It is a smooth ride as the boat cuts through the mirage of tens of thousands of trees on the Apayacu river. Meandering through Yagua territory, 14 hours from the Amazonian capital of Iquitos, a tiny motor propels the “peke-peke” – a small boat the people here named after the sound it makes.
Angel Yaucate does not mind how long or tedious the ride may be because he is on a mission.
Understanding the importance of preserving the land and resources ancient Amazon tribes have protected for so long, he is going from one community to the next, alerting people of a looming threat: they could lose their land.
Two years ago, Australian businessman David Nilsson arrived in the region offering tribal leaders succulent amounts of money in exchange for land rights. But Nilsson is known in Australia to be a carbon pirate. He seeks land for carbon rights to sell them in the international carbon credit market. And in Peru he found a treasure.
In the Amazon jungle, 70 million hectares is home to one of the largest carbon dioxide reserves in the world – a valuable territory for countries looking to compensate for their excessive greenhouse gas emissions.
In Peru, Nilsson targeted the Amazonian Yagua tribal communities, who have owned extensive territory and resources for centuries.
The Yaguas live mainly on agriculture and fishing. They are among Peru’s poorest people. So when Nilsson offered for his company, Amazon Holding, to pay them millions of dollars, most of the Yagua leaders signed agreements.
“I tried to warn my colleagues and other communities that we needed to discuss the contract, to know what were the terms and our obligations but the leaders didn’t want to hear it,” Yaucate explained. The Yanayacu tribal leaders were the only ones who did not sign.
Yaucate, who is quite well-versed in the arts of local politics – his father had been a prominent tribal leader – had a hunch that something was wrong when he was denied the right to review the contract.
The Yagua did not realise they were giving up their land for the next 100 years. According to Yaucate, the contract gives Amazon Holding absolute control of all resources. The tribesmen were also offered jobs, money and development projects.
“In the end it was not like that,” says Eliades Vasquez, president of the Yanayacu tribe. He says they were also promised that every individual in the community would make 75 soles per day ($30), which is a huge sum for people who hardly make $1 a day. Everyone was excited.
Everyone except Yaucate. He took the case to the people’s defender in Iquitos. When they Googled Nilsson, they learned that an Australian news programme had uncovered the scam and revealed Nilsson’s real identity. But the Yaguas were too far inland to know what was going on.
However, this revelation has not convinced everyone about the scam. Many Yagua leaders refuse to accept they have been deceived and continue to wait for Amazon Holding’s promises of economic benefit.
Although Nilsson cannot return to Peru – a court has issued a warrant against him, Yaucate’s fight to protect his people has turned somewhat sour. Many Yaguas do not want to believe that Nilsson’s promises may simply not happen. Instead many have kicked Yaucate out of their communities.
Local leaders say there is no state presence in the area, neither police or military the nearest clinic is three hours away by boat. Community leaders say the state has never offered any help.
“The problem with extreme poverty in those communities is that if someone offers them money, progress and projects that would help alleviate their needs for water, health and education, the people want to believe that that is the solution,” says Lizbeth Castro, the local ombudsman or people’s defender in Iquitos.
Also, she says the carbon market is not well regulated in Peru. Her institution has sent the case to the Committee for Indigenous People in Peru’s congress to push for strong legislation that will protect the land and their owners.
The committee’s president, Congressman Victor Grandez, has asked the Ministries of Environment and Culture to fight against Nilsson. “Nilsson is only one of many carbon cowboys that will arrive in the Amazon rainforest, looking for riches while damaging the environment,” he says.
More than a year has gone by and the Yagua have yet to see one penny. Angel Yaucate continues on the frontlines, protecting their land rights, but local authorities already say Nilsson’s counterparts are in the region – looking for more tribal leaders willing to give up land for a promise.