This land is ours, but secretly it’s not really

San Martin region Peru

I have just returned from visiting one of Tearfund’s Partners, Paz y Esperanza in Peru and was struck by of a particular case of land grabbing. It graphically highlights the unresolved conflicts between social, environmental and economic priorities, compounded in this case due to secrecy and lack of participation.

Brief chronology of events

Indigenous Shawi communities have been living in the district of Papaplaya, San Martin Region in the Peruvian Amazon for generations, using the land for fishing and hunting and subsistence farming.

In 2006 Korean company ECOAMERICA asked PETT (the government body responsible for land titles) to inspect 70,000 hectares (about 70,000 football pitches) of supposedly “free land” land with the aim of developing it for agricultural exports. The initial technical report concluded that no one was living there, even though there are three indigenous communities as well as other populations and a proposed area of natural protection.

However, there was no formal response given to the company nor did the state give them any rights to ownership or usage.

Three years later, still having heard nothing, ECOAMERICA applied to a local judge in Yurimaguas (the provincial capital) under a process that is known as “positive administrative silence”. This means that if a person or organisation has gone through all of the necessary channels but doesn’t receive any answer from the state in a suitable timeframe, they can claim what they asked for in the courts.

This way the company gained legal ownership of the land in May 2010. The communities in question still knew nothing. Not only had everything been done in secret without them being informed, but their very existence hadn’t even been acknowledged or recognised.

Indigenous Shawi leaders

Only a few months later did they find out about this process and immediately appealed the decision before a higher regional court in Tarapoto. They won but the case has been appealed by the company to a national tribunal.

How could this happen?

Politically, indigenous rights have not been a priority concern of the state and have often been seen as a threat to wider plans for economic development of the Amazon based on oil, gas, forestry and agricultural exports. A recently passed Consultation Law for indigenous peoples met fierce opposition and has taken ten years to come to the statute books.

Practically, the land registry department is woefully underfunded and there are many cases of land titles being granted without officials visiting the area in question and without including the community or local populations in the process, leaving room for short-cuts and potential corruption.

On top of these challenges, different government departments have developed isolated and often conflicting policies and processes. How else could the regional government recognise three different rights to agricultural development, indigenous territories and an area of natural protection for the same piece of land?

What can be done?

The issues are complex and so are the solutions. But as a minimum three priority actions are needed:

–         adequate resourcing for registration of indigenous lands

–         consultation with indigenous groups over the uses of their lands, particularly in natural resource extraction

–         integrated development policies that seek ways of harmonising economic, environmental and social priorities

If these basic steps don’t happen, there could be many more cases similar to ECOAMERICA, which will not only threaten social and environmental rights, but will also undermine the security of any long-term investments.


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