The 3rd Congress of Protected Areas of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAPLAC) brought over 2,000 experts from 37 countries to Lima on October 14-17, including representatives of indigenous organisations. In his opening speech. President Martin Vizcarra called for a paradigm shift from deforestation to the protection of standing forest that would outlaw the “scourges of mining, illegal logging, narcotics, or trafficking of endangered species that destroy our natural capital”.

A representative of COICA, the coordinator of indigenous organisations in the Amazon basin, appealed to the authorities to restore their territories to the region’s indigenous groups on the grounds that research demonstrates they are the most effective conservationists of their own environment.

IUCN, one of the organisers of the event, supports this position as indigenous peoples occupy 22% of the world’s lands in which 80% of the biodiversity of the planet is located. Despite this, it claimed, they receive only 2% of funding for conservation; the lion’s share goes to states and private entities with less effective results. IUCN attributes the conservation success of indigenous people to a number of key factors, such as deep knowledge of species and conditions, a shared cosmovision and governance, as well as sustainable agroforestry, hunting and fishing practices.

Vizcarra went out of his way to appeal to indigenous peoples in Peru, calling for the titling of all their lands in Peru by the bicentennial celebrations of independence on 28 July 2021. This, he maintained, would complete “a task that hasn’t been achieved in the last 200 years”.

Such worthy objectives, however, are all but impossible to fulfil given the scale of the task (20 million hectares for 1,300 communities), the bureaucratic processes involved, the inexperience of regional governments in land ordering, and their own conflicts of interest in coveting forests for the revenues that extractive enterprises can generate.

Welcome as such professed intentions may be, not all Peru’s indigenous peoples are convinced by Vizcarra’s commitment, not least in view of the extractivist programme he pronounced at his inauguration. This led the national indigenous women’s organisation ONAMIAP to urge him to avoid productive and infrastructural schemes that “can harm communities’ rights unless they are guaranteed.” As for the bicentenary, it urged the cancelation of all extractive megaprojects on their territories that did not respect their free prior and informed consent.

Balancing national priorities with those of the local communities will inevitably challenge Vizcarra’s government between now and 2021. It is in the general interest that he proves an effective mediator, an honest broker, a stickler for environmental controls, a good loser when it comes to abandoning ‘sacred cows’ like the Hidrovía project (to dredge Peru’s main tributaries of the Amazon), and be true to his word in completing his land ordering goal by the end of his term in office.