Amazon rainforest: The business of deforested land under the control of the powerful Romero GroupPor Milagros Salazar Herrera y Nicolás Cisneros | 22 Abril, 2022
Amazon rainforest: The business of deforested land under the control of the powerful Romero Group
Convoca.pe gained access to testimonies, hundreds of documents, satellite map images and purchase and sale contracts linked to the cases of deforestation for which the Peruvian justice system has spent a decade investigating the company Palmas del Shanusi, which belongs to one of Peru’s most powerful economic conglomerates, the Romero Group. Our team traveled to several parts of the Amazon to reconstruct this tale of threats, intrigue, dispossession and large-scale deforestation to allow palm oil production, which involves public officials, notaries, businessmen and alleged frontmen. In this report from the project “Wounded Earth”, which Convoca.pe is publishing in partnership with the Pulitzer Center as part of the Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN), we reveal unpublished facts regarding one of the most emblematic cases of deforestation in Peru.
By Milagros Salazar Herrera and Nicolás Cisneros/ Translated by Charlotte S. Beauclerk
April 22, 2022
During several days in December 2012, the roar of chainsaws spread over the hamlet of Jorge Chávez in the region of Loreto, like a lit match blazing across a prairie. The local population remember that the deafening hum drew them to the epicenter of the scene: around 200 men felling trees one by one as though on a hasty production line, the hamlet officials recall. Several days later, representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office determined that 500 hectares of land had been deforested. “They are from the Romero Group,” the hamlet officials stated angrily during the inspection.
The influential Romero Group owns over 15 companies in a variety of sectors, among which Palmas del Shanusi, a large-scale palm oil producer in Loreto in the Peruvian Amazon, and which is the object of complaints, including those by the hamlet of Jorge Chávez, in the province of Alto Amazonas. Dionisio Romero, the president of the conglomerate, is one of the ten most powerful men in Peru, and the third most influential in the private sector.
The incident reported by the inhabitants of Jorge Chávez was only the first act in a convoluted series of land purchases and sales over the last ten years, which resulted in mass deforestation in this region of the Amazon and involved public officials, notaries and businessmen in a tangle of intrigue, threats, falsified signatures and documents, silence and powerful economic interests.
Convoca.pe traveled to the epicenter of the deforestation, gained access to hundreds of documents and interviewed dozens of key figures. This allows it to now reveal unpublished facts on the illegal mechanisms to access the land where forest previously flourished.
Our team visited several hamlets in Yurimaguas to trace the deforestation. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe.
When the inhabitants of the deforested zones start to remember how this story of scorched earth began, the accumulated tiredness is visible on their faces. “Sometimes we do not know what we are mixed up in; we were too trusting. I do not want to talk any more about what happened, because it fills me with regret,” says Keyller Majipo, a 44 year-old who states that he sold the ownership certificate to a 42-hectare plot of land “with mountains and trees” to Palmas del Shanusi in February 2014. We met him at his house in the city of Yurimaguas, sitting at a computer, as he now earns a living by writing and photocopying documents for the locals, far from the chainsaws and the countryside.
Though over ten years have passed since the Public Prosecutor’s Office launched its investigation of the company owned by the powerful Romero Group, now is a decisive moment to review records, testimonies and swampy ground. We are about to learn why.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for the Environment of Alto Amazonas launched three investigations against the company belonging to the Romero Group for allegedly deforesting over 1,700 hectares: one for the deforestation of 500 hectares in the Nuevo Japón and Independencia areas, another for the deforestation of around 800 hectares in Yurac Quebrada, where the company acquired 50 plots in 2010 and 2011, and the third for the aforementioned 500 hectares in Jorge Chávez.
Palmas del Shanusi stated in an email to our team that the processes carried out in Nuevo Japón and Independencia, and the one in Jorge Chávez, involve deforesting the same area of land. However, the Prosecutor’s Office and the residents indicate that these are two adjacent areas, not the same area.
In those two cases, the Judicial System absolved the directors of the company, Ronald Campbell and José Mercado Bartolo, as perpetrators-by-means of the deforestation, but this decision was annulled following an appeal by the Prosecutor’s Office of the Ministry of Environment, which argued that there was evidence that the company had participated in the purchase and sale of the deforested land.
