In Peru, an Indigenous Group Fights to Protect Land from Drug Traffickers and Deforestation

The Santa Martha territory of Peru is experiencing unprecedented deforestation as drug traffickers and land grabbers encroach. Owned by the Indigenous Cacataibo community, a majority of this 14,485-hectare territory had been officially preserved as forestland. But traffickers have been illegally occupying and logging land for coca plantations and airstrips in recent years, Mongabay reported.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland has documented the extensive deforestation in and around the Santa Martha territory, a region of the biodiverse Amazon rainforest. In the first nine months of 2020, more than 2,500 deforestation alerts were issued in Santa Martha.

Experts say the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the land grab, as drug traffickers and impoverished migrants from Codo del Pozuzo and Huanuco settle in and around Santa Martha. Not only has the global demand for cocaine increased since the lockdown, but the pandemic has also forced many families to seek a new and immediate source of income. The pandemic has similarly resulted in a slowdown in government coca eradication programs. “25,000 hectares of coca are usually eradicated annually in Peru,” Jaime Antezana, an expert in public security and drug trafficking, told Mongabay. “[In 2020] the figure had not even reached 2,000 [by November].”

Members of the community say they are regularly intimidated and threatened by the narco-trafficking mafias. Despite the murders of several outspoken community leaders, the Peruvian government has provided only one day of police protection for the Cacataibo. The Native Federation of Cacataibo Communities (FENACOCA) continues to advocate for protection and land deeds for their territories.

Santa Martha is vulnerable to land invasions, since the south is not bordered by another Indigenous territory and the north is occupied by the native Unipacuyacu community, which has struggled to obtain a title deed from the Peruvian government for the last decade.

—Genevieve Tarino