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PERU: Native Groups Hemmed in by Coca Threat

Milagros Salazar

SATIPO, Peru, Oct 6 2008 (IPS) - Small farmers from Peru’s impoverished Andean highlands provinces of Ayacucho are moving into indigenous land in the country’s central jungle region to grow coca.

Coca field in Amazon jungle village. Credit: Courtesy of Central Asháninka del Río Ene.

Coca field in Amazon jungle village. Credit: Courtesy of Central Asháninka del Río Ene.

The growing numbers of people occupying land in the traditional territories of Amazon jungle communities are driving away members of the groups, who fear drug traffickers and guerrillas that operate as allies in the area.

The areas that are being encroached upon are along the Apurímac and Ene river valleys, a region known by the acronym VRAE, which comprises the provinces of Ayacucho, Cuzco and Apurímac in southern Peru.

Amidst this explosive mixture of poverty, drug mafias and remnants of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, one of the areas affected by the arrival of coca-growing farmers is the village of Shimpenshariato, perched in the remote hills along the Ene river.

The commissioner for peace and development in the central jungle region, Mario Jerí Kuriyama, told IPS that he had received a number of complaints from local indigenous people about outsiders moving onto their land aound Shimpenshariato.

“Many small farmers have come into the central jungle region in the last few years to plant coca because of the higher profit margins it offers. But local indigenous people are opposed to their arrival, as they don’t want strangers on their land,” said Jerí Kuriyama.

At a mid-July meeting of the communities of the Central Asháninka people of the Ene River, the ethnic group’s chiefs signed an agreement to protect their territory and oppose any encroachment by outsiders.

“The Asháninka people are opposed to the settlers, especially because they see them as having links to Sendero Luminoso, which killed their family members during the (1980-2000) armed conflict, and also because they associate them with drug traffickers. For them, these people will always be ‘invaders’,” anthropologist Oscar Espinosa, from Peru’s Catholic University, told IPS.

For these reasons, it is highly unlikely that local indigenous people would be interested in getting involved in illegal coca crops or the drug mafias operating in the area, he said.

Jerí Kuriyama reported the situation to the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the national plan for the eradication of illegal drug crops.

The commissioner for peace and development clarified, however, that the Interior Ministry cannot take action in the VRAE region, which is under the control of the Defence Ministry, that has suspended forced eradication efforts to concentrate on alternative development programmes and coordinate drug seizures with the local police.

The head of the armed forces joint chiefs of staff, Navy Admiral José Aste Daffós, told the press that since the VRAE region is currently the country’s biggest threat, due to the problems of poverty, drug trafficking and insurgents, it is best to win over the local population by means of economic alternatives and address their most pressing needs, before focusing on the eradication of coca crops.

In the VRAE, 51 percent of the population suffer from malnutrition and 60 percent have a monthly income of 155 dollars or less.

The leaders of CARE are considering the possibility of relocating indigenous families from areas affected by the settlers to other communities, because if the government decides to crack down on drug trafficking in the area, the indigenous villages where outsiders have moved in will be hit the hardest, said Jerí Kuriyama.

Shimpenshariato is home to 16 families, according to engineer Kilderd Rojas, a member of CARE’s technical team, who in July 2007 reached the tiny village after travelling an entire day, first by car and then by boat, from the city of Satipo, to help in the delimitation of communally-owned indigenous lands.

Along the way, he saw large coca plantations surrounded by fields of other crops, like cacao, as a front, near houses equipped with satellite dishes and other luxuries.

While Rojas was meeting with the members of CARE, around 50 settlers surrounded the place where the assembly was being held, demanding to know if his visit affected their interests.

“At least half of the community’s land has been invaded, and of that proportion, 30 percent is planted in coca and the rest in other crops,” Rojas told IPS.

When Jerí Kuriyama visited the village of Catungo Kempiri on the banks of the Ene river in September, he saw a settlement named Nueva Fortaleza where the newly arrived farmers were growing coca on 100 hectares of land.

“There are no police there, or army troops; it is hard for the authorities to reach that area,” he said. “For us, it’s going to be a very serious problem, because the authorities are not going to distinguish between who benefits from the illegal drug economy and who doesn’t.”

“Landing strips have been found near that area, in Ayacucho, which probably are used to haul out the processed coca,” he said.

The coca fields in the VRAE region account for 48 percent of the country’s production of coca leaves, which amounted to more than 56,000 tons in 2007, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In the last few years, by contrast with other parts of the country, coca cultivation has been spreading in that region. The government’s decision to suspend efforts at forced eradication at least partly explains why the area under coca cultivation grew from 14,170 to 16,019 hectares in the VRAE region between 2002 and 2007.

Cocaine output in the area also increased, from 83 to 94 tons in the same period.

Native groups in Peru’s rainforest are surrounded by unlawful activities. Illegal loggers are cutting down the forest and slashing roads through the jungle to remove the timber. And once they have deforested an area, they burn what’s left, and the settlers take advantage of the cleared land to plant coca and other crops, said Jerí Kuriyama.

Anti-drug expert Ricardo Soberón with the Transnational Institute said efforts to crack down on coca and drug production in Ayacucho have pushed coca growers deeper into the central jungle of the neighbouring province of Junín, where Shimpenshariato is located.

“While the authorities celebrate their ‘victories’ against coca and drug production in other valleys, like the Huallaga valley, they are not noticing how the pendulum is swinging towards the central jungle, where the drug trafficking routes, armed terrorist groups, new areas of coca cultivation – a series of factors that expose local indigenous people to the interests of the drug mafias – are now concentrated,” Soberón told IPS.

A similar phenomenon was seen from 2000 to 2002, when the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy was implemented in Colombia, leading to the dispersal of coca growers to around 20 different provinces in that country, said Soberón.

To defend local indigenous groups from the settlers, formal land titles are being issued to the indigenous communities and development programmes are being created to promote crop diversification, the political chief of the government’s VRAE Plan, Jorge Durand, told IPS.

“Crop eradication is a state policy, but in the VRAE region we are implementing a plan to convince people to stop growing coca and replace it with cacao, palm heart or sesame,” said Durand.

In the view of Espinosa, the anthropologist, in implementing its plan, the government should determine what kinds of crops are suitable for indigenous groups to plant on their land, and whether the plan would imply the cutting of new roads through the Amazon jungle.

“What the indigenous people want is to formalise their ownership of their land, and the construction of roads for them to get their products to market would mean the arrival of more settlers and drug traffickers,” said Espinosa.

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