SAN MARTIN, Peru (AP) — Rolando Zumba, a gentle 59-year-old, wept, though the moment he described took place many years ago. Nothing has been the same since that day, when a park ranger took away his hunting rifles. Now where there was once self-sufficiency, hunger has stalked his village.
Zumba’s story has its roots in the 2001 creation of Peru’s Cordillera Azul National Park, a stretch of Peruvian Amazon rainforest in the foothills of the Andes where clouds cling to the treetops and morning mists settle over powerful rivers. His story is linked to faraway oil giants Shell and TotalEnergies, who bought carbon credits from the park.
One day while hunting in the forest that is now within the park, Zumba said his rifles were seized by armed guards who worked for CIMA, the Spanish acronym for the non-profit set up to protect the national park. When the park was established, Kichwa tribe members like Zumba lost unfettered access to what an Associated Press investigation has found was almost certainly their ancestral land.
In 2013, Zumba's livelihood would then take another hit: a pestilence decimated his small cacao plantation and to this day he doesn't have the $1,500 necessary to replant. Meanwhile, just 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away, many millions of dollars in oil money began flowing into former tribal territory. Over the last eight years, the park’s management has arranged to sell some 28 million carbon credits, bringing in tens of millions of dollars, revenues that Kichwa say they have not benefited from.
“Look at the conditions we live in,” said Zumba’s neighbor Segundo Panduro, 77, chicks charging around his feet on the mud floor of his cabin. The authorities “just bring words,” he said. “You can’t live off words.”
It’s common now for major climate polluters to pay tropical countries to keep rainforests standing. The trees absorb carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow. In return the companies get carbon credits to ostensibly cancel out their emissions, helping them comply with climate commitments. But industry guidelines require carbon credit projects to have the consent of local communities, who are also supposed to benefit.
An International Labour Organization (ILO) convention Peru signed in 1994 also says that lands traditionally used for sustenance or customs by Indigenous people belong to them, and they must consent to economic activities and receive compensation.
The Peruvian government and CIMA argue consent wasn’t required here because the park was never Kichwa land, a contention local Indigenous people flatly reject. To evaluate Kichwa claims of ownership, an AP team traveled some 300 miles over muddy roads and by river boat to seven Kichwa villages on the park’s borders.
The investigation found evidence that the villages existed in their current locations outside what is now the park long before it was delineated, and that people lived by hunting and planting inside the park. In Puerto Franco, a faded sign announced the village and a date — August 1970. A document from 1996 shows a teacher was sent to Puerto Franco that year. At the border of the park, an elder recognized fragments of old pottery on the ground as the kind his grandparents used to make.
Several villages kept logs of community activities going back decades, windows into life in the area long before the park was created. A record of community meetings in 1991 in Callanayacu village, where Zumba lives, details concern over young troublemakers and a lost pig. An entry in the diaries of Chambira community described 1996 as the “year of 6,000 tourists.” Satellite images from before the park was created show rainforest clearings for all the villages in almost identical shapes as today.
In each village visited, people older than 40 easily shared memories of hunting and gathering food in what became the park in 2001.
As monsoon rains hammered down on the village of Mushuk Llacta, Peregrina Cenepo, 79, showed off the blowpipe she said her late husband used for hunting. Nowadays that requires a permit, and strict limits effectively mean gathering meat only for festivals. Just 300 hunting or fishing visits, Kichwa or non-Kichwa, are allowed during an average year.
In a voice that rang joyful at the memories, Cenepo, a mother of 14, described how when she was newly married, she collected palm fur for brooms in the lost forests, and curassow feathers to make fans. She and her husband would go on hunting trips for weeks at a time.
Many Kichwa interviewed retained detailed knowledge of the park’s geography, animals and medicinal plants they said are found only there. They described waterfalls, hot springs and ravines, and mountains shaped like a lion’s back or a razor.
Several said they resented the name “Lagoon of the Lost World,” which was given by outsiders to a lake long known to them by a different name. Some described spectacled bears, jaguars and pumas, virtually unknown here outside the park boundaries. Others recalled their elders planting orange, avocado and mango trees in their part of the forest.
FOREST OUT OF BOUNDS
All the Kichwa interviewed were adamant they had not been consulted about the formation of the park or what would come next, an arrangement to mint and sell carbon credits. The chief of Chambira village, Nixon Vasquez, said they initially thought the carbon project was a coal mine. In Spanish the word carbón means coal.
