Ecuadorians denounce foreign loggers in Yasuni national park

David Hill: Interview with anthropologist Jos Proao on perils to indigenous peoples in isolation were imposed by timber trade

Three NGOs in Ecuador marked the UNs World Environment Day last week by releasing a report alleging that illegal loggers are operating in the famous Yasun National Park in the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The loggers are traversing the border from Peru and mainly extracting cedar from provinces used by indigenous peoples living in isolation, according to the NGOs.

The report focuses on a reconnaissance trip constructed in May which documented illegal logging in the park, as well as massive commercial hunting and the abandonment of premises supposedly run by the Environment Ministry and military. The trip was induced, the report states, after several government visits to the region in recent years which confirmed that illegal loggers and hunters were operating, but led to virtually no action being taken to stop them. On one occasion illegal timber was confiscated, but it was recovered by Peruvian loggers, it is claimed, in a possible violent assault against[ an Ecuadorian] military post.

The report, written by the Fundacin Alejandro Labaka, Accin Ecolgica and Land is Life, acknowledges that illegal logging has been a problem for years in Yasun, but states that now it is intensifying – and made worse by oil operations to the north. The fears are numerous: violent raids, retaliation killings, kidnappings, fatal epidemics, dependency. Here Land is Lifes Jos Proao, during a visit to Peru, tells the Guardian what is going on 😛 TAGEND

DH: Are you able to estimate the number of loggers or logging camps in Yasun?

JP: Weve situated around 20 places where loggers are currently operating. I cant say to you the exact number of camps as such. Some are very big – where they keep their provisions, their petrol, their equipment – whereas others are smaller, more improvised, in the areas where they are cutting cedar.

Map demonstrating points where the reconnaissance journey found evidence of logging, marked by red starrings, and hunting, marked by crossings. The black line is the Ecuador-Peru border, with Ecuador to the west and Peru to the east. Photograph: Fundacin Alejandro Labaka, Accin Ecolgica, Land is Life

DH: Where in the park?

JP: In the far east right on the border with Peru. The exact locations are the River Nashio, which births in Ecuador and traverses into Peru and fulfils the River Napo, as well as the River Lobo, and – this is what has surprised us the most – the River Curaray. This is a very wide river, easy to navigate. There used to be at least three[ Ecuadorian] military post there, and among their responsibilities was keeping watch on the river. What astounded us is that the loggers have come upriver and established their camps along the banks.

DH: A basic question, but I must ask it. Is logging prohibited in national park in Ecuador?

JP: Definitely. And even more so in the Tagaeri Taromenane Intangible Zone[ TTIZ, a 758,000 hectare area inside the park and Waroani territory where the loggers are reported to be operating ]. . . This has a very special category of protection. Not merely is it protected like all national parks, but also by two articles in the Constitution . . .[ one of which ], Article 57, states that all territories occupied by indigenous peoples in isolation should be intangible.[ The TTIZ] was established in 1999, but this has given rise to a situation that, from my perspective, is very regard. It is that the idea of protecting indigenous peoples in isolation has always been seen from an environmental point of view. Thats to tell: If were protecting the national park, then instantly, automatically, were protecting the indigenous peoples in isolation. Thats a serious fault. They have human rights guaranteed in the Constitution and now internationally. Theyre not part of the parks fauna.

DH: Another basic question, but I must also ask it. How do you know the loggers are there? Whats the evidence?

JP: The proof dates from 2015 when during overflights we saw-

DH: Have you participated in the overflights?

JP: Yes, Ive been on various overflights. Weve find[ the loggers ]. We have photos and GPS coordinates. We began to see theyre opening up tracks, very close to the border. Later, the authorities stimulated various visits to the region and confirmed that it is illegal logging.

DH: Who are the loggers?

JP: Theyre coming upriver from Peru. If you were to arrive at the border, youd see that the Peruvian side including with regard to has been seriously impacted by logging. Seriously impacted . . . but merely on the Peruvian side, where there are various valuable species. On the Ecuadorian side the focus has been on cedar – two types of cedar.

DH: That was my next question: the species theyre after. Cedar above all?

