NUEVA AUSTRIA DEL SIRA: FOREST OF THREATS
"Are you related to Mr. Polico?" I was asked -
"No, I don't know him," I replied.
"Really? We own everything," they started shouting.
María's forehead was frozen by the barrel of a shotgun similar to the one her father, a Yáneshas like her, used to hunt collared peccaries in the forest. Three men had intercepted her on the side of the road she took to go from her corn farm to the house of Polico Díaz, the leader of the native community Nueva Austria del Sira, in Huánuco. One aimed at her, demanding her to answer or else he would kill her. The other two bombarded her with questions about the apu's movements: what time he arrived, what paperwork he did, where he went when he was not in the village. None of them believed that she had never seen him, or that she was just a visitor, as she insisted, making excuses and begging for her life.
“‘We are the owners because Nueva Austria doesn't exist,’ they kept repeating until they left," Maria recalls with a trembling voice.
Yaneshas' houses from Nueva Austria del Sira are almost in the boardline with El Sira Communal Reserve. Photo: Comunity.
Roots of the scourge
For this village that was the scene of tenacious Austrians in search of gold, hence its name, the conflict that is depleting it, began in its southern border with the native community Nuevo Unidos de Tahuantinsuyo. A former community leader, who also fled from Nueva Austria del Sira and must change his residence from time to time for safety reasons, told us for this report that groups of settlers took possession of part of the sector adjacent to both communities and formed the Paujil village. Those who settled there, he said, were only interested in timber exploitation in the area, since they began to uncontrollably deplete the forests on the side leading to Nueva Austria del Sira.
In June 2004, Nueva Austria was recognized as a native community by the directorial resolution of the Regional Directorate of Agriculture of Huánuco. The former leader reports that the ancestral area defined for the land titling of the native community was 13,184 hectares. In the bordering sectors, he specifies, reference points had already been located for the next delimitation of the communal area. However, the process was postponed and stopped for almost 10 years. During this delay, the inhabitants of Paujil, Peter Gómez Yulgo, and Alexander Hernani Serrano requested the Mixed Court of Puerto Inca (Juzgado Mixto de Puerto Inca) annul the resolution of recognition of Nueva Austria del Sira because, according to their allegations, it did not exist. The judicial office, then in charge of Judge William del Aguila Pezo, sent an official letter to the Regional Directorate of Agriculture of Huanuco to carry out an inspection procedure. Óscar Rivas Ascanio, an engineer who specialized in physical and legal diagnosis, carried out the inspection on May 15, 2014, and seven days later issued a report with the results of his visit.
In the document, to which Convoca.pe had access, the engineer stated that the rural community of Paujil had an urban area of approximately 12 hectares on the territory of Nueva Austria del Sira. In addition, he witnessed the community's forests logged by the inhabitants of the village, and he even went to where the Indigenous families, their homes, crops, and the community center were located. In other words, there was not only evidence of the invasion and the loss of forest cover caused by this, but also the presence of an organized native community. Despite all this, the Mixed Court of Puerto Inca declared null the resolution of recognition of Nueva Austria del Sira, and two years later in April 2016 the DRA of Huánuco definitively abolished the recognition.
During the first demands and negotiations to compensate the resolution of recognition, the community leadership obtained a list of 288 requests for individual land titles to the territory of Nueva Austria addressed to the DRA of Huánuco. According to the villagers, the forest destruction and the settlement of outsiders began to extend from the border with Paujil to different sectors in the Indigenous community. An intervention promoted by the Union of Asháninkas and Yáneshas Nationalities (Unión de Nacionalidades Asháninkas y Yáneshas – UNAY) in October 2017 verified that up to that time the DRA of Huánuco had granted 104 individual land titles out of the 288 requested that were on file after the annulment of the recognition. All of the granted properties were in the community area and belonged to 47 people. The field evaluation showed that most of the title holders had four or five lots. According to the verification report, some of them did not even know the location of all of their lots.
Even for this area, that is occupated by this communal house in Nueva Austria, was expedited many years ago an individual land's right. Photo: Community.
