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Critics decry controversial bill that loosens deforestation restrictions in Peru

Recently cleared land for an oil palm plantation in Peru.

Recently cleared land for an oil palm plantation in Peru. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.

  • On Jan. 10, Peru’s Congress approved a new amendment to the country’s forest and wildlife law, which loosens restrictions on deforestation and may affect the rights of Indigenous peoples, experts warn.
  • According to opponents of this amendment, this change in legislation could pave the way for a large expansion of deforestation across Peru’s forests, with the Amazon at risk.
  • Proponents of the bill argue that it will bring stability to the Peruvian agricultural sector and offer legal security to those dedicated to agricultural production.
  • A group of civil society organizations and lawyers have filed a motion with the Constitutional Court, arguing the new revision violated the Constitution.

A new amendment to Peru’s forest and wildlife law is being criticized by opponents as unconstitutional and a step backward in forest protection after it came into effect Jan. 10 following approval by Congress. The revised law (Law 29763) legalizes agricultural activities without the need for certain environmental evaluations or technical studies on private properties deemed “agriculture exclusion areas.”

Supporters of the motion, including president of the Agrarian Commission, María Zeta Chunga, say it will bring stability to the Peruvian agricultural sector and offer legal security to farmers.

Peru’s Congress, which is currently controlled by members in favor of agribusiness, approved this modification on Dec. 14 with 70 votes in favor, 35 against and five abstaining. Alfonso Bustamente Canny, a food exporter and president of an economic powerhouse institution, the National Confederation of Private Business Institutions (CONFIEP), sent a letter to the president of Congress the day before the vote. The letter said that not approving the law would be “a flagrant violation of the right to work,” would endanger job stability and discourage investment in this key sector for economic growth.

However, according to Ricardo Pérez Bailón, Peru communications adviser at Amazon Watch, the modification poses a huge risk to the country’s forests, including the Amazon Rainforest, and Indigenous peoples. The modification will eliminate the need to obtain authorization for forest zoning on private lands (determining which zones will be used for agriculture and forest conservation), a change enacted without consulting communities whose ancestral lands could potentially be affected.

In addition, there will no longer be a requirement for landowners or businesses to prove they previously received these authorizations, meaning those who have already carried out illegal deforestation in conservation zones will not be penalized.

Newly razed forest near the Ucayali River in Peru gives way to a young oil palm plantation. Photo by John C. Cannon
Deforestation on the Tamshi (formerly Cacao del Peru Norte) plantation. Image by Diego Pérez.
Deforestation on the Tamshi (formerly Cacao del Peru Norte) plantation in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Diego Pérez.

César Ipenza, a Peruvian environmental lawyer and outspoken critic of the recent legislative action, told Mongabay this will “benefit actors who have previously failed to comply with the requirements demanded in the forestry law, weakening the protection of forests and environmental management, ignoring the rights of Indigenous peoples and encouraging new deforestation.”

According to an analysis by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Ministry of the Environment, the new revised law may impact at least 3,000 cases of forest crimes still open across the country, including cases involving more than 4,000 hectares (about 9,880 acres) of illegal deforestation. In total, there are 10,000 cases that could be affected.

“In principle, what it does is wipe the slate clean,” said Ipenza. “Many of the criminal cases faced by people who have deforested will no longer be penalized.”

Another change included in the bill is that land use authorizations will no longer be a matter for the Ministry of the Environment — a government body that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources — but rather, the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Irrigation, which promotes the development of agricultural activities, will deal with these authorizations.

Threats to Indigenous lands

José Francisco Calí Tzay, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, released a statement Jan. 31, arguing these changes could also “legalise and encourage the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their lands.”

According to Wilfredo Tsamash Cabrera, president of the Coordinator of Development and Defense of the Indigenous Peoples of the San Martín region, at stake is the fate of Indigenous lands, as the law allows for the formalization of land titles for exclusive agricultural activities in disputed areas. As a result, several Indigenous communities awaiting official land titles could be impacted by landowners seeking to expand agricultural activities on their ancestral lands.

An indigenous man in Peru. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
An Indigenous man in Peru. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

“Approximately a third of the Indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon have not been titled, leaving them without legal security and vulnerable against third parties,” Tzay said. “Indigenous peoples in situations of isolation and initial contact would be particularly vulnerable to regulatory change, which could threaten their physical and cultural survival.”

According to the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, this approval was “carried out without respecting the right to consultation of the legislative measures and flagrantly and systematically violating the constitutional and international legal framework that protects our rights as Indigenous peoples.”

Motion of unconstitutionality

A group of civil society organizations and lawyers have filed a motion with the Constitutional Court, arguing the new revision and the way it was approved, without adequate deliberation and consultation processes, violated the Constitution. The organizations involved include the Institute of Legal Defense, the Episcopal Commission for Social Action and two lawyers, Ipenza and Patricia Torres Muñoz.

“We are requesting that the Constitutional Court declares this law as unconstitutional because it affects fundamental rights, such as the right to enjoy a balanced environment suitable for life, and also, for example, the conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of natural resources,” Ipenza said. “The claim has been received but not admitted.”

On Jan. 17, the president of the Council of Ministers, Alberto Otárola, stated in a live interview that the government is “committed to the protection of our Native peoples and our environment … so we are going to have a balanced decision that will also use constitutional mechanisms to debate this issue again.”


Banner image: Recently cleared land for an oil palm plantation in Peru. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.

Aimee Gabay is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @aimeegabay

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