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The Indigenous People's Pavilion at the COP20 (Image Credit: Mythili).

The Indigenous People’s Pavilion at the COP20 (Image Credit: Mythili Sampathkumar).

The Lima talks are the first in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) history to be held in a country with a tropical rainforest – which is particularly of note given that the Peruvian Amazon stores more carbon dioxide than the U.S. emits in a year. Yet the most unique aspect of this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP) is not just the location, but the fact that the indigenous peoples of the world have been given a relatively prominent place, with a pavillion of their own. It remains to be seen if that will actually make the voice of over 1000 native communities heard any louder when it comes to the heart of the matter: securing land rights.

As Juan Carlos Riveros, Conservation Director of World Wildlife Peru told Planet Experts, the indigenous tribes of Peru are the “frontline witnesses of climate change” in the country but lack the ability to participate fully in the democratic system if they have no legal right to their own land.

It is clear from walking through the indigenous pavilion as well as the major side event, Voices For Climate, that the Peruvian government has paid attention to Amazon tribes, but some at the conference intimate that it may just be to put up a “good face” to the global audience.

The anger and frustration from indigenous people is certainly real though. At a protest at the COP20 venue, the daughter of one of four recently murdered Asháninka environmental activists, Diana Ríos yelled: “I want my land…that’s where I live and eat, and it’s where my saintly grandparents lie.” 

Conrad Feather of the Forest People’s Program told Planet Experts that it is a proven fact that allowing indigenous groups titles to their own land is one of the most effective forest conservation policies: “the best safeguard you can offer them is to protect their territories [legally].”

According to Feather, there are nearly 200 million hectares that could be protected in the entire Amazon. In Peru alone there are 20 million hectares of untitled land that “remain pending,” meaning the government essentially owns that land until the rights of the tribes are formally recognized by Peruvian courts. The issue, says Feather, is that while they are in legal limbo the land is being leased out to oil companies, mining outfits and loggers because, technically, it can be.

The land is leased out in demarcated areas called concessions and in theory these concessions have boundaries the companies are not allowed to cross in the course of their operations. Feather said that “it is all linked by a network of corruption” and general bureaucratic inefficiency.

He explained that a “black market for concession licenses” has since developed as a result of a recent forestry law, especially in timber. Both Riveros and Feather confirmed to Planet Experts that anywhere in the range of 80-90 percent of timber exported from Peru is illegal by way of traded concessions among logging companies or companies logging outside of the bounds of their given concessions. Feather also noted that the problem is exponentially worse with gold mining, with nearly all – 99 percent – of gold from the Amazon region having been mined illegally, unsustainably and using exploitative labor.

The illegal timber concessions “was all signed off by local authorities,” said Feather.

Saweto tribe protests at COP20 (Image Credit: Luka Tomacrs).

Saweto tribe protests at COP20 (Image Credit: Luka Tomacrs).

A company wanting a concession, or a license to log, has to first submit a plan made by a certified forestry engineer to local authorities detailing where they want to log, what species of trees and the diameter of those trees. The government is supposed to verify all the details before awarding the concession. In theory, another supervisory forestry agency comes into the concession area and confirms that all of the logging was done within the specifications of the submitted plan as a postpartum review.

As Feather explains it, “the forestry engineers have lied about where trees are…because they are being threatened, persuaded, or bribed to invent these invisible trees.” The plans are then only verified by a desk worker in a local authority office, not someone who is actually in the field or someone who has been in the field but “turned a blind eye.”

There is some hope for exposing the truth under the guise of the Peruvian Supervisory Agency for Forest and Wildlife Resources (OSINFOR), which Feather called “probably the one good aspect of forestry control in Peru.”

There are approximately 600 concessions currently in the Amazon forests of Peru and OSINFOR has investigated about 400 of them. Of those approximately 400 concession plans reviewed, the agency found that at least 80 percent were in violation by logging outside of their designated areas or not complying with other environmental standards, according to a report compiled by the People’s Forest Programme and the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP).

Unlike most climate change issues, these staggering numbers do not exist in a vacuum. The black market in concessions and corruption allowing companies to come into native communities also exploits the people in these communities, not just the land.

Feather told Planet Experts that native community members do fight to defend their land, because “their subsistence base as been so downgraded” people are forced to participate in the resulting market economy. Often they face one of two hard choices: Either the men will travel miles away to cities to find labor work, leaving the burden of defense and taking care of family home to the women of their communities; or they will work for the companies that want to take over their land, an alternative that is perhaps not ethically better but certainly more practical and less dangerous given the communities’ economic situation.

The COP in Lima this year will likely not resolve Peru’s signature to the Consultation with Indigenous Peoples Law and actual, on-the-ground corruption – or even legal deforestation in the government’s attempt to inject life into a lagging economy. What has been achieved by the UN and the work of indigenous group civil society members however, is to shed light and put a human face on the deforestation problem in Peru. Perhaps this shaming of Peru as a hypocritical COP presidency may work in supporting more investigations of OSINFOR and others to the multifaceted dangers of illegal Amazonian logging.

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