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Danger at the border: Tikuna indigenous people defend their forest from drug trafficking

The Tikuna indigenous people have decided to guard their forests in an area of ​​Peru where illicit crops have declared war on conservation. Equipped with cell phones with GPS and maps, they face loggers and drug traffickers who have threaten them with death. The community wants the government to take action and help their neglected community.

Indigenous people from the Peruvian side of the Amazonian Trapeze, on the border with Colombia and Brazil, feel lost every time illicit crops are eradicated from their land. They know that starting over will take everything they have, and that it will feel like hell.

"It feels as if they are tearing your house apart and then suddenly it collapses on top of you," says Artemio from the indigenous community of Nueva Galilea, located in the eastern border of the Peruvian region of Loreto. He asks to omit his surname for fear of violent reprisals.

The last time the government got rid of illegal coca crops in that part of the country was in 2015. That year, Pablo García, a Tikuna indigenous leader in his community, chose not to be driven by despair but instead come to terms with the incident and start to uproot the plants.

For Pablo, that experience represented only one thing: a new beginning. Perhaps he is the only one, or one of a few people, who has dared to be an optimist along one of the most neglected borders of Peru. He not only decided to opt for a legal economy but chose, along with three of his friends, to become a forest monitor. Since then, equipped with a cell phone with GPS and a satellite map, he follows deforestation alerts whenever they appear on his screen.

The problem is that now he has to face the loggers and drug traffickers who invade his territory from the other side of the river bank. He knows that not only his economic situation is at stake, but also his life.

Pablo still remembers when two groups of drug traffickers turned the community Buen Jardín of Callarú into a battlefield. "I was the apu [the spiritual leader] of the community. It was during a meeting with a professor and other authorities when we heard boats coming towards us at about 8 a.m. They were shooting. One group got out of the boats and started running, armed, towards one of the communities’ houses, the one right there, while the others fired." That happened in 2014, a year before the second coca eradication campaign in this Loreto community, in the province of Mariscal Ramón Castilla, in the Yavarí district. Pablo still fears that violence will return to his community.

The threats are like a shadow that follow this group of environmental protectors. They are seen as a hindrance for those who live off drug trafficking and sometimes they are also the barrier that keeps illicit crops from advancing. It happens in Buen Jardín and in other Tikuna communities like Nueva Galilea and Cushillococha. Despite this, the coca leaf plantations have recovered after the last intervention by the government; replanting is a reality. The question has changed to: What is at stake when you want to take care of the forest?

"He said he would kill us"

To travel at the beginning of the year to the indigenous communities of the Lower Amazon, in the triple border with Leticia and Tabatinga (cities in Colombia and Brazil), you have to do it by 'peque peque,' small rustic boats that navigate the Amazon basin every day. This is the best moment of the year to visit the flooded forests of the Peruvian Amazon because the creation of new ox-bow lakes (cochas) and the rise of the river’s water level permits navigation.

To get to Pablo García’s house we had to literally navigate through the streets of the community. The pillars of his house were under water and we were forced to jump mid-stairway to disembark. Pablo was already waiting for us, ready to go out to patrol. He had high rubber boots, worn-out jeans, a cell phone case hanging from his belt, a small black bag crossed from side to side to enable mobility, and contagious enthusiasm.

Perhaps due to his optimism and courage to face the invaders, the inhabitants of Buen Jardín proclaimed him the apu of the community in the previous period. Today the position is in the hands of another Tikuna; however, from Pablo García’s current position as secretary, he is still involved in the tasks and decision-making processes of Buen Jardín. The respect and attention the community show him make it seem as if he is still the apu.

When he saw us, the first thing he said was that two days ago they detected a new patch of deforestation now filled with illegal crops: 30 hectares of the 1771 that the community owns.

"Before there was no coca, now it’s full of it. We barely grow coca. It’s Buen Jardín’s territory," says Pablo.

Deforestation does not go unnoticed by Pablo or the other monitors. They know very well the limits of their territory not only because they patrol it, but because they saw the extent of it for the first time on a satellite map. Every day, with their cell phones and an application that allows them to receive alerts, they go out to check for potential forest invasions.

That morning they guided us to one of the patches of most concern. The boat moved slowly along a stream, skirting the tree trunks and crossing the rays of light that smoothly penetrated the forest canopy. We were six people on board a 'peque peque' navigating through the community's flooded forest.

