National Geographic : 2013 Apr
122 national geographic • april 2013 El Gato kept right on going, his three boats piled high with enough food and fuel to keep his sullenfaced crew cutting trees in the backwoods all summer long. “As long as we don’t have title, the loggers don’t respect native ownership,” Chota says, standing at the rear of the canoe, propelling us with thrusts of a tenfoot pole. “They threaten us. They intimidate. They have the guns.” The target of frequent death threats, Chota has re peatedly been forced to seek sanctuary among the Ashéninka’s tribal relatives in Brazil, a two day hike from here along ancient footpaths. “Titling is a critical ingredient in the fight against illegal logging,” agrees David Salisbury, a University of Richmond geographer who’s sit ting beside me. The lanky, fairhaired Salisbury has served as the villagers’ adviser since he first learned of their plight while doing doctoral re search in 2004. “ The native communities are the ones most invested in their place,” he says. “ They’re the most capable of making longterm decisions about how to use their homeland and resources in a sustainable way.” Peru’s logging industry operates within a framework of concessions and permits designed to allow a community, company, or individual to extract a sustainable yield from a given area. Transport permits are also issued to track the chain of custody of a shipment from stump to sawmill and on to the point of export or final sale. But permits are easily traded on the black market, enabling loggers to cut timber in one place and say it came from somewhere else. The Alto Tamaya area offers a case in point. The government’s nearest inspection station is several days downriver from Saweto, Chota tells me. So when it comes time for El Gato to float his logs out during next year’s rainy season, he can claim that any timber he illegally cut in Ashé ninka territory was harvested on a legitimate concession nearby. “Welcome to the land without law,” Chota says, with a sweep of the arm. “From that inspection post all the way back here, there is no law. The only law is the law of the gun.” As we pole our way up Mashansho Creek, it becomes clear that outsiders are not the only ones pillaging the forest. We disembark on a beach where the highpitched whine of a mo tor reaches us from back in the woods. Minutes later we come upon five young men, shirtless and barefoot, in the midst of toppling a massive copaiba tree. They’re all Ashéninka, all relatives of our party’s eldest member, “Gaitán” (not his real name). Amid a blizzard of sawdust and fly ing debris, Gaitán’s son cuts deep into the trunk. Suddenly it cracks like a thunderbolt. Everyone dashes for cover, the saw still purring as the behemoth starts a free fall and lands with an earthshaking thump. Pungent, pinescented sap oozes from the fresh stump. The oil is renowned for its curative properties, and left standing, the tree could have fetched far more over the years for its medicinal oil than the onetime cash payout—probably less than a hundred dollars—that Gaitán’s family will get for its timber. But with El Gato’s crew on the loose in these woodlands, these men decided to lay claim to it first. Such are the distortions created by the absence of law; in this jungle free forall, it’s finders keepers. Chota shakes his head in disgust at the sight of the copaiba stump. “Everyone who logs here is illegal, period,” he says. “No one has the prop er permits.” Chota has been trying to wean the Ashéninka away from such destruction. But he must tread lightly or risk further dividing his people. Native communities can subsist on game, fish, and crops if their forests are intact. Still, they need things like clothes, soap, and medicine, and for many, logging—or taking handouts to let log gers in—is the only way to acquire those goods. The Amazon rain forest is so vast and its valleys so remote that it is impossible to patrol effectively everywhere.