The indigenous community of Tres Islas in southeastern Peru seems to have it all—good fishing; a vast forest of timber, Brazil nut, palm and other trees; and natural beauty any ecotourist would pay to enjoy.
But the villagers have learned that having communal land rights does not guarantee the enjoyment of all these rights.
“Our community received its land title more than 22 years ago through the efforts of our parents and grandparents,” said Sergio Perea, president of Tres Islas, one of the communities included in a global forest-tenure study conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “We thought having this title would give us the right to all the resources on our land.”
But this isn’t the case. Possessing a land title doesn’t guarantee the rural villagers in Tres Islas’ tenure security or improved livelihoods .
In this region, the forests are considered state property, and communities must obtain permits to use timber and non-timber resources. That is often a difficult, time-consuming process that requires technical expertise and payment of fees that communities cannot afford.
What’s more, the community’s current land title does not cover the entire area that the villagers claim as their territory. This has led to conflicts with people who hold timber rights or other concessions on land that the community considers its own.
Even on their titled land, villagers must have a government permit to harvest timber. They also face conflicts with outsiders who hold mining concessions that overlap with their land, as well as with miners and loggers who operate on their land illegally.
But the villagers of Tres Islas have found innovative ways to organize and obtain the assistance they need to find solutions.
“Because of the challenges they faced, they had to organize quickly,” said Iliana Monterroso, a post-doctoral fellow at CIFOR, who leads the Peru part of the comparative study, which also includes Uganda and Indonesia. “They also developed new skills, as they had to engage with the government and with non-governmental organizations, and the courts. Some of the lessons from their experience can be useful to communities elsewhere that find themselves in similar situations.”
Under Peruvian law, a title gives indigenous communities land rights, but resources such as forests remain the property of the state. While indigenous communities can receive permits to harvest timber, they must file annual operating plans.
Most communities lack the expertise to develop such plans, so they hire outside forestry experts. The high cost of preparing the plan can exceed theexpected revenue from timber sales.
On public lands, the government grants concessions to private individuals or companies for a specified time. These concessions may be for extractive activities, such as timber or mining, or for Brazil nut harvesting, reforestation, conservation or ecotourism.
For decades in Madre de Dios, the region where Tres Islas is located, these concessions were handled by different ministries, which did not coordinate with one another. As a result, today there are many overlapping claims.
On a single piece of land, different concession holders may have rights for timber, Brazil nut harvesting, tourism, farming and mining. Sometimes, outsiders’ claims overlap indigenous communities, even though the communities possess the title.
To further complicate matters, some concessions, such as oil and gas and large-scale mining, are controlled by the national government, while regional governments manage others.
Although the residents of Tres Islas gained title to their land more than two decades ago, the entire community falls within two oil and gas leases. By law, the Peruvian government must hold a prior consultation with indigenous communities about any development project that would affect their communal rights.
After some internal conflict, the community voted in January 2015 not to participate in any prior consultation about exploration in the oil and gas leases. That effectively cut off oil and gas development in the area for the moment, although the issue is likely to come up again.
The battle against mining was longer and more complicated. Madre de Dios has a long history of small- and medium-scale placer gold mining, much of it unregulated. Several government-granted concessions overlapped Tres Islas, while other miners operated illegally within the community’s boundaries.
With the mining camps came problems of illegal logging, commerce of contraband gasoline for motors, and trafficking of women for prostitution, according to community leaders.
In 2010, the community decided to retake control of its lands by limiting access by outsiders. Transportation workers who provided services to illegal miners sued them and won. The community then took the case to Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal, which issued a landmark ruling in 2012 upholding the community’s autonomy and its right to control access to its territory.
Villagers in Tres Islas are now preparing for a future that they hope will be more sustainable. With the help of non-profit organizations, they developed a timber management plan, which complies with regulations that require them to have an annual operating plan and keep meticulous records. They also have plans for harvesting Brazil nuts and other non-timber forest products, and they are launching a community-based tourism enterprise.
Each activity is coordinated by a committee, and the members of the committees pay a portion of their earnings into a fund that is used to benefit the entire community.
“The community needed to organize internally in the short term to handle its legal problem, so it established a committee to work with the lawyers,” said Monterroso. “Then they began to realize that they needed to organize other groups for other important activities, such as managing non-timber forest products, like Brazil nuts.”
At the beginning of each year, community members gather the cannonball-shaped Brazil nut pods that fall from huge trees (Bertholletia excelsa). They skillfully split the pods open and spread the Brazil nuts out to dry. In the past, they sold the nuts to intermediaries, often at unfavorable prices.
With outside support, Tres Islas has now acquired equipment for drying and processing Brazil nuts so the community can increase its income. Members of the community’s Brazil nut committee are already experimenting with new products, such as Brazil nut sweets.
Plans are also under way to process palm fruit, although the plant has not yet been equipped. An ecotourism committee is also developing plans to attract visitors. With two of Peru’s major nature tourism attractions, Manu National Park and the Tambopata National Reserve, Madre de Dios is a magnet for tourism.
"[Rural communities] are facing three main problems: land grabbing and competing land uses; lack of support to defend their rights and fully benefit from the forest resources; and limited capacity, in terms of capital, to make their resources more profitable."
Although the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling means the community’s land rights are more secure, the villagers still face challenges in bringing their plans to fruition.
They are awaiting installation of electricity for the Brazil nut processing plant. Financing the preparation of annual operating plans for timber management will also be a challenge, said Perea. And in the tourism business, they will be competing with established agencies.
They are not alone: the challenges of Tres Islas are common to all three countries that comprise CIFOR’s global comparative study on forest tenure reform according to preliminary findings.
“In all these countries, they are facing three main problems: land grabbing and competing land uses; lack of support to defend their rights and fully benefit from the forest resources; and limited capacity, in terms of capital, to make their resources more profitable,” said Mani Ram Banjade, a post-doctoral fellow at CIFOR involved with this project.
Baruani Mshale, who leads the study in Uganda, shares a similar view. “In the case of Uganda, we are also finding that providing a certificate or a title is absolutely essential, but not an end in itself. There is a lot more that needs to be done, and it goes beyond the forest. It goes beyond the title deed. It is a matter of understanding what else is needed by the forestry communities.”
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