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The Land Invaders

In their rush for land in Peru, investors and local officials are grabbing land from poor villagers and contributing to deforestation in the Amazon. Two communities are defending their land rights with the help of Oxfam's determined local partners.

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Richard Fasabi is standing on the sandy bank of the Aguaytia River, looking west, toward his father’s homestead, a small collection of thatch-roofed structures amid trees above the river. Fasabi grew up there, and when he started his own family, he built a home just a short walk down the high river bank.

He had no way of knowing that this place, an ethnic Shipibo community called Santa Clara de Uchunya, would become a battleground. Now 40, Fasabi is living under the threat of death by armed men who have moved to the area west of the Aguaytia and are cutting down the forest and planting crops. This establishes them as farmers in the area, so they can eventually get a formal land title. They then have the option of selling this land to an oil palm plantation aggressively expanding into the area. The land invaders, as Fasabi and others describe them, have come to his home, armed with guns and their faces masked, to tell his wife that if the couple does not leave the area they will kill him. 

The land these outsiders are grabbing is the ancestral home of the Shipibo indigenous people, who have been here for centuries. But that history is not enough—yet—to convince the government to guarantee the Shipibo communal title to their territory, despite international and federal laws protecting those land rights. 

Fasabi says he can’t imagine moving away, even just across the river.

My soul will always be here. Even if they kill me, I will never leave this place.

Richard Fasabi
Community member of Santa Clara de Uchunya

The muddy waters of the Aguaytia flow by slowly, ignoring the conflict on both sides. 

Palm oil and other agribusiness plantations are expanding in Peru, and are a major cause of deforestation in Amazonian areas. Oxfam’s research shows that new medium- and large-scale plantations are now covering 80,000 hectares (about 196,000 acres) mainly in San Martin, Ucayali, and Loreto provinces. Many of these new plantations overlap with indigenous community land claims. More than 1,300 indigenous communities currently have title to 12.4 million hectares of land in the Amazon in Peru, but are claiming 20 million more, according to estimates from indigenous federations. 

Oxfam is helping local communities defend their rights to own and manage their ancestral territories, invoking national and international laws overlooked by some corrupt local officials. But these agribusiness land grabs are hurting people far beyond the Amazon: the massive deforestation is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which are a driver of the climate change that is affecting the entire planet.

Son of Amazon struggles to defend forest land

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Peru Booming

Conflict in Santa Clara de Uchunya started in 2015, when villagers gathering wild fruit and medicinal plants in the forest on the west side of the Aguaytia were confronted by security guards from a plantation that was suddenly cutting down the forest. “They asked us who we are, where we are going,” says Manuel Diaz, a former village chief. “We used to go there to hunt and fish; now we can’t anymore.”

According to Diaz, the guards worked for a company now known as Ocho Sur P, part of an international agribusiness concern owned by Dennis Melka, a Czech-American living in Singapore. The company acquired land title through the regional government to raise oil palms. Its claim lies partly in forestland Santa Clara de Uchunya villagers say has been theirs for generations.

The Federation of Native Communities of Ucayali, known by its Spanish acronym FECONAU, is working with Oxfam’s support to survey and demarcate Santa Clara de Uchunya’s territory, and file claims in local courts to get an official title. They have also requested that the government stop the oil palm plantation’s operations and expansion. They did get a judge to issue an injunction in 2015, but it wasn’t enforced until late 2017, and only in newly planted areas. Since then, FECONAU and villagers in Santa Clara de Uchunya have reported violent threats. The one Richard Fasabi described occurred the first week of January 2018.

FECONAU’s leader Robert Guimaraes says Santa Clara de Uchunya is asking the regional government to grant a collective title for 38,000 hectares of its ancestral territory, and to stop issuing individual titles to land invaders whose sole purpose is to subsequently sell the land to the palm oil corporation.

The plantation on Shipibo territory also violates both international and Peruvian law, Guimaraes says: it was established without consulting the native communities and while the government turned a blind eye. “These areas are for our use and culture, but the government sees them as areas to give away … and it is driving deforestation,” he says.

Land use violations, claims from indigenous communities, and land grabs are being exposed to legal action, and in the media, thanks to support from Oxfam and our partners and allies who are advocating for justice in Peru.