And in the insect-eaten records of Allima Sachayuc village, an entry from 2005, signed by a CIMA employee, recounted how a delegation visited to “let them know the history of the creation” of the park.
In response, Peru’s national parks authority said by email that two anthropologists helped establish the park, and a Kichwa community group was present at one meeting in the nearest city, Tarapoto, to discuss it in 2001, but no concerns were raised.
Gonzalo Varillas, executive director of CIMA, said by email that the park complied with national and international human rights law in its formation. There's no overlapping of rights between the park and the Kichwa villages, he said.
Varillas said concrete benefits have gone to six Kichwa communities. Sustainable enterprises were funded in four, while schools were improved in two. Kichwa from three villages were employed to monitor the park, Varillas said.
“The management of the park has worked with more than 130 communities around the park,” he said, “among which are Kichwa communities, all of which existed outside the park.”
Shell and TotalEnergies both have Indigenous policies which recognize the principle of informed consent.
A TotalEnergies spokesperson said by email there was “ongoing constructive dialogue” between the Kichwa and the Peruvian authorities. “TotalEnergies always strictly respects human rights, a core value of the company,” the spokesperson said.
EcoSphere+, which originally sold the carbon credits to Shell, said in a statement that communities have received improved sanitation, healthcare and a cacao harvest center as a result of the carbon credit income, with some 665 jobs being created.
By email, a Shell spokesperson said responsibility for the project lay with CIMA, but the Kichwa had benefitted through sustainable livelihood activities. The Cordillera Azul project was independently verified to ensure it delivered environmental and community benefits, they said.
Shell and EcoSphere+ would not elaborate on the number of jobs created nor say how many of the 29 Kichwa villages affected had benefited.
One person interviewed said her family had been evicted from their home, which was inside the park area at the time it came into being.
The park ranger “uprooted everything. The plantains, the cassava, everything,” said Maria Leona Pizango, adding her uncle was also evicted from his home within the park boundaries.
Quefer Mosquena Perez, a Kichwa and former worker for the local government who helped relocate Pizango, corroborated her account, correctly spelling the names of people from both households allegedly evicted.
Satvinder Juss, a professor of human rights law at King’s College London, reviewed summaries of interviews with Kichwas and evidence of their presence. He said by email that the Peruvian Government was in “fundamental violation” of the ILO Convention, as it was “clearly the case” that the Kichwa used the land for sustenance.
Claims the park doesn’t overlap with native communities are “in defiance of the facts on the ground,” he said, adding that he believed Peru also broke the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and should take urgent action to remedy the situation.
PROXIMITY TO THE PARK
Visiting the Kichwa villages near Cordillera Azul, the closer one gets to the park boundary, the more residents describe having relied on the forests - and the worse the poverty seems today.
In the village of Ricardo Palma, Flor de Maria Panaifo, a mother of 10 said, “In the old times, my husband would hunt animals and we would sell that to pay for our children’s education.”
Now they can’t afford to school their children.
In nearby Canayo, Luz Mercedes Mori switched between Spanish and Kichwa as she voiced despair over the same issue. But it was the plosive consonants of her own language that best gave shape to her anger.
“We live like dogs,” she said, explaining that poor nutrition had harmed her son’s vision.
In recent times, Kichwa people have been organizing among themselves and getting help from groups like the Forest Peoples Programme, a European-based organization that advocates for Indigenous land rights. Kichwa leaders have gone to court to find out how much money was raised by the carbon credits program. And at meetings with CIMA, they have demanded compensation or land restitution. But CIMA remains resolute, saying the park land never belonged to them.
Many Kichwa people interviewed rejected the idea that the carbon credits sold to energy companies have protected the park. They said they believed people were illegally cutting trees inside it.
Marisol García, a Kichwa activist, argues the forests still exist “because the Indigenous communities have always known how to take care of them.”
“Our ancestors invented solutions based on nature,” she said, explaining that they would clear a small patch of rainforest to grow crops before letting vegetation and trees reclaim it, in an ancient system of crop rotation.
Today, she said Kichwa carry out barefoot patrols in the forest to confront illegal ranchers and coca growers. Yet when they report illegal tree clearing, the authorities respond that it’s none of their business.
“Nobody thinks about defending the defenders of the forest,” she said.
Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.