By Chris Lang
Interview with Tom Younger, Peru Programme Coordinator and Policy Advisor at Forest Peoples Programme. The interview was conducted online in May 2021. It’s a long interview, divided into four sections – here’s part 1:
REDD-Monitor: In 2018, AIDESEP and Forest Peoples Programme put out a report titled “A marathon, not a sprint: The role of international climate finance in securing indigenous lands in Peru: Progress, setbacks and challenges”. Can you talk about the main obstacles to achieving Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their territory in Peru.
Tom Younger: I’ve talked about the direct threats to Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights and territories in Peru, but then you have the indirect structural drivers of these threats.
These are to do with the failure by the Peruvian State to secure Indigenous territories and the way that the Peruvian State allocates land. For instance, the government hands out concessions whether that’s for logging or oil and gas operations, without respecting territorial rights and without Indigenous Peoples’ consent.
Then there are the economic incentives and international finance which are flowing towards these much more destructive, high impact and damaging industries.
And there’s widespread impunity for those who are responsible for rights abuse and the difficulties facing the communities who are trying to combat injustices and imposed commodity development, infrastructure, and conservation schemes. You have the frankly wild situation where because forests are considered under Peruvian law as being the patrimony of the nation, when illegal deforestation occurs it’s the State that is the aggrieved party, not the local communities whose ancestral forests they actually are.
So when they file complaints about deforestation and environmental crimes, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are instantly disempowered in the process. They are not allowed to participate directly in the investigations because as far as the existing legal framework sees it, they haven’t been harmed by what’s happened, because under national law the forest is deemed the property of the State, not the communities and customary owners! That just doesn’t make any sense and it is contradictory to Peru’s international human rights obligations.
And it actually makes it really difficult for communities to access justice, because with the rate at which these environmental crimes are occurring local people should be empowered to take action. But in this case they’re being blocked from doing that.
Which is also linked to the issue of corruption, another huge problem.
REDD-Monitor: Can you say a bit more about corruption, linked to illegal logging, for example.
Tom Younger: When it comes to Indigenous land titling, it’s the regional governments across the Amazon that have the responsibility for that. Within those regional governments it’s the Agrarian Agencies.
Ucayali is one of the largest regions of the Peruvian Amazon. The former director of the Agrarian Agency, Isaac Huamán, was in that very influential and powerful position for many years. Huamán not only undermined Indigenous Peoples’ demands for the recognition of their lands; it actually turned out that he was part of an organised crime group that was involved in land trafficking.
Unusually, he was actually sent to prison.
The nexus between State corruption and attacks and killings of Indigenous leaders is systemic, so much so that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a special hearing focused on this issue in last October.
On average, it takes Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon over 20 years to get their collective lands recognised and titled. In some communities land titling of at least part of their lands started back in the 1970s. Unfortunately given State discrimination and flawed land laws, it was only a small portion of their traditional lands that they’ve occupied and which they continue to use that received titles. Over the years they’ve been trying to get extensions to those communal land titles to secure the full extent of their ancestral territories, and they face a whole series of obstacles in doing that.
Recently, community leaders were trying to get one of the Agrarian Agencies to move forward with their land titling extension claim and they were basically told that it wasn’t going to go anywhere unless they paid a bribe. And that happens quite commonly.
They can fulfil all the requisites, but then you have people within the Agrarian Agencies who put further obstacles in the way. As if it wasn’t already difficult enough.
Obviously, the Peruvian Government is resisting fulfilling its legal obligations to title Indigenous lands. It’s now more than 50 years since the Peruvian State started issuing titles over community lands in the Amazon and still more than 20 million hectares of Indigenous territories remain untitled, just to give you a sense of the scale of the issue.
The structural reforms that are needed for the land titling processes have been identified and pointed out time and time again – including by the State’s own human rights ombudsman, the Defensoría del Pueblo, in 2014 and again in 2018. The Peruvian State itself has made commitments particularly in the context of climate finance stretching back over a decade that it was going to bring its legal framework and its procedures in line with international standards, but still hasn’t done so. There are great commitments on paper, but they just haven’t materialised.
We’re in this situation where communities have been struggling for more than 20 years to get their lands titled, whereas, I think, according to the latest stats from the World Bank you can acquire and register private property in the major Amazonian cities within about 21 days. The asymmetries in terms of the privatisation of land compared to the recognition of community lands is just staggering.
REDD-Monitor: I have a slight issue with the title of the report, “A marathon, not a sprint”. Running a marathon involves setting off and running (in my case very slowly) and after a few hours it’s all over. I think that’s the wrong metaphor. I think what we need is for governments to sprint. They need to take meaningful action now. Urgently.
It’s the same with the UNFCCC negotiations. 2020 was a big deadline. Now we’re hearing about 2030, or 2050. Actually what we need to hear is news about governments taking meaningful actions this week.
Tom Younger: I understood the metaphor as referring more to the way that Indigenous Peoples, particularly in Peru, have engaged with the international climate policy making spaces, in so far as it’s been a constant struggle for them. In terms of obtaining first of all recognition, and then actual support in terms of resources to support their collective rights and territories.
They have made important advances, but I think given the strength of the commitments which were made, the actual results are pretty limited.
Back in 2008, Peru made a commitment that they were going to reduce deforestation to net zero by 2020. Here we are in 2021. Hasn’t happened.
REDD-Monitor: There were a lot of that sort of targets. And an astonishing number of people were happy with the targets – as if we’d just been waiting for governments to set a target for eight years in the future that they’re going to stop deforestation.
Maybe I should change my opinion about the marathon metaphor. It is going to be a long slog. These are extremely complex issues that aren’t going to go away overnight with some technofix and a government target.
Tom Younger: Least of all with market mechanisms and interventions.
But there’s been a consistent demand from Indigenous Peoples that they should receive more direct funding. In the “Marathon not a Sprint” report, the debate is that the proportion of funds that actually went directly to Indigenous organisations was miniscule compared to the overall global funding for climate and forests. And yet they have an outsized impact in terms of the number of communities they were able to get titled.
Some Indigenous Peoples are developing proposals, for instance, to set up trust funds which would basically allow them to receive international funds that could then be administered across generations to support their activities to govern, control, manage, and monitor their territories. Which I think makes a lot of sense because what we’ve seen with a lot of the climate funds that have gone to Peru is that they are overseen by the Ministry of the Environment and other State bodies and very, very little of that funding ultimately makes its way to Indigenous Peoples and communities themselves.
In terms of the climate negotiations that’s key. It’s the sort of funding that governments like the UK should be providing. Paying our climate debt.
This post is part of a series of posts on REDD-Monitor looking at REDD and environmental injustice in the Andes Amazon.