Corruption and land trafficking in Peru’s Ucayali leading to deforestation for rice and palm

18.01.2019

Peru's Environment Ministry have said that 29,000 hectares of Ucayali’s forests were cleared in 2016. Photo: Yvette Sierra Praeli/Mongabay

Alleged criminal activity involving civil servants, government officials, judges and business owners in the eastern Peruvian region of Ucayali has been identified as a driver of deforestation in the area as illegally acquired forested lands are converted to palm and rice cultivation, according to a report in Mongabay Latam.

In December anti-corruption police in the Ucayali region of Peru raided the Regional Directorate of Agriculture of Ucayali (DRAU) and arrested its boss, Isaac Huamán Pérez. 

The head of DRAU’s Directorate of Legal Physical Sanitation of Agrarian Property (DISAFILPA), Christopher Hernández Larrañaga, was also arrested.

The two men were accused of land trafficking by illegally holding indigenous and public lands on behalf of other civil servants and of mayors in Ucayali.

According to court documents, workers at DISAFILPA have allegedly colluded to falsify property titles with the full knowledge of the heads of the two agencies. 

The land in question allegedly includes permanent production forests – which cannot be converted for agricultural use – and conservation areas that were apparently sold to foreign agribusinesses.

According to Peru’s Forests and Wildlife Law, property titles cannot be granted for any lands “in the public domain that are capable of forestry use or protection with or without forest cover”.

The illegal issuance of property titles by the DRAU and its offices – a corruption scheme that involves civil servants, politicians, businessmen and judges – is reportedly behind violent land disputes and deforestation.

In flights over the region organised by the Peruvian Air Force, Mongabay Latam documented deforestation of Amazon forests for rice and palm cultivation.

According to the Environment Ministry, 72,000 acres (29,000 hectares) of Ucayali’s forests were cleared in 2016.

Prosecutor José Guzmán Ferro told Mongabay that land traffickers have created agricultural associations and front companies whose partners – businessmen and government officials – get access to land through the illegal issuance of titles by DRAU and its DISAFILPA office.

According to Mongabay, in 2017 as many as 300,000ha of forests were being targeted by agricultural associations and their backers at DRAU to be converted for crops and ranching.

Mongabay has cited evidence that large companies are behind the deforestation documented by the aerial reconnaissance as it was done by heavy machinery not owned by local farmers.

The situation in Ucayali has also led to conflict. In the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, the Shipobo indigenous people have struggled against the Ocho Sur Pucallpa oil palm plantation – owned by American businessman Dennis Melka – for invading indigenous land. 

Melka’s palm plantations have allegedly deforested at least 13,000ha of Amazonian forest in Ucayali and have been connected to illegal land deals in the area.

In 2017, Mongabay reported on the murder of six people in connection with the dispute over the possession of 450ha of forested land in Ucayali. 

Despite the prohibition in the law, one of the parties in the dispute was able to obtain property titles for the land in question, classified as permanent production forest, as a result of land trafficking practices.

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