JP: On the Ecuadorian side, cedar including with regard to. Two types. But theyre also doing a lot of hunting. Hunting is banned in[ the TTIZ] too. Theyre even hunting various threatened species, like armadillos. You can see the remains. Tortoises. And theyve constructed various stations to smoke the meat.

The remains of a cedar tree, 50 metres from the River Curaray, procured during the course of its reconnaissance trip. Photograph: Agencia Tegantai

DH: The people doing the hunting . . . Same as the loggers, or others?

JP: They work together. We dont know if there are teams specifically dedicated to hunting and others dedicated to logging, or if theyre the same. We dont have those details yet.

DH: And the smoked meat . . . That also leaves for Peru?

JP: Definitely. And it seems that, given the size of the stations theyve built to do the smoking, its not a subsistence activity. Thats to tell, theyre not hunting to feed themselves. It appears that this is commercial. Members of the indigenous communities[ in the region] say, Well, this is what you do if you want to sell it. Weve procured spent cartridges and rubbish theyve left behind, and theyre all products of Peruvian origin.

One of the stations built to smoke meat received during the course of its reconnaissance journey. Photo: Edu Leon

DH: A group of you lately entered the region, right?

JP: We began to see[ evidence of the logging] in 2015. Immediately we informed the authorities concerned. Subsequently, representatives from the[ indigenous] communities along the Curaray spoke with researchers like myself as well as the authorities – those in charge of protecting the area, the park guards – and told them that there are foreigners logging in the park. The reply by the government was inefficient or ineffective.

DH: What has it done?

JP: It is suggested that theyve entered the region three or four times and corroborated what is happening – so the governmental forces knows that outsiders are in territories used by indigenous peoples in isolation . . . We spoke to others living in the region, including the Waoranis in the[ TTIZ ], and it was decided, together, to make a reconnaissance trip-up. Accin Ecolgica, Land is Life and the Fundacin Alejandro Labaka joined forces. It was concurred we would enter via the River Shiripuno . . . Groups from different indigenous nations participated too.

DH: In the trip-up?

JP: Yes. Waoranis, Kichwas from Sarayacu, Zaparas, Kichwas from the region, and settlers too . . . We dont know if the Taromenanes[ one of the indigenous groups in isolation] will be answered like they have in the past – with assaults, violence – to defend their territories. Rather than attack the loggers, they might attack local people, particularly if they take part[ in the logging ], as has happened in the past. Thats very possible. Due to how abandoned the region is. The state has almost no presence there. There are no economic opportunities for local people . . .[ and so] the only economic opportunity right now in the Curaray region is illegal logging. Were concerned that the communities could become involved.

DH: Do you think its possible some people[ of the states of the region] are working for the loggers coming from Peru? Theyre the ones who know the forest best. Or is there no proof?

JP: There isnt any evidence for that yet, but thats what happened in the past . . . Something that we do know is that the military know the loggers and what theyre doing, but havent taken the necessary measures in response. I dont know if this is because of a lack of control, or absence of superiors. The military is abandoned too. There are just two or three posts protecting an enormous border. And the loggers are dedicating the military food and drink. Theres a kind of co-existence.

DH: You mentioned the Taromenanes earlier. Whats the main danger for them? What is your main concern about loggers invading this part of the park?

JP: Years ago, in the early 2000 s, numerous loggers installed themselves at the other aim of the park, near the petroleum roads, and there were various violent encounters. Loggers were speared by the Taromenanes – we dont know exactly what violence the loggers might have done to them. In 2003 it wasnt loggers directly, but they were involved in provoking the Waoranis to assault the Taromenanes, and about 20 were killed. Today we know that there are indigenous peoples in isolation less than 20 kms from where the loggers are. In recent years the Taromenanes have shown theyre capable of assaulting more than 40 kms away from their homes and gardens . . . I imagine the Taromenanes are very concerned[ about the loggers ], particularly because of the noise the chainsaws make and the pressure on resources. The hunting is intensive and commercial.[ And these are] the resources the Taromenanes depend on.

DH: Are the Taromenanes the only group in isolation in this part of the park or are there others? The Tagaeris?