Half an hour later we disembarked and walked 10 minutes until we were surrounded by coca leaves. Pablo took out his reading glasses and together with Camila Flores, Miguel Rivera, and Enoc Chanchari began to identify the location. The GPS indicated that we were a few meters from the patch, but the water became an obstacle. The monitors took out a drone, which they have learned to use with the help of the Rainforest Foundation —an American foundation that has trained them in the use of this and other technologies— and turned it on to show the deforestation.

The drone rose above the treetops and suddenly a fully stripped quadrant appeared on the screen of the cell phone. The sticks thrown on the ground contrasted with the abundant vegetation of the area and with the cocoa crops of the community. There was an island of bare land in the middle of intense green. Almost 300 square meters of forest had been lost. 

When they received the first alert, in mid-2018, they immediately went to investigate the area.

"We went to the boundary and we found an invader from Bellavista," says Pablo García. He says that they faced him and told him they would bring the authorities but the invader "kept threatening us, saying he would kill us."

Because he did not leave and continued threatening them, Pablo García and Jorge Guerrero, the apu of Buen Jardín, went to talk with the apu of the Tikuna community of Bellavista de Callarú, whose territory borders with theirs.

"We don’t want you to invade our territory and damage it. Stop it. If you have that farm, cultivate that little chacrita [farm] but don’t destroy any more bush. If not, our territory is going to turn to bare land," said Pablo to Bellavista’s apu, who agreed to stop the problem.

However, Pablo returned to Buen Jardín with very little hope, especially because before going into the meeting they threatened him again.

"You know what, Pablo, right now they're going to grab you, tie you up, and give you a beating. I replied: Why are you going to grab me and beat me? Am I invading your territory? I’m not, but you are, and we have to stop it." This is how Pablo García remembers that scene, which remains fresh in his memory.

He has not forgotten the last words they said to him before going to the meeting: "We are going to hang you.” 

The inhabitants of Buen Jardín are not tired of repeating, almost like a mantra, that in Bellavista drug trafficking is still present.

In 2014, the Corah Special Project in charge of illicit crop eradication throughout the Peruvian territory began to operate in the province of Mariscal Ramón Castilla, in the Lower Amazon. It eradicated 1,816 hectares of coca. That year they did not reach Bellavista de Callarú. Nevertheless, a year later, in 2015, the intervention was much larger and removed 13,805 hectares of coca from the province; 1,426 hectares distributed in 795 plots from Bellavista alone. The 2014 and 2015 campaigns, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), reduced illicit crops in the Lower Amazon to 370 hectares; however, in 2017 there was a significant reseeding and the hectares rose to 1,823. To this figure, we must add last year’s coca plantations.

"The highest concentration of the crop has been found in the towns of San José de Cochiquinas, Alto Monte, San Pablo, Cushillococha, Bellavista and Erene," states the UNODC report. According to the UN agency, cocaine production is "linked" to the Colombian market by two factors: the proximity to the Colombian border and the absence of dryers in this area of ​​Peru, which suggests that the coca leaf is processed in "green" (as its customary in Colombia).

This coincides with what police sources in the area pointed out. In a conversation with Mongabay Latam, they stated that Colombian citizens put money into the Peruvian communities of the Amazonian Trapeze to plant coca and then buy all their harvest from them.

Pablo García and Jorge Guerrero argue that in Bellavista they are seen as informants of the narcotics division, although they have explained more than once that they do not report to the police, instead, are only interested in protecting the forest. 

Due to Bellavista's background and threats like this one, Pablo García is convinced that coca crops will soon appear in the recently deforested area.

We asked Teodoro Ayde Lozano, Bellavista’s apu, about these accusations. "We have requested an expansion of territory; after that expansion, it is actually Buen Jardín that is invading Bellavista's land," he replied.

"Buen Jardín denounces that in that area they are planting coca,” we tell him. "Nothing, just yucca, nothing else," the apu responds bluntly. "Nothing happens here, people work well," he continues. The interview takes place inside his house but he does not stop looking constantly towards the street. During the 30 minutes of the conversation, at least three Colombian citizens who passed by his house greeted him. "Before, there were problems but now everything is quiet," he concludes.

The GPS coordinates do not lie: that forest belongs to Buen Jardín of Callarú.

The prosecutor’s arrival

At the end of 2018, the apu of Buen Jardín received an unexpected visit. A group of Colombians wanted to talk to him.

“There were many Colombians who told me: Come on, apu, I’ll give you some [money], get the land! That was in the month of October 2018.”

“Did it scare you?”

