democraciaAbierta: Investigation

Coca farming is destroying Peru’s Amazon. Is it time for a radical solution?

Deforestation is accelerating in the wake of the pandemic and the war on drugs. Handing power back to Indigenous communities could stop the spread

Abou Farman
22 October 2021, 8.18am
Coca-eradication intervention by the regional government in Flor de Ucayali
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Lener Guimaraes. All rights reserved

When Danyluz picked up her baby girl and went to cultivate her family plot in the Shipibo-Conibo community of Flor de Ucayali, she never thought she would be risking death. It was just another morning of work for her Indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon, some getting together for the rounds of communal labour at the new plant nursery, others tending to their family plots or preparing the firewood. It was a dry July and a little colder than usual, morning mist rising out of the fields beading the pineapple plants with dew.

She was alone with her daughter when two men suddenly appeared out of the dense rainforest ringing the perimeter of the village and shoved her to the ground. They had guns. One of them, speaking in Spanish, said: “We should off her.” The other looked at the baby and decided against it. Instead, they hit her, then disappeared back into the thick rainforest surrounding the community.

The identity of the attackers was never confirmed, but, for the community, it was clear what this was about.

“They are monitoring us. If they wanted to kill her they would not hesitate,” one of the residents of Flor de Ucayali told openDemocracy. “This was another warning.”

The warning aimed at this small Shipibo community comes from cocaleros, growers and processors of the coca plant that have made Peru one of the world’s leading countries for producing and exporting cocaine. Bankrolled by the US, the government’s decades-old war on drugs in the highlands of Peru has flushed the cocaleros down into the Amazon, the planet’s largest reserve of carbon, and the pandemic has accelerated that process. Now the ‘white dust of the rainforest’ has become the main driver of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, terrorising Indigenous communities living there.

According to new data from Peru’s environment ministry and the Regional Forestry and Wildlife Management (GERFFS), more than 47,000 hectares of rainforest were cut down illegally in 2020 in the Ucayali region alone, where the Shipibo Conibo people have traditionally been based. The vast majority of that is attributed to coca production.

A birds-eye view shot shows the river snaking through the rainforest
The Ucayali river, along which the Shipibo Conibo community have traditionally been based | Abou Farman. All rights reserved

“If you analyse the deforestation, you’ll see that it’s all small pieces that go from a half to five hectares, which is the characteristic of deforestation by coca cultivation,” said Jose Reyes Valera, an engineer with GERFFS. “Deforestation in the Ucayali is no longer due to large commercial monoculture projects.”

Using satellite imagery, GERFFS has also identified 50 landing strips in the rainforest within walking distance of clusters of small deforestation parcels. The environmental impact of narcotrafficking – or narco-deforestation – has been significant not only in Peru but throughout South America, as well as Central America, where, for instance, it is estimated to be responsible for a quarter of all forest loss in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Ronald Tsoma Suarez Maynas, Apu Koshi (head) of the Shipibo-Conibo’s representative body, COSHIKOX, claims that almost all of the 167 Shipibo communities in the Ucayali have been affected by the coca economy in one way or another. Every one of the seven communities I visited along the river in July and August had cocalero stories – from land invasion to labour recruitment, threats and bribes. According to the local federation representing communities in the area, FECONAU, some 2,000 hectares of forest have been taken over and chopped down within the communal land held by Flor de Ucayali.

Flor, as it’s often called, is one of the few Indigenous communities fighting, at great risk, against the encroachment of narcotraffickers onto its land. Others are reluctant to do so out of fear, lack of funds, complicated bureaucracy or corruption. Only Flor and one other village community, Caimito, have taken their complaints directly to the government, accusing parts of the Peruvian state of being complicit.

Eighty families in fear

Four hours by motorboat from the region’s main city of Pucallpa, the community of Flor de Ucayali sits on the deceptively quiet banks of the Utuquinia tributary of the Ucayali, a serpentine river feeding the mighty Amazon. Eighty families live there – in fear, unarmed, facing mounting threats and unable to move freely within their own territory.

When we walked the perimeters with the Indigenous community patrol, they pointed to new paths hacked through the thick rainforest onto the land. They said we shouldn’t continue further because it was dangerous. When a plane circled overhead, everyone stopped to look up and speculate on its mission.

