While there are some efforts to build resilience, including the passing of new legislative frameworks and some other signs of political will to tackle the problem, there is still a long way to go. The confluence of corrupt actors who benefit from environmental crime and the political crisis that Peru has faced in recent years has resulted in a lack of capacity and resources to combat environmental crimes. What's more, the Peruvian government continues to prioritize economic development over the protection of the Amazon rainforest.
For years, Peru has built a legislative framework aimed at mitigating environmental crimes. The most important part of that framework is the General Law on the Environment of 2005. The law is the backbone of all government attempts to protect the environment, as it bases these attempts on the constitutional rights of all Peruvians to live in a healthy environment. A subsequent law led to the creation of the Ministry of the Environment, which is the highest entity in this area and is in charge of developing, directing, supervising and executing the national environmental policy.
To protect its forests from unregulated agricultural development and cattle ranching, Peru has relied on the Forest and Wildlife Law No. 27308 of 2002. The law promotes the conservation and sustainable use of forest and clearly prohibits using protected forest resources for agricultural development. However, in practice, this does not happen; cattle and agriculture are spread throughout the Peruvian Amazon. So far, the law has had little success in protecting the country’s Amazon.
To help mitigate timber trafficking and control the flow of wood to international markets including the United States and European Union, the Peruvian government signed the National Pact for Legal Timber in December 2014, with the private sector, NGOs and Indigenous federations. The pact sought to ensure the use of legally obtained primary resources, so that sellers, buyers and any intermediaries can expect to handle legal resources such as timber and gold.
In addition, it developed the National Multisectoral Strategy to Combat Illegal Logging (La Estrategia Nacional Multisectorial de Lucha contra la Tala Ilegal - ENLTI 2021-2025), which is intended to contribute to the reduction of illegal logging in the forest and the trade of products of illegal origin. ENLTI tasks a commission within the Ministry of Agrarian Development and Irrigation with overseeing the creation of a forest surveillance system, a forensic laboratory for identifying timber, as well as better coordination between relevant government agencies in tracking the transportation of timber by land and water, among other measures.
Regarding mining, Legislative Decree No. 1105 of 2012 charges the Ministry of Energy and Mines with overseeing mining formalization processes in conjunction with regional governments. Since 2006, a normative and institutional framework has been developed in order to fight against illegal mining. One of the pillars has been the formalization of mining licenses, contained in Legislative Decree No. 1105 of 2012. Through the formalization process, the government aimed to differentiate between informal miners, who can be brought into the legal economy through authorization, and illegal prospectors who operate in areas where mining is prohibited.
However, disentangling informal and illegal mining has been one of the great challenges Peru faces. The infiltration and co-optation of informal mining by criminal networks make drawing a neat line between the criminal and the informal extremely difficult, and the government has struggled. Experts in illegal mining, such as Álvaro Cano, say that the formalization in Peru has been a failure, mostly because it is so slow and onerous. As InSight Crime has reported, around 70,000 miners sign up to be integrated into the legal mining industry in 2017; several years later, only 161 mining operations representing approximately 3,000 miners have completed the process. Still, although legalizing the miners has been challenging, several mining experts said the process should not be abandoned.
With regards to wildlife trafficking, watchdog groups say the laws are too weak. And since 2019, various Peruvian organizations have insisted on the need to classify the trade as “organized crime,” as the government did with illegal logging and illegal mining. Currently two initiatives in Congress seek to do this. However, neither have become law.
Peru joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1974, which sought to establish international regulations for the wildlife trade. CITES is one of the most commonly used means to tackle wildlife trafficking in the world. The Peruvian government also signed bilateral conventions with Brazil (1975) and Colombia (1979) to protect wildlife in the Amazon. Another eight countries within the Amazon basin signed a trade and cooperation agreement to develop the region while caring for biodiversity in the Amazon.
Another important catalyst for updates to Peru's legal framework for forestry matters was the signing of a free trade agreement with the United States in 2007. Officially called the Trade Promotion Agreement, the accord included a forest annex that urged the government to verify the origins of harvested timber and to apply sanctions when illegal logging is suspected. However, implementation of this annex still faces challenges. For example, an information and tracing system has yet to be implemented to guarantee the legality of timber from the moment it is harvested.
In 2008, the United States passed the Lacey Act, which prohibits the commercialization of forestry products of illegal origin, including wood. The law has yielded positive results. For example, on September 3, 2021, US company Global Plywood and Lumber Trading admitted to violating the Lacey Act. Additionally, the company said that it did not do its due diligence when it imported timber from the Peruvian Amazon in 2015. The ruling required the company to pay $200,000 to Peru’s Ministry of the Environment (Ministerio de Ambiente - MINAM) and a $5,000 fine.
As noted, Peru signed the Minamata Convention in 2013, which seeks to curb mercury pollution and eliminate its use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. However, mining networks throughout Madre de Dios continue to use mercury.
Civil Society Groups
Civil society plays a crucial role in the fight against environmental crimes. Organizations such as the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental - SPDA), the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Proética regularly investigate and report on environmental crimes in the Amazon region. In the case of illegal logging, civil society is on the front line in protesting and questioning government decisions, as well as spotlighting issues related to illegal logging through declarations and joint actions.
Contributions by civil society to the fight against environmental crimes also include activities that educate young people about preventing this illegal activity through conferences, workshops and meetings. In March 2020, the Madre de Dios Forest Anti-Corruption Network, a meeting point for civil society organizations, held a training session in Madre de Dios called "Anti-Corruption and Forest Governance School.” Backed by Proética, the initiative aimed to build citizen actions to confront corruption, a factor that drives deforestation in the Amazon.