“Yes, that's why I have not accepted their proposal. I didn’t accept to destroy and plant coca. They wanted to give me money but I said no.” 

Fed up with the pressures and threats, the inhabitants of Buen Jardín made the decision to take the gathered evidence to a prosecutor (geo-referenced points, photographs and videos). The president of the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO) helped them channel their complaint, the same that got to Alberto Yusen Caraza’s hands, provincial prosecutor of the Specialized Public Prosecutor's Office in Environmental Matters (also known by its acronym in Spanish, FEMA) of Loreto. 

Caraza arrived at Buen Jardín of Callarú at the beginning of February of this year, accompanied by members of the national police. Although they did not find invaders in the area, they walked through the forest and recorded images of the deforestation with the help of a drone. In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Loreto's FEMA prosecutor said that due to the presence of coca crops they also detected "a danger zone 200 meters away."

Photo: Rainforest Foundation.

After confirming the deforestation and recognizing the presence of illicit crops, the environmental prosecutor spoke about the area’s security.

"There is a personal security problem in the area, it is a coca-growing area that is always guarded by armed people," Caraza said, adding that it is not the only complaint they have received this year.

The inhabitants of Buen Jardín don’t know what else to do and now they even have to deal with the 30 hectares of coca plantations that have been recently found in their territory.

“They are cutting down trees up to right here. I don’t know how we’re going to solve this. I will have to go speak with the apu, and with those in Bellavista, so that they aren’t coming through here any farther,” says Pablo García, who knows that each visit puts his life at risk.

“Here we can’t talk openly about what the mafia is; we can’t talk. If we go report them to the police, the police betray us. In what way? They are going to warn them. You go to make a deal with Tabatinga (in Brazil), and they disappear,” says García.

In Bellavista, far from the fear of those living in Buen Jardín, there is an air of impunity. The town’s small port is full of motorboats, well-stocked restaurants, and stores — which is not the case in any of the other Tikuna communities in the area. The testimonies gathered by Mongabay Latam suggest that every day, people come from different areas of Colombia and Peru to work as “raspachines” (people who harvest coca leaves) or to operate cocaine processing laboratories that have popped up within the community, far from the center of the town.

Photos by: Vanessa Romo.

The few indigenous people who still live in Bellavista typically prefer not to clash against the lifestyle of the rest of the inhabitants, because many of those Colombians and Peruvians have stayed to live in the community. “The population is growing; there are foreigners who come to live here, and they stay with the Tikunas,” says Leonel Ayde, the deputy mayor of the community.

The area’s illicit coca eradication took the same route as it did in the rest of the Amazonian Trapeze, since after the Corah Special Project, the reseeding of coca plants escalated and alternative crops failed. “Around here, the majority of the people are dedicated to that because there is no alternative,” says Ayde, referring to the indigenous community members. “We plant coca to survive, because if we waited for the cocoa, how long would it take?”

Mongabay Latam requested an interview with the National Police of Peru to discuss how they aim to control violence and illegal activity along the border, but there was no response before the time of this article’s publication. 

According to Tom Bewick, the director of the Rainforest Foundation’s Peru program, the forest monitors who live in the area are vulnerable because of the work they do to conserve the forests. The program has equipped 36 indigenous communities in Loreto —including Buen Jardín— with technology. 

“The important thing for us is that the government takes action to protect the indigenous environmental advocates who put themselves on the front lines to protect the forests,” says Bewick. 

Bewick explained that, because the work that they do clashes with the interests of those who carry out illegal acts in the area, the forest monitors are seen as a danger. For this reason, he emphasized that it is necessary to keep a record of the threats and gather more evidence so that the information can be handed over to the authorities. “I believe that they’re going to receive more threats because they are working to take care of, and to conserve, their territory,” he concluded.

“We kill snitches”

Every three days, Isaac Witancor and Leidi Valentín patrol their territory, guided by deforestation alerts they receive on their cell phones. They live in the Tikuna community of Nueva Galilea, and they face an enormous challenge: the conservation of about 2,787 hectares of forest.

Between 2001 and 2017, according to the Rainforest Foundation, the community lost more than 682 hectares of forest at the hands of invaders who came to clear the jungle.

Witancor recalls that six months ago, while patrolling the area, he came across a group of Colombians cutting down trees in Nueva Galilea. “They were knocking down trees and making a farm with cocoa and plantains, and above all, it’s purely illicit,” said the 23-year-old. He claims that 10 women and men loiter around the area all the time.

