Current Issue

Back Issues

Our Mission

Contact Us



Support Us



About Us

Exit Poll



Indians Accuse Armed Forces of Illegally Seizing Land--as New "Resource Mafia" Replaces Narcos

by Bill Weinberg

Peru's vast and remote stretch of the Amazon rainforest south of the Colombian border has been declared a "national security" priority, and in the four years since Plan Colombia was launched the Peruvian government has re-established control over what had been a lawless region--with the help of US military aid and advisors. But indigenous and campesino leaders in the Peruvian Amazon say military forces--including bases that host US advisors--are operating illegally on usurped indigenous lands. And, ironically, so is a new mafia, this time based on resource exploitation rather than drug-smuggling--with the connivance of the military and authorities.

Iquitos Naval Base: Green Berets on Contested Turf

The Peruvian Amazon port of Iquitos is one of the biggest cities on the river, and the last major trade hub before the Brazilian border some 300 kilometers downstream. Just across the Rio Nanay, a tributary that meets the Amazon at Iquitos' harbor, is the major Peruvian Navy base for the region--a critical point for coordinating operations along the Colombian border, which lies across 200 kilometers of dense, roadless jungle to the north.

In March 2002, the US and Peru signed a bilateral Peru Riverine Plan, to increase joint military-police patrols against narco-traffickers on the Amazon waterways. Under this agreement, the US provides an annual $3 million--mostly slated for operations coordinated from Iquitos. The US State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has requested an aditional $135 million for fiscal year 2003 to support narcotics enforcement efforts in Peru--again with a major focus being the Amazon region policed from Iquitos.

Since 1999, the Iquitos naval base has hosted a permanent contingent of 33 US military advisers--"Green Berets"--who rotate every 90 days. The US has also supplied gunboats for the Iquitos base. One of the seventeen radar sites maintained by the Pentagon's Southern Command to detect possible drug-smuggling flights is at the Iquitos base--with another two also in the region, down the Amazon at the Colombian port of Leticia and up the Rio Ucayali at Puallpa, Peru.

But Washington seems not to have taken account of the land dispute at Iquitos Naval Base, which encompasses five vilages of the Cocama-Cocamilla and Huitoto-Murruy indigenous peoples. The vilagers are prohibited by Navy declaration from building any new structures in their communities without official authorization from the military. Mario Jaramillo, a traditional Cocama-Cocamilla leader at the village of Santo Tomas, calls the policy one of "systematic extermination."

Jaramillo is a member of the community commission representing the five contested villages that travelled to Lima Sept. 24 to meet with the Peruvian Congress' Commission on Amazonian Indigenous Peoples. He shows me a copy of the same 1779 map by the conquistador Francisco Requena, the first Spaniard to explore the region, that he showed the legislators in Lima. He points out how the map shows settlements directly across the Rio Nanay from where Iquitos harbor is today. "We have always been here," he says.

The Navy asserts that it is the legitimate owner of the land, having bought the 750 hectares now under military control in 1955 from a local patron who maintained timber and sugar operations there. But Jaramillo asserts that the patron family had merely taken control of pre-existing indigenous villages--and worked the lands with Indian slave labor. Although slavery had been abolished in Peru for exactly 100 years in 1955, it persisted in the remote Amazon--thinly disguised as debt labor.

Under the 1993 constitution, Peru is bound to recognize indigenous communities as "juridical persons"--with all the same rights as incorporated municipalities, including the right to titled communal property. The regional alliance known as the Autonomous Coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples of the Nanay Watershed (CAPICUNA) is demanding that the five communities be officially recognized. The national government is in dialogue with the communities, but the armed forces will only agree to compensate them with new lands elsewhere--which the communities reject.

The demands of the five villages are also supported by the Iquitos-based Patriotic Front, a popular organization that advocates greater rights for the local Department of Loreto, which is by far the largest in Peru by area but among the most sparsely inhabited. The presense of US troops at Iquitos has inflamed local perceptions that Loreto is treated as an internal colony by Lima. "This is an arm of Plan Colombia," says Jaramillo of the US advisors a the base. "It is a threat to the sovereignty of Loreto as well as our communities."

