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Mennonites in Peru: the hidden history of the delivery of forests in Masisea

Home / Travel Blog / Mennonites in Peru: the hidden history of the delivery of forests in Masisea
Mennonites in Peru: the hidden history of the delivery of forests in Masisea

In September 2015, a group of workers from the Ucayali Regional Sectoral Agriculture Directorate (Drsau) arrived in the district of Masisea with one goal: to carry out a rural cadastre in a forest area located on the edge of the Masisea-Imiría highway, a road that runs through a section of the Peruvian Amazon. 

That was the beginning of an intricate system of irregular delivery of land that later ended up in the hands of the Mennonite colony, established in that district of the department of Ucayali. 

Authorities from the Regional Government of Ucayali participated in this process —some of them today under investigation and under house arrest— who used their positions to illegally hand over forests. This story is a good example of how in Peru, some forests are cut down first on paper and then in the field. 

The Public Prosecutor of the Ministry of the Environment, Julio Guzmán, explains that this is one more form of land trafficking, in which the award of land on paper seems legal, but in reality it is based on fraudulent information. “This is what happens in the Amazon and what happens in Ucayali, that is, people who serve as figureheads so that they receive the properties and then sell them. In this search we are going to find acts of corruption by regional governments, which is not a secret. It is known that regional governments have used agrarian titles to clean up State property that had primary forests”. 

More than 1,000 hectares of forests, located on the route that goes from the small town of Masisea to the territories of the Caimito and Buenos Aires native communities, were demarcated as individual properties and then registered in the name of people who now do not remember when they became owners. 

Mongabay Latam accessed 47 of those cadastral records prepared in 2015 by the Drsau team that reached Masisea, a town located about three hours by boat on the Ucayali River from the city of Pucallpa. The numbers of these cadastral records appear in the list of the 64 properties that the Public Attorney's Office of the Ministry of the Environment has included in its investigation for crimes against forests and forest formations against the Mennonite colony. 

In addition, in the search for the 47 files in the Cadastral System for Rural Properties of the Ministry of Agrarian Development and Irrigation (SICAR) —official database that shows information on rural properties in Peru— we were able to establish that 29 of those properties overlap with the territories of two communities of the Shipibo-Konibo people: four with the Caimito native community and 25 with the Buenos Aires native community. 

“That was a very big deal. Farm workers themselves are to blame. The one who was director of Agriculture, [Isaac] Huamán has given the land to these people. They did it in coordination with the municipality. The mayor of Masisea held a meeting with the workers explaining that they were going to title the properties,” says Adán Sánchez, president of the Border Federation of the Native Communities of Lake Imiria and Chauya Masisea (Feconalicm), in a telephone interview with Mongabay Latam. 

Deforestation on paper

This story begins with a group of officials in the field filling out dozens of cadastral records with what they were supposedly observing at that time. A piece of land, for example, was distributed between 20% corn, 20% plantain, 10% cassava, 20% more cocoa and 30% purma —as the vegetation that grows when the land is left to rest is called. . This is how the Drsau technicians were preparing each of the cadastral documents, according to the version of a former employee of the Regional Government of Ucayali, whose name we keep confidential for security reasons.

In each of the files to which Mongabay Latam had access, the percentages and the type of crop vary. In any case, the common denominator of these documents is that hundreds of hectares of forest had supposedly already been replaced by agricultural land. 

However, satellite images do not show the same. A team of specialists from the Institute for the Common Good (IBC) analyzed the 47 cadastral records —whose total extension amounts to 1,136 hectares— that form part of this investigation and confirmed that on the date on which the properties dedicated to agricultural activities were registered, there was actually primary forest. 

This is also confirmed by one of the witnesses of the Prosecutor's Office who in December 2018 opened an investigation against the then regional director of Agriculture of the Regional Government of Ucayali, Isaac Huamán Pérez —currently under house arrest— and other sector officials. 

The case that is currently being investigated —known as Cochanía— and that involves Huamán and other former Drsau officials corresponds to the delivery of land in the district of Nueva Requena. Currently, this case is in the First Supraprovincial Corporate Specialized Prosecutor's Office Against Organized Crime. 

The investigation, still in progress, focuses precisely on the illegal titling of land owned by native communities and the State in favor of relatives of workers from the regional directorate of agriculture and mayors of the department of Ucayali, among other people who only provided their names for the titling to be completed with the aim of later selling or transferring these properties. 

