Updated: May 12
Late January 2022, the community of Aruza had learned their collective title application was annulled by the government agency managing land titling – ANATI. (Details of the case are here.) Soon after, they learned that 20 permits to log in Aruza's territory had been submitted to the Ministry of Environment (Mi Ambiente) and were in the approval pipeline. However, due to the direct communication by Wounaan Congress authorities with the Minister of Environment, all but three of the permits were suspended. Wounaan understood the three permits would allow for approximately 75 trees to be harvested from Aruza's territory.
Still, by December, 2022, Aruza community members were witnessing bulldozers cutting roads into their forests and hundreds of enormous tree trunks being trucked out, as this footage (captured from a secure distance) shows.
Wounaan were demoralized, but they had the tools to fight back. With GPS and smartphones in hand, they documented 250 trees that were illegally harvested in Aruza and reported it to Mi Ambiente. Two weeks later, Mi Ambiente was on the ground carrying out their inspection and found almost 300 downed trees. (Later they would find a couple hundred more.) They also found the logs were not micro-chipped as required by Panama’s traceability program, and the loggers were using non-compliant practices, such as harvesting seed trees or improperly constructed logging roads. