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Shipibo communities create Indigenous guard to protect Peruvian Amazon from deforestation

by Maxwell Radwin on 30 May 2023

  • The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo peoples, living in Peru’s Ucayali department, near the border with Brazil, have created an Indigenous guard that will help patrol this part of the Amazon and protect their land and resources.

  • Indigenous leaders say the rainforest is being destroyed by drug trafficking, logging, oil palm plantations, oil spills, new highways, illegal fishing, and expanding Mennonite communities.

  • A lack of government assistance has forced the 175 Indigenous communities to coordinate their own patrols, covering more than 8 million hectares (about 20 million acres).

  • So far, the Indigenous guard has made 45 interventions against illegal fishermen, but is still in the process of organizing the various communities and fine-tuning their logistics.

Drug trafficking, logging, oil palm plantations, oil spills, highways, illegal fishing, expanding Mennonite communities — in the Peruvian Amazon, there’s no shortage of threats against Indigenous peoples or their lands.

But now the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people, living in the department of Ucayali, near the border with Brazil, have taken steps to protect themselves from the barrage of threats. They’re in the process of organizing an “Indigenous guard” (La Guardia Indígena) that will carry out patrols across 175 Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon.

With the violence worsening and the government continuing to ignore the problem, an Indigenous guard is the only hope they have left, they said.

“The government has an obligation to guarantee the safety of human life as well as flora and fauna. But it’s not,” said Lizardo Cauper, the council president of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo peoples. “We have to do this because it’s the only way to ensure the lives of generations. We have to act in accordance with our uses and customs to defend this land.”

So far, the Indigenous guard has made 45 “interventions” against illegal fishermen, expelling them from the area, according to community leaders. But right now, the priority is still to get all of the different communities coordinating on their goals, understanding the different threats each of them faces, and planning out how the patrols can best be carried out.

So far, the Indigenous guard has made 45 “interventions” against illegal fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Shipibo-Konibo community)

Ucayali has some of the highest rates of deforestation in Peru. The Flor de Ucayali community alone has seen more than 20,200 hectares (more than 50,000 acres), or about 15% of its forest, destroyed over the past decade, according to community estimates.

Another 8,345 hectares (20,621 acres) disappeared between 2008 and 2018 during road construction, according to the NGO Amazon Conservation. And then another 8,686 hectares (21,464 acres) was lost between 2019 and 2022 once the road was completed.

Mennonite communities dedicated to agriculture also continue to expand throughout the area, deforesting nearly 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) between 2017 and 2022. In previous reporting, Mongabay found some irregularities in the land titling system used to grant Mennonites the territory.

Similar land-trafficking scandals have been tied to palm oil companies that are clearing the forest. In one case from 2015, officials allegedly gave private buyers 128 plots covering 3,600 hectares (about 8,900 acres) that were meant to be sold off to international palm companies.

At the same time, the area continues to be inundated with organized crime. In addition to illegal fishing on the Ucayali River and other water bodies, drug traffickers are expanding the cultivation of coca, the plant used to produce cocaine. The government said there were 10,151 hectares (25,084 acres) of coca plantations in 2021, in some areas representing a more than 150% increase from previous years.

The Lake Imiría regional conservation area, one of the worst-hit parts of the province, is home to important wildlife like the jaguar (Panthera onca), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), as well as the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis). There are also more than 400 species of plants, many of them used by Indigenous communities for traditional foods and medicines.

Members of the Indigenous guard aren’t armed except for traditional bows and arrows. (Photo courtesy of Shipibo-Konibo community)

In April, Cauper spoke to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues about the lack of government protections and support despite the increasing threats against Indigenous communities. In some cases, residents who’ve spoken out against illegal actors have had to stop sending their children to school out of fear that they’ll be targeted.

“The Peruvian government fails to comply with international standards and agreements,” Cauper said, “which are important for providing protection, attention, education and health care to the Shipibo people.”

The Ucayali government, including the regional office for the development of Indigenous peoples, didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Faced with a lack of support, Cauper and other leaders say they have no other option but to organize their own Indigenous guard, a kind of community-led law enforcement that travels throughout the region patrolling against threats against the rainforest.

Although some patrolling started back in 2021, Indigenous leaders are still in the process of figuring out the logistics of coordinating 175 different Indigenous communities spread across around 8 million hectares (about 20 million acres).

Gasoline shortages have been a problem for longer patrols. And cellphone reception can be extremely spotty, especially in more remote, rural areas. In the future, the community hopes to work more with drones, GPS and other technology.

Members of the Indigenous guard aren’t armed except for traditional bows and arrows, which aren’t usually meant to be used as weapons but rather to channel the strength of their ancestors, leaders told Mongabay. Because drug traffickers and other illegal actors often do have firearms, however, the guard plans to coordinate with the police when carrying out higher-risk patrols in areas where illegal actors could become aggressive.

“We’re still in the process of organizing ourselves and figuring out the logistics,” Marco Tulio, president of the Indigenous guard, told Mongabay.

Tulio said he hopes to train and recruit younger members from every community so that the Indigenous guard will include future generations who care about protecting the environment.

“We need to have a strong base in the communities,” he said, “because that’s where the root of the fight happens. We have to get stronger, develop an ideology, a school of leaders where children can learn to protect the forest, the natural resources that we’ve always defended.”


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