The former employee of the regional government was closely acquainted with this system to title properties with false information. In an interview with this medium, he confirmed that in Masisea this modality of delivery of rural properties was also used in a place that was still forest and that had not been intervened. "Agriculture proceeded as if it were a market," says the former official and explains how the events occurred. 

“In 2015, in the management of Huamán Pérez, several brigades were formed for the titling of properties, one of them went to Masisea to measure some free areas so that they could later sell them to foreigners. The same mechanics were used. The same thing they did here [in Cochania] they did there [in Masisea]. But here it was sold," says the former GORE Ucayali worker to differentiate what happened in Cochania, where the sale of all the properties did not materialize, as happened in Masisea, where "these properties were sold to the Mennonites." 

The former regional government worker confirms that in Masisea the files were filled out in the name of the mayor of Masisea, aldermen, workers from the Municipality of Masisea, the district governor and agricultural officials. 

The hypothesis that the prosecution handles is that a system of illegality and land trafficking was instituted, managed by officials from the agricultural sector that spread throughout the Ucayali region, and that was taken advantage of by those who were looking for agricultural land in the Amazon.

The Mennonite colony settles in Masisea

The irregular registration of land between 2015 and 2016 is the birth certificate of the properties currently occupied by the Mennonite Colony in Masisea, currently investigated by the Ucayali Specialized Environmental Prosecutor's Office (FEMA). 

When this religious group acquired the 47 properties mentioned at the beginning of this report —which were supposedly agricultural land— they obtained them with standing forest, as shown by satellite images and confirmed by one of the prosecution witnesses. What FEMA Ucayali, which is currently investigating this case of deforestation, maintains is that the Mennonite colony destroyed around 1,000 hectares of forest without authorization in the sector of the Masisea-Imiría highway. 

Who sold these lands to the Mennonite colony? In 2015, Drsau officials registered the individual properties in the name of workers from the Municipality of Masisea, district authorities and their families, as Mongabay Latam verified when reviewing the names that appear on the cadastral records. The Mennonites bought these properties, as confirmed by one of the witnesses from the Prosecutor's Office and David Ojanama, a lawyer for the Mennonite colony. 

One of the names that appears on the cadastral records is that of the former mayor of Masisea, Marden Contreras. “A person offered me a piece of land but I have not been able to acquire it,” says the former mayor on the other end of the phone, when Mongabay Latam asked him about the rural property that appears in his name in the Cadastral System for Rural Properties of the Ministry of Agrarian Development. and Irrigation (SICAR). 

In this free access portal it can be verified that with the number 113827 there appears a property of just over 20 hectares, called Fundo La Amistad, in the name of the former mayor and his wife. According to the satellite images that can be seen on the SICAR map, this property also overlaps with the territory of the Caimito native community. 

When we mentioned these details to the former mayor, he began to remember. He said that the person who offered him the land died and later confirmed that, between 2015 and 2016, the Drsau organized campaigns for the titling of rural properties in his district. “We only provide facilities for them to do their job. The municipalities only deal with urban land, it has nothing to do with rural land, ”he specified. 

At the end of the interview, Contreras acknowledged that he did "know" that the property was registered in his name but that he had nothing to do with it. "I never received it. I haven't signed anything,” he insisted. 

What he also said was that the Mennonite colony arrived in Masisea in 2014, a year before the fraudulent titling. At first there were few —he clarifies— who began to buy land near the town. Then more came. 

Former Mayor Contreras mentioned that there were people who received property titles that were delivered even in public ceremonies by the then regional governor Manuel Gambini Rupay. "Many people have sold their land," he adds, mentioning that the Mennonite colony is currently dedicated to growing rice and soybeans. “The last time I visited Masisea I found out that they are producing a lot of rice,” he said after explaining that he no longer lives in the district. 

Mongabay Latam tried to contact Gambini Rupay, former regional governor of Ucayali, to find out his version of the handover of land at that time, but as of press time he had not received a response. 

Former mayor Marden Contreras is not the only authority that appears in the cadastral records of Drsau's land delivery. There is also Jhener Fasanando Nunta, current councilor of the Municipality of Masisea, who in 2015 was governor of the district. Mongabay Latam searched for him to find out his version of the events, but until the closing of this edition he was unable to locate him. 

