Today, the Peruvian investigative journalist group CONVOCA released the first of two in-depth articles, detailing the negative consequences of counter-narcotics programs on the territorial rights of Amazonian Indigenous communities, the security of their leaders, and the protection of their environment. The investigation shows how ‘alternative development’ initiatives favored the illicit granting of individual land titles over long-standing requests by Indigenous communities for collective land titles. This has catalyzed a wave of land invasions, deforestation, and killings of community leaders like Arbildo Melendez. These programs were financed in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The investigation found that land invaders have taken over more than 24,000 hectares of the territory of three Kakataibo and Shipibo Indigenous communities in the Huánuco region. This was facilitated by illegal actions taken by the Huánuco Regional Government and financed by Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs (DEVIDA).
CONVOCA’s research found that between 2013 and 2018, more than 15,000 individual land titles were awarded by these subnational authorities in the regions of Huánuco, Ucayali y Junín with financial support from DEVIDA. The report shows that these titles were granted in violation of the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples. The titles were also granted illegally and fraudulently, without verifying the previous occupation or economic activities of the alleged campesino beneficiaries of the project, an essential legal requirement to grant land property titles.
The deforestation maps and DEVIDA’s own data conclude that these individual titles, in addition to being irregular and violating the rights of Indigenous peoples, have served to advance the deforestation frontier and drug trafficking in the ancestral territory of the Kakataibo, Shipibo, Yánesha, and Asháninka peoples.
The article draws the link between land conflicts in the community of Unipacuyacu and killings of leaders. Murdered community president Arbildo Meléndez continued pushing for a communal land title originally requested in 1995, received intensifying threats that he denounced to the United Nations, and was killed on April 12th, 2020. Since then another three Kakataibo leaders have been killed.
USAID has publicly noted their support for DEVIDA’s land titling programs. A previous iteration of USAID’s website about support for counter-narcotics programs in Peru (see here) noted, “Since 2013, USAID has provided direct government-to-government assistance to support DEVIDA’s programs in planting, land titling, and community development.” The amount of funding that went from USAID to DEVIDA to regional authorities remains to be publicly revealed.
Over the course of the investigation, the journalist team requested interviews with USAID officials in the Lima mission, but they passed the question to DEVIDA. Neither institution has formally recognized its responsibility on this issue. In virtual meetings with Indigenous leaders, who have organized against the narco-invasion and who continue to suffer violence on a daily basis, officials indicated that the responsibility lies exclusively with the Regional Government of Huánuco.
Despite the constant denunciations by the Indigenous movement, neither DEVIDA nor USAID have initiated any investigation or complaint and, quite to the contrary, have instead reaffirmed that these illegal titles – functional to drug trafficking – are indicators of success in their project reports.
Vladimir Pinto, Amazon Watch’s Peru Field Coordinator issued the following statement about CONVOCA’s investigation:
“The investigation clearly illustrates how Peruvian authorities violated Amazonian Indigenous peoples’ rights to their own territories, exposing them to land invasions, violence, and death. The Peruvian government and international donors like USAID must assume their responsibilities for having financed the failed ‘alternative development’ programs that catalyzed illegal land invasions, deforestation, and deadly social conflicts with Indigenous communities.
“First, they must urgently guarantee the protection of highly-threatened community leaders, working together to implement the nascent Human Rights Defender Protection Mechanism. Second, they should actively support efforts to title and restore invaded Indigenous territories, through the creation of a reparation mechanism for the communities that have lost their territories and suffered violence. Finally, USAID and DEVIDA should jointly revise their alternative development programs, incorporating Indigenous organizations in the planning in accordance with USAID’s Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Herlin Odicio, president of the Federation of Native Communities Kakataibo (FENACOKA) announced that they will request an emergency meeting with the United States Ambassador in Peru, and they will demand urgent measures for their security from the new ministerial cabinet.
Odicio share the following statement:
“We have lost brothers and sisters, leaders of our communities, denouncing invasions without being heard. We need really strategic, impactful work. There was land trafficking here, how many more deaths do we expect to put an end to drug trafficking in the central jungle? We will not wait. We will resist in defense of life, organized in our territories. We’re not going anywhere. We want respect for our rights “