Through an evaluation in the Land Recording System for Rural Properties, Convoca.pe identified that there are now approximately 165 titled lands on the territory claimed by Nueva Austria del Sira. There are more than 5,730 hectares of individually titled lands within the 13,184 hectares of the community. In several cases, the lands granted exceed 100 hectares. There are owners who hold four or five properties, and several of them are family members. One piece of land of more than 169 hectares, for example, is titled on behalf of Peter Gómez Yulgo, one of the inhabitants of the Paujil village, who requested the annulment of the recognition of Nueva Austria del Sira. Community leaders say that many of those who received the land are people from Paujil who were already invading, and also relatives of former authorities of the Municipio Provincial de Puerto Inca.
Since 2016, most of the land titles were granted by the DRA of Huánuco, after the resolution of recognition of the community was voided. 2016 was the fourth year of the Rural Land Formalization and Titling Project for which DEVIDA allocated more than US$4,000,319 (S/13,445,075) to the DRA of Huánuco. This process, reported by DEVIDA to the Congress of the Republic of Peru, contemplated the formalization of native communities. However, it was focused on the legalization of individual properties until it ceased to be executed in 2018.
The National Coordinator for Human Rights states that one of the basic requirements for any person in the framework of these land titling processes is to have previous economic activity in the area where they are seeking to settle. In Nueva Austria, however, the land titles were for people who did not even know the land they were granted. In addition, the leaders and community members point out that they were never called to be part of a neighboring agreement with the beneficiaries.
In shadow, the Nueva Austria del Sira's area. Deforestation is present where the individual lands are (poligons in yellow lines). Image: Data visualisation - QGIS software.
Facing Polico Díaz's small farms there is an apocalyptic landscape. Parts of dead trees that, in its most optimistic calculations, must border around 70 hectares in this sector. The apu knew that logging was spreading like cancer through remote areas of the village. He witnessed it with helplessness but also as a disease that could be contained by the authorities. Now he only has to take a short walk from his house in any direction to witness the progressive extinction of trees. "No one is coming here," he regrets. "It all depends on our own resistance.” By the end of August 2021, the slashing and burning of trees reached the crops of Alejandro, an Asháninka who, without thinking, decided to confront the loggers. They pointed a gun at him, hit his head, and left him with a blunt warning: "Leave or we will destroy your houses with all of you inside."
It was the closest the invaders came to the communal houses. They are land traffickers who identify areas of the village where there are no individual land titles, so they can control them and then sell them as logging areas or for coca plantations. This is the modus operandi that has been observed and understood by the Indigenous people, especially during the last five years of this scourge. In the part of the native community where the Yáneshas and Asháninkas live, there are still no coca plantations, but logging is alarming. Nueva Austria del Sira has registered deforestation of 1,864 hectares in the last 20 years, according to the Geobosques platform of the Ministry of Environment. The major period of logging in the native community was between 2014 and 2016 totaling 669 hectares, during the years in which its recognition was annulled and the overlapping of individual properties progressed.
An analysis of satellite imagery of the territory of Nueva Austria del Sira, carried out by Convoca.pe, revealed that the deforestation hotspots are over most of the titled lands. What happened on August 21, 2019, illustrates this situation well. On that day, according to what was documented by the Second Corporate Provincial Prosecutor's Office Specialized in Environmental Matters of Ucayali (Segunda Fiscalía Provincial Corporativa Especializada en Materia Ambiental de Ucayali), the police found six hectares, belonging to the native community, completely logged. The authorities geo-referenced the area and recorded the coordinates. The alert had been issued by community members who accused four people led by Clementino Ponce Condor, a neighbor of the Paujil village. This investigation identified that the established coordinates place the logging area within a 112-hectare property titled by the DRA of Huanuco. This piece of land, as a matter of fact, is in the name of Ponce Condor. However, it is not the only property obtained by Ponce in Nueva Austria del Sira. He is accused of destroying six hectares of forest, and he also has a land title of 11 hectares in his name with clear evidence of deforestation.
Zones deforestated by loggers have extended to reach the living area of the indigenous. Photo: Comunidad.