Also on the list of more than 40 people is Miguel Ángel Carazas Núñez, who in 2015 was head of the Productive and Economic Development Area of the Municipality of Masisea. When we interviewed Carazas during the visit to Masisea —before the pandemic— he said that with the cadastre and the delivery of property titles in Masisea he was only seeking recognition of the rights to his land to the farmers of the district. In a 2017 Ucayali Regional Government report, Carazas Núñez appears as president of the Masisea Imiría Highway subdivision. 

On a recent tour that Mongabay Latam made through the deforested territory, he was able to take pictures of the crop fields installed on the Masisea-Imiria highway, where a few years ago there was only forest. The images show large fields of crops in the more than 40 properties that are now managed by the Mennonite colony.

Crop fields on native community forests

"Everyone knew that there was overlapping of properties in the territory, but there was no evidence," says Adán Sánchez, president of the Border Federation of the Native Communities of Lake Imiría and Chauya - Masisea (Feconalicm), while recounting that it was 40 days that It took to carry out the georeferencing of the indigenous territory of the Caimito, Buenos Aires, Junín Pablo and Nuevo Loreto native communities. 

During the tour, a team from the Directorate of Legal Physical Sanitation of Agrarian Property (Disafilpa) of the Drsau and indigenous leaders confirmed that within the indigenous territory of Caimito there are individual titled properties that have been deforested by the Mennonite colony. These properties were titled in 2015 and one of them appears in SICAR in the name of Edgardo Chafloque, who was an advisor to the Mennonites at the time. 

In the native community of Buenos Aires, adjacent to Caimito, individual properties have also been titled. This overlay can be viewed on the SICAR platform, with the names of those who received the rural titles in 2015. 

The indigenous leader Adán Sánchez explains that during the georeferencing work it was possible to verify that land acquired by the Mennonite colony was within the communal territory. “When we did the georeferencing work, the native communities came to know where the GPS points that mark the limits were. There we found that the properties of the Mennonites were within the communities of Buenos Aires and Caimito”. 

Sánchez indicates that there are at least 200 depredated hectares that before the arrival of the Mennonites were primary forests within the communal territory. “They have done damage to primary forests,” he adds. 

Sánchez complains about the delay in the delivery of the reports with the results of the georeferencing work and adds that the regional government officials are taking a long time to finalize those reports, that there is always an excuse to delay the procedures of the native communities in its titling process or, as in this case, the georeferencing of the already titled community. 

Samuel Del Castillo, director of Disafilpa of the regional government of Ucayali, points out that three of the four reports on the georeferencing of native communities are ready. “There is still a report to be completed so that they can be sent to the Native Communities area and the corresponding evaluation can be carried out. And there should also be an evaluation of the cadastre area on the properties that may be superimposed”. 

In that case —explains Del Castillo— if properties within the community have been handed over, the items that were titled after the community titling will be annulled. 

Pedro Tipula, coordinator of the SICCAM project of the Institute for the Common Good (IBC), says the same thing. “What prevails is that they are indigenous peoples. They have priority to title their territories.” 

Tipula also explains that when doing the georeferencing, if the superimposition on the forests of the indigenous communities is confirmed, that land has to be handed over to the indigenous people. “The territory that always belonged to them must be respected.” 

The IBC expert puts a key issue on the table: the absence of a modern registry of native communities, with state-of-the-art technology such as exists for mining and oil concessions. “It is not a problem of lack of funds, there have been loans. It is a lack of political will to solve the problem. 

The forests that were lost

The crime for which the Mennonite colony is accused is against forests or forest formations, commonly called the crime of deforestation. The attorney for the Ministry of the Environment, Julio Guzmán, points out that anyone who has been in contact with the properties that have been forests and were later deforested without complying with the appropriate procedures for the removal of the trees are responsible for the loss of forest.

“Even though they have been felled, they still conserve the forest aptitude”, points out the attorney Guzmán about the land where the Mennonites have settled. Guzmán explains that according to the Forestry and Wildlife Law, a place that loses forest does not necessarily lose forest aptitude. "Only those places that have lost their forest and forest aptitude can be recognized for agricultural activities by the regional agrarian directorates." In this case —says the attorney in relation to the lands occupied by the Mennonites— forest aptitude is still preserved. 

Sandra Ríos, a researcher at the Institute for the Common Good (IBC), confirms what the prosecutor says. After reviewing the information on these properties on satellite monitoring platforms, from 1985 to 2020, the IBC researcher concluded that "the revised satellite images show no changes." In other words, the forest was still standing when the properties were registered. 

