brazil-Peru border. Indigenous leaders have demanded that authorities stop the road from advancing. Image courtesy of ProPurús and ACONADIYSH.

As the UC-105 road advances, its opponents say the remote area will see a surge in migrants from other parts of the country, drawn by the promise of plentiful land that they can clear.

“We fear the road will bring in families, settling in the region, clearing the forest to grow crops or coca,” said Piyãko, whose village is home to 1,200 Indigenous inhabitants. “It will bring occupation of our lands and threaten our culture.”

Malu Ochoa, technical adviser of public policy at Acre’s Comissão Pró-Índio, a nonprofit advocating for Indigenous rights, said the illicit road is driving illegal loggers to the region.

“[This road] will deeply impact Indigenous people, as much on the Peruvian side as the Brazilian side,” she said in a phone interview.

Across the Amazon, roads often bring along dizzying levels of deforestation. Over the next two decades, Brazil’s Amazon is expected to lose some 1.42 million hectares (3.5 million acres) of forest — an area half the size of Belgium — due to road projects, according to a 2020 study. While the Acre-Ucayali border region’s remote location has long shielded it from much of the destruction sweeping other parts of the Amazon, critics warn the UC-105 road could change that.

“Roads are a huge trigger of deforestation,” said Miguel Scarcello, executive director of SOS Amazônia, an environmental nonprofit monitoring the impact of road projects in the region. “It sets the stage for occupation.”

The road will also snake through half a dozen rivers, many of which start in Peru and flow into Indigenous reserves in Brazil, the dossier shows. Indigenous leaders say deforestation alongside the road will weaken riverbanks, causing sedimentation of the rivers. Forest clearing could also reduce the volume of water in the rivers, threatening water supplies and increasing the risk of droughts in the future, Indigenous leaders warn.

“They are harming our rivers and they will deforest big stretches along this road,” Piyãko said. “And the consequences for us will be devastating.”

In early August, Indigenous people in the Sawawo Indigenous Reserve in Peru found two tractors in their territory that were reportedly being used to clear forest and open up an abandoned illegal logging route. Image courtesy of ProPurús and ACONADIYSH.

Decades-long battle

For many Indigenous leaders in the region, the onslaught of invaders harks back to the logging boom that gripped the area more than two decades ago, leaving behind a trail of destruction and violence that communities remember vividly.

The UC-105 road traces its roots back to the late 1990s, when the Forestal Venao logging company illegally carved out a network of trails stretching 268 km (167 mi) in a bid to link the region to the Ucayali River. It illegally extracted and transported mahogany and cedar trees from the area, floating the logs down the river to the Peruvian city of Pucallpa.

As logging gained traction, Peruvian authorities began handing out agroforestry concessions to timber companies in the area in an effort to control illegal deforestation and promote sustainable use of the forest. Instead, logging companies descended on Indigenous lands bordering their concessions, illegally invading and deforesting them, Indigenous advocates say.

Ferreira said an estimated 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) of agroforestry concessions were handed out in Ucayali, which “gave loggers a way into these remote areas.”

Back in 2006, Brazilian and Peruvian authorities cracked down on the illegal loggers, shuttering the UC-105 road following mounting pressure from Indigenous communities. But the invasions of territories continued unabated, with the invaders even crossing into Brazil in 2007 and again in 2011 to illegally extract mahogany and cedar trees from the Ashaninka’s reserve, Indigenous leaders told Mongabay.

On the Peruvian side, some loggers even pressured or coaxed Indigenous leaders into allowing them to extract timber from their lands in exchange for a cut of the profits or for help securing rights to their ancestral lands, activists say. Land conflicts in the area surged, with four Ashaninka reportedly killed by illegal loggers in 2014 as they fought to expel the invaders and gain titles to their land.

“The presence of the loggers really harmed the cultural fabric of our communities,” Piyãko said. “They exploited Indigenous territories here and left behind vast destruction of forest, of culture, of customs.”

In recent years, though, the road’s reopening has reportedly gained fresh political support, thanks to local mayors with ambitions of linking the Ucayali region to Brazil to open up new export markets and boost the local economy. Peru’s National Congress also promoted the road earlier this year, saying its construction was of “national interest.”

Across the border in Brazil, lawmakers and politicians have tabled a similar vision. Protections for Indigenous lands  have been eroded under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to open up reserves to wildcat miners, loggers and farmers.

In Acre, Bolsonaro’s allies are also pushing forward with plans to extend the BR-364 highway to Peru by downgrading the protected status of Serra do Divisor National Park — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — and slicing through this pristine protected area. On the Peruvian side of the border, a similar extension is being planned, with an eye to connecting Cruzeiro do Sul in Acre to the city of Pucallpa in Peru.

Moa river and the Serra do Divisor National Park. Bolsonaro’s allies are also pushing forward with plans to extend the BR-364 highway to Peru by downgrading the protected status of Serra do Divisor National Park — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — and slicing through this pristine protected area. Image by A209 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Activists on the Brazilian side say the road project will have profound impacts on Indigenous and riverine communities in that area, which lies some 200 km (124 mi) north of where UC-105 is being built. Indigenous leaders in communities like the Poyanawa Indigenous Reserve say they, too, have not been consulted about the BR-364 extension.

Taken together, the two road projects only add to the mounting pressure on protected areas and Indigenous reserves along the Brazil-Peru border, Indigenous rights groups say.

“There was always interest in extracting trees from the Indigenous reserves,” Ochoa said. “The political context is only fueling this. And the results are clear.”

Banner image: Indigenous leaders along the Brazil-Peru border say an illegal road being carved inside one of their territories will clear forests, degrade rivers, and open up the area to drug trafficking. In early August, they alerted authorities about loggers illegally opening up the road using two tractors. Image courtesy of ProPurús and ACONADIYSH. 

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