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Melka group oil palm plantations near Pucallpa, Peru, cutting deep into primary rainforest, April 2014. Photo: Rainforest Rescue via FPP.
Melka group oil palm plantations near Pucallpa, Peru, cutting deep into primary rainforest, April 2014. Photo: Rainforest Rescue via FPP.
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Peru rainforest defender threatened: 'we will kill you'

The Ecologist

19th November 2015

Death threats to an indigenous forest defender in Peru have followed his success in closing down an illegal palm oil operation on his tribe's lands carried out by a member company of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, now meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

The world should know what Melka's companies are doing to our lands. They destroy our forest and our biodiversity. The Government fails to stop this tragedy and then leaves our human rights defenders exposed to death threats and homicides.

Washington Bolivar, an indigenous activist in Peru has received another sinister death threat in the immediate wake of his efforts to challenge the destruction of Amazon rainforest for timber extraction and conversion to oil palm.

In the course of the last month, human rights defender, Mr Bolivar received the following handwritten and explicit notes in quick succession:


The precise source of the threat is unknown at this time, but local activists and community leaders suspect that it refers to Mr Bolivar's well publicized support of the struggle of the Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya in the Ucayali region of Peru.

Over the last year the community has been actively opposing the destruction of over 5,000 ha of their traditional forests for conversion to a palm oil plantation by a Peruvian palm oil company, Plantaciones de Pucallpa (PDP).

PDP is one of many companies known as the 'Melka group' - registered in Peru with links to a complex corporate network controlled by Dennis Melka, a businessman who founded the Malaysian agribusiness company Asian Plantations - whose operations have been similarly controversial in Sarawak, Malaysia.

RSPO under fire for deep systemic failures

PDP is also is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry body that sets standards for 'sustainable' palm oil production and works with independent auditors to certify good practice.

However a report published today by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Grassroots exposing serious shortcomings in the RSPO certification and complaints procedures. EIA Forest Campaigner Tomasz Johnson said of the findings:

"The RSPO stands or falls on the credibility of its auditing process but in far too many instances auditors are greenwashing unsustainable practices and even environmental crimes. Many major consumer goods firms now delegate responsibility for their sourcing policies to the RSPO and, by extension, to these auditors.

"If the auditors are engaging in box-ticking and even colluding to cover up unsustainable practices, then products will get to the supermarket shelves that are tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity."

But in this case the community's struggle has been partly successful. On 2nd September 2015, Peru's government concluded that the deforestation was illegal and suspended the operations.

And now the Forest Peoples Programme understands that the RSPO will investigate the case. The FPP's Tom Griffiths welcomed the development, saying the campaign group was "glad RSPO is going to investigate these violations of its standards." He added:

"We also trust that the RSPO will use all its influence with the concerned companies to ensure that no harm comes to community activists like Mr Bolivar. Mr Bolivar is now very well known internationally. All eyes are closely watching both the behavior of the Government and the Company in Ucayali."

A wider climate of violence and impunity in Peru

Washington Bolivar's problems are part of a much wider climate of fear and violence that persists in Peru. Almost 60 human rights and environmental defenders have been killed between 2002 and 2014. These include the well publicized assassinations of Edwin Chota and three other Asháninka leaders from the village of Saweto in Ucayali in 2014.

Mr Bolivar has informed the authorities about the latest threat including the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But after lodgiing similar complaints in September 2015 after receiving other death threats at that time, the Government has failed to take effective measures to protect him, his family and the community.

"I am concerned but won't remain silent, the world should know what Melka's companies are doing to our lands. They destroy our forest and our biodiversity. The Government fails to stop this tragedy and then leaves our human rights defenders exposed to death threats and homicides. The company benefits from this environment while our people and the forests suffer." 

Robert Guimaraes, President of FECONAU, the indigenous organization that represents the village of Santa Clara de Uchunya has reiterated that behind the violence lies the failure of Peru's government to address its obligation to provide secure legal recognition for indigenous peoples' lands and rights and to follow through on its international pledges to protect forests.

"Community lands were issued to the company by the regional government of Ucayali in complete disregard for their legal rights to their traditional lands and with no process of consultation or consent. I am calling on human rights agencies and the international donors supporting Peru's forest protection plans to insist that the State meet its obligations to protect indigenous peoples' lands and rights".

Peru has made ambitious commitments to stop deforestation as part of its climate change mitigation strategy, pledging to reduce net deforestation to zero by 2021. However, as exposed by this case and a 2014 report these promises are undermined by gaping loopholes in Peru's legal framework and endemic corruption.

Since 2010, Peru's government has repeatedly recognized the need to secure indigenous peoples' land rights - and has won financial support from international donors including the World Bank, Norway and Germany. Yet the promises have failed to materialize: some 20 million ha of indigenous lands remain untitled and continue to be issued to mining, oil, gas and agribusiness interests.

In December at the UN's Climate conference in Paris, Peru will set out its 'INDC' commitment to climate change mitigation. The measures include actions to protect forests - but there are no clear commitments to safeguard indigenous lands and protect those defending the forests.

RSPO creates new standard

The RSPO today announced at its 13th annual meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, its new 'RSPO Next' voluntary add-on to the RSPO standard to "provide a platform for innovative growers to demonstrate best practice in sustainable palm oil and help buyers deliver on their 'no deforestation' commitments."

The new standard is widely seen as having been created in reaction to damaging allegations that the RSPO has failed to enforce its standards and that auditors have conspired with companies to cover up poor and illegal practice. WWF, which helped to creat the RSPO, said it "welcomed new initiatives to explore ways to improve and maintain the quality of the certification process and outcomes."

"Continuous improvement was a core design feature of the RSPO, and RSPO Next is a tangible demonstration of this principle being followed", said Adam Harrison of WWF. At the meeting, the RSPO also focused on how to better deliver on the existing standard.

"While independent third party assessment is at the heart of RSPO's ethos, this new initiative also enshrines quality control of those assessments as a priority", said Harrison. "It is not just independence we want from the assessors, but to know they can go to a site and ask the right questions and make good judgements on the adequacy of the answers."



Principal source: Forest Peoples Programme.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Sustainable palm oil? RSPO's greenwashing and fraudulent audits exposed' by Chris Lang / REDD Monitor.

The report: 'Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO' is by EIA and Grassroots.

Read this report for more information about the operations of the Melka group in Peru and Malaysia.


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