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Illegal logging and trade in fine wood threaten Wampis communities in the Peruvian Amazon

Macaws fly over the rainforests of Peru.

Macaws fly over the rainforests of Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • More than 20,000 board feet of protected forest species, such as cedar and mahogany, are being lost from forests inhabited by Wampis communities every month, according to estimates by community leaders.
  • The extraction and sale of these fine woods have increased since the start of 2022 after two Wampis communities obtained permits for the use of certain forest resources.
  • According to Wampis leaders, since the issuing of the permits to the two communities, loggers have been able to cut down and transport cedar and mahogany wood, despite these trees being protected species.

The last logging period granted by the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW) ended on May 30, 2022, yet timber has continued to be indiscriminately extracted in the native communities of Candungos and Papayacu. Every day, boats full of mahogany, cedar and tornillo wood cross the Santiago River in the province of Condorcanqui (Amazonas), heading for Santa María de Nieva. For the Wampis community members who inhabit this part of the Peruvian rainforest near Ecuador, this is a burden that has made them feel powerless for a long time. The flow of boats carrying uncontrolled amounts of logged timber in recent months is proof that deforestation is reaching significant levels, with the Wampis leaders calculating that every two weeks more than 55 tons of wood leave their villages to be trafficked.

The Wampis nation has 1,370,000 hectares (3.3 million acres) of territory and encompasses 85 Indigenous communities (22 titled and their annexes), located in the basins of the Santiago (Amazonas) and Morona (Loreto) rivers. Around 16,500 Indigenous community members live in this part of Peru’s northern Amazon. To protect this population, the GTANW held a four-day assembly at the end of March to deal with the overwhelming problem of illegal logging and timber trade. The vice president of the Wampis nation, Galois Flores, says that the communities agreed to stop the loggers, giving them all of April to move what had already been cut down. However, according to Flores, the loggers asked for other 20 days, and then for another 10 days.

“We gave it to them. They then wanted more time but we had already waited long enough. So, in line with what had been agreed during the assembly, we started carrying out work to temporarily retain the timber,” Flores tells Mongabay Latam.

On May 31 and June 3, 2022, Wampis residents of the Huabal, Chapisa and Puerto Galilea communities, supported by local patrols, intercepted two boats carrying 13,000 and 14,000 board feet, respectively. The first shipment was held in Puerto Galilea and the second in Huabal, roughly a 45-minute journey further on the Santiago River. According to Flores, during the inspection of the confiscated timber, the leaders identified it as cedar and mahogany, two species threatened by illegal logging, labeled as vulnerable and legally protected by Peru’s Supreme Decree 043-2006-AG.

On May 31 and June 3, Wampis community members seized 27,000 board feet of fine wood that were being transported by illegal loggers. Image by Evaristo Pujupat.

The shipments had left from Candungos and Papayacu, land owning communities whose forests  are diverse, with species including cedar, mahogany, capirona, tornillo and lupuna. According to Shapiom Noningo, the technical secretary of the GTANW, indiscriminate logging is affecting 18 towns in Alto Santiago, though since September 2021 and in particular since January 2022, the felling of fine wood in Candungos (79,494 hectares) and Papayacu (27,977 hectares) has particularly worsened. Although the GTANW leaders still lack an updated record of deforestation in their communities, Flores estimates that for Candungos and Papayacu alone the loss of forest cover reaches around 2,000 hectares.

“There is no timber nearby, the loggers are clearing everything. You can only find it around 8 or 10 hours outside of the community,” says the president of the Wampis nation, Teófilo Kukush. Visibly worried, Kukush adds that Wampis territories are losing around 20,000 board feet of fine wood every month.

In permanent danger

Until 2021, Wampis communities were mainly affected by illegal logging and trafficking of balsa wood, an activity that had surged in Ecuador in 2020, before silently entering Wampis and Awajún territories during Peru’s harshest stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a report published in January 2021, Mongabay Latam detailed this situation and the disparities it was creating between indigenous communities living near the border. At that time, the GTANW leaders estimated that the extraction of balsa wood was responsible for clearing at least 50 hectares of forest, and that the problem was worsening. Since then, the GTANW has estimated that more than 1.5 million cubic feet of balsa wood has been cut down in their territories. Currently, balsa logging seems to be a contained danger.

“Ecuadorians no longer come for balsa; we managed to eradicate that. Now it’s Peruvians who are cutting down and transporting fine wood to Santa María de Nieva,” says Noningo. According to Kukush, the boats carrying mahogany, cedar or tornillo wood (cut down in Candungos and Papayacu) leave from Alto Santiago and travel for around four and a half hours before passing through communities in the Bajo Santiago basin – Soledad, Chapisa, Huabal, Puerto Galilea and La Poza – and then take the Marañón River to Santa María de Nieva. Kukush suspects that from Santa María de Nieva, the timber continues its journey by road to Bagua, Chiclayo or Lima.