“They come and set up here, put together a camp, and work. We are going to warn them, so that they don’t touch the mountain again, and we’ll do that so that there are no more invasions,” he says.

Valentín, the only female monitor in the community, also regrets the loss of forest. Above all, it’s because she has seen birds, collared peccaries, white-lipped peccaries, and tapirs abandon the community. Recently, her only chance to hear the animals’ calls has been when she goes on patrol in the mountains.

Like Witancor, Valentín has also noticed illegal crops in her area.

“What is it that they are planting?”

“What they’re planting is coca.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“We are going to that spot, but they aren’t there; they are far away from the farm. Right now, there are rumors that we give information, and they threaten us. My co-workers did tell them that they are ‘sapos’ —snitches or tattletales— and something can happen to us at any time.”

Being a forest monitor in an area gripped by drug trafficking can make a person vulnerable, but 19-year-old Valentín, who is obsessed with the protection of Nueva Galilea’s forests, isn’t daunted by the risks.

Neither is Darwin Isuiza, the oldest of all of Nueva Galilea’s forest monitors. He is conscious of the dangers that they all face during patrols. 

“There is a difficulty that I am analyzing: sometimes they say that someone is a ‘snitch’ — you’re a snitch because you use GPS, because we can spread the word. That is what they’re telling me,” says Isuiza, who is considering abandoning his work as a monitor. “They can do something to me there.” 

The inhabitants of the Tikuna community of Nueva Galilea are inevitably moving into a gray area. Even though they have clear desires to conserve their forests and live in a legal economy, they have not yet found a stable market for the cocoa they produce. There is nowhere to take the cocoa and no one to buy it. A large part of it usually ends up rotting because, according to them, the government only helps them manage their crops in the first place.

Vistas de la comunidad de Bellavista de Callarú registradas con dificultad porque existe resistencia de parte de los habitantes cuando ven personas fotografiando. Foto: Vanessa Romo.

This forces them, according to the community’s authorities, to work as coca leaf harvesters at least two times per month. In an apparent paradox, they later invest part of the money they earn in their own cocoa crops.

When Mongabay Latam asked Artemio, the semi-anonymous resident of Nueva Galilea, about his cocoa crops, he said “We feel that we are in a crisis.” He is tired of the government helping the community members to simply take care of their cocoa and providing fertilizer, but not providing them with any help to survive.

That is the irony of the community’s life: to maintain their cocoa crops, they end up relying on coca.

Although Nueva Galilea makes an effort to keep invaders and illegal crops from entering their territory, in the last few years, many community members have felt as though they are losing the battle and, in effect, risking their lives.

Edinson Ney is the lieutenant governor of the community. He is Colombian, and arrived over 10 years ago after marrying a Tikuna woman from Nueva Galilea. During his time in the community, he says that he has seen everything from the eradication of crops to the rise in drug trafficking.

Today, he tells of how difficult it is to confront those who invade the forests.

“They are people with money who arrived two or three years ago and have seized power here. Today, you can go and tell them something, and they respond: ‘We kill snitches.’ I can’t bring myself to go there; I don’t feel like going,” says Ney. According to him, the situation gets more complicated every day. A few days before his interview with Mongabay Latam —he says— they killed someone in the mountains.

“Last week there was a death there, in Nueva Galilea, by Colombians. The person killed was native, from Bellavista,” says Ney. 

The violence has crept into the forests, where activists are now afraid to patrol. Many would like to remove themselves from the situation, but they are obligated to continue in order to survive.

“When someone goes, they go for an entire week. And when we want, we go with our spouse, with the kids, with everything — because you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner there. And when there is no food here, there is food there. I took my kids and put them in the boat, and even the dogs eat there,” says Ney. He says that for each 32-pound unit of coca leaves, they are paid less than $1. An 11-year-old child can earn about $8 per day, and adults can earn between about $16 and $31 per day.

Ney let a few seconds pass, looked the Mongabay Latam team in the eyes, and added: “There is nothing else that earns us money here. Think about it, seriously: if it weren’t for coca, all the houses in this area would disappear. If there weren’t coca, there wouldn’t be anything. The government here doesn’t give anything.”

The forgotten people on the border

Sara, a Tikuna woman using a false name for security reasons, clearly remembers the day when the eradication campaign came to Cushillococha. It was 7:00 a.m., and the sound of the loudspeaker echoed through the area. Its message was clear and direct: the armed forces have arrived, and they need to be faced.

