The wounds of the Amazon jungle.
Credit: Rolly Valdivia/IPS
The Tangled Road of Peru's Forest Law
By Milagros Salazar
Some of the provisions of new regulations for protecting the forests of Peru and the rights of the indigenous communities of the Amazon have stirred up controversy.
LIMA, Mar 29 (Tierramérica).- Indigenous protests prompted a new legislative bill on forests and wildlife in Peru, the second most forested country in South America. Experts consulted by Tierramérica point to what the initiative has got right, but also what's wrong.
The bill proposes a land registry to identify the zones with forest resources, which would help prevent disputes related to different economic activities, according to the experts.
"This is an advance because decisions about what to do with the forests can't be taken if we don't know where they are," José Luis Capella, of the non-governmental Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, told Tierramérica. This gap in knowledge reveals a major problem, given that nearly 60 percent of Peruvian territory is suitable for forest.
However, Sandro Chávez, president of the Ecological Forum, warns that the initiative fails to establish a mechanism to ensure legal security for ancestral lands. "That must be a prior guarantee so that third parties do not impose their plans," he said.
The text, according to Chávez, does not clear up the doubts that the communities have expressed about the expansion of agriculture to provide inputs for biofuels or the mining and fossil fuel projects in the Peruvian Amazon region.
The number of petroleum lots approved in the area jumped from 30 in the year 2000 to 151 in 2006, covering 89 percent of the country's Amazon region with exploration projects, according to official data.
Chávez told Tierramérica that the incorporation of communal land ownership into the proposed law was an agreement between officials and indigenous groups as part of the dialogue initiated by the Alan García government following the deaths of more than 33 people, including Indians and police officers, in protests in the northern province of Bagua last June.
The government set up taskforces, including one dedicated to overturning legislative decree 1.090, which modified the old forestry law and left 60 percent of primary forest unprotected.
The former national forest director Gustavo Suárez de Freitas, who participated as a representative of the Agriculture Ministry in the dialogue, committed to incorporating the issue in the bill and is now a consultant to the technical secretariat that is elaborating the initiative.
Suárez de Freitas told Tierramérica that in Article 61 of the bill it is made clear that the "government will not submit a forest law about the lands of the communities, it is about forests."
In Peru, forests are only granted in concession for use, not property. The forests are considered part of the national wealth. Suárez de Freitas believes that creating a legal mechanism implies "a change."
The Ecological Forum responded that the indigenous peoples call for prior approval of a law on use rights that provides them with greater security over their lands, and regulation of territory and community ownership.
There are currently more than 1,200 native communities, but there are many more that have not been recognized.
In contrast, Capella noted that the initiative improves institutions by creating the Forest Service, a technical body under the Ministry of Agriculture, and encourages the participation of civil society and the private sector by upholding the creation of the National Forest Commission.
However, he admitted that it is one thing to have the law on paper, and yet another "to guarantee mechanisms that work." One example is the transfer of forest management powers to the regional governments, which are often not provided with the resources to complete that work.
Chávez, meanwhile, warned that the bill opens up some cracks in controlling the illegal exploitation of the forests and changes in land use.
He questions the exclusion of a proposal for stiffer requirements for those transporting forest products. As it stands, almost any documentation is acceptable.
He also criticizes the lack of a ban on forest products that are endangered or a system for tracking timber taken from the forest, which would help prove irregularities ranging from the logging to the export of the lumber.
The initiative states that the lands suitable for forest or under protection cannot be approved for agricultural purposes, but just a few lines further on, it refers to a provision of land classification for its "capacity of greater use." Indigenous groups want that overturned because it would allow changing land use for extractive industries or infrastructure, said Chávez, underscoring the contradiction.
The experts and NGOs will be able to send their comments on the bill up to Apr. 9. Afterwards, the Executive branch will approve a final version to be presented to Congress for a vote.
* IPS correspondent.