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PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru – Along the road from the airport to the sweltering Peruvian jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, high walls guard a precious commodity: wood, in the form of raw logs, finished planks and parquet squares. Increasingly, much of this wood is illegally logged, said representatives of the Peruvian government and Native organizations, and people are dying because of it.
“There has definitely been an increase in illegal logging in the last five years,” said Francisco Lozano Perez, a biologist with the Region of Madre de Dios’ Department of Natural Resources, and head of investigation of illegal logging in that region. “In 2005, 52 percent of all wood from this region was logged in illegal areas,” he said, citing statistics from the World Wildlife Fund. “Those are alarming statistics.”
The areas that are off-limits to loggers include Native reservations, national parks and areas of government protection for nomadic Native people in isolation. Because wood has been depleted in the legal logging areas, loggers are entering protected areas, Perez said.
He said there had been “three or four” conflicts in the last three years between loggers and Natives in protected areas of voluntary isolation that resulted in the deaths of loggers or Natives.
Skirmishes and “incidents” in which Natives have shot warning arrows at loggers after they entered illegal territory have also been cited, the most recent in late September.
Lozano Perez said the Madre de Dios region is one of the last regions in the Peruvian Amazon that still contains valuable mahogany, though this wood is already disappearing fast in the region. In addition to the loss of lives and Native territorial sovereignty, he said, logging in illegal areas is threatening the region’s plant and animal life.
“The illegal loggers know that Native people have traditionally taken care of the trees on their lands, so more and more, they are entering protected areas to find valuable wood that has been depleted elsewhere,” he said.
Territories of settled Native communities in the region, who are Machigenga, Huachipayri, Ese’eja, Arakmbut and other peoples, are managed by the communities in conjunction with INRENA, the National Institute of Natural Resources (the Peruvian park service), which is also responsible for enforcement of territorial boundaries.
Protected areas for nomadic communities in isolation are managed by INRENA, which works in conjunction with the Peruvian police and maritime units to keep loggers off the land.
Perez blames the rise in illegal logging on logging “mafias,” lax government enforcement of protective boundaries of Native territories, difficult geographical access, complicated bureaucratic procedures to receive legal permits and corruption within INRENA.
Though nongovernmental organizations like WWF have set up monitoring posts, he said, they have little authority or power to actually stop the loggers.
Enforcement personnel were recently reduced in the Madre de Dios region, and the budget for illegal logging investigation cut. Peru shares the Amazon jungle territory with Brazil which, Perez said, has a much higher budget for its war against illegal logging and has claimed greater success.
There are five levels to the logging hierarchy, he explained, starting at the bottom with the people who actually cut the trees, moving up through contractors and money “facilitators” to the large international companies that export wood to the United States, Europe and Asia.
“Corruption is a big problem on all levels,” he said.
INRENA officials are especially vulnerable because they are underpaid, overworked and responsible for hugely valuable quantities of wood.
Four U.S. companies, Bozovich Timber Products, Maderera Gutierrez, T. Baird International and TBM Hardwood, have been accused in a lawsuit brought this year by the Natural Resources Defense Council, representatives from the Hopi and Navajo nations and the Native Federation of Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (FENAMAD) of importing illegally logged Peruvian wood. NRDC representatives are also suing the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and the Interior, calling on the U.S. government to outlaw the import of mahogany until illegal logging is stopped.
Logging company representatives have denied the charges, claiming that their wood comes from legal areas.
“It’s difficult to prove where the wood comes from,” said Perez; “it can’t tell you where it comes from.”
Carlos Purizada Ruiz, director of Technical Administration of Tambopata-Manu for INRENA, said poverty in other regions is driving migrants to seek work in the Amazon logging business. He admitted it was “possible” that workers within INRENA were receiving bribes from loggers to look the other way when they entered Native reservations and protected territories. “I invite investigators to come here and denounce us formally, which no one has done,” he added.
He also said it was his opinion that the international companies involved in Peruvian logging “know very well” that they are exporting illegally logged wood, though he did not say on what his opinion was based.
Ruiz also suggested a suspension of international export until a thorough investigation could be performed.
Jude Jumanga Jacinto, Ashaninka, of AIDESEP, the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Jungle, called illegal logging “the number one problem” of Native people in the Amazon region. “It is having an irreversible effect not only on the forest but on the forest residents.” she said. AIDESEP has recently begun a program specifically geared to protecting Natives in voluntary isolation, increasing education and strengthening the corridor of Native communities that are in direct contact with loggers.
In Monte Salvado, where two loggers were killed in a conflict with Natives in voluntary isolation in 2005, representatives of FENAMAD have organized their own “control posts” to stop loggers; but they have little official power, are unarmed and have received ongoing death threats by loggers.
Earlier this year, two members of the Toshinahue Native community near the Alto Purus River in the adjoining region of Ucayali were killed after they told loggers they were trespassing. Local representatives of AIDESEP have blamed the deaths on the local “logging mafia” and called for an investigation. No one has been arrested yet.
“We need more international pressure on the Peruvian government to end these illegal logging practices,” said Jaime Troncoso, of FENAMAD.