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A particular agrarian reform process in Peru | Chapter 4 of “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon”

  • Mongabay is publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

The agrarian reform process in Peru began in 1964. Originally a cautious effort targeting the more egregious examples of peasant exploitation, it was dramatically expanded by a left-wing military government in 1969. Between 1970 and 1975, more than 15,800 landholdings, covering slightly more than nine million hectares, were confiscated and redistributed to more than 370,000 campesino families. The original owners were to be compensated by the sale of sovereign bonds, but hyperinflation in the 1980s forced the government into default and the outstanding debt continues to be the object of legal action. The original plan by the military government was to form producer-owned collectives that empowered communities to assume control of their land while preserving the economies of scale. This idea was not embraced by the peasants, however, who divided the land among themselves while managing tenure communally according to traditional highland customs.
The military regime ended in 1980 with the election of Fernando Belaunde, an advocate of Amazonian development and the original proponent of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva. Among his first actions was to create the Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo (INADE), an autonomous agency affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture; INADE organized Proyectos Especiales, which included settlements in the tropical lowlands, irrigation systems on the coast and mechanized agriculture in the highlands. The six lowland projects were analogous to the colonization projects in Brazil that distributed land adjacent to highways then under construction, largely, as in Bolivia, to Indigenous migrants from the Andean highlands.

The piedmont between the Andean foothills and the port city of Pucallpa on the Ucayali River was opened for colonization with construction of the Carretera Federico Basadre in the 1980s. Most landholdings have yet to be validated (saneamiento) and incorporated into the national cadaster, including two large oil palm plantations established in 2013 and 2014 (a). Communal landholdings of indigenous communities (green polygons) are under pressure from migrants and land grabbers. Credit: Google Earth

The government reportedly deforested 615,000 hectares (1,5 million acres) in anticipation of the arrival of settlers; however, only ~125,000 hectares (about 308,800 acres) were occupied by the first wave of colonists. Over the next decade, a steady stream of migrants flowed into the tropical forest of the foothills (Selva Alta) and piedmont (Selva Baja). The estimated rate of deforestation between 1980 and 1990 exceeded 250,000 ha (about 617,800 acres) per year, approximately twice the annual rate documented since 2000 and 2020. The rural population of Amazonian jurisdictions surged from three to four million inhabitants, approximately double the rate of growth of previous and subsequent decades. These years also saw an explosion in the cultivation of coca across the Peruvian Amazon, as well as the rise of the Sendero Luminosa and the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru.

In 1992, the government of Alberto Fujimori created the Proyecto Especial de Titulación de Tierras (PETT) to regularize the titles for all Peruvian landholders. As in Bolivia, this coincided with policies emanating from multilateral agencies to foster a market economy and provide seguridad jurídica to landholders. The PETT included safeguards to protect and recognise the communal lands of Indigenous people, which in the vernacular of Peru included both highland groups (comunidades campesinas) and lowland tribes (comunidades nativas). The process was coordinated with other programmes to create a system of forest concessions and organize a protected-area system. The objective was to allocate the public lands among the various stakeholders of the Peruvian nation.

The land tenure regularisation (saneamiento) process has been subject to periodic administrative reforms. This included a decentralization decree in 2003, which passed the implementation to regional governments (Gobiernos Regionales – GORE), and an anti-corruption drive that transferred the programme back to the central government in 2007. In 2008, the PETT was fused into the Comisión de Formalización de la Propiedad Informal (COFOPRI), a high-profile programme created to formalise property rights in the country’s volatile urban barrios.

Peru has recognized the territorial rights of ethnic Indigenous groups via landholdings linked to individual communities. Many villages have yet to have their land claims adjudicated. The state has also created several Indigenous Reserves to protect groups living in voluntary isolation. Data source: IBC (2020).

This agency had the technical capacity to compile a digital cadaster, but devolved the administrative responsibilities back to the Ministerio de Agricultura y Riego (MINAGRI). In 2014, MINAGRI delegated field operations to regional governments in a renewed effort to decentralise the administrative functions of the state. In 2018, MINAGRI assumed full responsibility from COFOPRI for the compilation and management of a national rural land cadaster, which is known as the Sistema Catastral para Predios Rurales (SICAR) and managed by the Dirección General de Saneamiento de la Propiedad Agraria y Catastro Rural (DIGESPACR).