Village residents complain that chacras--cultivated plots of corn, yucca or platano--have been taken over for Navy training areas, or damaged in training operations, even by grenade blasts. Most recently, a stretch of land was taken over for the "Polygon"--a rifle firing range. Says Juan Aricari Yahuarcani, president of Santo Tomas community: "In 1999, after the DEA and US troops arrived, signs went up in our communities saying "Navy property, do no pass.ā"

The Polygon training area and firing range is in the village of Independencia, and residents say Navy claims that the lands taken for the firing range were unused ignore the ecological realities of the riverine zone. Two years ago, the Amazon changed course, as it frequently does, and the cluster of thatch-roof huts that make up Independencia was forced by floods and erosion to move inland--into an area pockmarked by small craters from grenade training.

Residents also point out that the Polygon is near a new pipeline opened in 2001 by the state firm PetroPeru to carry gasoline and other petroleum products from the refinery some 15 kilometers away to a distribution center in Iquitos. Although the pipeline is underground, residents fear an accident, calling it a "time bomb." They also protest that their villages have no electricity, while power lines pass through their lands for the Navy base.

Marly Huaymana, president of CAPICUNA and a resident of Santo Tomas, says: "After we win back our lands, we have proposals for economic development, recuperation of our languages. But first we need titled lands and recognition of our autonomy."

In addition to the US advisors at Iquitos, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) also maintains a force at the Peruvian National Police base just a few kilometers down the Amazon at a promontory known as Sinchi Cuy--which happens to translate from the Quichua as "fierce guinea-pig." An insignia on the dock at Sinchi Cuy also announces the presence there of the Sinchis, or "fierce ones"--an elite National Police force that won a reputation for human rights abuses under the authoritarian government of President Alberto Fujimori (now in disgrace and Japanese exile).

In a March 31, 2002 article on the land controversy in the Lima daily Ojo, an unnamed Navy "source" said the Iquitos base was critical to vigilance along the Colombian border and to impede incursions by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the guerilla army that controls much of the territory acorss the border. He noted that Iquitos is the central base for the Fifth Naval Zone, covering Peru's northern Amazon, and hosts the Riverine Operations School, which is critical for policing the entire region.

Rio Putumayo: From Narco-Zone to "National Security" Zone

The land dispute at Iquitos is now mirrored at several indigenous communities along the Rio Putumayo, which forms the Peru-Colombia border. In the past three years, a string of small military bases of some 100 troops each have been established on the Peruvian side of the river to cut off FARC escape into Peru as counterinsurgency zones are established on the Colombian side. In March 2002 Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo's Defense Minister Aurelio Loret de Mola, accompanied by by members of the Congressional Commission on National Defense, Internal Order and Intelligence, made a visit to review military installations along the Putumayo, pledging to enforce an accord with the Colombian Defense Ministry to secure the border and declaring the zone critical to Peru's national security.

But Benjamin Rodriguez, Loreto regional representative for Peru's pan-Amazonian indigenous alliance, the Inter-ethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Selva (AIDESEP), charges that many of these new bases have been illegally estabilshed on titled lands of the Huitoto and Bora indigenous peoples.

"They have entered without permission of the communities," says Rodriguez. "In some cases they have permission÷-but then they must be subject to the norms of the community. And they are violating these norms. For us, this is illegal."

Rodriguez says AIDESEP has received numerous complaints of troops robbing yucca and other crops from village chacras. The troops are also accused of disrupting families, using bribes of food-÷a kilo of rice or sugar-÷to get sex from indigenous women, who have sometimes abandoned their families to be soldiersā temporary "girlfriends." AIDESEP has especially received numerous complaints from the Huitoto-Bora community of Remanzo.

Now living in Iquitos where he runs the AIDESEP office, Rodriguez, a Huitoto-Ocaina, actualy comes from the Putumayo zone. He was born in the Peruvian Putumayo port of Estrecho, where the armed forces now have a major base with over 200 troops, as well as a force from DINANDRO, the Anti-Drug Directorate of the National Police.

