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CarbonCartels &Corruption

THE REAL REASON PERU'S AMAZON IS BEING LOST AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS WHO CAN SAVE IT

Images and writing by Sarah Fretwell

 “I have some very sad and horrible news…Today, they killed Quinto Inuma.”

What you should know about Apu Quinto Inuma (Quinto) is that he was a husband and father deeply loved by his wife, his four- and sixteen-year-old daughters, and his 21 - and 28 year-old sons.  

 

He was a jovial visionary who worked against all odds at all hours of the day and managed to extend his activist network as far as the US and Europe from his remote region of the Amazon.  He would spend the little money he had to travel for hours, go without eating to make it to an important meeting, and still have a smile on his face. He worked to protect his tribe's home and future — and yours.  

 

​Quinto and his family lived in the village of Santa Rosillo, along the banks of the Yanayacu river and the northern Amazon province of San Martin.  Santa Rosillo is about 12 hours from the nearest police outpost.  If they ever visit, government officials come to this remote region by helicopter.

The remote village of Santa Rosillo is twelve hours from the nearest police station. The natives who have lived here for generations initially welcomed settlers, but tensions are high since many of them work with the land, logging, and drug cartels. Most of the adults do not speak with each other. The town square is the size of a soccer field, with stores and bars for natives on one side and the store and bar for settlers on the other. Quinto Inuma's home is the thatched roof house in the lower right of the video.

With their forest adjacent to the border of Loreto, an infamous “red” zone for coca production, the community struggled to survive amid settlers, illicit logging, and land cartels, not to mention legal and illegal extractive industries with little enforced rule of law. 

 

Quinto himself was a former illegal logger turned park ranger turned environmental defender. Many people working in illicit industries struggle to survive, and when there is another opportunity that pays, they take it. Quinto left his post at the national park with mixed feelings, thinking he may be able to have even more of an impact. He started the Santa Rosillo “Forest Guardians,” a volunteer patrol that monitors the community's traditional land in an effort to prevent deforestation.  Quinto told me his biggest wish was that there would once again be peace in his village - and the Amazon.

 

On November 29, 2023, while returning from a conference on environmental defense and ancestral knowledge, Quinto was assassinated in front of his wife Marlith and their son Kevin. 

Warning Graphic Video Below

The video below will play/pause on rollover. It will scroll to play the video of Quinto's family and village mourning around his body. 

A year earlier, I had traveled down the Yanayacu with Quinto. It became a tumultuous moonlit journey after someone sabotaged the boat engine in retaliation for reporting lumber traffickers to the Peruvian government. 

 

The remote jungle village was deeply divided, with settlers unwilling to speak to me once they realized I was with Quinto.  The most visible fissure was the center of the village. There, centered around a soccer field, I found specific amenities for the natives on one side and separate ones for the settlers on the other. Most of the adult settlers and natives did not even talk to each other, yet their children attended school side by side, and all the parents attended the graduation party together.

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(Left) Although the community's ancestors managed this land for generations, they were not invited to participate in the project management or carbon deal. Now they cannot get the title to their land due to the creation of the national park and buffer zone. Native communities were forced to take the government to court to learn who the carbon offsets are being sold to. The list included Total, Shell, Delta, Bank of America, IUNC, and many others. The natives believe multinational corporations are greenwashing their environmental records by buying carbon offsets instead of making sustainable changes to their business practices. This image was taken in the buffer zone of Cordillera Azul National Park outside of Santa Rosillo, San Martin, Peru.

(Center) After twelve hours of travel, Quinto and a campesino youth from his village are stuck on the side of the river as the boat engine falters. Upon inspection, they realized someone had poured salt into the engine. As he fixes it, Quinto says he believes harming the motor is retaliation for him notifying government officials they had found a coca field being grown for cocaine production by the cartels.

(Right) A daytime boat ride between towns becomes a dicey transit when a broken boat engine leaves all of us navigating the dangerous river snags and cartel areas by the full moon.

Although natives' ancestors managed the land for generations, they were not included in the creation of Cordillera Azul National Park (2001), Cordillera Escalera (2005), and the resulting $87 million carbon deal (2008). While the Peruvian government and carbon developers benefited from the multi millions of dollars, their project turned Amazon natives into trespassers on their ancestral land, making it bureaucratically impossible for them to secure land titles.  

Without the title they could not receive money from the carbon deal.  No natives I interviewed during my time there had received any money from the carbon project, just government notices to move from their established chacras (farms) and punishments for being caught hunting in their traditional forests from which they had survived for generations.

