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Titling the Native Community of Saweto: a Challenge for Social Justice and Conservation in the Ucayali Borderlands

Pucallpa, March 2013:

Illegal logging, drug trafficking and invasions by neighboring Brazilians are the major problems affecting the native community of Saweto, located in the headwaters of the Tamaya River along the Peru – Brazil border.

Saweto, which is comprised of 33 families of the Ashéninka tribe, was formally recognized by the Peruvian government as a native community in 2003. The recognition was an important step in legitimizing the community and its chief, Edwin Chota’s, fight against the social and environmental problems caused by illegal activities on their ancestral lands.

Since 2003, Chota has filed numerous complaints about the illegal activities to Ucayali’s forestry officials, but with very little success. A decade later, loggers continue working with impunity in Saweto, as documented by a recent article in National Geographic magazine.

Illegal logging in Saweto, November 2012

Concerned about the impacts that illegal logging is having on the people and forests of Saweto and the entire Alto Tamaya region, in 2012 ,UAC and its sister organization, ProPurús, joined forces with Chota to help the community with conservation planning and securing title to its territory. Without title, the Ashéninka of Saweto are virtually powerless to protect their homelands, serve as barriers to deforestation in nearby protected areas, or resist damaging infrastructure initiatives, such as the proposed Pucallpa – Cruzeiro do Sul highway. 

 

As a first step, in April 2012, UAC / ProPurús signed a collaboration agreement with Ucayali’s titling agency (DRSAU) and the Borderlands Research Center at the University of Ucayali. The partnership has two primary objectives: 1) secure title for Saweto, and 2) develop a replicable, participatory titling process for Ucayali’s native communities. The process will be implemented by DRSAU in future titling projects and also help community leaders participate and monitor efforts to title their lands. Two University of Ucayali student-interns have focused their theses on developing parts of the titling process, thus making a key contribution to the project and gathering invaluable real-life conservation work experience in the process.

Construction of new boundary markers (Photo: DRSAU)

DRSAU’s technical teamjoined ProPurús for a month-long expedition to Saweto to conduct all the necessary fieldwork to support the titling proposal. This included an exhaustive socio-economic study, complete soils analysis and  demarcation of boundaries around the 80,000-hectare territory. Results were presented during a binational workshop focused on improving Ucayali’s titling process and advancing the case of Saweto. Participants included representatives of the Ucayali government, NGOs working in both Ucayali and neighboring Acre, Ashéninka leaders from Brazil, and representatives from the Acre regional government. At the workshop’s conclusion, all participants signed a document declaring the importance of titling Saweto and other Ashéninka indigenous lands on the Tamaya.

As of March 2013, all technical reports (socio-economic study, soil analysis, GIS products) needed to support the formal titling proposal have been completed; however, serious obstacles remain. Foremost is working with Ucayali’s forestry agency to annul two inactive forestry concessions that overlap Saweto’s lands. In addition, part of Saweto was categorized as permanent production forest, meaning that the government has set aside these lands for timber production not native communities. These problems occurred because, without legal title, the people of Saweto were invisible to forestry technicians in Pucallpa and Lima who divided up their lands for timber production.

The titling field team, upper Tamaya (Photo: UAC)

The good news is that Saweto’s struggles have been recognized by senior officials in the Ucayali government who are lending their help to title Saweto. In a region of rampant illegal logging and corruption, titling Saweto is viewed as an opportunity to  achieve social justice in the Tamaya region, recognize the rights of its Asheninka citizens to their territorial lands, and prevent the continued illegal logging in an area of the Peru – Brazil borderlands of exceptional conservation value.

 

Ssee National Geographic’s NewsWatch blog for an update on Edwin Chota’s struggle against illegal loggers.