Before the attack on Danyluz, there had been frightening instances of unknown people showing up in the middle of the night – and on rivers where no one traditionally navigates in the dark. Desconocidos, or strangers, have shown up asking specifically for the head of the community patrol. When Miguel Guimaraes, a former community secretary and recent president of FECONAU, denounced the illegal activities, he received death threats on his mobile phone that included pictures of dismembered bodies.

Flor de Ucayali on the banks of the Utuquinia
A house in Flor de Ucayali on the banks of the Utuquinia | Abou Farman. All rights reserved

If the cocalero threats are working by sowing fear and keeping community members from venturing out too far into their own territory, the community is nevertheless fighting, building on years of experience of Indigenous organising. According to the former head of Flor, Hicler Rodrigues Guimaraes, the community made its case repeatedly to the regional government over the past several years to little effect.

When the first parcels of coca plants began to appear in the forest on the territory of Flor in 2018, the anti-narcotics police came in and, rather than doing anything about it, instead blamed the comuneros (community members) for illegal planting. Surprised, the community rejected the accusation and lodged their first denuncia, (official complaint) – for deforestation since they were too scared to mention narcotrafficking – to the regional environmental prosecutor’s office in June 2019. The officials dragged their feet, rolling out the typical excuse of a lack of budget. Then the officials used the pandemic as an excuse. After pressure from lawyers hired by the federation, environmental police finally came to Flor in September 2020.

“They trekked with 30 of us 11 kilometres into the territory,” said Hicler, “saw the coca fields, the trees all cut down, the deforestation, documented everything. We saw four people with backpacks there and they [the police] asked, ‘You, where are you from?’ And they answered; ‘Huanuco.’ [located in the valleys known historically for coca production] They said; ‘Look, you have to get out of here, this is communal land.’ The state’s attitude then was very much like they were going to help, giving the community some hope.”

A month later, the police called Hicler and the community’s lawyer, Linda Vigo Escalante, saying they did not have a case. The reason: there was no one to charge with a crime. As president of the community, Hicler, who also began to receive threats, pressed the point. GERFFS issued a report mentioning the presence of coca plants but it had no enforcement powers. By December, the case had been filed away.

“Maybe they were scared off too,” Hicler said. “Who knows what happened?”

According to Escalante, the state has the authority to investigate further. “It was out of a lack of concern,” she said. “It’s really the neglect of native communities. How are they supposed to defend themselves? Where can they run? Into the river? Where is the justice in Peru?”

The federation took the case to Lima and presented the problem to the national government. That didn’t seem to work, either.

On 1 July, apparently out of nowhere, the Peruvian navy and the state prosecutor’s office swept into Flor unannounced, wanting to go straight to the coca fields. There were helicopters and guns: the absence of the state was suddenly replaced by a frightening, hyper-militarised intervention. The community had to sit them down for a talk.

According to Guimaraes, the community responded, “This is not how you enter another’s land, no knocking, just barging in. You have to tell us what you are planning.” The operation, ordered by the recently reactivated Regional Forestry Control and Monitoring Board, was delayed for a day as they negotiated with the community and selected one member of the patrol to go with the police to show them the coca fields 10 kilometres deep into the rainforest. They destroyed one of many existing fields, along with the casitas (temporary shelters), tools and processing pits.

Then they left.

No one was apprehended or charged. The environmental police appeared seven days later but didn’t do anything except take some pictures. All of this, the lawyer says, is just so that they can perform their piece of teatrito (little theatre) and then forget about it.

The attack on Danyluz came a few days after.

“They come in, they leave,” said Guimaraes, “and we have to deal with the consequences. The threats multiply for us.”

Peru coca
A meeting between Shipibo-Conibo’s representative body, COSHIKOX, and the Guardia Indigena of Caimito | Abou Farman. All rights reserved

The efficacy of militarised raids and the will of the state in all this are doubtful at best. On the one hand, the state is the entity with all the firepower and the only one that can enforce the law. On the other, around here the state is mostly known by its absence, the law is mostly known by its consistent discrimination against Indigenous people, and regional governments and organisations operate at various depths of corruption, complicity and fear. This puts the community in a difficult position: how can it defend itself? What are the long-term solutions?