JP: I cant tell you if the group[ closest to the border] is currently directly connected to the Waoranis or if its a group that separated from them many years ago . . . They could be[ Taromenanes ]. Well have to keep on trying to identify who they are.

DH: So when youre talking about the possible impacts of loggers on indigenous peoples in isolation in this part of the park, there is both this[ unidentified] group near the border and the Taromenanes?

JP: Yes.

DH: And have you heard of any contact between them and the loggers?

JP: Not with the loggers, but yes with the communities along the Curaray.

DH: Lately?

JP: Weve been documenting the presence of isolated peoples[ in this region] for the last few years. The military have reports of naked people approaching their camps. There are testimonies across the entire Curaray basin.

DH: And theres another danger of contact: the Taromenanes and others are very vulnerable to diseases. Right?

JP: Definitely. Thats the biggest fear with the stuff left by the loggers. The rubbish. They leave clothes, shoes, plastic, food . . . These are all vectors of new cancers for the Taromenanes.

DH: Have you assured the wood coming down the River Curaray? How is it transported?

JP: Floating. With big barges. They come upriver from Peru. The tree trunks are tied to them. They dont put the trunks in the boats.

DH: What are you requesting from the government – and maybe from Perus government too?

JP: In political terms: that the intangibility of the[ TTIZ] and the human rights of the indigenous people in isolation and local communities are respected. In practical terms: that the logging and hunting stops. In order to do this, were preparing a formal complaint to the public prosecutors office . . .[ saying that] illegal loggers are operating at these coordinates and these are the rights being violated , not only because its a national park, but because of the people living there. There must be better control along the border. And it must be permanent control. Its no good going in once and removing and imprisoning the loggers, and then no one goes back in. And the protocols for protecting the Taromenanes must be respected. We cant think of sending in the military to remove the loggers. This is territory inhabited by indigenous peoples in isolation.[ We also believe there must be] more attention paid to the Waorani and Kichwa communities in the region. Other economic opportunities for them must be identified.

DH: What are the communities main concerns? What do they think about the loggers?

JP: There are several fears. The first is that the loggers are operating illegally and exploiting resources that the communities – both the Waoranis and Kichwas – consider within their territories. Second, theyre scared of the Taromenanes possible reaction. This is another request to the authorities: that the security of the communities is ensure.

DH: Are you going to make any requests to Perus government too?

JP: We havent considered that yet. We need more information. Wheres this timber being commercialised? How are they operating? It doesnt is felt that the people doing the logging are the owners of the wood. Theyre sub-contracted. The loggers themselves are mainly indigenous.

A Peruvian boat on the River Curaray in Ecuador, photographed during the reconnaissance trip.. Photograph: Edu Leon

DH: The loggers are indigenous Peruvians?

JP: Yes. But theyre very poor too. They have few economic alternatives and, in many cases, theyre effectively forced to do this kind of work. Were not trying to take to court – lets say – the most vulnerable people in the supply-chain. Thats why it would be good to understand how the business functions. Who provides the petrol? Who buys the meat? Who owns the barges? What kind of weapons do they have? . . . Were going to try and halting the wood coming out, but respectfully – not with some violent incursion by the military declaring war on the loggers. I dont think thats the right way to operate in indigenous territory. It has to be an exercise in which the communities participate fully . . . and about which they are consulted. It cant be only the military removing one or two loggers and establishing a post. That would further risk contact with the Taromenanes. It has to be well-thought-out and well-planned.

DH: Are you sure the loggers are Peruvian?

JP: Yes.

DH: Jos, thank you.

JP: Thank you.

Ecuadors Environment Ministry could not be reached for remark, but yesterday issued a statement saying that protecting indigenous peoples in isolation given priority for the government. According to the statement, the Environment Ministry has just signed a five year arrangements with two other ministries to develop an Action Plan.

Weve used to say part of our policy will be controlling the traffic of wildlife and timber in the Intangible Zone[ in the Yasun National Park ], tells Environment Minister Tarsicio Granizo in the statement. This[ agreement] is a continuation of state policy that the government has been implementing over the last few years.

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