As the sun drops behind the trees towering above the town of Inapari, families promenade around the central plaza. Strolling is a major pastime in this town of approximately 800 residents, where there's no Internet, no movie theater, and one telephone.
Despite the laid-back air, this remote village in the Peruvian department of Madre de Dios, on the jungled border with Brazil and Bolivia, is the epicenter of a logging scandal that has rocked the region and prompted an overhaul of the Peruvian forestry industry.
Dubbed the biodiversity capital of Peru, Madre de Dios is most famous as the home of Manu National Park, Peru's largest national park and one of the densest wildlife areas in South America.
But beyond the tourist posters advertising jungle-lodge safari trips, Madre de Dios is a complex web of competing interests that show the difficulties faced by developing nations in striking a balance between environmental conservation and social development.
Though the Peruvian Amazon hasn't been as severely affected as areas in neighboring Brazil, where vast tracts of rain forest have been cleared for cattle ranching and agriculture, exploitation of the forest in one way or another is still the backbone of the region's economy.
"The town of Inapari, like the rest of Madre de Dios, depends directly or indirectly on the logging industry. Since [the government] annulled our logging contracts, we're not living, we're barely surviving," says Santiago Sols, Inapari's mayor.
The town's troubles began last October, when the Peruvian government declared the province of Tahuamanu -where Inapari is located -an environmental emergency zone and suspended all logging operations in the area.
The government says the drastic measures were necessary in the wake of massive illegal logging by a US firm and its Peruvian partner that destroyed much of the tropical forest and put uncontacted indigenous groups at risk.
But company representatives say the government is using an ecological smoke screen to distract attention from government corruption. Meanwhile, local residents say they are bearing the brunt of a series of measures that take environmental causes more to heart than their own survival.
Peru's National Institute for Natural Resources (Inrena) accuses Mississippi-based Newman Lumber and its Peruvian partner of illegally cutting millions of dollars worth of mahogany and cedar from some 100,000 hectares of forest in the province of Tahuamanu.
Forestry officials have called it the worst incident of deforestation in Peru. The government shut down the companies' sawmill in Inapari, annulled all logging contracts in the province, and sent soldiers to the area to seize illegally cut wood. Newman's partner was fined about $500,000.
"Newman Lumber was operating in an area not authorized for extraction. They built a huge highway without permission and robbed the wood from the entire area. Anyway you look at it, there were abuses and irregularities," says Luis Noboa, director of Inrena-Madre de Dios.
Company representatives deny the charges and are fighting the production stoppage in Peru's courts. Newman Lumber recently won a ruling in its favor from a Lima court, though the company has been unable to restart production.
"We have a contract for the area where we were cutting wood," says Rosa Hidalgo, a lawyer representing Newman's partner Industrial Maderera Tahuamanu. "How can the government say the forest wasn't authorized for logging when we have a contract issued by them?"
Those who granted the contracts -including Inapari's mayor, then a Ministry of Agriculture official -have since been fired. But Newman representatives say Inrena never looked askance at logging operations in Tahuamanu until the agency received a complaint from a timber industry lobby group representing the company's key competitor in the mahogany business and whose president at the time was the brother of Inrena director Josefina Takahashi.
In addition to Newman's competitors, the regional indigenous federation objected to the company's presence in an area home to four "uncontacted" indigenous groups -small nomadic bands who shun contact with outsiders. Federation leaders say the company's logging roads make it possible to enter the groups' territory, exposing them to potentially deadly diseases and land conflicts.
It remains unclear whether the area in which Newman Lumber was operating was indeed unauthorized for logging activities. As one observer comments, it is a "war of maps."
But the Tahuamanu case made it clear that Peru's forestry sector was in desperate need of an overhaul, prompting the government to enact in July a new, modern forestry law that had been stalled in Congress for years. Supporters say the new law, touted as the most advanced forestry law in Latin America, closes several of the loopholes responsible for the chaos that plagued Peru's forestry sector. Key among them is the elimination of 1,000-hectare plots, originally designed for small timber operators unable to take on larger plots.
Under the previous law, large logging companies -including Newman and partner, says the government -simply used front-people to take out several small plots to sidestep forest management controls applicable to larger areas.
"The 1,000-hectare plots paved the way for the creation of a logging industry that had no interest in directly managing the forest," says Gustavo Suarez of Pro Naturaleza, a Lima-based environmental organization.
But to loggers in Madre de Dios, the new law was the final blow in a series of measures they say will put thousands of people out of work. The law has provoked fierce protests in the department, including a three-day strike last month during which protesters set fire to a government warehouse for seized wood and 200 anti-riot police from Lima were dispatched to the town of Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios. Such protests have been echoed throughout the Peruvian Amazon.
Small loggers complain that the elimination of 1,000-hectare plots will push them out of the industry. In addition, the new law stipulates that all forest concessions be granted via public auction, which small loggers say is beyond their reach.
"The public auctions will hand over the Peruvian jungle to the multinationals," since Peruvian companies lack the financial resources to compete in such a process, says Rafael Ros of the Association of Small Loggers in Madre de Dios.
After repeated complaints from communities, several congress members have formed a commission to evaluate the possibility of revising the law in order to accommodate the needs of small loggers.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society