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Amazon Natives struggle for control of ancestral lands

LIMA, Peru – The Cacataibo Indian village of Puerto Azul, in the Peruvian Amazon, is a peaceful collection of small wooden homes on a bank of the Aguaytia River, which serves as its connection to the nearest road and a place where people fish, swim and wash clothes. But Puerto Azul’s tranquil ambiance belies its 18-year struggle to establish ownership of ancestral land and halt a slow invasion of loggers and non-Native farmers.

The Cacataibo – one of 56 tribes living in Peru’s portion of the Amazon Basin – once occupied a vast territory on the eastern edge of the Andes, but during the past half-century, they’ve been reduced to a dozen enclaves west of the city of Pucallpa with a total of approximately 210,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of communal land, most of it covered with rainforest. Puerto Azul has the smallest of those territories – 4,100 hectares (about 10,000 acres) that the Peruvian government titled in 1975. But as the community grew and more outsiders moved into the area, Puerto Azul’s leaders decided to solicit an expansion of that territory.

According to Luis Alberto Bolivar, a Cacataibo leader who helped present Puerto Azul’s territorial expansion request in 1991, the Danish government financed the surveys and studies required by Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture. Bolivar said they requested an expansion to 42,000 hectares (103,740 acres) in order to protect the forests and watersheds of the mountains that flank the Aguaytia River, and to conserve enough wilderness for the Camano – nomadic Cacataibo who live in voluntary isolation.

The Peruvian government has yet to resolve Puerto Azul’s title request, but in the 18 years since it was first submitted, non-Native colonists have claimed most of the land along the river, which led the community to reduce its request to 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres). In 2003, the government granted logging concessions for much of the remaining land to two Peruvian companies. In 2005, the state added insult to injury by leasing an oil concession superimposed on that area to the Canadian-owned Petrolifera Petroleum.

“The government tramples on the rights of indigenous communities,” said Bolivar, who wants the logging concessions to be revoked. He said loggers destroy fruit trees and scare away game the Cacataibo depend on, and their bulldozers have damaged streams by using them as roads to enter the forest.

“For an Indian, the forest is a market, a pharmacy. For us, the big trees are sacred, but now the loggers are taking them all away.”

According to Angel Simon, the chief of Puerto Azul, the water from the village’s communal spigots started to smell like diesel earlier this year, when numerous people became ill. Community members consequently hiked into the mountains and found a logging camp where workers had contaminated the stream that feeds the town’s reservoir. They consequently filed a complaint against the logging concessionaire, who responded by filing charges against Simon and other village leaders for kidnapping – based on an incident when villagers stopped one of his workers from crossing their land – and other offenses.

“We’ve been charged with crimes for defending the flora and fauna, for defending the forest and the watersheds,” Simon said. “We’ve never seen justice; our grandfathers never saw justice.”

Margarita Benavides, sub-director of the Peruvian nonprofit Instituto del Bien Comun, which helps Native communities solicit title for their land, said Puerto Azul’s case is emblematic of a regional problem. Somewhere between 250 and 300 Native communities in the Peruvian Amazon lack titles for their land, and most of them face pressures from colonists, loggers, miners, or oil companies. In fact, the problem is so common that there is another Puerto Azul, a Harakmbut village in southeast Peru, that has waited 15 years for resolution of its title request.

Benavides explained that even Native communities with titles lack full control of their ancestral resources, because most of them depend on forested areas outside their territories for fruit, medicinal plants, building materials and hunting grounds, but the government has leased most of that land to loggers and oil companies. She said this situation led thousands of Amazonian Natives to join a 10-week regional protest last year organized by the Interethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP) to demand the repeal of nine legislative decrees that threatened Native land rights. That protest culminated in a police crackdown in Bagua province that left nearly 200 protesters injured and 34 dead.

“The legislative decrees are what broke the camels back, but it was the frustration of years and years of fighting for titles to their land that fed the mobilization,” Benavides said.

According to IBC lawyer Carlos Soria, Peruvian Prime Minister Javier Velasquez designated approximately $3.8 million to process the title requests of 170 Native communities following the Bagua clash. Yet nearly one year later, none of those communities has received titles. Soria said the administration of President Alan Garcia has also ignored most of the agreements made by the “mesas de dialogo” – committees formed by representatives of the government, AIDESEP, the Catholic church and non-governmental organizations that met for several months to address Native grievances.

“One year after Bagua, things are the same. We continue to be vulnerable to the government and private companies,” Bolivar said. “It’s like a wound that won’t heal.”