The Ucayali river winds through Amazon rainforest in Peru
The slaughter of six farmers in the Peruvian Amazon has placed a spotlight on issues of land grabbing, corruption and illegal deforestation in the eastern region of Ucayali.
The farmers, members of the Bello Paraiso Association of Agriculturalists, were tied up, tortured and shot by a group of between 20 and 40 assailants on 1 September. The attack stemmed from a dispute over the ownership of agricultural land in the area, with local farmers and press reports blaming land traffickers.
“We have received death threats from the same land trafficking gang,” Robert Guimaraes, president of the local indigenous federation Feconau, told the Guardian.
Land activists in Ucayali have previously received death threats for opposing land grabs. In November 2015, activist Bolivar Washington received a note that read: “We will kill you if you keep on screwing with us. Those lands are not yours… let us work if you do not want all of you to die.”
At the time, Washington was supporting the struggle of the Shipibo indigenous community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, located just 10km from the site of the recent killings. Santa Clara residents were opposing land grabs by the palm oil firm Plantaciones de Pucallpa (PDP), which illegally cleared more than 5,700 hectares of forest between 2011 and 2016.
PDP claimed to have ceased operations in November 2016. However, as Earthsight reported in May, work on the area it illegally cleared continued into 2017. Community members were still being threatened by individuals “with close ties to the palm oil company and a local land trafficking mafia,” according to the Forest Peoples Programme. There are no suggestions that PDP was in any way involved in the threats or the recent killings.
The situation in Ucayali has been exacerbated by the institutional weakness and alleged corruption of the regional authorities. In 2015, an official from the national government found that firms including PDP were clearing forest in Ucayali without the necessary legal documents. In July this year, a report by Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman highlighted numerous examples of agricultural activities taking place in Ucayali “without environmental authorisation certificates, land use change plans or deforestation permits being granted by the competent authorities.”
There is also evidence that the authorities have deliberately distributed illegitimate land titles. An investigation by Peruvian news outlet Convoca alleges that officials from the Ucayali Agriculture Directorate withdrew land titles from local farmers and awarded them to individuals related to the Melka group, owner of Plantaciones de Pucallpa, who subsequently sold them on to the palm oil firm. The investigation found that the Directorate granted more than 3,500 land ownership certificates between 2011 and 2014 – the same time period that the Melka group began expanding aggressively into Ucayali.
“Everything points to regional government people being involved in trafficking land,” Jose Luis Guzmán, an environmental prosecutor in Ucayali, told the Guardian.
Indigenous leader Robert Guiamares blames the regional government for fuelling land conflict. “These peasant farmers have paid the price for the inaction of the state and the local authorities in tackling land trafficking,” he told the Guardian.
“The lack of clarity and consistency of land titling in the Peruvian Amazon has long been a ticking bomb for violent social conflict,” Julia Urrunaga, Peru director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, added.
The recent killings intensify fears that conflict could be fuelled by the Peruvian government’s drive to promote palm oil. In June 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture published a ten-year national plan for the sustainable production of oil palm, focused on expanding the country’s palm oil industry through improved productivity and better access to national and international markets. But in an environment of corruption and impunity such as that which persists in Ucayali, observers worry that palm oil could drive up land prices and fuel a surge in land grabbing and related violence.