“The government’s excessive bureaucracy for indigenous and native land titles is in stark contrast to its streamlined approach to the granting of logging and mining concessions, the awarding of which will only exacerbate greenhouse-gas emissions and conflict with indigenous communities.”
– Chris Moye, Global Witness
For indigenous communities under threat, legal protection does not come easily. Indigenous forest communities in Peru must clear 27 bureaucratic hurdles to obtain official recognition and formal land titles, a costly process that can take more than a decade. Meanwhile, concessionaires face between three and seven bureaucratic steps, depending on whether they seek permits for logging or mining, and can obtain their paperwork in only a few months.
A recent study conducted by Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS) and the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP), reports that Peru has one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America, losing an area twice the size of Hong Kong each year.
This is despite the Peruvian government announcing in the lead-up to last year’s United Nations climate change conference in Lima (COP20) that it would reduce net deforestation to zero by 2021, and increase the areas titled to indigenous peoples by at least five million hectares.
Indigenous-owned lands in the Peruvian Amazon store a significant amount of carbon in their plants and soil, called “carbon stocks.” Other studies have shown that indigenous peoples’ forests have significantly lower rates of deforestation compared with the national average. It follows that indigenous land stewardship is essential for addressing climate change, which is in part caused by the release—through deforestation and forest degradation—of carbon stocks into the atmosphere.
“Continued forest destruction is directly contradicting the Peruvian government’s climate change commitments,” said Tom Bewick, Peru Country Director at RFUS. “By dragging its feet on indigenous land titles, the government is making it almost impossible to achieve its own stated goals.”
AIDESEP estimates that 1,240 communities are seeking titles to their traditional lands in Peru. Indigenous and native communities formally own 58,000 square miles (150,000 square kilometers) of the Peruvian Amazon, but progress is stalled on indigenous land-titling applications covering a further 77,000 square miles of forestland.
“This report makes clear that the government’s excessive bureaucracy for indigenous and native land titles is in stark contrast to its streamlined approach to the granting of logging and mining concessions, the awarding of which will only exacerbate greenhouse-gas emissions and conflict with indigenous communities,” said Chris Moye of Global Witness, which last year released a report on deaths among Peruvian environmental and land defenders.
According to the new report, 50 indigenous land titles have been approved since 2007; by comparison, 556 logging concessions were approved in a two-year period from 2002 to 2004, covering almost 27,000 square miles of the Peruvian Amazon. A massive 35,658 mining concessions have been approved since 2007, many of which overlap with indigenous territories. Other studies have found that nearly 84% of the Peruvian Amazon is covered by oil blocks, many overlapping with indigenous territories, while a rush for gold mining is having a devastating effect on Madre de Dios, a region in southeastern Peru, leading to a tripling of deforestation there since 2008.
“A system that benefits resource concessions encourages corruption and land-grabbing, and inevitably leads to social unrest,” said Moye. “The ultimate victims of this government red tape are indigenous peoples, many of whom are subject to immense intimidation and even murder in their forest homes.”
New high-resolution mapping data have shown that when governments grant and enforce forest rights, indigenous and other local communities successfully stop loggers, extractive companies, and settlers from illegally destroying the forests and releasing carbon pollution into the atmosphere. The same study estimated that indigenous peoples and local communities have legal or official rights to nearly 2 million square miles of forests worldwide, representing 37.7 billion tons of carbon.
The report on Peru was released in Paris, two weeks before the United Nations’ COP21 gathering, during an informal briefing that brought together indigenous leaders from Indonesia, Central America, and the Amazon. Their goal is to relate their efforts to save the forests that are fundamental to slowing climate change.
Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman documented 1,935 social conflicts of opposition to mining projects between 2006 and 2014, and Global Witness has found that 80% of the deaths of environmental and land defenders in Peru from 2002 to 2014 related to protests against extractive-sector projects.
Perhaps nowhere has the conflict over land been more vicious than in Alto Tamaya-Saweto, a small indigenous forest community in the Peruvian Amazon, whose plight is documented in the report. The 310-square-mile area is the ancestral home of 32 Ashéninka families, who have maintained small farms and fished and hunted in their forest for generations. The Peruvian government approved Forest Law 27308 in the early 2000s, opening the floodgates for logging concessions. Three such concessions overlapped with Saweto’s native territory, bringing with it both legal and illegal logging.
To protect Saweto’s territory from these threats, community leaders submitted a land title application in 2003 and denounced the illegal logging happening on their land. Between 2003 and 2004, Saweto leaders placed four complaints with authorities, but these were ignored and the land title requests went unheeded. As the conflict intensified, community leaders requested government protection from loggers, but were ignored. Tragically, illegal loggers murdered four Saweto leaders—Edwin Chota, Jorge Ríos Pérez, Leoncio Quincima Meléndez, and Francisco Pinedo—in September 2014. Even then, the government dragged its feet in granting a land title to the community, doing so only in September 2015 after a 12-year battle.
“If it hadn’t been for the murders, the State wouldn’t have ever paid attention to what was happening in our community,” said Diana Rios, daughter of one of the murdered leaders.
“It shouldn’t take the murder of activists before the government acts. But the Saweto tragedy could be repeated elsewhere if land-titling processes are not greatly sped up.”
– Diana Rios, daughter of a slain environmental defender from the Alto Tamaya-Saweto community in Peru.
Margoth Quispe, legal representative for the Ashéninka community of Saweto, said the solution is simple: “What we need is for the government to demonstrate political will at the highest levels, and to insist that titling indigenous lands be made a priority at every level of government.”
Saweto’s fight for land rights is emblematic of a global struggle. Indigenous peoples and local communities claim or have customary use of as much as 65% of the world’s land area, yet a study by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) showed that only 10% of land in 64 countries is legally owned by indigenous peoples and local communities. Legal recognition of indigenous lands and management systems therefore represents an important opportunity to protect forests worldwide and mitigate climate change.
“We call on the Government of Peru to honour its commitments on climate change,” said Alex Soros, founder of the Alex Soros Foundation (ASF), which recognized Saweto last year with the ASF Prize for Environmental and Human Right Activism. “With its vast rainforests populated by indigenous peoples, titling land to these communities would be an important first step in meeting Peru’s climate change obligations while, at the same time, helping bring to an end an era of shocking human rights abuses.”
Rainforest Foundation US is tackling the major challenges of our day: deforestation, the climate crisis, and human rights violations. Your donation moves us one step closer to creating a more sustainable and just future.
Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.