The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people of the Peruvian Amazon are organizing themselves to protect their ancestral forests and waters from illegal fishing, logging, and coca growing amidst conservation and development efforts from both the government and international nonprofits that they say are ineffective at best and actively harmful to Indigenous ways of life at worst.
More than 300 members of the community participate in La Guardia Indigena—or the Indigenous Guard—that works from around 25 bases in the Ucayali region of Peru to protect around 8 million hectares.
"We've been resisting, and we continue to resist generation after generation because this land is our life," Lizardo Cauper Pezo, president of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Council, told reporters at the virtual Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum April 27.
"Without the forest, the world would be chaos."
The Peruvian Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, but, like much of the rest of the rainforest, it is under threat. Beyond outright tree clearing, one threat is the illegal growing of coca that leads to both deforestation for planting and air pollution when it is burned during processing. Another is illegal fishing from bodies of water like Lake Imiría. Fifteen percent of more than 20,000 hectares of forest in the Flor de Ucayali community has been either cut or burned down.
To counter this threat, the guard patrols the area carrying their ancestral weapons.
"That's what represents our strength, our spirit, and it also represents our ancestors," Indigenous Guard president Marco Tulio told reporters.
However, the guard does not threaten or seek to harm fishers, loggers, or drug traffickers. Instead, they attempt to speak with them and explain that the land belongs to the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people. If fishers return for a second time, the guard may destroy their equipment. In total, the guard has confronted fishers 45 times.
Sometimes, the fishers or loggers are themselves armed and threaten the Indigenous Guard. The guard will act in self-defense and also explain to authorities their right to do so.
"We don't threaten, we only need to care for the forest, because the forest is for everyone," Tulio said. "Without the forest, the world would be chaos."
This work—like land defense everywhere—is not without significant risk. The most recent annual Global Witness report found that two environmental defenders were killed every two days of the last 10 years. During 2021, 40% of the murders targeted Indigenous activists, despite the fact that they make up only 5% of the global population.
Tulio told reporters that a week before speaking at the forum he received a death threat telling him he only had days left to live.
The violence comes despite the fact that the area is technically protected as the Lake Imiría regional conservation area, or ACR, and has been since 2010. In fact, many Indigenous people oppose the ACR, which they say was established without full community consent, according to an investigation published by Grist last month.
The Shipibo Konibo-Xetebo claim that the government allows poachers, coca growers, and loggers to enter the area while focusing its enforcement efforts on Indigenous people catching and selling fish to survive.
"What kind of protection and conservation are we talking about?" Pezo asked rhetorically at the press forum.
For example, a Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo woman named Sorayda Cruz Vesada was arrested and fined the equivalent of $400 in 2016 for attempting to sell a large Amazonian fish called the paiche in order to pay for her daughter's school supplies, Grist reported.
Things came to a head in 2020, when the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo community learned of plans between the ACR, the Ucayali Department of Fisheries, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to open Lake Imiría to commercial fishing. It was this news that prompted the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo to reform their Indigenous Guard, as well as to occupy a park guard post in Junín Pablo in July 2022. That occupation was formalized in August as the community waits to hear from Peru's national government on a proposal to have their lands excluded from the park for them to manage themselves.
Tulio said the people wanted to live and work freely without the government harming their forest or inserting itself into their way of life.
"The forests, the rivers, the waters, they are our market," he told the forum.
The occupation in July succeeded in ousting the USAID-backed company Pro Bosques from the area, but the threat of the project lingers, and the status of the protected area remains uncertain. Tulio believes the regional government—or its supporters—is behind the death threats against him. The president of the Autonomous Government of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo People shared the community's concerns with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on April 19.
The Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo's struggle comes at a crucial time for both conservation and Indigenous rights. As world leaders pledged in Montreal last December to protect 30% of land and water by 2030, there is growing recognition in the scientific and international community that Indigenous people are the best protectors of their lands. Their 5% of the population protects 80% of Earth's remaining biodiversity, and a 2022 study found that protecting Indigenous lands could help four Latin American countries—including Peru—meet their climate goals.
Yet the growing business of carbon offsetting is raising new concerns about conservation strategies that work by excluding these very communities from their forests, as a January exposé of top carbon credit standard Verra reported happened in Alto Mayo, Peru.
It remains to be seen if the 30% goal will be met by acknowledging the rights and role of Indigenous communities or repeating the colonial fortress conservation mindset of the past. While the agreement states that Indigenous rights must be considered in its implementation, it does not allow Indigenous territories to count toward the target, as Survival International pointed out at the time.
"What we saw in Montreal is evidence that we can't trust the conservation industry, business, and powerful countries to do the right thing," Survival research and advocacy Officer Fiore Longo said in a statement. "We will keep fighting for the respect and recognition of Indigenous land rights. Whoever cares about biodiversity should be doing the same thing."
Meanwhile, the Shipibo Konibo Xetebo have a message for the people and nonprofits of the U.S.
"You need to stop supporting the things that exploit our rights, or that support these different activities and projects that trample on our rights and ways of living as Indigenous people," Pezo said.