Village Earth

Protecting Indigenous Land in the Amazon


During the Village Earth Peru Project Coordinator’s last trip to Peru, the Shipibo leaders we were working with asked Village Earth to let the world know about the complex political situation with regard to land rights in the Peruvian Amazon.

Oil Development

According to our indigenous partners, the Peruvian government is currently in the process of a major land-grab. In fact, many suggest that Peru is violating ILO Convention 169 as well as the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, resolutions to which Peru is a signatory and which require free, prior and informed consent for all development projects on indigenous territories. During the past three months, PeruPetro (the state hydrocarbon licensing agency) and PetroVietnam (the state run Vietnamese oil company that recently leased the rights to extract oil in the Shipibo territory) were holding “informational” meetings for indigenous leaders in an obvious attempt to bypass their representative indigenous organizations. Importantly, the meetings are held months and even years after the Peruvian government has already leased indigenous people’s lands to oil companies, which means that indigenous people have no real opportunity to oppose development project on their lands. In reality, they hold the meetings only to inform the communities that oil exploration and later extraction will take place.

According to one Shipibo leader who attended one of these informational meetings, PeruPetro said “The contract has been signed, and there is nothing the communities can do about it.” The leader then commented “where was the consultation BEFORE they sold our lands? How can you sell someone’s lands and then only consult with them afterwards?” Another Shipibo leader likened this practice to someone entering your house and knocking after they are already inside and says “oh by the way, we’re going to be working inside your house.”

Another strategy of PeruPetro to appear that they have approval from indigenous communities is to ask indigenous leaders to sign paperwork. According to our sources, some of the leaders signed PeruPetro’s paperwork without even knowing what they were signing. There have been other reports of underhanded dealings by extractive industry representatives of getting indigenous leaders to sign blank pieces of paper and then attaching some type of contract that gives them permission to enter an indigenous community.

According to Shipibo leaders, they specifically asked PetroVietnam how the communities are going to benefit from oil development. One of PetroVietnam’s expressed goals in the material they passed out to indigenous leaders is to “enrich the quality of life in the communities and protect the environment”. Yet, at the meetings PetroVietnam never answered the question. Although Shipibo leaders are skeptical of oil development, if it is going to come anyway, they would at least like to be able to secure employment with the company. And when they asked if this was going to happen, the industry reps replied “Yes, but only those with the proper requisites and papers.” None of the indigenous leaders have any idea what that the proper requisites or papers were.

In response to these community concerns, Village Earth and our community partners have developed a “hydrocarbon awareness” workshop for Shipibo communities that receive very little information about oil development that will ultimately affect them. The workshop consists of giving communities information about the oil lot that they are located in and the company to whom the lot has been leased. This is followed by a video about the environmental contamination and devastation in the Rio Corrientes River Basin caused by oil exploitation, then followed by a discussion about the community’s rights and the problems associated with oil development. This workshop was developed as a defense against the flood of government and oil company propaganda, which claim that oil development will bring jobs to indigenous communities (oil companies generally hire very few indigenous workers) and that oil extraction technology has improved so much that they don’t contaminate anymore (in fact, it is impossible to extract oil without contamination). We would finally end with a community strategic planning session to determine the priorities and sustainable development projects that communities would like to do as opposed to oil development. For example, one community decided they would like to carry out sustainable agro-forestry projects combined with reforestation to sell agricultural products for income generation without destroying the forest.

Government Settlement Schemes

Another challenge faced by indigenous communities in Peru’s Amazon basin is the illegal colonization of their lands. Each day, thousands of acres of indigenous territories are cleared for settlement while the government turns a blind-eye. It is believed this is just an extension of the government’s broader agenda to privatize indigenous territories. In fact, low-level government bureaucrats within the Ministry of Agriculture have been caught selling 30-100 hectare parcels of indigenous territories to non-indigenous colonists. This is partly the result of a land titling process that is, according to the Shipibo and other indigenous peoples, utterly chaotic. However, through Village Earth’s mapping and surveying work we have been able to shed light on this problem.

In one community where we have been working for many years, the small walking trail that used to run through the far end of the community has now been widened and improved by the government in order to make it easier to travel between the district capital and a large pristine lake that many indigenous communities rely on for water and fishing. Non-indigenous fisherman are now overfishing the lake, oil companies are said to have discovered oil in this area, and of course with the expansion of roads comes loggers and more colonists. Along this particular road, over 80 allotments inside one indigenous community have already been sold to outsiders. Of course all of this is illegal under Peruvian law, but indigenous communities have little legal or political recourse in order to stop it. Village Earth is supporting grassroots community-organizing efforts precisely to stop these illegal settlements.

Bureaucratic Nightmare

While surveying territories and formalizing titles are clear strategies that indigenous communities can take to protect their lands, they face an uphill battle when dealing with government bureaucracy. In fact, the same government agencies that are supposed to title indigenous lands and small farm holders, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Commission to Formalize Informal Property (COFOPRI), are the source of many of the problems they are supposed to be solving. We have noted several examples of these agencies providing titles that overlap existing titles causing major problems between neighboring indigenous communities and also between indigenous and non-indigenous small farmers and communities. The indigenous communities we have been working with decided that visible demarcation of their territory (with signs notifying people when they enter community territory) and a committee within the community to constantly monitor their lands are the best ways to protect their lands. But oftentimes these communities’ borders are ambiguous because of the poor original titling process and overlapping titles. Yet, in a meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture and COFOPRI, COFOPRI stated that they are trying to stay out of these “social problems” by not being involved in the demarcation process of indigenous communities. So, it appears they have adopted an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy. It is clear that this inaction on the part of COFOPRI will only make the situation worse.

At least from this whole experience Village Earth and the indigenous communities we work with are learning a lot about the political and legal process of protecting indigenous lands in the Peruvian Amazon. Slowly but surely, by working with indigenous rights organizations, other allies, and colonist settlers, we are hoping to mitigate the problems and find solutions that work for both parties. Through mapping and continued monitoring of indigenous lands, we will be able to take a proactive role in this process before it’s too late.

Although we have a long struggle ahead, the indigenous communities nor Village Earth have given up hope that it is possible for indigenous communities to determine their own futures without the presence extractive industries on indigenous territories.

Upcoming Courses in the Village Earth/CSU Online Certificate Program in Community-Based Development

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GSLL 1518 – Community-Based Food Systems

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