The investigated parties aim to revoke the latter decision through a cassation appeal, which was admitted a few months ago. However, as this report makes clear, new evidence has emerged concerning the participation of the company in this web of multiple transactions of land ownership certificates.
Meanwhile, the case of the deforestation of over 800 hectares in Yurac Quebrada is at the stage of oral hearings. It is the Prosecutor’s Office’s most solid evidence against the representatives of Palmas del Shanusi: a number of documents demonstrate that the company directly purchased at least 50 plots in this area of forest, in addition to satellite images that show when the deforestation began.
Discover the main findings of this investigation
However, this story of David against Goliath comprises a key figure from the north of Peru, more precisely the Andean region of Cajamarca, who has mastered the art of dodging such challenges and living in vulnerable situations. Milton Artiaga Díaz, a resilient 48-year-old former bullfighter, moved to the Amazon to forge ahead, first in the livestock business, then in palm oil production.
The Prosecutor’s Office has singled out Artiaga as the frontman for Palmas del Shanusi for the purchase of ownership certificates of over 300 hectares previously in a forested state in the hamlets of San Pedro de Mayrujay and Independencia. However, the Judicial System considered that the evidence was insufficient to prove this connection, and absolved the representatives of Palmas del Shanusi of the crime of deforestation.
Convoca.pe reconstructed how these transactions occurred, and the facts that clarify the link between Artiaga, the company belonging to the Romero Group, the access to the land and the deforestation.
In Alto Amazonas, our team met the majority of the inhabitants of the hamlets of Independencia and San Pedro de Mayrujay who appear on the contracts as vendors of the ownership certificates of the land to Milton Artiaga. All state that the agreement for this sale took place with representatives of Palmas del Shanusi, not with Artiaga. Moreover, they say, when they sold their land it was still in a forested state.
Residents of the hamlet of Jorge Chávez have filed a complaint against Palmas del Shanusi for the contamination of their rivers and the management of the land in the area. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe.
How did the contact with the company take place? The residents state that first they were given appointments at the office of Palmas del Shanusi in Pampa Hermosa. There they established the coordinates of the surface of the land, and the amount that would be paid for it. If the vendor agreed to the amount, they had to visit a notary to sign the contract and receive a check, which they usually cashed at Banco del Crédito, a bank that is also under the umbrella of the Romero Group.
The inhabitants relate that during the entire process they never saw Milton Artiaga Díaz, not even at the signing of the contract.
“We did not meet him. He [Artiaga] got involved after the transaction with the Romero Group had taken place”, says Juan Pinasco Fasabi, as he shows us a copy of the check from the Banco del Crédito that carries the signature of Héctor Dongo, one of the representatives of Palmas del Shanusi.
The check that Juan Pinasco claims that the company gave him when it purchased one of his plots of land.
Pinasco is stated as the vendor of the ownership certificates of two plots of land in San Pedro de Mayrujay in 2012: one 43-hectare plot and one 46-hectare plot. On the documents in the tax record, Milton Artiaga Díaz appears as the buyer, but Pinasco shows other contracts on which the then-representative of Palmas del Shanusi, Héctor Dongo, is stated as the real buyer.
Why did you sign contracts for the same land with different buyers? we ask. “They summoned me back to the notary’s office, and explained that the documents needed to be corrected, so I went along and signed them.”
Nixon Sánchez, another resident who sold his land, declares that the negotiation was undertaken with José Mercado Bartolo, at the time the representative of Palmas del Shanusi.
However, this version of events is related by not only the vendors but also individuals who worked for the company. One of them is Beder Panduro, who recalls that Juan Pinasco contacted him to sell his land to the company, as his neighbors had already sold theirs, and he did not want to be left isolated after the company took them over.