These dilemmas have forced several communities to form their own Indigenous defence units (Guardia Indigena). In the Shipibo community of Caimito, the Guard patrols the lakes and rivers, as well as the perimeter of the territory, to track illegal activity. In Flor, guards are posted at the two entrances to the community, taking turns to keep sentry at night with whatever flashlights they can get. The hope is that such units will eventually be recognised by the state as a line of defence against both illegal logging and cocaine trafficking, two problems that often go hand-in-hand.

“Indigenous nations have the right to be protected by their own people, especially since the police have been absent,” said Ronald Tsoma Suarez, president of COSHIKOX.

The idea is not so far-fetched, especially as the newly elected president of Peru, Pedro Castillo, has proposed the reactivation of the Rondas Campesinas (peasant patrols), a similar community patrol that patrolled the Andes mountains during the early 1980s.

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The Guardia patrol the boundaries of the Shipibo community of Caimito | Guardia Indigena de Caimito/Coshikox. All rights reserved

However, Suarez has emphasised that these patrols are not a solution on their own. “The Guardia is for the protection of the territory and for our security, but people want economic activity,” he said. “This has to go along with sustainable cultivation.”

Another possibility, then, is the legalisation of coca. It’s a proposal that floats around the cabinet of President Castillo and is espoused by one of his main allies, the former Bolivian president, Evo Morales. But it is almost certain to encounter opposition within the Peruvian congress, and from the military and the US foreign policy establishment that has underwritten Peru’s coca war efforts.

The history of coca eradication

On paper, Peruvian policies aimed at countering narco-trafficking seem flawless. Planned by the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs with help from the US, the policies cover all the bases from economic to social, with special attention paid to Indigenous nations. In practice, the density and depth of the coca economy, the interplay between legality and illegality, and the state’s larger interests make for a complicated political economy with no easy solutions – least of all eradication, which caused the problem in the Amazon to begin with.

Although the coca plant is used medicinally in the rainforest, the primary zone of coca trade has been the highlands and its valleys rising steeply out of the Amazon basin into the Andes. That was also where left-wing insurgencies – the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru groups – rose up during the 1980s and 1990s. The history of coca eradication and the Peruvian state’s counterinsurgency efforts are inextricable, with the insurgent groups (called terrorists by the state) getting involved in the coca trade. The Peruvian government imposed a state of emergency on the Upper Huallaga Valley for 30 years, ostensibly to fight coca production but also to fight the insurgents: freedom of assembly and movement were severely restricted until martial law was finally lifted in 2015.

Then there are the geopolitical interests of the US, including its own wars on drugs and terror – through which it provided funding and training for Peruvian police, aerial mapping and direct operations led by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). There is also the US goal of restructuring Central and South American economies to facilitate the flow of capital and the extraction of resources, or what the US aid agency, USAID, calls reform and development objectives.

Because US anti-narcotic money is drawn from so many corners of the government budget, it is difficult to calculate the US’ full financial input. Between 2006 and 2011, US agencies provided $5.2bn in counternarcotics assistance to the Andean region, most of it going to Colombia, where counterinsurgency and anti-narcotic efforts also went hand in hand. In the US fiscal year 2019, the US provided more than $75m in foreign assistance funds to Peru, to “support shared US and Peruvian priorities, including countering narcotics”. The main eradication efforts in Peru today are still focused in the highlands and valleys in a region called VRAEM, with reduction and eradication projects led by the US State Department and DEA.

Eradication continues to be controversial, however, because coca is a traditional plant and its illegal processing into cocaine has provided a livelihood for many impoverished growers in the valleys. Plantation eradication is still met with violent resistance.

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The banks of the Utuquinia tributary, where the community of Flor de Ucayali lives | Abou Farman. All rights reserved

In the US, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror increased racialised policing and mass incarceration. In Peru, one result was the dispersal of illicit economies into less populated and more hidden regions – the US-financed Peruvian War on Drugs flushed the coca growers down into the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon was where cocaine went to hide, with the first parcels appearing in the mid-2000s.