The approximately 20 new bases--six from the Navy and the rest from the army--flank the river in either direction from Estrecho: west toward the Ecuadorian border and east toward the Colombian "trapezoid," a 150-kilometer panhandle of Colombian territory that drops south from the Putumayo to the Amazon and the port of Leticia. The complaints have mostly come from the Huitoto and Bora communities between Estrecho and the trapezoid. The Secoya and Quichua communities between Estrecho and the Ecuadorian border are less impacted due to the scarce population in this area. This extremely remote zone is a 12-day trip from Iquitos by river, passing through Brazilian territory to reach the mouth of the Putumayo and then through the Colombian trapezoid before arriving back in Peruvian territory to continue upriver past Estrecho.

Before the military bases were established, the Putumayo region was almost completely abandoned by the Peruvian government, and narco mafias filled the power vacuum beginning in the 1980s, paying indigenous and campesino communities to grow coca and establishing a network of clandestine air fields. "It was a free zone for the narcos÷-until Plan Colombia," says Rodriguez.

But, despite the new military presence, indigenous leaders say a new brand of outlaw is once again colonizing the region--this time seeking quick bucks from resource extraction.

New Amazon Resource Wars

Two days after I visited the five villages on Navy-claimed lands, Winder Vela Canayo of the Peruvian Amazon Investigation Institute (IIAP), an Iquitos-based NGO, took me down the Amazon on one of the big, slow, soot-belching riverboats that are the prinicpal form of transportation in this vast, roadless region. We pass the Navy base, oil refinery and Sinchi Cuy before we dock at a small village. There a three-wheeled open-air moto-taxi takes us across a small neck of land to another village on the banks of the Rio Mazan, a tributary of the Rio Napo, which meets the Amazon some 75 kilometers past Iquitos. There, we switch to a peki-peki--a small outboard launch--filled with campsinos and a few pigs and chickens.

As the peki-peki crawls up the Rio Mazan, Vela relates how in the past several years illegal timber exploitation has boomed on indigenous lands, or the titled communal lands of campesino settlers. The watershed of the Rio Mazan is one of the most intensively exploited areas, having been carved up into timber blocks by the national government and leased out to local companies. But even here, Vela says the timber outfits often operate outside the leased blocks, on communal lands, and pay off authorities to look the other way--just like the narcos used to. "They are the new mafia," says Vela, who was himself born to a campesino community between the Mazan and Amazon.

As we travel up the Mazan, virtual islands of cut logs lashed together and overseen by madadero boats float downstream towards the Amazon--where they will be transfered to barges bound for the Iquitos docks, and then sent back down the big river for the long haul to the Atlantic Ocean and inernational markets in the US and elsewhere.

Organized in regional business alliances like the Associacion de Industriales Madaderos de Loreto (AIMAL), the local timber outfits also contract labor from the "comuneros"--campesino settlers who work titled communal lands. Comunero leaders on the Mazan say the outfits pay only ten soles a day--around two and a half dollars--to cut wood. This is below the legal minimum wage of 15 soles a day--and sometimes the workers are stiffed for their pay altogether after working a six-month contract at a remote logging camp. "They arrive back at their villages after six months with their clothes and boots destroyed, with malaria, and with nothing for their families," says Abran Vilchez Munoz, a comunero from the Rio Mazan, who we meet when we dock at a small settlement.

Outlaw oreros--gold miners--also operate dredges on remote stretches of the Peruvian Amazon's waterways, with no official permission or environmental impact statements. Mercury contamination from the pirate gold operations is an increasing problem, with the Peruvian Health Ministry having documented high levels in Zaparo-Iquito indigenous comunities on the Rio Nanay. Pirate gold operations also persist on the Putumayo--despite the high military presence on these two rivers.

In this atmosphere of lawlessness, multinational oil companies are now returning to the Peruvian Amazon, after having largely pulled out in the 1990s, when political instability made Peru seem like a bad investment. Much of the rainforest, particularly along the Ecuadorian border, is divided into oil exploration blocks, and Lima is wooing new foreign contracts. The state-run pipeline linking the Rio Corrientes in Loreto to Bayovar on the Pacific coast now carries the region's daily production of 100,000 barrels--about half the pipeline's total capacity. Most of this is currently supplied by the Rio Corientes wells of the Argentine firm PlusPetrol, near the Ecuadorian border. But California's Occidental Petroleum ("Oxy"), which was the major player in Peru's oil industry in the 1980s, is now seeking to get back in the act. Oxy operated wells within the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, an ecological protected aera on the Rio Maranon, in '80s. Although the reserve was declared after the wells had been drilled, local Cocama-Cocamilla peoples protested this as illegal. Oxy now has new exploration leases on the Rio Pastaza near the Ecuador border--where the local Candoshi-Murato and Achuar communities are opposed to new drilling. AIDESEP reports that regions of the Rio Corrientes most impacted by dozens of oil spills over the years are now completely without the fish that indigenous communities depend on--or with high levels of deformed fish.