In mid-2020, Ecuadorian loggers started to invade Wampis and Awajún communities in search of balsa wood. Image by Gil Inoach.

A week after the last confiscation by the indigenous community, groups of loggers broke into Huabal and Puerto Galilea to try to recover the shipments. According to Flores, they were non-Indigenous people from cities such as Bagua, Jaén, Santa María de Nieva and La Poza, the latter a small Indigenous community also affected by illegal mining. The groups were searching for the timber with the help of Indigenous people from Alto Santiago who are regularly contacted to cut down trees. Flores notes that in Huabal, the community did not give in to the loggers’ demands, with Wampis community members instead increasing their presence to guard the timber until receiving evidence that it had been legally cut down and transported. The loggers of course claimed that their shipments were legal. In Puerto Galilea the situation was worse, with loggers confronting and threatening the Wampis authorities until they were able to recover a proportion of the seized timber.

On June 12, GTANW leaders declared a one-month long state of emergency, aiming to ensure strict control of their territory and transport in order to prevent illegal timber trafficking as well as drugs and fuel smuggling. The official document instating the provision notes “our Wampis nation is experiencing the impact of the indiscriminate extraction of fine wood species, minerals, fish stocks and flora and fauna – criminal acts that have been causing serious social conflicts between communities. […] This situation has been worsened by the significant fuel smuggling from Ecuador as well as drug trafficking.”

At the same time, loggers continued to stalk the towns where the shipments had been confiscated. According to Flores, they have continued to demand the return of the confiscated timber and he suspects that they are reorganizing themselves to restart their activities in the Alto Santiago communities. Despite their demands, the loggers have never showed any documentation certifying the legality of their shipments to the GTANW, to fiscal authorities or police in the areas concerned. In fact, the Indigenous leaders note that “they claim that everything was authorized, but they don’t even have one paper,” as Flores adds that “no permit can include the felling of prohibited species, in this case mahogany and cedar.”

This raises the question of how so much fine wood is being stripped from the Wampis territories of the Peruvian rainforest.

Staff from the prosecutor’s office and the Peruvian National Police identifying that the timber confiscated in Huabal is cedar, mahogany and tornillo, Jun. 29, 2022. Image by Evaristo Pujupat.

Harmful permissions

Guinaldo Pizarro, a lawyer for the GTANW, tells Mongabay Latam that records from June 19 in Huabal make no reference to any document related to authorization the loggers claim to have, and that “only their statements regard the fact that the timber belongs to them.” The records also contain no names of the loggers or buyers of the timber. Despite this, Pizarro plans to file a criminal complaint against 10 individuals that the Wampis leaders have identified as responsible for trading the fine wood extracted from the communal forests. According to Pizarro, the criminal proceedings require the defendants to present the authorizations granted by the community members to cut down the trees or any purchase and sale contracts made.

According to the GTANW leaders, the forests are being exploited in two ways: illegally, by loggers who simply enter the territories; and legally, through the approval of a forest management plan. According to a guide developed by the Ministry of Agrarian Development and Irrigation, a management plan contains information on the characteristics of a community’s forest and serves to obtain permission to use forest resources for commercial purposes. One such type of plan is the Management Declaration (DEMA), w prepared and signed by the head of the Indigenous community, and authorized by the regional environmental authority or the regional wildlife authority, depending on the region where the process is being carried out.

With regard to the Wampis territories, Efraín Calvo, in charge of the decentralized Amazonas regional environmental authority in Puerto Galilea, tells Mongabay Latam that the Papayacu and Candungos leaders requested their respective DEMAs and that both communities have active permits. Furthermore, he notes that Papayacu was granted a permit in October 2021 and Candungos in January 2022, as shown in the Forests and Wildlife Resources Control Agency’s  (OSINFOR) records. While the sole species approved for use in Candungos is tornillo, in Papayacu, the permit extends to exploiting limited quantities of lupuna and cedar, says Calvo.

The shipments of fine wood are placed in boats that travel along the Santiago River toward Santa María de Nieva. From there, the timber is taken to Bagua, Lima and Chiclayo. Image by Galois Flores.

According to Calvo, it is the Indigenous community members of Candungos and Papayacu who cut down their forests and sell the timber to the loggers. However, investigations carried out by the Environmental Directorate of the Peruvian National Police show that Wampis community leaders and members also invite timber merchants to cut down forest products themselves. Calvo notes that “they say that this is how they earn their livelihood,” yet it is during these processes that mahogany and cedar trees are cut down in addition to the species allowed by the regional environmental authority. Kukush is convinced of this, noting that “non-authorized timber species are trafficked,” while also pointing out that the leaders of Candungos and Papayacu first contacted loggers to whom they could sell the timber to be cut down, and once this had been established, then requested the corresponding DEMA. Community members receive just about 1.70 ($0.44) to 2.50 ($0.65) Peruvian soles per board foot of fine wood.