The key testimony by Juan Pinasco
Panduro, a man with a serene demeanor, explained to Convoca.pe that he had been employed at Palmas del Shanusi between 2012 and 2016, where he was responsible for measuring and georeferencing the plots that were then sold to the company, and coordinating the notarial procedures. Indeed, Panduro, now the head of a citizen security group in the neighborhood of Pampa Hermosa, a few minutes from the headquarters of the company, is indicated as the representative of Palmas del Shanusi on a deforestation verification report carried out in 2012 by the Regional Government of Loreto.
However, there is also evidence backing up these accounts.Convoca.pe gained access to a number of official documents that reveal for the first time the participation of the company Palmas del Shanusi in the purchase of this land, which according to the technical inspections ordered by the Public Prosecutor’s Office was previously in a forested state.
Our team identified that between 2016 and 2017, Palmas del Shanusi lodged at least 37 requests for supplementary titles, a legal instrument that formalizes the ownership, in this case the land ownership certificates, if it can be established that it acquired this land.
We turned to the General Archive of the San Martin High Court, where we analyzed the complete records of four cases in which the company owned by the Romero Group requested that a Yurimaguas court grant it the ownership of plots of land that had supposedly been purchased by Milton Artiaga through ownership certificates: one that had belonged to Víctor Pisco Gómez, one to Niler Mestanza Rimachi and two to Juan Pinasco.
Request for a supplementary title submitted by Palmas del Shanusi, against Victor Pisco Gómez.
The same contract and two different signatures: the request for a supplementary title submitted by Palmas del Shanusi against Víctor Pisco features the signature of the representative of the company at the time, Héctor Dongo Martínez, while the private contract for the same plot features the signature of Milton Artiaga.
The purchase and sale contracts that the company provided as evidence to request the supplementary title show that these plots of land were bought for the same price and on the same date that are stated on the transactions attributed to Milton Artiaga. This time, the difference is the buyer’s signature. “Palmas del Shanusi, represented by Héctor Eduardo Dongo Martínez,” the same executive who appears on the check provided at the purchase of Juan Pinasco’s plot of land.
A comparison of the information on the purchase and sale contracts of the inhabitants’ plots with the records of the supplementary titles shows a number of revealing coincidences. The coordinates of the land sold by Niler Mestanza match those that appear on the private sales contract of the ownership certificate. One of Juan Pinasco’s plots of land has three adjacent zones, which on the requests for supplementary titles are indicated as belonging to “Palmas del Shanusi” and which correspond to the same plots that, according to the purchase and sale contracts at the notaries’ offices, were supposedly sold to Milton Artiaga by Katty Vela, Segundo Flores and Pinasco.
Palmas del Shanusi requested a supplementary title against Juan Pinasco, for one of his plots of land. However, on the private purchase and sale contract for this land, Milton Artiaga is stated as the buyer. Why did the company request the title for a property that Artiaga had supposedly bought?
A review of a historical database of ownership certificates provided to Convoca.pe by the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency showed that Vela, Flores and Pinasco did not possess any other land than that mentioned, which is being investigated by the authorities.These are therefore the same plots of land.
In February 2014, Palmas del Shanusi bought a 42-hectare plot of land from Keyller Majipo. When we interviewed Majipo at his home in Yurimaguas, he related that he had sold his land out of necessity, and that he was not satisfied with the transaction because initially the company offered 1,000 Peruvian soles per hectare (approximately 356 dollars at the time) and ultimately paid 650 Peruvian soles (213 dollars).
In Majipo’s case, the company also requested a supplementary title to regularize the ownership of the land and finally obtain the ownership title.
At the San Martin High Court we identified at least another 30 requests for supplementary titles by the company between 2016 and 2017. After various twists and turns, the requests were declared to be unfounded by the judges, as the criminal investigation for deforestation at the Public Prosecutor’s Office was underway. However, these requests through civil proceedings demonstrate for the first time the link between the company and the deforested land under examination.
