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In Peru's Amazon, cash to indigenous communities aims to protect forests

by Barbara Fraser | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 21 May 2014 10:00 GMT

A woman works at a farm at Lamas district in Tarapoto, Peru, in May 2014. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Ernesto Benavides

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As new roads bring farmers to Peru's central Amazon, boosting indigenous incomes may help them stem deforestation

NUEVO ARICA, Peru (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sweating under a blazing sun, workers pass papayas hand over hand from a dugout canoe up the steep bank of the Huallaga River. Wearing rubber gloves for protection against the irritating sap oozing from the stem ends of the still-green fruit, two young men wash the papayas before tossing them to a young woman who arranges them in crates in the back of a waiting truck.

The papaya business arrived in this Shawi Indian community with the widening of a dirt road from the town of Yurimaguas. The road cut travel time from two days by river to two hours by road, but it also brought traders seeking to rent land to plant commercial crops.

The sudden influx of outsiders and cash crops has sparked conflicts within communities and even between family members over land use and money, says Shawi leader Luis Huansi. He worries that the land-rental trend could lead to increased deforestation in an area already under pressure from roads, a huge palm plantation and settlers migrating from the highlands in search of land to farm.

Besides the papaya growers, the newly widened road has brought loggers and crime, such as theft from houses, which had been virtually unknown in the communities.

“Changes came with the road,” Huansi says. “No one foresaw the social impact it would have.”

Throughout the Amazon basin, deforestation and an influx of farmers and ranchers traditionally follow road construction. But Huansi and others hope that a new international forest conservation programme will help stem forest loss in this area of the central Peruvian Amazon while increasing indigenous families’ income, through measures such as helping families plant forest-friendly crops such as cacao.

Peru is one of eight pilot countries chosen for the programme, funded by multilateral development banks, including the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. The other countries are Brazil and Mexico in Latin America; Indonesia and Laos in Asia; and Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana in Africa.

The programme is designed to help limit global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Deforestation—mainly to clear land for agriculture—is one of Peru’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

The country was chosen for the program because of its large expanse of Amazonian forest – some 70 million hectares, second only to Brazil – and its pledge to reduce net deforestation to zero by 2021, according to Jaime Fernández-Baca, a climate change specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank in Lima.

The indigenous territory near Yurimaguas is one of three regions targeted to use $50 million allocated to Peru under the Forest Investment Program. The money consists of a $26 million grant and a $24 million concessional loan provided by the international Climate Investment Funds. Indigenous communities are due to get direct access to funding for projects in line with the programme’s objectives, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

The other two areas included in the programme are near the town of Atalaya, in Peru’s Ucayali region, and the southeastern Madre de Dios region, which is home to some of Peru’s most highly prized protected area, but which has also been ravaged by unregulated gold mining that has stripped trees and fouled rivers over large areas.

Although the specific projects are just entering the design phase and will not be ready for implementation until mid-2015, all will involve indigenous communities, according to Orlando Chirinos, who heads the Peruvian Environment Ministry team responsible for formulating the projects.


Studies in the Amazon have found that indigenous territories tend to serve as a buffer against deforestation. The Forest Investment Program intends to help indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon develop plans to manage their forests sustainably.

Some schemes for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – often known as REDD+ schemes – involve selling carbon offsets to companies in industrialized countries in exchange for protection of forests in places like the Peruvian Amazon.

But one of Peru’s two main Amazonian indigenous umbrella organizations, the Inter-ethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, or AIDESEP), opposes market-driven schemes such as carbon credits.

AIDESEP leaders objected to the original Forest Investment Program plan because they felt they did not have enough time to review it thoroughly, according to Roberto Espinoza, who represents the indigenous organisation on the programme’s steering committee.

After a series of talks involving indigenous leaders, national and local government officials and representatives of the multilateral banks, agreement was reached on guidelines for the programme in Peru, Espinoza said.

The indigenous organisation insisted that the programme address the factors that drive deforestation, such as roads and agriculture in the Shawi communities, and called for direct participation by indigenous communities in the project design and implementation.

Espinoza said the projects must take into account the indigenous communities’ concept of territory, not just as land but as a living space where people should have rights to forest resources as long as they manage them in a way that does not deplete the resources.

Indigenous representatives also insisted on an alternative to the carbon markets often associated with REDD+.

“The Amazon is a huge reservoir of carbon, but it is much more than that,” Espinoza said.

AIDESEP representatives held out for recognition of a plan known as “indigenous REDD,” drawn up by the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, COICA), which calls for the Amazon rainforest to be considered as a whole, and which sees carbon storage as just one of the many services provided by the culturally and biologically megadiverse region.

Espinoza said that ensuring that communities have land titles to the land they rely on is a necessary prerequisite for any REDD+ program.

Increasingly, however, he and regional indigenous leaders such as Huansi speak as well of gaining rights – though not necessarily full title – over broader areas they have traditionally used and over the resources in them, including resources below ground that today belong to the state. To complicate matters, many areas of these wider traditional territories have been gradually taken over by colonists, businesses or government agencies.


Huansi worries that the papaya plantations on Shawi lands could be the beginning of a new wave of commercial activities that could eat away at indigenous communities’ rights. He and others fear that that papaya growing will be followed by African oil palm, a crop that is sprouting up in the region around a large plantation owned by Peru’s giant Romero Group.

Huansi would rather see members of the Shawi communities plant cacao bushes under the shade of existing trees than run the risk that mature forest will be replaced with papaya or palm.

“People rent their land out now because of economic need, to cover family expenses, especially when school starts,” he says. The one-time $200 to $250 land rental income is significant for families in that area, he said.

Cacao – used to make chocolate – takes a few years to establish, but produces for decades, instead of just a couple of years, providing families with a long-term income, he said.

He hopes the Forest Investment Program will allow the communities to get a start growing cacao and other crops, such as fruits and vegetables, reforesting with native species, using forest products and perhaps starting some fish farms.

Such a diversity of activities could help families ensure that they have the means to feed and educate their children without renting their land, he said.

With a good management plan and technical assistance, he said, “this could be one of the richest areas in the country.”

To see an accompanying slideshow of images from Peru's central Amazon, click here.

Barbara Fraser is a freelance writer based in Lima. She specialises in reporting on environmental, public health, indigenous and social issues. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.

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