The US and its allies have linked illicit coca production to terrorism but development objectives and illicit economies also go together in these regions, as global capital has increasingly turned to land and resource-based investments. Kendra McSweeney, who has published important reports on the subject, has written that: “Central American governments eager to attract ... foreign capital have rolled back conservation protections and have enacted legislation to encourage land transfers, mining and infrastructure development in campesino [peasant farmer] communities, Indigenous territories and protected areas.”

Roads necessary for extraction infrastructure bring in illegal loggers and traffickers, as well as the associated violence and corruption. The capital from the illegal trades then gets invested in destructive new industries, such as palm oil and cattle. 

Evo Morales, who on the eve of Castillo’s inauguration in July, spoke to an assembly of Andino coca producers, has repeatedly claimed that coca eradication is an aspect of US imperialism, providing an excuse for North Americans to keep bases in Peru and meddle in national affairs. He has pressed Peru to rid the country of DEA presence, and even that of USAID.

Strained relations

By all accounts, the pandemic has dramatically multiplied the cocalero invasions. Traffickers took advantage of dwindling river travel, the even greater withdrawal of the state and the economic slowdown that cut off income to settlements up-river, leaving room for the cocaleros to rush in with their dollars. Data from GERFFS shows that soon after Peru’s pandemic policies came into place, narco-deforestation spiked.

“Through the lockdown and after, the deforestation rates driven by coca cultivation grew,” said GERFFS engineer, Jose Valera.

In the Utiquinia, as well as Imiria lake region, where Caimito is located, boats now come in several times a day, bringing in labourers in the morning and taking them back out in the evening. In the neighboring caserio – the name for mestizo or hispano settlements, which are separate from Indigenous communities – the well-equipped bodega trades in dollars. In the port town of Masisea, the fastest-developing town in the region, the who’s who of cocaleros is an open secret.

At the beginning of the global pandemic, Flor de Ucayali and the five caserios up-river formed a patrol committee to limit entry into the Utuquinia as a way of protecting themselves from COVID-19. The agreement was that only residents listed in the official padron, the register of residents, recording name, birth, family members, could enter.

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Caimito’s Guardia Indigena on the Imiria Lagoon | Abou Farman. All rights reserved

A few months in, Flor de Ucayali began to notice a large increase in the entry of boats carrying non-locals. They approached their non-Indigenous counterparts in the caserios to ask who all these people were. The answer was that they were new residents of the caserios. When they asked to see the corresponding padrons, the caserios balked. In one case, when they asked after the identity of a specific unknown person who was trying to get in, the man in question is said to have taken aside one of the caserio presidents and in plain sight handed him 2,000 soles ($600) in cash so that he could be incorporated as a resident and let in.

Until that point, caserios and native communities had worked in cooperation despite their differences. After that meeting, Flor withdrew from the river patrol committee and the relationship with its neighbours has become strained and filled with risk. Flor no longer allows caserio members to come in freely because they are suspected of taking information back to the cocaleros. The caserios, meanwhile, are getting paid by the cocaleros for rights of entry and use of land, even if much of the land is actually not theirs. The caserios – and sometimes land traffickers – take the cocaleros deep into the forest and show them where they can work, saying that’s not anyone’s land.

Except it is.

‘Everyone is gaming everyone’

Land titling in Peru is itself an important part of the equation. Data analysis from the Amazon has shown that there is less deforestation when Indigenous land is fully titled. But the history and politics of titling is a mixed bag. The complicated series of claims, laws and procedures on some level have benefitted Indigenous territorial claims but often also put communities at a disadvantage.

Rather than unifying each Indigenous nation under their authority, the communal laws promulgated in the 1970s gave rights to individual Indigenous communities but isolated them from one another, and undermined a more powerful organisation that could defend and represent the whole. The titling procedures are incredibly cumbersome and too costly for cash-poor communities without legal representation. What’s more, the neo-liberal regime of Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s shaved off many of the strongest rights and instead privileged extractivist policies, leaving Indigenous communities with little defence against the developmentalist and racist proclivities of local governments, courts and law enforcement units.

