- Mennonite groups began arriving in the Peruvian town of the district of Padre Márquez in Peru’s Loreto region in 2020.
- Settling near the town of Tiruntán, one Mennonite colony has cleared hundreds of hectares of old growth rainforest since 2021.
- Tiruntán community members claim they were given plots of public land by the town mayor, which were then sold to “the Mennonites, some Chinese business owners, and a logging company” in an effort to get around regulations that prohibit the clearing of forested land.
- Similar situations are playing out in other parts of Peru, as well as elsewhere in South America.
Jacobo, a Mennonite farmer who preferred only his fist name be used, had just begun to explain why he left Belize to settle in the Peruvian town of Tiruntá when five other members of his colony hopped out of a pickup truck to interrupt his story.
“We don’t want to give any information,” said one of them. The person who interrupted was later identified as the leader of the Mennonite colony that settled in 2020 in Tiruntán, which is located in the district of Padre Márquez in Peru’s Loreto region.
The leader, who did not identify himself, later relented and told Mongabay reporters that his group, the Gnadenhoff Reinlaender Benboya Agricultural Christian Mennonite Colony Association, began settling the region around Tiruntán in 2020. His is not the only Mennonite group colonizing this part of Peru. In Masisea, in the Ucayali region, a Mennonite colony of Bolivian origin established a settlement in 2017. In Tierra Blanca, in Peru’s Loreto region, three additional Mennonite colonies —Wanderland, Österreich, and Providencia— arrived the same year. All of these colonies are under investigation for having illegally cleared forest in the Peruvian Amazon.
In regard to the colony that settled near Tiruntán, Mongabay reporters viewed a document from the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office dated October 10, 2022. The document specifies that, according to a report issued by the National Forest and Wildlife Service of Peru (SERFOR), the area cleared by the colony “corresponds to primary forest.”
The Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Ucayali has begun an investigation into illegal deforestation of primary forest by the Tiruntán colony (which lies in both Ucayali and Loreto regions of Peru). The prosecutor’s office is also investigating cases regarding deforestation of 894 hectares (about 2,209 acres) in Masisea and 1,400 hectares (about 3,459 acres) in Tierra Blanca.
“That whole area was virgin mountain,” said Humberto Muñoz, a dental technician based in Tiruntán, referring to the region that surrounds his town and extends from the northernmost area of Ucayali towards southern Loreto.
The area in question was swathed in primary forest until 2021 when the Mennonite colony began clearing it, according to Ruth Noguerón, a researcher and forest specialist with forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch (GFW).
“The expansion began around July 4, 2021,” Noguerón said.
By August 2021, multiple roads had eaten through the forest, along with cleared grids signaling impending large-scale agricultural development. Where once stood old growth forest is now “bare soil,” Noguerón said.
“Here you can see the roads and the agricultural plots,” Carla Limas, a specialist in geographic information systems, said as she showed reporters satellite imagery of the area at her Pucallpa office. “I call them ‘agricultural axes’ because they are the lines from which the plots originate.”
Limas works with ProPurús Association, an environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of forests and advocates for the rights of Indigenous communities. According to an analysis conducted by ProPurús, 151 kilometers (about 94 miles) of roads were hewn through the forest near the Tiruntán Mennonite colony between July 2021 and October 2022.
“This is not just one road, but lots of highways,” Limas said.
According to an October 2022 report by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), 976 hectares (about 2,412 acres) of primary forest were cut down between 2021 and 2022. Satellite data and imagery from GFW show tree cover loss has continued into 2023.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office, together with local residents and several regional environment organizations, told Mongabay that the Mennonite colonists behind this forest loss cleared it without authorization.
“The Mennonites are knocking down the forest, although they have been prohibited [from this],” Muñoz said. “But because they have machinery, they have gone to the center [of the forest], where they cannot be seen, to continue deforesting. In the background, they have built their highway. Deforestation is prohibited, but they keep doing it.”
Julio Guzmán, the public attorney for the Ministry of the Environment, agreed that the colony is engaging in unauthorized clearing activity.
“Our primary evidence is the satellite imagery that shows the loss of forest cover over time,” Guzmán said.
Reports of irregularities regarding the land titling and purchasing process were a common refrain among those interviewed by Mongabay.
Muñoz, along with fellow Tiruntán residents Edwin Vargas, Egliberto Escobar Alegría, César Gonzales Ramírez and Antonio Guevara, along with Padre Márquez council member Eleazar Oliveira, said Tiruntán mayor Duarte González Ruíz offered to give them free plots of public land in 2016, each plot around 20 hectares (about 49 acres) in size, with the promise that they would receive land titles that would grant them legal ownership.
However, the residents said titles never came, and the municipal government instead sold the land — with titles — to other entities. While affected residents did say they received funds from the sale of land, they also said the compensation they received was around a fifth of the agreed-upon amount.
“They have conned us out of our lands, and today they are in the hands of the Mennonites, some Chinese business owners and a logging company,” Oliveira said.
Luis Alberto Gonzáles Zúñiga, the executive director of SERFOR, said this alleged bait-and-switch was done to get around regulations that prohibit the sale of uninhabited forested land by first encouraging plots to be occupied by residents who were falsely promised titles to them. Once inhabited, the plots could then be sold to third parties.
Gonzáles Zúñiga added that this practice is not uncommon in Peru. And he said that despite being done under the guise of a lawful process, it is illegal.
“What they are doing is occupying public lands, public forests, which they fragment and sell — in this case, to the Mennonites — and they settle in what was once a forest,” Gonzáles Zúñiga said. “This, in effect, is not legal.”
During a phone interview, former mayor González Ruíz denied responsibility for the sale and titling of the land, saying instead that he was complying with directives from regional authorities.
“I have not titled [land]; it was the regional government of Loreto,” González Ruíz said, adding that “things are not as they say in the community” and that those who wanted to sell did so without any pressure.
In 2020, Juan Martínez Redicop, a Mennonite resident from Mexico, purchased 124 plots of land near Tiruntán that amounted to a total of 2,600 hectares (about 6,425 acres), according to information from Peru’s National Superintendent of Public Registries (SUNARP).
“Juan Martínez Redicop was a man who was in charge in Belize and helped to buy [the properties] here,” said Mennonite farmer Jacobo.
“To settle there, they have to carry out aggressive clearing for agriculture and for their houses, their roads, and their paths,” said prosecutor José Luis Guzmán from the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of Ucayali “That area is suitable for forestry; they are forests.”
Martínez Redicop and another Tiruntán colony leader named Heinrich Harms are mentioned by name as the organizers and perpetrators of the alleged environmental crime “by managing and implementing the clearing of areas suitable for forestry,” according to a SUNARP document viewed by Mongabay reporters. The document added that Martínez Redicop and Harms went ahead with the clearing despite lacking “authorization from the appropriate authority.”
Oliveira said that in November 2020 he sent a letter to the Regional Agricultural Directorate of Loreto in an effort to notify them in an “urgent” way that lands were being “trafficked” in Tiruntán; in May 2021, Oliveira urged the Regional Governor of the Department of Loreto, Elisbán Ochoa, to oppose the sale of Tiruntán land to “unscrupulous people have spent years hoarding those lands, trafficking [them] for secret sales.”
Mongabay Latam contacted the Loreto regional government, but did not receive a response before this article’s original publication in Spanish.
Banner image: Concerned residents of the Tiruntán community. Image by Hugo Alejos.
Watch a related video report from the Peruvian Amazon: “How did a religious group take over part of the Amazon?”
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