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Drug trafficking imperils Indigenous reserves in Peru

by Enrique Vera on 3 November 2023 | Translated by Sarah Engel

  • Deforestation for illegal drug production is on the rise in and around Otishi National Park, Asháninka Communal Reserve and Machiguenga Communal Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon.

  • During aerial reconnaissance, Mongabay Latam reporters observed clearings, trails and unauthorized airstrips in the park and Indigenous reserves.

  • The NGO Global Conservation is beginning work to train members of Indigenous communities to monitor and enforce forest protection regulations.

AYACUCHO, Peru — From the sky, cleared areas periodically interrupted the green grasslands and steep mountains of the Asháninka Communal Reserve and Otishi National Park in Peru. Wide expanses of deforested land lay scattered between mountain peaks.

Via helicopter, Mongabay Latam reporters observed an immense mosaic of trees, pastures and agriculture, but crops couldn’t be identified from the air. Operated by the Peruvian Armed Forces, the helicopter began its flight at the southern ends of the reserves before following coordinates to several areas identified by Peru’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) as showing signs of deforestation.

Whenever the cloud cover relented, the pilot flew close to deforested areas. On this particular afternoon in May 2023, there were no signs of illegal loggers, but a wide path winding along one side of the forest was the most likely evidence of human activity. For more than two hours, the military helicopter flew over similar scenes: extensive jungle pockmarked by scattered scars of forest destruction. The helicopter also hovered over two long stretches of rocky, rectangular cleared land in the middle of the rainforest.

“[These] are unauthorized airstrips and it appears they are inactive,” said Jeff Morgan, the executive director of Global Conservation, an international organization working to protect endangered ecosystems.

An airstrip inside Otishi National Park, which allows planes to transport illicit cargo in and out of the park. Image by Planet Labs via Global Forest Watch.

A Mongabay Latam analysis of satellite imagery captured by Planet Lab found evidence of deforestation for both agriculture and unauthorized airstrips in the reserve. This evaluation was the starting point for Mongabay Latam, Global Conservation and the Special Command of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) to conduct the flyover.

Otishi National Park, the Asháninka Communal Reserve and the Machiguenga Communal Reserve form the Vilcabamba‐Amboro Conservation Corridor, which straddles Cusco and Junín provinces. The communal reserves are located on either side of Otishi National Park.

Founded in 2003 and covering an area of 305,973 hectares (about 756,076 acres), Otishi National Park is an extremely biodiverse ecosystem that is home to the headwaters of three Amazonian rivers (Ene, Tambo and Urubamba). Twenty–four indigenous communities live in Otishi National Park’s buffer zone. It’s also home to several threatened species, including the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and the taruca (Hippocamelus antisensis) and the Andean cock-of-the-rock. Scientists have even recently found a new snake species in this park and named it after actor Harrison Ford, noting “there’s so much left to discover here.”

In addition to natural wonders, the VRAEM contains the most extensive cultivated area of coca crops in Peru (almost 36,000 hectares, or 88,958 acres, according to government data), along with several remote drug-trafficking routes. Because of this the region is considered one of the most dangerous territories in Peru.

Satellite data show forest loss around and within Otishi National Park and the surrounding Indigenous reserves.

“The mafias plan their routes. Some enter the natural protected areas because there, almost nobody bothers them there, and because they have a greater chance of bringing drugs through the city,” said a leader of the Asháninka Communal Reserve, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

During a previous flyover in November 2022, the Indigenous leader photographed an airstrip in Otishi National Park. They also identified a similar strip inside Asháninka Communal Reserve, which, according to them, had already been destroyed by Peru’s military.

Investigations around the airstrips show that groups of “mochileros” (“backpackers”) carry processed drugs here from where it is grown in neighboring Indigenous communities. Authorities told Mongabay Latam that on more than one occasion they encountered mochileros walking discreetly to drop off their supplies.

Mochileros, or “backpackers,” walk along trails like this one to transport processed drugs in and around Otishi National Park and the Asháninka reserve. Image by Max Cabello.

Protected areas under pressure

Drug traffickers commonly grow and process coca into cocaine in Indigenous communities adjacent to the Asháninka Communal Reserve and Otishi National Park, according to the anonymous source. They say this is because coca plants do not grow above 1,500 meters (about 4,921 feet). Because of this, the source is most concerned about infiltration into the protected areas’ buffer zones.

A person in a leadership position at Otishi National Park, who also requested anonymity due to safety concerns, told Mongabay that clearing for illicit crops is advancing within Otishi National Park. Satellite data and imagery from Global Forest Watch show clearings concentrated along the Cutivireni River.

