A mild-looking, bespectacled Catholic priest, born in Portsmouth, educated at Oxford and now working in the Peruvian rainforest, is behind an important victory for local people over the logging companies laying waste to large stretches of Amazonia.
A year ago Father Paul McAuley, now 57, helped some 70 of his parishioners in the little settlement of Mazan, on one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, to seek an injunction to protect large swathes of rainforest, containing valuable tropical timber. Last week a court in Iquitos, the capital of Peruvian Amazonia, ordered a halt to the government’s sale of 40-year leases of forest land for only 22p an acre.
The judgment could affect logging operations all over the region, but the English priest, who has received celebrity endorsement for his campaign from television cook Delia Smith, says he is concerned that the authorities have as yet taken no steps to enforce the decision. “The government first sold off the oil to foreign companies, then the forests, and now they say they’ll be selling off the rivers,” he told The Independent on Sunday. “The authorities are supposed to make economic, social and environmental surveys before timber concessions are granted, but none has been carried out.”
Since April last year the government in Lima and the local authorities of the department of Loreto in Iquitos have decreed the sale of concessions over 12 million acres. Timber merchants bought 7.3 million acres. In the next round, 23 million acres were due to be put under the hammer.
Tropical timber was piled high on the quayside at Iquitos last week, ready to be shipped down the Amazon for export. “This is a very sad sight,” said Fr McAuley, adding that in the first three months of this year, loggers felled more than five times as many trees as in the first three months of 2004.
Although Peru signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which includes flora and fauna, in 1975, a year before Britain did, timber is sold with no reference to the treaty, which was put in place to reduce deforestation. To evade regulations, some Peruvian woods are sent to the US through Mexico. “There’s timber laundering as well as money laundering,” said the priest, who served at a slum parish in Lima before moving to Iquitos.
Fr McAuley said the privatisation of the rainforest was part of a scheme demanded by the World Bank and other financial institutions of the Peruvian President, Alejandro Toledo, a former World Bank employee, as a condition for loans. Though he succeeded the enormously corrupt Western-backed autocrat, Alberto Fujimori, in 2001 on a wave of popular enthusiasm, Mr Toledo has himself been tainted by reports of widespread government corruption.
Campaigners say the logging companies’ activities ruin the livelihoods of local peoples by destroying vegetation, frightening off the wild creatures they hunt and poisoning the rivers where they catch fish. Recently Peru fined Pluspetrol, an Argentine oil company, more than $1m for its pollution of the Corrientes, an Amazon tributary, and ordered it to shut 14 of its wells. The river is estimated to have received vast quantities of pollutants every day for the past 34 years from Pluspetrol and its predecessors.
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