What explanation can Milton Artiaga provide in response to these complaints? In his declarations to the Prosecutor’s Office, Artiaga stated that he had deforested 300 hectares himself and that “perhaps” he had planted oil palm for his own business.Convoca.pe located him at his house a few minutes from the headquarters of Palmas del Shanusi, in Pampa Hermosa, to hear his version of events for this convoluted story of land purchase and sale in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
“I declared to the Prosecutor’s Office that I cleaned the plots that contained purma (secondary forest) and machopurma (mature secondary forest), that is, in which there was not any kind of wood. I did not say that I carried out deforestation. It was not a virgin mountain, there was grass, banana trees, cacao trees,” he replied, displaying his annoyance and discomfort at being referred to as the frontman of Palmas del Shanusi.
“What I know is that this land is mine; I bought it legally, and here are the contracts” Artiaga snapped as he showed the documents nervously and carefully. He highlighted that they were the original contracts, pointing to the signatures and stamps of the notaries, but did not allow us to review or photocopy them.
Milton Artiaga is under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for deforestation in hamlets in Yurimaguas, and has been referred to as a frontman for the company Palmas del Shanusi. Convoca.pe located him at his house close to the company’s headquarters in Pampa Hermosa. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe
“I have invested a great deal of money in this land,” he said. “How much money?” we asked. Artiaga replied that he could not remember, but he listed his various activities as a businessman, which had allowed him to earn money, and the services provided to Palmas del Shanusi. He sold it mules to transport the fruit from the oil palm in the countryside, and is still selling it this fruit, which he claimed to produce on 100 hectares in the district of Caynarachi (region of San Martin). We checked his properties in public records, and identified ten plots of land in the area, of which six are still active.
Artiaga states that he owns land in various regions of Peru, and that since 2005, when he started to purchase and sell livestock, he has sold over 2,000 mules to several oil palm companies, including the companies owned by the Romero Group, but also by Ocho Sur, which operates in the regions of Ucayali and Loreto, and is the object of complaints regarding the mass deforestation caused by the activities of the Czech-American businessman Dennis Melka, who is under investigation for the deforestation of over 13,000 hectares.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Specialized Prosecutor for the Environment of Alto Amazonas launched three investigations of the company owned by the Romero Group for allegedly deforesting over 1,700 hectares of forest. In this report we reveal unpublished information on the purchase and sale of deforested land linked to this business conglomerate".
The purchase of land through the use of ownership certificates is illegal under several regulations of the Loreto regional government, however it is a widespread practice in the countryside and by notaries and lawyers. This type of certificate establishes that an individual who does not own an ownership title works on the land for farming purposes. With the passing of time, the regulation of its use has evolved, and in 2013 it was established that, in order to acquire this right, the surface of the land could not exceed 20 hectares, as it was designed to be used by small-scale farmers.
In 1991, the government of Alberto Fujimori created the Rural Property Register to facilitate the procedures to obtain titles and ownership over the land, through legislative decree 667. Eight years later, an amending law added the ownership certificate as an instrument to establish that an individual has worked on the land. It was not however designed to replace an ownership title or be used to sell the land to another individual.
In 2003, the regional government of Loreto made it illegal to transfer land with ownership certificates to third parties. Therefore, the purchase of the aforementioned 13 plots of land in San Pedro de Mayrujay and Independencia was illegal.
Interview with Urfiles Pérez, director of Disafilpa (region of Loreto)
How then did Palmas del Shanusi, a powerful company dedicated to large-scale palm oil production, and Milton Artiaga, a prosperous businessman who describes himself as having extensive experience, find a way around these regulations?
Convoca.pe identified a series of irregularities in this strategy of purchasing and selling ownership certificates.
We reviewed step by step the process of submission of the 13 ownership certificates that arose the suspicion of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. On June 19, 2012, two months before they were sold, the authorities of the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency submitted land ownership certificates to Katty Vela, Niler Mestanza and Segundo Bardales in the hamlet of Independencia. A similar pattern can be observed with the certificate for one of Juan Pinasco Fasabi’s plots, which was issued on September 20, 2012, five days before it was sold. These four certificates were the last to be issued.
The other plot belonging to Juan Pinasco Fasabi obtained the ownership certificate on June 30, 2011. Two days later, eight certificates were approved, en bloc. These were the plots belonging to his neighbors, with whom Pinasco had created the Nuevo Japón Association of Agricultural Producers years before, and, as they told us for this report, they negotiated the sale of this land with the company Palmas del Shanusi.