While new “settlers” to the area could purchase land and secure both illicit and legitimate land titles, Quinto's tribe and family were denied these rights. The one government official who tried to help Quinto was fired right before he was going to sign the title. Without the title, the community could do little to combat the illicit activity in their area.  In December of 2022, his community had been diligently attempting to obtain their land title for six years.

The park and carbon project are being shared globally as a conservation success by REDD+, the voluntary mitigation frameworks created by the UN to reduce carbon emissions in developing countries through forest conservation that includes funding and technical assistance. The plan includes a theoretical protocol for indigenous peoples and community-based monitoring.

 

The project also made the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC) Green List, which is reserved for projects the organization feels are a global benchmark for nature-based conservation.  

 

I met Quinto when I joined him and a federation of other indigenous leaders at meetings with the IUCN.  Officials did not even try to hide their annoyance and contempt as they sat in meetings with native federations who were rightfully upset over this REDD+ endorsement.    The native communities have long questioned whether the conservation areas and offsets are being correctly managed. They took the government to court to get a list of what multinational companies had purchased offsets there.  The list includes Shell, Total, Procter & Gamble, Scotia Bank, Delta, Bank of America, the IUCN, and many other notable names.

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A government document from another family living on the border of the park near the village of Qanallayacu shows their farm, which had been established in 1977 inside the new park boundary.  After being told to abandon the property and not doing so, the family arrived home to find their animals had been killed and the farm burned.

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The list of corporations and people who purchased carbon offsets in Cordillera Azul National Park. Although they are legally entitled to prior consultation under Peruvian law, native federations had to take the government to court just to find out who had purchased carbon offsets on their traditional territory.

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Quinto and his brother were brutally  beaten when they reported the campesinos to authorities for growing coca to be turned into cocaine by cartels. The family was evacuated by the military by helicopter to a town miles away for three months before they were able to return. The community is still deeply divided, and resentment runs high. Before Quinto was murdered in December of 2023, he was again receiving death threats from neighbors in the illicit land and lumber trade.

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Marlith Mandruma Florès washes dishes outside her family's cooking hut. With no refrigeration, each meal is cooked from scratch with river water. The diet here consists mainly of animal protein and potatoes or plantains. Few people have vegetable gardens and instead farm crops that they can sell, like yucca, cocoa, and banana.

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A schoolmate looks out the window of the Inuma’s home as campesinos walk by. Natives see campesinos as invaders. The campesinos see natives as lower class and their land as free for the taking. Even though the children go to school together, tensions run high among their parents. Most native and campesino adults do not talk to each other even though they live side by side.

Quinto's daughter Raquel (13) holds the wild bird she has befriended and feeds each day as Abigail (4) plays in the family cooking hut. Their life is simple and immersed in nature. Both girls have friends who are natives and settlers. Taken outside the family's cooking area.

The year before I visited, Quinto had reported the discovery of a coca field (the base crop for cocaine) while on patrol in the buffer zone of Cordillera Azul National Park. As a result, he received death threats and was brutally beaten by his neighbors. 

Quinto and his family were evacuated by helicopter to a town several hours away. They bravely returned to their home in Santa Rosillo three months later.  With hundreds of hectares of remote land to monitor, even when an illegal runway built for the drug cartel was reported, it took over another year for a government official to visit. 

The week before his murder Quinto had finally secured a visit by the public prosecutor's office and the forestry control to visit their community to see firsthand the impact of deforestation caused by drug traffickers. 

According to his lawyer, Cristina Leon, Quinto was guaranteed police protection against three of the men who were eventually implicated in his murder, but it never happened.  Although the Peruvian government was aware of the repeated threats to his life, Amazon Watch claims the government did not allocate the resources needed to fulfill their obligation to environmental defenders like Quinto.  Meanwhile, the government had millions of dollars from the carbon deal from Cordillera Azul National Park.

An investigation linked a gang called “The Jackals of Santa Rosillo” to his murder, with the accused including the governor of his region.  As of now, the only ones under police guard are Quinto's family.

In a statement released by Forest Peoples Programme Quinto’s attorney Cristina Leon, noted, “It should also be emphasized that local authorities, in this case the lieutenant governor and municipal agent, are allegedly implicated in the murder, and this is highlighted by the fact that they, together with Mr. Limber Ríos Ruiz, have at all times led the opposition to the recognition of the collective territorial rights of Santa Rosillo de Yanayacu, and are reportedly the main promoters of the illicit activities taking place in the Indigenous territory. Faced with the constant threats, Apu Quinto, in interviews, reported the situations of risk that were occurring due to threats against him.”

