Palm oil expansion in Peru is killing our people, says indigenous leader

International companies are destroying forests to cultivate lucrative palm oil crops, threatening an indigenous community's survivial

Rapidly expanding palm oil plantations in Peru’s Amazon have encroached on indigenous ancestral territories, destroying their communities’ livelihoods and forest ecosystems, Shipibo-Konibo indigenous leader Robert Guimaraes Vasquez has said in an interview with Diálogo Chino.

Since the turn of this century, Peru’s government has encouraged plantations of palm trees that produce an oil used in biofuels, cosmetics and processed foods – but is one of the major drivers of rainforest destruction in tropical regions.

Under government proposals, the amount of land in Peru dedicated to palm plantations is set to swell to a massive two million hectares from the current 60,000 hectares by 2020, with cultivation supposedly taking place on land that has already been deforested.

But indigenous communities’ lack of land titles, coupled with poor governance and monitoring of deforestation, means local governments are selling-off communal territories to multinational investors. Locally-registered companies set up by international business are blamed for destroying virgin forest with impunity, and indigenous peoples are being threatened with violence for resisting palm cultivation, Guimaraes says.

Plantaciones de Pucallpa SAC is reportedly clearing forest in the Shipibo-Konibo’s Santa Clara de Uchunya community in Peru’s Ucayali region, but benefits from certification by industry association the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that has been called a fig leaf for rainforest destruction by green groups. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) says Plantaciones de Pucallpa  has links to Czech palm oil and cacao tycoon Dennis Melka, who is eyeing more plantations in Peru to meet growing demand from China and India, the Financial Times reports.

Speaking with Diálogo Chino, Guimaraes, in London at the invitation of the Forest People’s Programme, discusses the impacts of palm oil expansion into the Peruvian amazon, contradictions in the government’s forest policy and the importance of enforcing robust sustainability standards.

Diálogo Chino (DC): Describe the impacts of palm oil expansion in Ucayali.

Robert Giumaraes Vasquez (RGV): Everything that the forest means to us is being violated, by oil and gas concessions, mining, hydroelectric megaprojects and since 2010, palm oil, which has increased a lot. The relationship we have with the forest has a spiritual dimension. We get knowledge that helps us manage it along with the rivers – it’s not just a primary material for us. We make medicines with plants, create our own architecture and homes and we manage the seed cycle. The forest and the river also represent food security for us, we get fish from the river, we get food from the forest and we also have agriculture in the area, crops like plantain, yucca, corn and rice. The forest also represents traditional economy, we go into the forest and get what we need, otherwise we die. There’s a big difference between us and the rest of the population, our territory is our collective. We don’t have private property. The Amazon is our territory, our home, and lately it’s being violated by palm-growing activities. In Ucayali, we have the Melka group and its associates from Malaysia which have 25 businesses in Peru, 8 of which are in Ucayali. None of them are registered in his name. In recent years deforestation has accelerated and we are concerned because the Peruvian government has contradictions in its policies. The government signed a commitment to tackle deforestation with the Norwegian and German governments worth US$ 300million at the climate summit in New York in 2014 – zero deforestation by 2021. But the government is not living up to this. In the last 10 years, in their own words, they are encouraging  private investment through national resolutions to promote palm oil.

DC: There are problems with the land registry that monitors deforested areas in Peru. How is it possible to work out whether palm oil cultivation is being promoted in areas that have already been deforested?

RGV: It’s not known exactly how many areas have been deforested. In the case of the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, the Melka group bought land from the Ucayali government at a low cost, with no authority. But this isn’t degraded forest, they’re forests of immense value in terms of their biodiversity and they’re ancestral territories of the Santa Clara de Uchunya community. Enormous tractors work day and night clearing huge areas of forest. It’s an ecological crime. They’re running over animals and cutting off rivers. It’s very serious.

DC: What presence does the RSPO, the body that is supposed to certify the sustainability of palm oil, have in the area?

RGV: We only recently became aware of this organisation. They have a presence in Lima, but it’s very far away. We are preparing a complaint to them against one of Melka’s companies, which is a member. The Peruvian government has violated laws on consultation, they’ve handed over huge extensions of forest without consulting indigenous peoples. A report by Global Witness says that Peru is one of the five countries in which most people that stand up for these rights are killed. In 2004, four of our brothers were killed. Territorial demands are ongoing in Peru, for the recognition of our ancestral lands. People are living in communities and then overnight realising that there is heavy machinery on their land. We are on ancestral land that the Peruvian state fails to recognise with a document saying “this is yours”. We’ve said that they need to halt palm expansion for as long as the state cannot legally guarantee the security of our territory. The state has to guarantee land for our communities, without this, all that’s being generated is more conflict.

DC: The scale of growth of the plantations in Peru represents the growing demand for palm oil, which is used in many of the products that we consume. How important is it that we establish and implement robust sustainability standards?

RGV: We’re saying that you can’t introduce monoculture in areas of high biodiversity. Companies need to respect laws and the customary rights of indigenous peoples. You can’t violate the rights of people here and replace us with a single [agricultural] activity. We’re not saying that the state can’t invest. But it needs to evaluate and respect our rights. We’re pretty clear on this.

DC: Multinational companies are competing with each other to supply products containing palm oil to new markets in Asia, like India and China, what power do consumers have?

RGV: These same companies are also tearing down forests in Malaysia. The experience from other places [where illegal loggers deforest and sell wood with proceeds reinvested in cash crop cultivation] is disastrous. And now they’re coming to the Peruvian Amazon to harvest resources, perhaps to respond to new market demands. But no consumer would accept the way these companies are operating. If the European or Chinese market saw what they’re destroying, how they’re violating our rights and killing our people, I don’t think anyone would consume these products. We have to make people take on the responsibility of finding out whether products come with proper environmental standards, if they come from well-managed forests. But everything we’re seeing here is a result of the contradictory policies of the Peruvian state. I don’t know what discourse it will take to the COP21 in Paris. But the government says “we’re respecting indigenous people and preserving forests” and has this huge US$300 million fund, but not one Sol (Peruvian currency) goes towards giving land titles to indigenous communities. How can they not allocate these resources when there are resources for the private sector? We don’t just want to complain, we want a show of solidarity. The lives of our leaders are at risk. Our message to the international community is that we need their support, that they recognise our problem and that they demand the implementation of clear conservation policies, not contradictory ones. We’re calling for a moratorium on palm oil expansion for as long as there’s no system for recognising our territory and while we lack protection by the law.

Editor’s note: The RSPO informed Diálogo Chino that its Complaints Panel has requested that Plantaciones de Pucallpa S.A.C formally respond to the claims made by the Shipibo-Konibo Community.