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 are the two previous parts:
REDD-Monitor: You recently wrote a report published by Forest Peoples Programme titled, “Ending Impunity: Confronting the drivers of violence and forest destruction on the agribusiness and extractives frontier in the Peruvian Amazon: a rights-based analysis”. What is driving the violence and forest destruction? Who’s behind the violence and what is the role of the Peruvian State plays in preventing – and allowing – forest destruction and violence?
Tom Younger: What we tried to do with this report was to provide an overview and some analysis of why this violence against Indigenous Peoples and deforestation of their territories is occurring. Most of it stems from the expansion of logging, industrial agriculture, extractive projects and investment, and narcotics.
Who’s responsible? Well, often these crimes don’t get investigated, for the reasons that I mentioned before. But as far as we can make out, a lot of the violence is being caused by land traffickers, and also people involved in armed groups involved in narcotics production.
And also, it should be said, police repression. There was a case last summer, where several Kukama men from communities impacted by oil extraction were killed by Peruvian police during a protest demanding basic services and sanitation during the pandemic.
I wrote that report back in the Autumn of 2019 ahead of the launch of the Zero Tolerance Initiative, a coalition led by Indigenous Peoples to end violence in supply chains. It was published about a year later. In the intervening period, the situation has worsened significantly. There have been at least nine killings in the past year. They’re the ones that have been in some way registered and received attention, both from Indigenous organisations and from the media.
In terms of the Peruvian State’s response, in many of these cases, the communities who have received threats have warned the State repeatedly about what’s happening. They’ve done so both nationally and even internationally via international human rights organs such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. And yet the Peruvian Government has failed to provide even the most basic forms of protection to these leaders.
In recent years, the Peruvian government has created a protocol for the protection of human rights defenders. I think it’s fair to say that so far it’s had pretty limited effect. Forest Peoples Programme has supported the folks that we work with to make use of it as best they can, but it’s not providing adequate protection.
Finally, prevention is better than protection. Ultimately what is needed are structural reforms which are going to prevent these kinds of conflicts from arising in the first place.
REDD-Monitor: I recently wrote about illegal gold mining along the Pariamanu River in Madre de Dios. Some of this mining is taking place inside Brazil nut concessions that are part of a REDD project. The REDD project is just north of the main gold rush that took place in Peru over the last decade, or a bit longer. The government clamped down eventually on that illegal gold mining. Some of the illegal miners are now moving on to other rivers in Madre de Dios, including in Brazil nut concessions that are part of the REDD project. Some of the concession holders are actually giving out the land to gold miners for a cut of any of the gold that they find.
In June 2019, the Amahuaca Indigenous People living in Boca Pariamanu had their rights to 4,000 hectares of forest recognised. Yet their territory and river are under threat from illegal mining and community members have been threatened with violence. One of the problems is that the police are underfunded, and therefore cannot address yet another illegal gold mining operation.
What are your thoughts about this? As you just pointed out, the police aren’t exactly innocent in some of the violence against Indigenous communities. One problem is that the money from a REDD project goes to the REDD project developers. In a way the REDD project is privatising conservation, while failing to provide the support that Indigenous communities need.
Tom Younger: I should begin by saying that our team don’t work in Madre de Dios, so I can only give my general impressions in terms of how the situation connects with the kinds of situations that the communities that we work with are facing elsewhere.
I would say that what you are describing is a commonplace problem. It undermines the titling of Indigenous lands, which by itself isn’t sufficient to ensure the protection of those lands by the communities living there. Communities need resources, to be able to effectively control and manage their territories, which in many cases are vast.
This follows the pattern that we’ve been seeing in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon, particularly in Ucayali, where particularly during the pandemic, there’s been an increase of deforestation by loggers and by narcotics producers, within titled Indigenous lands. Obviously without communities’ consent.
There’s an urgent need, basically for more resources to be made available to communities to be able to patrol and monitor and also to take the follow-up defensive actions which are often needed to head off these kinds of threats.
You mentioned the police response, and this comes back to the question of access to justice. It’s very common that communities denounce environmental crimes which puts them in an extremely exposed position for taking that stand. Only for them to receive the answer that if they want the police to come and investigate or the prosecutor to make a site visit, then they’ll have to cover the costs. That puts the onus on communities and their organisations basically to find resources to cover the investigation.
So what you’ve got is that the access to justice is effectively privatised. I’m not sure we should even call it a justice system. Because unless communities have access to some kind of resources to be able to pay for these interventions, nothing will happen. And these issues aren’t solved with a single intervention. It often takes multiple interventions.
The other issue is that if State representatives do make an appearance, it’s only the repressive arm of the State. The Peruvian State is not making adequate resources available to communities to support local livelihoods, based on local people’s needs and visions.
That’s something that a lot of communities talk to us about. Access to health and education is often very limited. The services that people would expect the State to provide for its citizens are limited.
In the wake of the pandemic the Peruvian Government has been really rolling back its social and environmental protections. Just a week ago, the congress declared that it was in the national interest to build a road from Pucallpa to Cuzeiro do Sul in Brazil, which would potentially cross the territories of Indigenous Peoples living in isolation.
These are very real and increasing threats and pressures on Indigenous lands which in many cases are being fomented directly by the Peruvian Government.
REDD-Monitor: It’s extraordinary. They’ve already built one road, the Interoceanic Highway, that links Brazil with the coast. It has driven more road building, illegal mining, and deforestation. Satellite images show a huge corridor of deforestation along the road, which is very close to communities living in isolation.
One of the REDD projects in Madre de Dios was set up supposedly with the aim of protecting the forest from the impacts of the Interoceanic Highway. Actually, the REDD project is just two logging concessions, but that’s another story.
Tom Younger: Exactly. It’s these kinds of Government initiated decisions that really make a mockery of targets around forest protection and emissions reductions.
 In the first week of July 2021, Ashaninka Indigenous leader Mario López Huanca died after being shot in the head by coca producers he tried to expel from his community’s territory located between Pasco and Ucayali in the Peruvian Amazon. The murder of López Huanca came just weeks after dozens of Indigenous organisations and allies issued an open letter to the Peruvian State demanding effective protection for Indigenous communities and leaders under threat for protecting their lands.
 In the face of mounting pressure from Indigenous Peoples and their allies, outgoing Peruvian President Sagasti came out in opposition to this road-building project. However, it still remains to be seen whether the Peruvian Congress will shelve the plans.
This post is part of a series of posts on REDD-Monitor looking at REDD and environmental injustice in the Andes Amazon.