Weeks after his murder, the Peruvian government amended Peru’s wildlife and forestry law.  The amendment essentially decriminalized logging, ultimately legitimizing multinational businesses, illicit industries, and landowners who have already carried out illegal deforestation in conservation areas.  The amendment primes the Peruvian Amazon for a massive land grab, more illicit activity, and catastrophic deforestation.  Marisol Garcia, President of the native federation FEPIKECA, noted the amendment makes the death of environmental defenders and everything they were fighting for feel pointless.  

Most experts in Peru agree that the law was modified to accommodate new import restrictions on products that deforest the Amazon by US and European markets. As Ricardo Perez of Amazon Watch put it, The authorities of these countries must make a firm statement that they will not ‘fall for’ the game. Millions of hectares of forest and the very lives of Peruvian Indigenous defenders are at risk.”

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Left: The “Forest Guardians” of Santa Rosillo take a break from the midday heat in arecently discovered burn area in the Cordillera Azul National Park buffer zone. The Forest Guards (Left to Right) Edgar Inuma Mandruma, Quinto Inuma Alvarado (deceased), Clodomiro Dias Olimares, and Manuel Inuma Alvarado. © Sarah Fretwell

Center: Forest Guardians founder Apu Quinto Inuma and his daughter Abigale (4) watchwarily in the background. His work as a native activist has taken him as far asGeneva, Switzerland, and far away from her for weeks at a time. Each time heleaves, she is uncertain when he will return.. But concern for her future is whatdrives his work forward. © Sarah Fretwell

Right: The self-organized and funded Forest Guardians risk their lives and volunteer their time to patrol the forest. Last year, government officials recognized theguardians' important work and gifted backpacks for their patrols. They dream of more modern equipment, including drones and guns, to help with their patrols. Thebuffer zone of Cordillera Azul National Park outside of Santa Rosillo, San Martin,Peru, © Sarah Fretwell

Now, scientists are finding evidence the tribes’ concerns are well-founded. Recent studies report many offset projects are not achieving what they claim (Alejandro Guizar-Coutiño et al. 2022), and some offsets are accelerating carbon emissions.

 

Activists here see the fallacy of multinational corporations declaring themselves “carbon neutral” simply because they have purchased carbon offsets from Cordillera Azul National Park. 

Activist Marisol Garcia noted that native organizations are upset that multinational corporations are greenwashing their climate impact and using their ancestral land to do it.  

 

The example she offered was at COP 27, where she saw a sign by Shell claiming they were carbon neutral simply because they had purchased offsets. To her, that was a laughable take on the carbon credit system. Business claims like that add salt to the wounds of communities whose ancestral rights to the land are being trampled by their government and multi-national corporations.  

 A burn scar deep in the jungle of San Martin on the border of Loreo, Peru. A modern day wild west, some land is sold illegally without a proper title, and some land is just taken.   There are few officials to enforce forest and land laws.  Minor attempts at government regulation have fallen short, and locals believe the process is corrupt.  As the natives say, the forest is suffering and cannot speak for itself. Although native communities surrounding Cordillera Azul National Park have repeatedly been denied the title to their land, they believe it is their duty to fight for the rights of nature.  They also believe that in doing so, they are working for the planet's survival, an obligation they take as a sacred duty. This image was taken in the buffer zone of Cordillera Azul National Park outside of Santa Rosillo, San Martin, Peru. 

Many people I met believe in the idea of carbon offset and support conservation, but in Peru’s climate of impunity, natives are not sure who they can trust.  If there is management and monetary benefit for the conservation of the land their people have lived, hunted, and prayed for generations, they reasonably believe they should be included in it.  

Indigenous citizens in the Peruvian Amazon are the first and last line of defense when it comes to monitoring and enforcing how large swaths of the jungle are being conserved or misused, but they are struggling for a legitimate seat at the table.  They are guaranteed this right by Peruvian law. right is required for forestry funding from other governments, a guideline for REDD+, and claims by carbon development projects, but the right simply not materializing.

Instead, natives are being blocked and excluded at every turn.

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(Top Image) Quinto's daughter Raquel (13), friend (unknown), wife Marlith, and Abigail (4) bathe in the river with other women from the native community. As campesinos and illegal loggers struggle to survive, cartels encroach on what remains of the ancestral land. It is unclear what the future holds for his daughters and the community. © Sarah Fretwell

 

(Left) At the end of a sweltering day, bathing and playtime are a highlight for the children. Forty-five titles were given to private (non-native) owners before the park was created. Now, communities in the buffer zone are not given collective titles, and no individual titles were given to natives; in a forest where land and knowledge of millions of hectares of forest is your inheritance, formal titles matter. The community is still applying for the title to all of their ancestral forests and fighting for the future of their children.  © Sarah Fretwell

 

(Right) Raquel Inuma Madruma (13) studies Kichwa at night by cell phone with a classmate in December of 2022. The teenagers of Santa Rosillo are growing up at an interesting time when native life is rapidly changing. Feathers and face paint are for special occasions, and everyone wears western clothing. They are learning English by watching Ellie Goulding videos on TikTok, and since their parents were taught Spanish was better than Kichwa, they are relearning their lost native tongue by cell phone at night. © Sarah Fretwell

 Native organizations in the Peruvian Amazon, still grieving their assassinated brother, responded in outrage, mobilizing indigenous citizens across the Amazon to defend against deforestation by “invaders” and to prevent the further killing of native people for the sake of taking more of their land. They issued a joint statement: “We call on the international community to alert all donors and countries that promote finance conservation activities in Peru, in order to demand that the Peruvian Government seriously commit to respecting the nature and the intangibility of the forests of the communal territories in order to avoid the serious consequences that will come from our native communities.”

On January 19, 2024 Quinto's son Kevin posted with video to TikTok
*Roll over to see the video and hear the audio
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The Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP) also spoke out, "This amendment of the Forestry Law is worrying. Companies are free to follow rules and remain free from sanctions. And the State is legalizing deforestation that would cause terrible damage to our ecosystems. With the approved law,the risk that property titles and certificates of possession will be issued in an irregular manner increases. We Indigenous peoples and environmental rights defenders will be affected because of the risks of illegal activities that invade our territories and cause deforestation will increase."  

In standing by the forestry law amendment, Peru’s government is failing their people, mocking their international commitments and preventing a truly sustainable future for the Amazon - and your family.

As activist Marisol Garcia put it, "We Indigenous people are paying a high price for defending the Amazon. For a long time, our land was called the lungs of the world. It is more than that. It is the heart of the planet.”

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(Left) Indigenous activist Marisol Garcia poses for a portrait on an early morning boat ride to the village Caserio Tupac Amaru shortly after returning from COPP 27 in Egypt.  Of her experience at COPP, she noted she spent most of her time holding up signs and protesting.  Many Amazon natives are angered by what they feel is greenwashing by corporations who purchase offsets in Cordillera Azul National Park but have not changed their business practices to truly mitigate climate change.  She told me, “We firmly believe the whole Amazon is connected to our spirituality. The waters of our territory are the blood that flows in our body. The air purified by our trees is our breath of life.  They are like our brothers - the trees, the animals, the water. The only difference is they have no voice.”  Caserio Tupac Amaru, San Martin, Peru. © Sarah Fretwell

(Center) Marisol’s dogs rest beside her in the boat on the way to Chazuta town.  These dogs go back and forth between the family's chacra (farm) and the small town. After not seeing their owner for several weeks when she attended COPP 27 they were excited to be reunited with her and would not leave her side.  © Sarah Fretwell

(Right) Sunrise on the Huallaga River in the 23 000km buffer zone of Cordillera Azul National Park December of 2022. Established in 2001, In the northeast of Peru, in the Amazonian regions of Loreto, San Martín, Huánuco, and Ucayali the park comprises 13 500 km² of tropical rainforest.  The establishment of the park and buffer zone meant that thousands of natives instantly became trespassers in the places they have lived, farmed, fished, hunted, and worshiped for generations.  To a well-intended government official and a carbon developer, they are lines in the map and a forest with great economic potential. When you visit in person, you see it is people’s lives and multiple generations being impacted by the exclusion of native communities. Huallaga River, San Martin, Peru. © Sarah Fretwell

What the global community needs to understand is that our money and good intentions are getting lost in Peru's “comia” (bribery) system, the government's complicity in illicit and legitimate extractive industries (logging, mining, and oil), and carbon developer jargon. Peru's agriculture and forestry departments are not keeping their commitment to Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the REDD+ priority actions.  

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While exports of logs from natural forests have been banned since 1972, according to the Peru timber legaity dashboard, "Illegal logging is reportedly widespread...more recent studies report a range of figures, suggesting that between 37 and 90 percent of timber trade is likely illegal.  The top exports to the US by 2019 Value were Joinery Products (HS4418), Flooring, Moulding & Strips (HS4409), Wood Furniture – Other (HS940360), Sawnwood (HS4407), Paper (HS48), Marquetry (HS4420), Wood Furniture – Seating (HS940161 & HS940169), Wood Furniture – Bedroom (HS940350), Frames (HS4414), and Tableware & Kitchenware (HS 4419).

