Indigenous Peruvian villagers protect their land against illegal coca farms

An increasing number of migrant farmers are using native lands in the Amazon to grow the illicit crop coca. Some indigenous communities plan to patrol their territory to keep out land traffickers.

Janine Costa/Reuters/File
An area of the Amazon deforested by illegal gold mining in the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios, Peru, is seen in an aerial shot in July 2015. Since 2015, the amount of land exploited for coca production across Peru has risen nearly 10 percent.

Late last year, after spending several days slashing a trail through dense jungle, village chief Julio Gonzalez reached a clearing that should not have existed.

Before him, a vast stretch of his land, once rich in wild game and plant medicines, had been leveled and parceled out into coca farms. Twenty armed men warned him to leave. He did.

"It's an invasion. They go in, take the land, and start growing coca leaf," said Mr. Gonzalez at his home in Sinchi Roca, an indigenous village in Peru's inland Ucayali region.

As cultivation of coca leaf – the raw material for cocaine – surges in Peru, waves of migrant farmers from the Andes are settling on indigenous land in the Amazon to grow the illicit crop, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and regional land authorities.

UN data shows the amount of land exploited for coca production across Peru has risen nearly 10 percent to 108,480 acres since 2015.

Of that total, an estimated 6,672 acres of indigenous land in the Amazon is being used to grow coca.

That number is rising as land traffickers, as they are known, and farmers continue to clear primary forest deeper inside territory that is customarily held by tribes.

This small-scale coca farming, often on remote tracts of land taken from indigenous people, is a leading cause of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, said the Instituto del Bien Común (IBC), an indigenous land rights charity.

Although it is hard to quantify, local activists and authorities said the number of illegal occupiers is in the hundreds in this region alone. They are the source of increased conflict in indigenous communities like Gonzalez's.

The vast majority of coca harvested in Peru – nearly 100,000 tons – is linked to drug trafficking. Farms are often close to jungle labs where leaves are processed into raw cocaine paste, regional authorities said.

Gonzalez and his Kakataibo tribe have seen increased evidence of cocaine production on their land, an estimated 247 acres of which is currently occupied by coca growers and cocaine producers.

And despite eradication efforts, the Ucayali region – about a 12 hour drive northeast of the capital Lima, and home to roughly 5,000 Kakataibo – saw a near doubling of coca cultivation between 2015 and 2016.

Gonzalez has filed complaints following run-ins with coca growers, but is losing patience with the lack of action from the district attorney and the regional environment ministry.

"If the Peruvian state doesn't bring justice, we're going to take this fight directly to these cocaleros with our bows and arrows. This is what it has come to for native communities."

Hugo Guerra, president of the Kakataibo community federation FENACOCA, called the land invasions the single biggest threat to the existence of the Kakataibo people.

However, he has urged calm in Sinchi Roca and neighboring Puerto Nuevo, another Kakataibo village that is having to deal with land invasions and drug trafficking.

"Once they settle, it's hard to get them out," said Mr. Guerra of the coca farmers.

FENACOCA has documented the pits used for converting coca leaves into cocaine, as well as the discarded containers of the harsh chemicals used in the refining process.

Guerra has provided photo evidence to the regional government, but says corruption and a lack of resources mean nothing has been done.

He said coca growers and people tied to drug trafficking are often armed with long-range rifles and handguns, and admitted he was concerned about the possibility of violence between Kakataibo villagers and coca farmers.

"We need the armed forces to act before someone gets murdered," said Guerra. "The only time the state takes notice of a native community is when someone gets killed."

Guerra continues to press the local authorities to act. Like Gonzalez, he is growing impatient. FENACOCA estimates 30 percent of forests in each of the 13 Kakataibo villages are now deforested.

"This is property our grandfathers won from the state many years ago. We're not going to allow our land to be used for this sort of brutal deforestation and illicit work," he said.

Stemming coca production here will require stronger measures to stop illegal traffic in native land, a difficult task for regional authorities, said Fernando Dasilva, a forest engineer for the Ucayali forest and wildlife service.

He explained land traffickers find rugged paths, roads, and rivers into virgin forests. Once they clear-cut parcels of land, they return to their Andean villages to sell them to poor farmers willing to migrate to the Amazon.

"Often this is land titled by an indigenous community, but settle there regardless," said Mr. Dasilva.

Deforestation for coca causes long-term soil damage, and the chemical solvents used to manufacture cocaine harm the environment, he said.

"All of these poisonous tailings are going into the rivers and contaminating the water," he said.

Dasilva said the limited resources available to his office restrict his ability to act. He lacks satellite imaging that could identify how much forest is being lost to land invasions, for example.

However, he said, the driver is the Amazon's crushing poverty, and fixing that requires a state-level solution. To date, he said, the government's priority has been to develop the country's more lucrative coast and capital while the Amazon region remains starved of resources.

"These are poor farmers just trying to eat, to earn a living, to keep clothes on their backs, and feed their kids," Dasilva said of the newcomers.

"Naturally they find resources in the forest, and so they invade."

Without help from the state, Kakataibo communities are taking their own steps – nonviolent for now – to confront the land invasions.

Gonzalez, the village chief in Sinchi Roca, recently assembled a patrol unit drawn from villagers.

Four of his men sit with Gonzalez at his kitchen table and unpack a digital camera, compasses, and GPS receivers. With these tools, they plan to conduct monthly patrols of their territory to collect evidence of land invasion for the authorities.

"We're just trying to conserve our forests," Gonzalez said. "We're not interested in destroying them. That's where our medicinal plants are. That's where we hunt animals to feed ourselves, where we fish in the rivers. The forest is our market." 

This article was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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