In spite of the administrative shuffling, the land tenure project maintained a level of institutional continuity because the government leveraged its investments with loans from the IDB via the Proyecto de Catastro, Titulación y Registro de Tierras Rurales (PTRT). Executed as three consecutive projects over 25 years, the communal component has benefitted from strong oversight from civil society and the participation of Indigenous organizations. In spite of numerous setbacks, the PTRT has succeeded in establishing a nationwide system to register rural properties, certify their titles and incorporate them into a cadaster.

Hundreds of villages on the Amazon, Ucayali and Marañon rivers are populated by communities with no specific ethnic affinity but who self-identify as Ribereños; the Peruvian state has only recently begun to recognise their right to the land adjacent to their riverside communities. Data source: IBC (2020).

Predios comunales (Indigenous landholdings)

The demarcation and regularization of communal landholdings is well advanced; nonetheless, significant hurdles impede the completion of the process. As of August 2021, the ministry had registered the landholdings of more than 5,680 comunidades campesinas, covering 21 million hectares (about 52 million acres) on the coast and in the Highlands. Unfortunately, 25 per cent have yet to be fully validated by DIGESPACR, apparently due to litigation stemming from the agrarian reform of the 1970s.

In the lowlands, SICAR has registered the claims of 1,950 comunidades nativas covering ~13 million hectares (32.1 million acres); about two-thirds have received a validated title while the remainder are awaiting resolution of bureaucratic or legal obstacles (Figure 4.6a). Organizations representing Indigenous communities report that there are at least 500 additional villages seeking ‘recognition’, an administrative stage that is a prerequisite for soliciting a title for communal lands. Progress has been stymied by the conflicting land claims of other stakeholders.

A survey conducted in 2017 enumerated 2,703 communities of which 808 (30%) reported some kind of land conflict. These included conflicts with other communities (45%), private landholdings (27%) or individuals within their own community (24%), as well as with timber (14%), petroleum (7.3%) and mining companies (5%), and with wildcat miners (1.6%).

The process of distributing land is further complicated because the state must resolve conflicts among its own institutions. For example, approximately twelve million hectares of the forest estate are unavailable to communities because they have been leased as a concession for a determined period of time. Similarly, protected areas created in the 1980s and 1990s, before there was clarity as to the priority of Indigenous claims, impede the state’s ability to grant legal title to long-established communities. Management guidelines guarantee inhabitants’ access to natural resources, but unlike their peers on nearby landscapes, Indigenous inhabitants of a national protected area do not have communal property rights. Below-ground mineral resources are a major source of contention since, while they legally belong to the state, their exploitation is contingent upon the consent of local Indigenous communities.

These limitations are particularly vexing for the approximately 750 villages inhabited by about 35,000 families who self-identify as comunidades ribereñas. These forest-dwelling people have a mixed heritage that includes an indigenous legacy but lacks an ethnic affinity due to intermarriage and deculturisation. They reside along all the major rivers but are most densely settled near Iquitos.

Often, Ribereños coexist and share resources with ethnic communities, particularly along the southern border of the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Simiria. Recently, the regional government of Loreto (GOREL) used the comunidad campesina protocol to formalise the status for 64 landholdings covering ~376,000 hectares (about 929,000 acres).

Hundreds of riverside villages in the Peruvian Amazon are inhabited by families who self-identify as Ribereñas. Most are descended from immigrants and survivors of Indigenous communities that were disrupted during the rubber boom of the nineteenth century. Because they lack a specific ethnic heritage, they have not benefitted from the state’s program to allocate communal landholdings to native communities. Image by Karol Moraes /

Near Pucallpa (HML #41) and Yurimaguas (HML #44), both comunidades nativas and comunidades ribereñas must compete for land and resources with an expanding population who self-identify as colonos. As in Bolivia. they come from a highland culture where communal landholdings are the norm, but on the forest frontier of the Peruvian Amazon, they have embraced private property as their pathway to prosperity.

Banner image: The Andes at dawn cross with the clouds. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 4 here:

To read earlier chapters of the book, find Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Three is here.

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