Peru Forestry Law Triggers Violent Protests

by Mary Powers

LIMA, Peru, July 1, 2002 (ENS) - A new forestry law that changes the way logging concessions for Peru's tropical rainforests are granted is facing violent opposition by a small group of loggers who environmental groups say represent big logging interests responsible for decades of depredation in the lush Amazon rainforest.

One person was killed, 20 others were injured and up to 50 demonstrators were detained in more than a week of violent protests in the southeastern jungle city of Puerto Maldonado, officials in the city said.

Protesters last week set fire to four offices linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, including the National Institute of Natural Resources (Inrena), the body charged with organizing bidding for the logging concessions under the new law.

The offices of Pro Naturaleza, a nongovernmental environmental organization that has provided technical advice to small loggers and native communities to help them participate in the bidding for concessions, was also torched as were some 20 other private businesses.

Also burned were some 10,000 feet of illegally cut mahogany and other highly valued lumber seized by Inrena officials in recent operations, proceeds from which was to be used for a fund for technical assistance for concession holders.

At the heart of the protests is the forestry law that eliminates concessions of 1,000 hectares or less, as allowed under the previous law in effect since the early 1970s.

Although the law was actually passed by Congress in 2000, it is only now being implemented because of pressure by some logging interests. As a result of the opposition and the complex process of implementing the law, a government sponsored dialogue has been taking place for the last two years.

The protests occurred as the June 30 expiration date for the concessions held under the old law neared. A high level delegation was due to travel to Puerto Maldonado, capital of Madre de Dios department (state), today to try to resolve the demands of loggers opposed to the concessions process.

On the eve of the meeting, members of the special operations division of the National Police entered the offices of the one of the loggers associations and detained some 50 protesters.

Pro Naturaleza identified Rafael Rios Lopez as perpetrator of the attack on its offices in Puerto Maldonado.

"Rios Lopez has close links to a small sector of large logging enterprises whose interests have been seriously affected by the massive participation of small, medium sized and large logging entities in the bidding for forestry concessions that took place recently in Madre de Dios," said a statement by Pro Naturaleza released last week.

"This model represents an alternative to the irrational use of Peruvian forests made up until now and has been well received by the vast majority of small and medium sized loggers of the department," it added. "The reason for the attack on our name and the offices of Pro Naturaleza has to do with our firm support for application of the Forestry Law."

Wilfredo Ojeda, president of the National Forestry Chamber in the Peruvian Parliament, said the law eliminates the small contracts but encourages individual loggers to form companies that could be eligible to receive loans and technical assistance. Those who have not formed a legally registered firm will no longer be able to extract lumber.

In the Madre de Dios bidding, some 50 firms made up of 10 to 15 shareholders each won concessions for about one million hectares of forest, Inrena said.

Under the old law, the concessions of up to 1,000 hectares allowed the big logging companies to break up their holdings and sidestep requirements imposed for holding larger concessions, Ojeda said. The legislation also spurred informality since the smaller concessions were often registered in the names of their employees.

"This is the most modern legislation in terms of tropical forests that exists," said Michi Torres, head of policy making for Pro Naturaleza, said of the new law. "It represents a leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century."

Besides Madre de Dios, bidding for the logging concessions has taken place in northeastern Ucayali department and is due to take place soon in the vast Amazon department of Loreto.

In addition to eliminating small contracts, the law extends the term of the forestry concessions to 40 years and requires concession holders to plant new trees. It also assigns a series of functions previously held by Inrena to a number of different institutions including Osinfor, a forestry supervisory agency, which will assure that the terms of the concessions are being met.

Companies will be required to take an inventory in the first year of the concessions and will receive certification from Osinfor every five years.

The law also foresees a degree of supervision by the concession holders themselves since it will be in their interest to see illegal logging punished.

Another important aspect of the law is that it creates areas of Permanent Forests of Production for "controlled intensive use." Under the old law, some 43 million hectares were available for extraction.

"We have returned some 20 million hectares of forest for conservation," said Ojeda, one of the architects of the law which took 12 years to win approval. "The question is Who is going to guard these forests?"

He called on international environmentalists to cooperate in this effort.

The biggest threat to the further loss of forestry resources in Peru is the conversion of forests to agricultural land, Ojeda said.

Of the 250,000 to 300,000 hectares of forestry resources lost in Peru every year, only four percent goes to the lumber industry. Another 18 percent is used as wood for fuel, while 78 percent is burned by farmers converting forests to agricultural land.

Ojeda said, "This is all the more reason why the forests being turned over for conservation as a result of this law need to be patrolled."


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