In Madre de Dios, several civil society and political organizations have come together to combat illegal mining. They regularly highlight the negative impact mining has on the area, not only in regards to deforestation but also in fomenting other illegal activities, such as human trafficking, land trafficking, and targeted killings. Likewise, they have pressured the state to implement sustained strategies to confront illegal mining.
Efforts by civil society, however, are hampered by violence and threats. Between 2013 and 2020, 14 Peruvian environmental defenders were murdered in Peru. Nineteen Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders have been killed during the pandemic, and many others continue to be targeted, particularly in areas where activities such as logging, drug trafficking, illegal mining and land trafficking are widespread.
In 2008, the Resolution of the Board of Supreme Prosecutors created the Special Prosecutor for Environmental Matters (Fiscalía Especializada en Materia Ambiental - FEMA), a specialized unit dedicated to preventing and investigating environmental crimes. The FEMAs are currently operating in the departments of Loreto, Amazonas, San Martín, Ucayali and Madre de Dios. The FEMAs have carried out important operations that have resulted in seizures and prison sentences against those who promote illegal mining, wildlife and timber trafficking.
In order to strengthen the work of the FEMAs, the Supraprovincial Prosecutor's Office Specialized in Environmental Matters (Fiscalía Supraprovincial Especializada en Materia Ambiental) was formed in December 2021. It is located in Lima and will have jurisdiction over the entire Peruvian territory.
The Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera - UIF), which is designed to combat money laundering, has uncovered the deep connections between money laundering and environmental crime in Peru. In 2018, UIF identified how profits from timber trafficking, at the time equivalent to approximately $155 million annually, were laundered by family clans. These actors used false documentation, offshore companies in tax havens, and front companies to give an air of legitimacy to the profits derived from the trafficking of timber.
This case demonstrates how money laundering investigations related to environmental crimes in Peru have prioritized the analysis of various environmental crimes, not just illegal mining.
While the Peruvian justice system has won some battles against illegal logging, land trafficking and mining, it is losing the war. Part of this is related to the political chaos Peru has faced in recent years. Although a handful of corrupt officials within the highest spheres of political power have been prosecuted, the prosecution of those driving deforestation and protections for environmental defenders have been sidelined. This makes impunity the norm for environmental crimes in the Amazon.
The Yacu Kallpa timber trafficking case illuminates the complexity that often accompanies these criminal proceedings. In September 2021, six years after the case was opened, more than 90 people were indicted by the Peruvian Attorney General’s Office for crimes such as timber trafficking and the illegal granting of rights. Those charged face prison sentences ranging from two to 11 years in prison.
However, former Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources (Organismo de Supervisión de los Recursos Forestales - OSINFOR) head Rolando Navarro said that, while it is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go in the fight against illegal logging. To be sure, light penalties faced by heavyweights in the illegal timber chain have overshadowed the perceived gains. According to an investigation by Ojo Público, Doris Sadith Noriega Paredes, representative of Inversiones La Oroza -- a company that allegedly owned more than 80 percent of the timber seized in the Yacu Kallpa case -- faces just a three-year prison sentence. Corrupt former regional officials, who according to the prosecutor's office authorized the transport of the wood from the Amazon with false documentation, face similarly light penalties.
Impunity is also pervasive for wildlife trafficking in Peru. An investigation by Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC), an organization dedicated to the conservation of primates and their habitats, revealed that most charges filed in relation to wildlife trafficking never reach a judge.
There are currently two initiatives in Congress that seek to classify wildlife trafficking and other crimes against natural resources as organized crime. The bills intend to strengthen penalties, meaning that those involved could face sentences of between eight to 15 years in prison. if approved, the bills would demonstrate that Peru is taking the protection of its fauna and its Amazon more seriously.
The new Functional Unit for Environmental Crimes (Unidad Funcional de Delitos Ambientales - UNIDA) was created in March 2021 by the Ministry of Environment to target environmental crime in Peru and to deepen the exchange of information between respective environmental agencies.
While the government of President Pedro Castillo has expressed a commitment to updating and strengthening its legal framework in terms of environmental regulations, the reality is that there is little political will to fight these crimes, especially on the local and regional levels.
Part of this is related to the decentralized political system. Peru gives departments and municipalities considerable independence, power and resources to deal with many of these issues. In practice, this often means that each side blames the other for the gaps in regulatory and law enforcement efforts. National authorities have transferred responsibilities, such as forest management, to regional governments, thus giving them the ability to defer responsibility to the local authorities. Local governments, meanwhile, argue they have neither received the proper training nor the resources to handle these issues.
Efforts are also complicated by the struggle to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic development. The most recent example of this came when President Castillo announced the country's Second Agrarian Reform. The reform seeks to promote comprehensive development in rural areas of Peru. However, experts in environmental crime in Peru said the reform could have a perverse effect on the Amazon, as more forests could be cut down to make way for agriculture.
Agencies like OSINFOR appear to be caught in the middle of these battles. After Rolando Navarro was dismissed in 2016, his team continued to defend OSINFOR's autonomy. However, in 2018 when OSINFOR was brought under the control of the Ministry of the Environment, at the time headed by Fabiola Muñoz, a minister with a history of intervening in investigations on behalf of timber companies, the watchdog was rendered toothless, according to Julia Urrunaga, the director of the Peruvian branch of the EIA.
Meanwhile, another Peruvian forestry expert, who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons, says that OSINFOR has become progressively weaker: "Because it [OSINFOR] goes against the interests of the beneficiaries of this business.”
*InSight Crime has partnered with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to trace the environmental crimes and criminal actors driving deforestation in Peru's Amazon. See the entire six-part series here.