A technical report by the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency from February 2014 reveals that 11 of those certificates (not including those of Katty Vela and Segundo Bardales) were provided without following the normal procedure. Neither was it established that agricultural work was carried out on that land, and the surface area of the permanent and temporary crops was not indicated, though the regulations require this.
Technical report by the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency on the irregularities in the issuance of ownership certificates.
Pinasco stated to Convoca.pe that he was not responsible for coordinating the submission of the ownership certificates with the authorities or with Palmas del Shanusi, as is indicated by other testimonies collected by the Prosecutor’s Office. He declared that Nixon Sánchez, also a member of the Nuevo Japón Association, carried out the arrangements. “We wanted to make an agricultural loan, we did not want to sell … this is why I thought it was strange that the company should try to pressure us to speed up the procedure,” explains Pinasco at his house in Yurimaguas, where he shows us several bulky folders containing forms from the entire process of purchase, sale and complaints. Pinasco has the habit of documenting all the stages in his account.
Nixon Sánchez also has a version of events. He states that each member of the association managed the ownership certificates of their land independently, and that he did not know that they were approved en bloc. It is clear that this land was sold between August and September 2012, shortly after the certificates were issued, as is stated on the contracts on which Milton Artiaga appears as the buyer, on the records of the San Martin High Court from which Palmas del Shanusi requested the ownership of several of these plots and on the records of the ownership certificates that the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency provided to Convoca.pe through a request enabled by Peru’s Transparency Law.
The purchase and sale of these certificates has divided the inhabitants of the hamlet of San Pedro de Mayrujay. Each of them has their own interests to defend, and their own version of events. The current leaders of this hamlet perceive the Nuevo Japón Association as an ally of the company Palmas del Shanusi.
Testimony of the leaders of San Pedro de Mayrujay
“They [members of the association] installed themselves in the hamlet for two or three years, then aimed to sell to Palmas [del Shanusi] with an ownership certificate. We cannot understand why such a large company buys land with an ownership certificate. It was an illegal purchase,” says Carlos Murayari, president of the hamlet’s Agricultural Producer Association.
The brothers David and Santiago Flores Valderrama also sold their land with an ownership certificate, but unlike Nuevo Japón, they claim that they were driven to do so due to a lack of options. “Some of us residents accepted it, because we did not know what would happen. I was left all alone, right in the middle. They told me that I could not enter my land,” David relates.
The leaders of the hamlet of San Pedro de Mayrujay are still involved in a dispute with the company Palmas del Shanusi regarding access to the land. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe
Both appear on the records of the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency with ownership certificates for two plots, measuring 10 and 9 hectares respectively. The documents were issued on June 30, 2011. They stated that they later sold their land to the company, after which the Agricultural Agency revoked the issuance of the certificates. The Valderrama brothers, like other hamlet residents, were left in limbo.
However, several State officials are involved in this strategy of land purchase and sale.
The officials involved
In February 2014, when the Prosecutor’s Office was investigating the purchase of land by Milton Artiaga, the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency identified that the ownership certificates for this land were awarded without verifying that agricultural work took place or specifying the surface area that it occupied.
Nine certificates were approved in June 2011 by José Correa Pezo, at the time the director of the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency. Luis Miguel Dávila Díaz is stated as the professional sent to carry out visual inspections of the plots and write the corresponding technical reports, six of which were written on the same day. However, Dávila was not recorded in the employee log at the Agricultural Agency, as was revealed by the subsequent investigations carried out by the body.
Convoca.pe managed to locate Dávila, who declared that he provided services to the Agricultural Agency as an external consultant, and that his signature had been falsified on the aforementioned nine reports. “There should be six output requests for that day, but there were not. That information is false. No one can produce six reports in one day. Moreover, if you compile all my technical reports, you will observe differences in the content: the other person writes more intermittently, whereas I narrate from the moment that I reach the plot,” Dávila explains.
We also contacted José Correa Pezo, who was the director of the Agricultural Agency at the time, and approved the issuance en bloc of these certificates. The former official defended himself by alleging memory loss. He claimed that he did not remember this situation because the events occurred over a decade ago.