Satellite imagery captured September 2023 shows several clearings along the Cutivireni River inside Otishi National Park. Image by Planet Labs.

“They are the spots where the agricultural frontier for coca has spread significantly,” they say, specifically pointing to the communities of Gran Shinongari and Pitirinquini. He says that non-Indigenous people migrated to these Asháninka communities, rented land, and now no longer want to leave.

“As an institution, we are not prepared to intervene in the control of these activities. This is a high-risk issue,” they added.

Coca overload

Of the 95,008 hectares (about 234,770 acres) of coca crops in Peru, 38 percent are within the VRAEM, according to the latest report by the National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA). This trend increases every year: between 2018 and 2022, the region saw an increase of 11,597 hectares (about 28,657 acres) of coca.

As a result, Asháninka Communal Reserve’s buffer zone now has 1,592 hectares ( 3,934 acres) of coca crops, according to data from DEVIDA. The amount has nearly tripled since 2020. The Gran Shinongari community has 902 hectares (about 2,229 acres) and Pitirinquini has 501 hectares (1,238 acres).

“These communities sold almost all their timber and started renting out land,” said Virgilio Pizarro, the president of the Asháninka Machiguenga Organization of the Apurímac River (OARA), which helps govern the 29 Indigenous communities nestled in the VRAEM.

Virgilio Pizarro speaks at a community gathering. Image by Max Cabello.

“The biggest problem is that the colonos(non-Indigenous residents who have settled in Indigenous communities) plant coca closer and closer to the Asháninka reserve,” said Jeff Morgan, the executive director of Global Conservation. “All of this is very critical.”

The Special Command of the VRAEM, the group of military units that operates throughout the coca-filled valley, has implemented a Global Park Defense Program in Otishi National Park. To better enforce regulations, they plan to train members of five Indigenous communities in the Asháninka Communal Reserve’s buffer zone.

Communities on alert

The community of Marontoari is made up of 25 families that grow coffee, annatto and cacao on the western side of the Asháninka Communal Reserve. Spanning 4,865 hectares (about 12,022 acres) the village sits on an enormous hill.

From the edge of the dirt road that runs through Marontoari, the community’s former leader, Julián Tivito, pointed to some walnut and cedar forests in the distance, forming a green blanket near the Asháninka Communal Reserve. Tivito said that, so far, they have seen no indications of drug trafficking, but they are remaining vigilant given what is happening in other Asháninka communities.

“We have a young population [that is] also dedicated to cultivating fruits and conserving our timber,” said Tivito, who is also vice president of the OARA.

Global Conservation recently selected Marontoari as one of the five Indigenous communities that the organization will instruct in drone and GPS management this year.

“The goal is to have a technical team in each community [that was] chosen to take care of their territory and, thus, to protect Otishi National Park,” said Teddy Cairuna, a forest monitor from Global Conservation.

The community members of Marontoari will be the first to be trained by Global Conservation to monitor their forests and nearby natural areas. Image by Max Cabello.

As a part of their training efforts, individuals from the communities will gain knowledge about forest control and surveillance, according to Global Conservation. The NGO will also provide up-to-date tech.

“They will know where their community begins and ends. If loggers enter, they will be able to know from where [they arrived] and how the deforestation is advancing to alert the authorities,” an Indigenous visitor, Cairuna, told about 20 Asháninka residents who had gathered for a meeting in Marontoari. Cairuna is the former leader of the Shipibo-Conibo community of Nueva Saposoa, which is located at the entrance to Sierra del Divisor National Park.

Global Conservation is working in Marontoari to replicate the successful work already done in the buffer zone of Sierra del Divisor National Park, which involved work with Indigenous residents like Cairuna.

From his training, Cairuna learned cartography and forest monitoring technology. He said that, over time, he saw the threat of deforestation lessen. He eventually became the coordinator for all communities residing in the buffer zone. Now, according to Cairuna, those who underwent the training are transitioning from being communal park rangers to official park rangers. This means that they now can accompany SERNANP staff into the park for inspections.

“That is what we want to achieve for Otishi National Park. The Asháninka want to protect their territory and prevent invasions,” Morgan said.

As a preliminary step, a team from the Special Command of the VRAEM recently installed equipment for internet access in Marontoari. They did the same in Sankiroshi, a neighboring Asháninka community.

“We take care of our community because we know that the invaders and coca farmers could come here,” said Ronald Damián Sánchez, the head of the Self-Defense Committee of Sankiroshi.

Global Conservation is also training community members in Comitarincani, Paveni and Pitirinquini. The NGO plans to expand to other Asháninka communities over the next five years.

This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on September 4, 2023

© 2023 Copyright Conservation news


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