Land Rush in Loreto

Melka also started a cacao plantation in Loreto province, a two-hour flight north of Santa Clara de Uchunya. It has also run into problems, according to media reports: his investors were not satisfied that he was running the plantation properly. Called Cacao del Perú Norte, the plantation secured title for some 3,000 hectares of forestland and it has already planted some 1,800 hectares, despite legal challenges by environmental groups that Cacao del Perú Norte is clearing land not zoned for agriculture .

In a small riverside community called Panguana, Adriano Panaifo says that after Cacao del Perú Norte bought some land next to his village, it suddenly started building a road into his town’s farming area. “They knew we did not have title to this land, so the company tried to claim as much of it as they could,” Panaifo explains. “We found out when they were building a road on our land, and when we saw them clear-cutting the forest we were mad because we knew the impact of what they were doing would be serious. We’re very aware of the need to conserve the forest, and we were really angry.”

Panaifo is a village leader, and worked with Oxfam’s partner Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA) to hold a series of meetings with Cacao del Perú Norte to force it to pull back to the area it had actually acquired. Others in nearby Tamshiyacu report that they have had less cordial encounters with representatives from Cacao del Perú Norte who have aggressively tried to buy up their farmland. One farmer named Carlos Diaz says in 2015 he brought a TV film crew to an area of his land the company had seized and was clearing. He says 30 plantation company workers armed with machetes chased him and the film crew off the land and threatened to kill them.

Ruperto Vasquez, a farmer in his early 60s, has also refused offers to sell his land. Vasquez says when he declined a low offer for his 20 hectares, the company agent just laughed at him. “I could tell he knew he had the upper hand,” Vasquez says, sitting in his home in Tamshiyacu late one evening, his family cat playing on the dirt floor around his feet. “They tell us they will get our land anyway.”

Vasquez says company collaboration with local government officials leaves farmers like him with no allies. He and others like Diaz have been threatened, and have requested protection from the police. “They come around here once a week to see if I am still alive,” Vasquez says.

Enforcement Problems

José Luis Capella, an attorney who works at SPDA, says local government officials “should not title forestland for agriculture. Companies claim that they own private land, and they can do what they please. But the Forestry and Wildlife Law says our forests are part of our national heritage, and if you wish to touch it you need a permit. Even if you own the land, you are not allowed to just cut down all the trees.”

Capella says SPDA is helping Panguana to navigate a complicated land titling process, and he blames the fact that farmers here lack land title due to “many years of neglect by the government.”

“Enforcement of laws here is really bad,” Capella says, citing local officials who “either don’t know [the laws] or ignore them. … They want to give companies investing in land here whatever they want.”

Juan Luis Dammert, a program officer at Oxfam, says, “These foreign investors wrongly maintain that if the land they buy is titled already, they are exempt from environmental impact assessments or other requirements such as land use change permits. They just turn up with bulldozers and tear up the forest. This has become their preferred mechanism to skip requirements and grab land.”

Oxfam and its partners like FECONAU and SPDA are helping communities like Santa Clara de Uchunya, Panguana, and Tamshiyacu to understand the laws and learn their rights so that they can file land claims and court motions to stop illegal forest clearing.

Dammert says Peru is unlikely to seize land from any company that has legal title, even if it was acquired via a crooked process. But land use violations, claims from indigenous communities, and land grabs are being exposed to legal action, and in the media, thanks to support from Oxfam and our partners and allies who are advocating for justice in Peru. And helping to protect the rights of communities to use the forest in a sustainable manner also helps reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Ana Mendoza, a community health promoter in Panguana, says preserving the forest is a high priority for her community. “I want our children to know the trees, the birds, and animals. We want them to know the forest, and that we did not sell the forest to the company.”

Additional credits: Lead image shot by Diego Perez/Oxfam. Richard Fasabi (blue shirt) casts a net on a small lake near Santa Clara de Uchunya. He and many other ethnic Shipibo people in this part of Peru base their livelihood on fishing, hunting, and gathering wild fruit and other food in the forest, but pressure from commercial plantations and other businesses are pushing them out of their traditional ways of living.

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