Correa and Dávila are not the only individuals under investigation for issuing irregular ownership certificates. According to the report by the Agricultural Agency, three other individuals are involved in these arrangements: Marco Nureña Hidalgo, the director of the Agricultural Agency in 2007, Hebert Oliva Cachay, director in 2012 and since deceased, and Julián Camus del Castillo, who worked as an external consultant.
The headquarters of the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency in the region of Loreto. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe.
Camus del Castillo is alleged to have signed a project profile to issue the ownership certificate for one of the plots belonging to Juan Pinasco, though this procedure was not one of his job duties. “This subject is in the administrative field, therefore I reserve the right not to provide any kind of statement,” was Camus del Castillo’s response when asked about this signature. He attributed the absence of information regarding the size of the plots of land on the certificates to an excessive workload.
Regarding Marco Nureña, the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency mentions that the georeferenced area of the plot is not included, and a technical report is not attached, though these are requirements in order for an ownership certificate to be approved. On this subject, Nureña claims that in 2007, when he was the director of the Agricultural Agency, the body did not have the GPS technology necessary to carry out the georeferencing, but that the technical report was produced and is stored at the Agricultural Agency. “I do not know who lied to you,” he said sharply.
Dávila and Camus del Castillo deny any association with the company to issue these ownership certificates. “We have always been aware of this, and I acted carefully to follow the guidelines and avoid doing anything irresponsible,” says Camus del Castillo.
Palmas del Shanusi is still acquiring land in Alto Amazonas. On October 28, 2021, the Alto Amazonas Agricultural Agency issued 43 ownership certificates to the company in the hamlet of Túpac Amaru, according to a database of the body to which Convoca.pe gained access.
In recent years, the purchase of land through various methods has persisted. Our team identified that the company owned by the Romero Group acquired almost half of a group of plots that were issued titles en bloc only a year previously. On November 30, 2018, the Regional Bureau for Agriculture issued en bloc the titles for 37 plots located in three gullies in Alto Amazonas. On October 10 of the next year, the company purchased 16 of these plots, for prices that ranged between 200 and 300 Peruvian soles per hectare (between 59 and 89 dollars).
Surrounded, and offered a low price
Most of the inhabitants who sold their land to Palmas del Shanusi agree that they were pressured by the company to do so. “You don’t want to sell it, that is fine, but we are going to install a gate and you won’t be able to go out to Yurimaguas whenever you want. We will control your entry and exit, and have a guard present,” Juan Pinasco recalls that Beder Panduro said. “Indeed, they built an entrance with guards who monitored the area, guards from the Romero Group. How could we live like that?” he added.
Carlos Murayari, from the hamlet of San Pedro del Mayrujay, gave the same account: “They said ‘If you do not sell, you will not be able to enter,’” says Bercella Pérez, who owns a plot in Túpac Amaru. Adriano Minga, another former resident of the hamlet, also claims that he and his wife were among the last to sell their property, and finally accepted under pressure from the company, which warned them that it would impede their access to their land.
Residents of the hamlet of Túpac Amaru reported that the company Palmas del Shanusi pressured them to sell their land and thus lose access to the zone. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe.
Another similar case is that of Benito Pérez Aguilar, who indicated in his statement to the Prosecutor’s Office that the company surrounded his land and, leaving him with no other options, proposed a low price for his plot. Convoca.pe consulted the public records, which corroborated Perez’s claim that he was one of the last residents to sell his plot to Palmas del Shanusi, as the company had already bought the surrounding properties a few weeks before, which belonged to Leonardo Silva Huancas and Maria Luisa Tapullima.
The company belonging to the Romero Group purchased 50 plots of land with property titles in Túpac Amaru between August 2010 and November 2011. The Prosecutor’s Office investigated the company regarding these acquisitions, as well as over 40 former owners of this land for the crime of deforestation, due to the discrepancy between the different accounts and the evidence. On one hand, Palmas del Shanusi states that the land was sold in a deforested state, whereas the inhabitants argue that they sold it with “mountain and trees,” and that company cut down the forest.
