By 2012, around 12% of Peru’s original forest area had been converted to agriculture with an average of 123,000 hectares deforested annually. At the time, this compared favourably with the country’s Amazon neighbours.

In return for substantial funding for the Ministry of the Environment, in 2014 Peru agreed with Norway and Germany to halve the rate of deforestation by 2017, with the aim of achieving zero net carbon emissions from 2021 onwards. The rate of deforestation has, however, increased overall and there is little prospect of meeting the carbon reduction goal.

For decades indigenous peoples were regarded as ‘guardians of the forest’, and recent satellite imagery has confirmed this not only in Peru but across the world. In 2016, however, a controversial Ministry of the Environment (MINAM) study claimed that 17% of forest loss between 2001 and 2015 occurred within indigenous communities with land titles.

These 1,351 communities with titles occupy some 12.3 million hectares and harbour a large part of the 420,000-strong indigenous population that practices environmentally sound rotational slash and burn agriculture.

According to recent research commissioned by the German Cooperation agency (GIZ), the annual deforestation rate of 19,892 hectares per year on community land needs to be set in context: the indigenous territories are not intended to be protected areas without human intervention.

There are also considerable regional differences, with the communities of Loreto accounting for 27% of deforestation and San Martin 20%. However, only two of the 1,351 indigenous communities register more than 5,000 hectares of forest loss, while 89% of the communities have less than 500 deforested hectares and 45% less than a 100. Rather than a ‘culture of deforestation’, the key factor provoking forest loss is population density; the majority of communities have limited areas and all the communities with deforestation of more than 5% of their territory have less than 10 hectares per inhabitant.

The laborious process of titling indigenous lands began in the 1970s and has yet to be completed. President Martín Vizcarra has pledged to title 673 recognised communities by 2021, raising the total to 3,015. To achieve this optimistic goal (which does not include the many territorial extensions needed), the Ministry of Agriculture has revamped its cadastre unit. It has recruited civil society specialists and has both digitalised its processes and decentralised its operations. Since taking office, the Vizcarra government has delivered 72 titles towards its goal.

Fieldwork for land demarcation is currently interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, although the government’s economic recovery plan has controversially enabled extractive industries to resume activities within indigenous territories.

A recent study led by the former UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, challenges the continuing expansion by governments and conservation NGOs of environmentally protected areas at the expense of indigenous peoples, despite evidence of their comparative advantage in the conservation of their territories, and international commitments made to protect their rights.

In recent years such protected areas have proliferated in Peru, often at the expense of indigenous territorial claims. Two studies by Peruvian researchers on the impact of these areas on deforestation indicate positive outcomes in the core protection areas, mitigated by evidence of illegal logging in the buffer zones. Their conclusion is that the conservation model offers no long-term guarantee of protection against deforestation.

Deforestation remains a significant challenge in Peru, not least because of regional resistance to controls on the logging industry and the spread of palm oil and cocoa plantations, such as those of the Czech entrepreneur Dennis Melka. A year after the guilty verdict for deforestation against employees of Cacao del Peru in Tamshiyacu, the appeal has still not yet been heard and the prosecutor of Iquitos has suffered public recriminations and threats.