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Men watch as a casita burns amid coca-eradication intervention by the regional government | Lener Guimaraes. All rights reserved

For example, constitutional changes imposed by the Fujimori regime, which the current Castillo presidency wants to overturn, removed the inalienability of Indigenous land titles and transferred subterranean rights to the state. This opened the gates to mining and oil exploration. Since then the logging, oil and mining sectors have taken advantage of individual communities, with small handouts, false promises of development, faked documents and land invasions, mixing legal and illegal activity to their own advantage. Coca trafficking has mostly followed the path laid down by these other industries and has become deeply enmeshed with them.

At the time of Flor’s encounter with the cocaleros in 2018, the communal land had been titled for more than 30 years. But the boundaries had never been marked on the ground nor georeferenced with a GPS device, as required for final registration in the public records. It was too financially onerous and it had been felt there was no need for it. No one would come to go deep into the rainforest for no good reason.

Once the mapping is done, the community also needs to physically mark the boundaries – the linderamiento – by hiring a qualified engineer, mobilising its own members with machetes and saws, and hack through the rainforest. To make a narrow path around Flor’s perimeters took many days, with people sleeping out in the forest overnight. All that is why when the first cocaleros came in, the caserios could easily send them over into native territory and say no one owns this land.

“The caserio is playing the game, too,” said Raul Amaringo, former president of Caimito and its head of Guardia Indigena. “Everyone is gaming everyone.”

“The game is also this, that when we intervene, some people do withdraw from their coca fields,” said Lener Guimaraes, vice president of COSHICOX and a member of Flor de Ucayali. “But they leave selling the parcel to someone else. That person now has paid for it, so the vicious cycle begins. They have paid for it, so they won’t leave peacefully, they start threats.”

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Coca-eradication intervention by the regional government | Lener Guimaraes. All rights reserved

So in a repeat of history, that ‘no man’s land’ ends up being the land of Indigenous communities who then inherit a massive headache and a risk to their existence.

“I have seen communities in Colombia collapse once coca comes in, once they themselves get into the coca trade, renting their own parcels, managing their own crops, gaining more power and things,” said Miguel Guimaraes. “We can’t let that happen to us.”

For the most part, that has not happened yet in a significant way in Shipibo-Konibo communities. Here, clan identity, the strong bond with the territory, and the communal rather than private holding of land has worked as a bulwark against the selling or renting off land to armed strangers who bring with them other harms. Very recently, however, a couple of communities further out are reputed to have begun planting their own coca.

“In some cases, the community authorities themselves are complicit,” said the president of COSHICOX, Ronald Suarez, “We must face this, we can’t try to block out the sun with our fingers.”

If only a few have fallen into this, as Suarez also said, most communities have become entangled in the political ecology of the coca trade. It affects their relations with their neighbours, via the money that has already entered and left its taste in local communities.

Cocaleros come in the morning to recruit people,” said Raul Amaringo, the head of the Guardia Indigena in Caimito. “Saying there’s work, there’s work. They take out some money, and so people go. What can you do?”

In a cash-poor economy, the waving of a few notes can seduce a lot of people.

“People worked hard to catch fish and sell or harvest platanos, getting 20 soles a sack,” a young Shipibo who has worked in coca plantations told me. “Now you harvest a sack of coca and they pay you 100 soles.”

Almost three years ago, the cocaleros walked straight into the community assembly of Caimito and offered 100,000 soles – a massive sum for the community – if they let them come on to the land. According to those present, the community declined and publicly denounced the act. That week, they came back in the middle of the night and walked straight into the home of the then-head of Caimito, Juan Carlos Mahua Rango. Showing their weapons, recalls Rango, they threatened him and his family, then walked out.

Monsters from the wild

The Shipibo community of Caimito, up the Rio Tamayo, sits on the shimmering lagoon of Imiria. The regional government has declared much of the area a conservation zone (Area de Conservacion Regional), but did so by manipulating the rules of native land claims. Here the play between legality and illegality, the presence and absence of the state, and the struggles of territorial integrity are startlingly clear.

The regional government receives acclaim, as well as national and international funds to run the conservation area (with an official annual budget of around 11 million soles) whilst it grants massive logging concessions to companies. And the majority of illegal logging occurs on legally concessioned land. So, you get the surreal condition where local communities that long have been safeguarding and co-living with the forest are limited in their use of natural resources, and get fined if they violate those terms, whilst large barges with massive Caterpillar tractors – machinery nicknamed comebosque, or forest devourers – are chugging upriver to take down the Amazon chunk by chunk. In other words, the conservation area serves as an offset mask for the massive legal logging operations.