The process of demarcating and titling indigenous lands in the Peruvian Amazon began in the mid-1970s, when such lands were legally recognized by the new constitution. The national Agriculture Ministry is legally responsible for demarcation, but has largely dropped the ball, claiming budgetary restraints. The work is now mostly carried out by AIDESEP and the regional indigenous federations it represents, working with NGOs. At present, only some 10% of the Peruvian Amazon is titled communal land (mostly indigenous, with some titled to campesino communities). The rest is either state or private land--which much of the state land leased to timber or oil interests. Even when land is titled to indigenous or campesino communities, the subsoil rights remain with the state--although indigenous communities are officially supposed to be consulted in the environmental impact study for any development proposals.

One alternative development proposal which emerged from the indigenous and campesino communities themselves, and has been tentatively adoped by the government following advocacy by NGOs such as the IIAP, is for "communal reserves," in which low-impact development is led by the local residents. Loreto currently has two communal reserves--the Napo-Curaray, straddling the rivers of those names, and the Tanshiyacu-Tahuayo, south of Iquitos. (Another four exist in the southern Amazon department of Madre de Dios.) IIAP now supports a proposal for a Rio Mazan Communal Reserve, as an alternative to the timber exploitation blocks that now cover this region. "We want this watershed to be managed by the comuneros ourselevs," says Abran Vilchez. "We are opposed to the auction of these lands."

AIDESEP has also declared three proposed protected areas for zones where "no contactados" are believed to be--indigenous communities who are in "voluntary isolation" from the outside world. These communities are not believed to be actually unaware of the existence of industrial civilization, but choosing to avoid contact with it as a cultural survival strategy. Even AIDESEP is only aware of the existence of these communities indirectly, through reports from other indigenous groups.

There are three proposed "no contactado" reserves in Loreto: one adjacent to the Napo-Curaray Communal Reserve, but deeper into the forest along the Ecuadorian border; one at Yavari-Mirim, adjacent to the Tanshiyacu-Tahuayo Communal Reserve, but again further into the forest, this time along the Brazilian border; and one at Alto Tapiche, further up the Rio Yavari that forms the Brazilian border. As I write, a team of Polish anthropologists from the Univrsity of Poznan are preparing to leave Iquitos with Benjamin Rodriguez on an AIDESEP-coordinated mission up the Rio Napo to document the existence of "no-contactados" in the Napo-Curaray zone. They emphasize that they will not be making any effort to actually contact the "no-contactados," but only to document their presense through intermediary witnesses and forensic evidence. Similar studies in the southern Peruvian Amazon departments of Ucayali and Cuzco have resulted in five such official reserves for "no-contactados" since the 1990s--but none in the far larger department of Loreto.

The Rio Napo mission is a race against time, as this documentation is a prerequisite for the government to even consider official reserves for the "no-contactados"--and meanwhile resource interests encroach closer to their territories every day. The Spanish oil firm Repsol currently has exploratory operations in the area proposed for the Rio Napo reserve.

AIDESEP's Benjamin Rodriguez respects the right to voluntary isolation for indigenous groups that have chosen that path. But he insists that hiding from the 21st century is not an option for most of the Amazon's indigenous peoples. "If the rest of society advances and we remain at the same level, we will always be marginalized and oppressed," he says.

Rodriguez rejects the choice that the Peruvian Amazon's indigenous have thus far been faced with--either complete abandonment by the government, or militarization of indigenous lands. As an alternative to colonization by either the nacros or resource mafias, he calls for a "management plan to utilize the natural resources in our territories, with aid from the government and NGOs. There can be rational exploitation of the timber and gold, under community control. Otherwise, we can only grow a little yucca and platano to feed ourselves and nothing more. We want good schools, computers, to prepare our children for the future. Otherwise we will never be able to leave this oppression."


October 17, 2003

Reprinting permissible with attribution.