“This is selling more than 60 years of conservation work for amounts that insult Indigenous peoples’ dignity. It’s a form of discrimination against the community’s origin,” says Pizarro. The disagreements between those who have obtained the DEMA and Wampis leaders have added to the serious crisis in this territory marked by deforestation.

For Pizarro, the loggers have applied a strategy of making themselves visible in the Candungos and Papayacu communities and providing them with advice in order to have a DEMA requested. According to the lawyer, given the needs of the indigenous population, the loggers offer certain benefits and payments, and then negotiate. “Where did these remote communities find out about the document to be submitted and its requirements?,” he asks. “There was coordinated work. If the leader of the community completed the paperwork, it means that this method was encouraged.” The environmental police force reports that 66 indigenous Wampis and Awajún communities have permission to use timber resources from their forests.

Despite trying to communicate with the leaders of the two indigenous communities concerned, Mongabay Latam had received no response prior to the publication of this report.

Loggers operate and buy protected species in the communities of Candungos and Papayacu. According to Wampis leaders, the situation has worsened since the start of 2022. Image by Evaristo Pujupat.

Precariousness and a lack of control

The head of the decentralized office of the Amazonas regional environmental authority in Puerto Galilea receives the documentation sent by communities to request DEMAs. Each request is then sent to the regional environmental agency offices of Condorcanqui and Amazonas, and then to officials of the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR). The decentralized office that Calvo heads also functions as a forestry control post, and one of its responsibilities is overseeing and monitoring whether communities are using their permits appropriately, in other words, whether there are loggers using the authorizations to traffic and transport protected species.

“These communities that have a DEMA are based along the border and we don’t have a budget for fuel. Everything is done by river here,” notes Calvo. From Puerto Galilea, where Calvo is based, it takes more than four hours to travel to Candungos and Papayacu by motor boat, or an entire day if traveling by a small boat. Before the timber was confiscated by the Wampis community members, Calvo had planned a trip to the communities to make inspections and give talks on responsibly using natural forest resources. However, due to the tension in the Wampis territory, he was unable to carry out his plans.

In fact, Pizarro questions the regional environmental authority’s timely intervention in the communities. According to the lawyer, the regional environmental authority did not comply with the process of raising awareness and informing community members not to cut down species at risk of extinction. Nor did the authority inform community members on the prices they should set for timber, and how to reject those attempting to pay lesser amounts. Although the loggers could have bought timber that was extracted following legal requests, they are responsible for having transported species covered by a strict logging ban. “Article 30 of the criminal code is very clear on those who traffic or even transport forest resources.” The complaint that Pizarro is preparing concerns crimes against the environment and the trafficking and illegal transportation of timber.

Wampis community members, supported by local patrols, detain a boat with cedar and mahogany timber in the Bajo Santiago basin. Photo by Evaristo Pujupat.
In their attempts to recover the timber held in Huabal and Puerto Galilea, the loggers threatened to kill several Wampis leaders. Image by Galois Flores.

During his inspections of the timber held in Huabal and Puerto Galilea, Calvo says that not all of it was cedar or mahogany. In fact, most was tornillo and lupuna, with a smaller amount of cedar identified.

“I’m the only one at the checkpoint and I can’t bring in all the cargo that comes in by boat. Part of the cargo is cut off with a knife so I can see what species it is,” he explains. It is seemingly in this precarious way that the government has been facing forest exploitation in an area with significant sources of illegal logging and the constant trafficking in timber. As reported by the Environmental Directorate of the Peruvian National Police, one of the last large seizures of illegal timber in the Santiago River basin was 28,000 board feet of virola tree in 2018.

On June 24, the Peruvian government declared a 60-day state of emergency in the province of Condorcanqui (Amazonas). This measure was in response to the increased criminal activities related to illegal logging and mining in various parts of the jurisdiction. The GTANW asked why the declaration did not specify crucial areas where the national police and armed forces should intervene as a priority, and requested that policies aimed at eradicating illegal logging and mining be coordinated with the GTANW leadership. The GTANW also called for leaders and members of organized crime groups to be captured, and for the Intersectoral Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders to be made operational for threatened Wampis authorities.

In the line of difficulties faced by the Wampis community, one of the most recent was the theft of a boat and its motor by a group of loggers recovering the confiscated shipments. Mitigating ongoing illegal logging still awaits for a solution.

Logging and the trade in fine wood in the communities of Candungos and Papayacu has been possible thanks to the forest exploitation permits granted by the Amazonas regional environmental authority. Photo by Galois Flores.

Banner image: Macaws fly over the rainforests of Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on July 6, 2022.