Protecting tropical forests means protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, and front-line defenders who are finding that their land and ways of life are under threat from unchecked agribusiness expansion.
A recent report released by the government of Colombia highlights a 23% surge in deforestation in the country from 2016 to 2017, most notably in the Amazon region. Other parts of the Andean Amazon are also under threat as the agricultural frontier continues to expand into natural forests.
In May 2018, Oxfam convened a forum in Lima, Peru, that focused on the environmental and human rights impacts of Big Ag in Latin America. I was struck by the powerful testimonies given by several indigenous leaders about how deep in the Amazon—one of the world’s largest rain forests and their ancestral home—vast areas of forests are being bulldozed to make way for large-scale plantations, putting at risk their land, their water, and their ways of life.
The forum brought together indigenous peoples organizations and civil society organizations, government officials, and representatives from oil palm growers association. At the closing panel, Lizardo Cauper Pezo, the president of AIDESEP, the association of indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, underscored the links between large-scale agribusiness, the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, and the erosion of natural resources and vital ecosystem services. For me, a key takeaway from the forum was that protecting the Amazon requires the protection of community rights.
The Amazon contains around 100 billion metric tons of carbon, and plays an essential role in mitigating global climate change and stabilizing the local climate. Commodity driven deforestation has already ravaged large parts of the biome, particularly in Brazil. New hotspots are now emerging in the Andean Amazon, which spans parts of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and where deforestation rates have been steadily rising over the last decade or so. Peru has the highest annual deforestation, followed by Colombia, and then Ecuador.
Oxfam’s research shows that in Peru, large tracts of forests are being cleared for new oil palm plantations particularly in San Martin, Ucayali, and Loreto provinces. Some of these new plantations overlap with indigenous community land claims. The lack of secure land rights for communities has enabled land traffickers to acquire the land and subsequently sell it to palm oil corporations. This has become the preferred mechanism for companies to purchase land for large-scale plantations while avoiding environmental regulations.
Companies take unfair advantage of simplified regulations intended for small farmers to clear the forests without complying with environmental impact assessments or other requirements for commercial farming operations.
In Colombia, the Amazon forest and other high conservation value biomes such as grasslands and wetlands are also being threatened by agribusiness interests. The peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has opened up intact forests and other critical ecosystems to large-scale agriculture—a process that is being aided by the government’s new law on ZIDRES (“Zones of Interest for Economic and Social Development in Rural Areas”). The country already has the most unequal land distribution in Latin America, and the unfettered expansion of big agriculture is likely to exacerbate that.
At the heart of this issue is a struggle to protect land and the customary rights of indigenous peoples and local communities who have lived in these forests for centuries. In Peru, despite the government’s commitment to recognizing indigenous peoples’ land rights, the actual processes for titling territories are lagging and contradictory policies are incentivizing agricultural development in forested areas.
The lack of clarity around land tenure and land use has led to an increase in land trafficking and grabbing, which is often an early warning sign of commodity driven deforestation. Conflict over land has also resulted in a dangerous uptick in attacks against environmental and human rights defenders as they speak up in defense of their rights.
One of the communities where this struggle is playing out is the Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya in the central Peruvian Amazon. Palm oil companies started clearing their ancestral forests after their land was given away without community members’ knowledge or consent. The community requested that they get legal title to their ancestral lands, and yet after years, they are still waiting for the government to recognize their rights to land. While community members continue to advocate, they have faced intensifying threats, intimidation, and violence.
Oxfam is working with local partners to help communities secure their rights to their ancestral territories, and to prevent the conversion of one of the world’s most carbon rich and biodiverse forests. In the long term, curbing deforestation in the Amazon requires building equitable and inclusive land stewardship models that strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities who depend on the forests. A growing body of evidence suggests that recognizing indigenous and community land rights could be one of the most effective solutions for reducing deforestation. Rates of deforestation are significantly lower when communities have secure rights over their forests.
The trend of commodity driven deforestation in the Andean Amazon needs to be reversed before it’s too late. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement will be impossible without action to protect, restore, and sustainably manage forests. A positive signal is that companies, investors, and governments have made ambitious commitments to reduce deforestation by 2020. Both Peru and Colombia have committed to reducing emissions from the forest sector as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
It is now time for both governments and companies to translate commitments into meaningful action. In doing so, they must implement policies to recognize the land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and strengthen protections for environmental and human rights defenders. The traditional “fines and fences” conservation approaches that exclude people cannot address the underlying drivers of deforestation. To protect the Amazon, we need to put human rights at the center of sustainable land use strategies.