ENVIRONMENT-PERU: "For Sale" Signs in Amazon Jungle

LIMA, Feb 5 (IPS) - The Peruvian Congress plans this week to debate a draft law pushed by the government that would authorise the sale of vast tracts of deforested, uncultivated land in the Amazon jungle to private companies that invest in "reforestation" efforts.

But critics say there is no land registry showing which natural areas could be sold off without hurting the region’s rich biodiversity or affecting local residents who do not hold formal title to their land.

The proposed modification of the "law for the promotion of private investment in reforestation and agroforestry", which was to be discussed last week, was postponed on the pretext that the chair of the Agriculture Committee, ruling party lawmaker Franklin Sánchez, was not present.

But the underlying reason was that some legislators who support President Alan García are dubious about voting for the amended law, because of the criticism it has drawn from experts, opposition parties, and social organisations, like organised campesinos (small farmers) in the northeastern province of Loreto.

Under the current law, areas authorised for reforestation are granted in concession. But García argues that if the land were sold to them instead, companies would enjoy greater security and more jobs would be created.

"Taking advantage of our timber and reforesting is a way to generate jobs and attract investment. We live in an ideological world that says the Amazon cannot be touched, because it is part of the idyll of primitive communism," the president said in an interview published Jan. 21 by the Spanish newspaper ABC.

The government’s interest in selling off land in the Amazon jungle had already been announced by García in an op-ed piece in the local daily El Comercio.

Experts argue that the president is focusing on profit and investment without taking into account the Amazon’s great natural wealth or the local inhabitants of these areas, many of whom are Indigenous people.

There are 1,450 Indigenous communities representing 65 different ethnic groups in Peru’s Amazon jungle region, according to the 1993 census.

"The problem is that the draft law that the government has introduced does not clearly define what kind of land we are really talking about, because there is no land registry," Luis Capella, the head of the non-governmental Peruvian Society on Environmental Law’s forestry programme, told IPS.

"That means a plot of land ‘without forest cover’ could actually contain primary forest, which would be destroyed as soon as it was sold," he said.

The draft law vaguely states that "untilled land without forest cover" in the Amazon region could be sold.

But a source at the Agriculture Ministry acknowledged to IPS that a land registry reflecting the status of property would not be ready until the end of the year. However, the official said an estimated 9.5 million hectares in the jungle have been deforested.

Capella, on the other hand, said it was highly unlikely that such a vast expanse of deforested, uncultivated land exists in the Amazon jungle, as the government claims, and insisted that a detailed land survey is indispensable.

"By saying that land will be sold rather than awarded in concession, the president is not solving anything, because there is no regulatory or institutional framework to supervise investment in those areas," added the activist.

Currently, oversight of reforestation initiatives and plantation forestry is carried out by the government agency Proinversión, as if it were just another economic activity, instead of by a specialised body that could study the environmental, social and cultural aspects that should be taken into account when selling land in an area like the Amazon jungle.

García’s proposed legal reform has already been approved by the Agriculture Committee, headed by ruling party legislator Sánchez.

The draft law would extend the upper limit on the size of property that can be sold, from 10,000 to 40,000 hectares, and fails to create a regulatory framework to enforce reforestation commitments. Nor does it include regional governments in decision-making.

"In a context of uncertainty, when it is not clear what the conditions of the sales will be, nor is it clear what rights the purchasers will be granted or what rights of local inhabitants will be affected, how can we say that this law will guarantee investment and generate employment?" asked Capella.

Congress is divided on the issue.

The Economics Committee, which also discussed the draft law, rejected the possibility of authorising the sale of land, voting instead for leaving in place the concession model, based on public tenders.

"I don't agree that the land should be sold off, because investment can also be guaranteed through concessions, and the Amazon jungle is one of the world’s lungs, and is home to communities that have to be taken into consideration," legislator Lourdes Alcorta with the centre-right National Unity alliance told IPS.

There are voices both in favour of and against the proposed legislative reform in the National Unity, even though it is one of the parties that have decisively backed initiatives promoting private enterprise.

But the progressive Union for Peru is unanimously opposed to the draft law.

"We don't want our natural resources to be poisoned," said Union for Peru lawmaker Róger Najar. "Even the present system of forestry concessions has proved to be a failure, because it has only served to plunder the jungle, allowing a small group of companies to benefit from the sale of illegally logged wood."

Governing party lawmaker Nidia Vílchez, former chair of the Agriculture Committee, said the draft law is "aimed at generating more jobs," but added that before any deforested land is put up for sale, a land registry should be drawn up and land titling efforts must be carried out.

In the country’s jungle regions, only 37 percent of owners hold formal title to their land, IPS was informed by the government agency in charge of the formalisation of property ownership.

The main obstacle, said sources at the agency, are the large number of legal restrictions. For example, land titles can only be issued for property that is put to productive use.

The draft law has triggered public opposition in Amazon provinces, including street protests by social organisations over the last few days in Loreto.

Regional authorities and civil society groups in three Amazon provinces are discussing the possibility of calling a strike against the controversial draft law within the next few days.

"We are going to protest until we are taken into account in decision-making, because the only thing they are doing is copying foreign models of reforestation without considering our reality here," the head of the Ucayali Defence Front, Rómulo Coronado, told IPS.

The governor of the Amazon province of San Martín, César Villanueva, said the draft law would be inapplicable because in the Amazon jungle, there is no ownerless land available for sale, since the property either forms part of protected nature reserves or belongs to Indigenous communities or settlers who have come in from outside to clear farmland.

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