However, the cadastral records prepared in 2015 indicate that these forests were occupied and transformed many years before, in a range between 2005 and 2008. But the satellite images deny such occupation. As the geographer Sandra Ríos indicates, “according to the satellite images in the area, no changes in coverage are observed from 1985 to 2017, much less changes that are related to deforestation. The change clearly occurs in the year 2017 with clear patterns of the advance of mechanized agriculture. It does not respond to the pattern of agriculture by migrants or small agriculture”. 

“In the area where the pattern of mechanized agriculture has been observed since 2017, no previous change in natural cover has been detected. In 2015, the maps of the PNCB [National Forest Conservation Program], the RAISG [Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information] and GFW [Global Forest Watch] do not report this area as deforestation or forest loss. These areas are reported by the three sources as loss only in 2017”, assures Sandra Ríos. 

The advisers of the Mennonite colony

During the visit to Masisea before the pandemic, Mongabay Latam contacted Edgardo Chafloque, who at that time was an advisor to the Mennonites and, as Isaac Zacharías —patriarch of the Mennonite colony in Masisea— had indicated to us, was in charge of the legal affairs of the Mennonites. their lands. 

At that time, Chafloque assured that the members of the Mennonite colony bought titled land that was already dedicated to agriculture. “Masisea is surrounded by native communities and reserved areas, the only land dedicated to agriculture and livestock are those that are close to the town. As the Mennonites are farmers and ranchers little by little they have been buying them”, he assured. 

Chafloque denied knowing of any irregularity that may have occurred in the inspection, titling or delivery of these properties. “That is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. We bought titled land and also some possessions. If there are problems with the properties, the solution corresponds to the Agriculture sector”, he said to distance himself from any questioning about the acquisition of the properties. 

What Chafloque did not say is that three of the properties handed over by Drsau in 2015 appear in his name, and one of them overlaps with the territory of the Caimito native community, according to satellite images and the demarcation of properties that appears in SICAR. We looked for Chafloque again so that he could give us his version of the properties in his name, but we were unable to locate him.

Last year, Chafloque stopped advising the Mennonites, several sources tell Mongabay Latam. Now, the legal issue is in charge of the lawyer David Ojanama, who says that in Masisea he has a liaison person with the Mennonites. 

Attorney Julio Guzmán specifies that if the properties have a fraudulent origin, other crimes could be added. Generic falsehood, false declarations in the administrative procedure, illegal authorization of rights, illegal logging and illegal trafficking of timber resources in the event that the felled wood has been moved out of the place. 

“There is a kind of various crimes. There may even be crimes of corruption, collusion, influence peddling involving officials,” says Guzmán, adding that the prosecution could request the termination of ownership of the properties if their illegal origin is proven. That is, the goods would return to the State. 

The Mennonites' lawyer, David Ojanama, says that the problem is not how the properties were acquired or in whose name they may be, "that is not a matter of investigation," he says, but rather the way in which they have been felled. “The law says that the state protects primary forests. I am fighting that, that the forests, being attached to the population of Masisea, were no longer primary forests”. 

Ojanama acknowledges, however, that the Mennonite colony caused deforestation in Masisea. “They have not wanted to come to this, they have submitted their application for change of use and unfortunately they tell him, through a report, that it is not possible because they do not meet all the requirements, but they never told him to rectify it. At the time they were not guided, they have not had real advice and the same authority, the GERFFS [Regional Forestry and Wildlife Management], has told them that [the authorization] is going to come out, that they work”. 

The Mennonites' lawyer also said that he has challenged the administrative fine of 11 million soles imposed by the Regional Forestry and Wildlife Management (GERFFS) under the charge of not having a land use change permit. 

Prosecutor Vladimir Rojas, from the Specialized Prosecutor for Environmental Matters (FEMA) of Ucayali, who is in charge of the case, points out that it is “a complex investigation because it involves many people. The verification zone is very extensive, more than 1,000 hectares and 46 families settled in that sector”, comments the prosecutor. 

Rojas adds that there are three native communities that have also denounced the overlapping of Mennonite properties on their territories. 

The truth is that the properties handed over irregularly in 2015 are now extensive fields of rice and soybean crops, among other products that the Mennonites plant. Thus, in the midst of this irregular titling system, the forests in Masisea continue to be lost.

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