“The whole community rose up; there were 300 people. Children, teens, adults, elders — everyone. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I grabbed my baby and arrived. The young people started to have a confrontation with the police. The Corah people arrived behind them. There were not many people injured, but there were lots of confrontations, fights, and arguments. We told them that it is not fair to do these things to us, and that we live from that,” says Sara, who vividly remembers the look of desperation on the people’s faces.

Sara, like the majority of Tikuna people from Cushillococha, feared the beginning of the crisis. “Why do they do this to us if we are the most forgotten community of them all?” she wondered.

She remembers that DEVIDA (a government institution in charge of national anti-drug strategies) and PEDICP (a project by the Ministry of Agriculture that works on the development of the Putumayo River basin) arrived one year later.

Both institutions, according to those interviewed, proposed the same projects to all the communities in the area: cocoa or yuca crops, the latter to produce “fariña,” a type of flour made from small grains. Most people remember the intervention in the same way:  the arrival of the promoters to the communities, the trainings, the large amounts of fertilizer left for the communities, and the absence of food.

“What happened with DEVIDA is that they brought enough material to work with: fertilizers, water pumps, and implementation,” explains the lieutenant governor of Nueva Galilea. “What they did not imagine —the communities— is that food did not arrive. Everyone was informed that there was no food to work with. Then in that moment, everyone went into crisis mode.” 

According to Pablo García, from Buen Jardín, the poverty in the districts along the border is immense. He survives by selling his plantains, yuca, and cocoa, which he has learned to process traditionally. He grinds the cocoa by hand, makes small chocolate balls, and sells them in Tabatinga. Today, he has about three hectares of cocoa in production, but he recognizes that it is not sufficient.

“From money comes more money, but if you have no money, how will you make money? We live all our lives in this situation that we are in, and we want to make progress, but we have no one to support us. We make a farm, we do everything, but… ‘the business?’ is the question everyone asks.

Mongabay Latam requested an interview with DEVIDA about the intervention and about how the organization plans to meet the needs of the indigenous communities in the districts of Ramón Castilla and Yavarí. At the time of publication of this article, there was no response.

We were, however, able to talk with General Víctor Rucoba, the director of the Corah Special Project (which depends heavily on the Ministry of the Interior of Peru). When asked about future eradications in the area, he answered that there will be no interventions in the area this year, despite the reseeding described in the UNODC’s latest report.

“We do not have the operative capacity, nor the economic capacity, to be able to enter all the places that have coca plants,” says Rucoba. Regarding the work coordinated with DEVIDA, he indicated that his project should enter with them, just after the eradication, but there are not sufficient resources. According to him, DEVIDA does not have enough resources to have “the operative capacity to follow us. It is more difficult.”

The official website of DEVIDA, however, indicates that their strategy has made progress in at least 15 indigenous communities in Bajo Amazonas. They have announced the development of fariña production chains, community development, leadership training, capacity strengthening, technical advice, and more. The report mentioned the three indigenous communities that were highlighted in this article. However, community members have barely mentioned any improvements, nor were improvements evident when Mongabay Latam visited the area.

“There are people who are dedicated to planting cocoa and making their yuca, but nothing comes of it,” mentions Sara. She has a brother who completely dedicated himself to cocoa after the eradication. He has about three hectares of cocoa, but “he has done it for fun. What he got from it rotted, because DEVIDA will not buy it. Now, he has begun to plant coca within the past year,” says Sara.

Lorenzo Vallejos, the head of environmental matters for Peru and Ecuador at UNODC, says that planning is the basis for a successful alternative development, and that investigations are the best tool to use. “One real way to pull back the coca-growing activity is to know what types of products or services can be competitive for migrating from the coca-growing economy to a legal economy, through the use of ground aptitude studies or tools like the ZEE (Ecological and Economic Zoning), and even with business plans,” says Vallejos.

Only if the government offers viable and sustainable solutions, he adds, will the communities think of leaving behind coca. “They know that under a legal structure, they will not be worried that the authorities will eradicate their crops, making them lose money.”

In Buen Jardín de Callarú, Nueva Galilea, and other Tikuna indigenous communities, the neglect is seen in the details: nonexistent medical clinics and or clinics without enough medicine, schools with three teachers in one room who teach five different grades, basic needs that go unmet, the dependence on an illicit business to survive poverty, a lack of confidence in the authorities, drug trafficking, and many lives hanging by a thread. With everything seemingly against them, without seeing a close opportunity, and with threats coming from all directions, the group of forest monitors insists on conserving the forest that constantly faces the sound of chainsaws in an attempt to replace it with fields of coca.

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