“Deforesting each hectare would cost around 500 Peruvian soles (around 136 dollars). Imagine what an investment that represents in all the land that was sold. There is no way that we could afford it, with what we earn. We sold it in a forested state, and the company knows that,” Adriano Minga told Convoca.pe.
The company purchased the land in Túpac Amaru for between 900 and 1,000 soles per hectare (between 323 and 359 dollars at the time), according to the analysis that our team carried out using the information available in public records.
“They accused us of this, but I did not remove trees on a single hectare of the land. I gave it to them in an integral state,” says José Sánchez Cotrina. Mirla Sangama, another resident who sold her property to Palmas del Shanusi, provides a similar account, stating that she “did not deforest a single piece of the land.”
However, the tax record for this case, which is still at the stage of oral hearings, contains purchase and sale contracts for these plots of land with observations that state that they were sold in a deforested state. According to the former owners, this is a ruse carried out by the company, because they did not read the documents that they signed carefully.
The majority of them use the same argument to defend themselves and accuse the company of being responsible for the deforestation: the price for which the plots were purchased is too low for deforested land.
The annual data from Geobosques indicates that in Túpac Amaru, most of the loss of forest in the plots bought by Palmas del Shanusi occurred between 2010 and 2011, the years in which they were purchased. However, on the properties belonging to María Tangoa, Marcos Padilla and Alfonso Silva, it is clearly visible that most of the deforestation occurred in 2012, when the land already belonged to the company.
Inhabitants of the hamlet of Túpac Amaru who sold their land to Palmas del Shanusi. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe.
Jorge Lozano Melendez and July Doris García, the owners of Agroindustria Alto Amazonas S.R.L., a food business, are involved in the case of deforestation in Túpac Amaru. The couple of businesspersons bought eight plots in this hamlet for prices between 200 and 300 soles per hectare, and one was even bought for 28 soles per hectare (roughly 8 dollars per hectare at the time). Shortly after, Lozano and García sold this land to the company for around 900 soles per hectare (approximately 323 dollars). The resale price was therefore three times higher.
In a conversation with Convoca.pe, Jorge Lozano claimed that he sold the land to the company owned by Grupo Romero in a forested state. He was evasive and did not provide evidence for this version of events.
The notary responsible for supporting the purchase and sale contracts for the plots in Túpac Amaru was Alfonso González Villavicencio. In their legal depositions, several former owners indicated that when they signed the contracts, González did not allow them to read the contents of the document. “They did not let us read it, they just made us sign it. They were in a hurry. We signed a pile of forms, and they did not give us the time to read them because it was late. They did not give us a copy either,” says Mirla Sangama.
In their depositions for the Prosecutor’s Office, the former owners mention another important piece of information: the notary Alfonso González never visited their properties to verify that the land was deforested.
In Yurimaguas, Convoca.pe located González to obtain his own statement regarding these accusations. “Imagine if we had to inspect everything, check what they were doing on the land, make sure that the person is really the owner. We receive ten contracts a day, do we really have to visit those areas out in the countryside? This is why the law protects the notary: just in case, you legalize the signature, not the content, unless you immediately identify something criminal in the content,” he replied.
Regarding the accusations that he did not allow the vendors to read the contract, the notary González mentions that “any person has to read the document before he or she signs it, and if they do not understand something, they can ask.”
Headquarters of the González notary’s office in the city of Yurimaguas. Photo: Milagros Salazar Herrera/Convoca.pe.
Over the course of three weeks, our team repeatedly requested an interview with the representatives of Palmas del Shanusi. Given their failure to respond, we sent a list of questions to the head of communications at Grupo Palmas, Aldo Chávez, who replied that the company management did not have the time to speak to us.
Chávez sent an email with a brief description of each investigation that the Prosecutor’s Office had led into the company. Other than that, the company chose to remain silent. However, the facts that we can now reveal speak for themselves.
Main illustration: Manuel Gómez-Burns
This report was produced through a partnership with the Pulitzer Center, an organization that directs the Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN) initiative, which involves the participation of journalists in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the United States and Spain.