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By Jack Graham | Climate change and nature correspondent, UK

Deforestation amnesty

Brazil and Colombia's dramatic reduction in deforestation last year was hailed worldwide as a major step in the right direction.

Under President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, forest loss in Brazil's Amazon rainforest hit a five-year low, while President Gustavo Petro's Colombia saw primary forest loss halve in 2023 compared to 2022.

But as Dan Collyns reports this week from Lima, the story isn't the same in Peru.

With the second largest expanse of the Amazon after Brazil, Peru's deforestation rates have been stubbornly high - increasing by 6% in 2022. 

And changes to a key forestry law are likely to make things worse. Researchers warn it will open up the Amazon to more deforestation from agriculture, and even make it easier for illicit industries like logging and gold mining to flourish.

Peru's Congress made changes in December which pardon all historical illegal deforestation of areas cleared for agriculture before January 2024, and undo future legal constraints.

Dubbed the "anti-forest law" by critics, the amended law forgives past illegal deforestation regardless of the conditions, said Julia Urrunaga, head of the Peru Programme for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

"The message that the government is sending is: 'You can come, you can deforest without respecting the laws and then eventually you will get an amnesty'," she told Context. 

"This is setting a horrible precedent."

Palm oil and Mennonites

Those backing the new law say it should benefit small farmers and provide them with more stability, by suspending the obligation of providing forest zoning to be granted land titles. 

It could also allow businesses to circumvent the new EU Deforestation Regulation, which will ban the import of commodities linked to illegal deforestation from December.

Environmental groups say the changes prevent holding agribusinesses to account for previous clearances - from major industrial palm oil companies to religious groups like Mennonites who have deforested vast swathes of the Amazon. 

A lawsuit was filed in Peru's highest court in April challenging the law as unconstitutional, while critics say it also violates the terms of the U.S.-Peru Trade Agreement. 

These changes present a serious danger to their land rights. Around a third of Indigenous people in Peru have not been titled, and many have suffered in their efforts to protect the crucial forests from illicit industries. 

In recent years, more than 30 Indigenous leaders have been killed for standing up to drug traffickers, illegal loggers and miners. 

"Not only did the government not protect them when they were alive, nor the families of the victims," said Urrunaga. "It is legalising the illegal economies that violated their rights." 

 

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