Illegal ones too.

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Doing their rounds, Caimito’s Guardia discovered a logging operation on their land that they believed to be illegal – the massive cut-down tree trunks were covered by vines and leaves to avoid detection. I am told that the truck transporting the logs was linked to the municipality – making the violation all the more egregious for taking place in their own conservation area. The case is currently under investigation by the national environmental prosecutor's office.

Both here and in other countries, conservation areas, already a kind of exceptional space carved out of the state by the state, have come to harbour illegal activities. In Mexico, for example, the anthropologist Columba Gonzalez-Duarte has documented the extent of illicit trafficking, and the campesino resistance, within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan. The UN’s Office of Drug Control reported that nearly half of Colombia’s coca plantations in 2020 were in protected areas such as national parks or Indigenous reserves.

In the Ucayali, analysis of data from GERFFS shows that 4% of deforestation takes place in natural parks and conservation areas supposedly managed by the state. That does not include deforestation in communal territories like Caimito, which are part of the conservation area, but for these purposes are counted separately. Either way, it’s significant, since it shows the inability of the state to manage its own territories.

Or perhaps, as Caimito claims, it’s not inability but a willful complicity. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture also approved the sale by land traffickers of more than 100 hectares of titled land to Mennonites, who took down all the old-growth rainforest to plant soya and maize for commercial sale. In the region, it has long been said that the governors and officials of the Ucayali have always made money from logging. And where logging goes, so does coca. An analysis issued by GERFFS shows that over half of narco-deforestation takes place on land given over to large companies as logging concessions.

That’s why the state and its operators are frequently described in Shipibo communities with terms such as chullachaki or pishtako, monsters that appear and disappear from the wild, pretending to be something they are not, in order to remove vital parts from people and communities. The state is a monster that shape-shifts. It’s sometimes protective, mostly destructive; sometimes camouflaging itself in the form of NGOs bringing in medical equipment or building wells, sometimes as corporations to which it grants logging and oil concessions, – and always headed by a hydra of offices and ministries and units and rules and laws. It is never present until it comes in to apprehend you or fine you; or else it sweeps in with militarised drones and helicopters like aliens from another realm.

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A military helicopter landing in Flor de Ucayali | Miguel Guimaraes. All rights reserved

Where police and military presence of the state has been strong over the years – as in the Upper Huallaga Valley – it has led to the police exercising a “right of spoils”, as the anthropologist Richard Kernaghan puts it, taking their cut while practicing their teatrito of law in the form of arbitrary arrests.

So the trouble is not just in the state’s absence. It’s also in the way it suddenly becomes present when it wants to show itself, deciding what laws to apply where and when. The remoteness of remote zones – which Kernaghan calls the “legal wilderness” – serves the state, along with corporations that feel hindered by regulations and the global climate regimes that monitor deforestation and environmental damage and social justice.

Though most Indigenous communities have no faith left in any state-led solution, some of the policies hinted at by the newly elected president sound encouraging. Legalisation, for example, may be part of the solution to narco-deforestation and narco-violence in the Amazon. If you can grow legally in the highlands, then you wouldn’t want to hack your way through dense rainforest, endanger your health and risk sanctions for environmental degradation. Indigenous Guardias also can be effective, especially if properly equipped and trained. A recent study of community-run early alert systems shows a reduction of deforestation compared to places where the early alert system is run from afar by the state or NGOs.

President Castillo’s closeness to the Andean Rondas Campesinos has some communities hopeful that their patchwork guardias could be legally recognised with training, arms and funds. In the meantime, their most dependable solution has been self-organising and self-regulating. That is why for Suarez, the president of COSHIKOX, the best form of protection is self-protection. “The most important thing is that we continue to organise towards full territorial autonomy,” he said.

Some names have been changed


The writer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the New School and president of the Shipibo Conibo Center of New York, which has worked in solidarity with some of the Indigenous organisations and communities mentioned in this article.

If you would like to support the Guardia Indigena's fight against coca-driven deforestation, you can do so here, via a gofundme run by the Shipibo Conibo Center of New York.

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