It is time to release aid money only when Peru's government has genuinely met its climate commitments.  Current rules and regulations are slowing the ultimate demise of this critical carbon sink, which is linked to the survival of humans in the face of climate change.  Peru's forestry law amendment just rapidly accelerated that.   According to a report released by the watchdog group Resources + Rights, "A significant number of the environmental crimes committed in the Amazon are possible in large part thanks to the complicity of bureaucrats, security forces, public prosecutors, [and] regional regulators and politicians. They act as facilitators, permitting land trafficking, deforestation, illegal extraction, and the transportation of natural resources in addition to the processing and sale of wood, gold and fauna."   

 

Some carbon developers are greenwashing our collective future by misusing the carbon credit system.  Those working in the carbon economy would do well to look at the success of the species banking system that is actually making tangible change. Multinational corporations cannot simply buy credits without changing business practices and declare themselves “carbon neutral."  That is not how carbon offsets were meant to work. Per the theory of carbon offsetting, they need to change business practices to reduce emissions and offset what they cannot mitigate. 

Native Activists here know this so deeply that they are risking their lives to protect it.

We must reduce our consumption of...well...everything!  Every decision we make, from driving an SUV over a fuel-efficient car to buying wood products from China to eating palm oil and soy, impacts people and ecosystems across the globe.  Depending on what country you are in, your daily decisions have an impact on the Amazon.

 

One of the true costs of ignoring this reality in the global economy is that Quinto’s daughters are now growing up without their father, and our climate reality is being greenwashed. There is no offsetting our way out of this. Our habits have to change. As consumers in the global market, we vote with our dollars and habits.

At the end of their patrol, the Santa Rosillo Forest Guardians strip down, put on a few traditional accents, and excitedly ask for a portrait. They are proud of what they do and the status it has given them in the community. Since being recognized by local officials, it has forced the campesinos to treat them and the land with more respect. With so much out of their control, the patrol has been an opportunity for empowerment and self-determination. This image was taken in the buffer zone of Cordillera Azul National Park outside of Santa Rosillo, San Martin, Peru. © Sarah Fretwell

 What I experienced during my time with Quinto and other environmental defenders in the Peruvian Amazon is their determination to participate in the conservation of their ancestral land and their desire to build a sustainable future for their country.

 

What I witnessed was them being blocked at every turn by racism, bureaucracy, corruption, and the mentality of profit over people and the planet. Those blocking them include the Peruvian government, gangs, cartels, corrupt officials, researchers, carbon developers, and foreign organizations diligently working towards UN climate goals.Indigenous understanding of the situation is not preventing their success. Rather success is being forestalled by “experts” and politicians with a Western paradigm focused on extracting profit, thinking they know better than the people whose families have managed the forests for thousands of years.

 

Environmental defenders are the first and last line of defense against land traffickers, illegal loggers, and drug cartels. What I have also come to understand is that environmental defenders are unstoppable because they are working for an entity more powerful than any multinational company or Peruvian politician. They are working on behalf of NATURE and will defend her at all costs.

Quinto’s family is asking for life imprisonment of those who murdered their father.  His son Kevin put it like this, “No one will be able to remedy this. A family has been left broken and homeless. If the State had acted in time, my father would not be dead….the things that my father has always fought for were never for personal benefit, it is the benefit for his entire population and at a global level, which is to defend the forests."

I have spent the last few months wondering how Quinto’s young daughters will finish school and what quality of life his family will have in a city under police guard. I have listened on the other end of the phone as his wife cries from trauma. I’ve lamented what will happen to the forest. I have asked myself what desperation drives another to kill a father for trying to make a better future for his community.

 

Despite all the unanswered questions, there is some cosmic justice at work here. On November 29, 2022, Quinto’s assassins illuminated the Forest Guardians’ cause across the globe and ensured Quinto’s vision will shape the future of the fight for the Amazon forever.

If you are a decision maker in government aid, you work in the carbon economy, you work with a multi national company operating in the Amazon, extractive industries, or with the blockchain, you probably know what part of your system has blind spots.

 

It is time to take every good intention you have for your work and the planet's future and become the solution seeker for a new way forward.

 

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For investigation updates and steps you can take, click here

To support Quinto's family via PayPal, click here and write "Quinto's family" in the note.  All donations will be distributed by Manuel Inuma Alvarado, Quinto's brother.

To help continue the work of Santa Rosillo Forest Guardians via PayPal, click here and write "Forest Guardians" in the note.  All donations will be distributed by Manuel Inuma Alvarado, Quinto's brother.

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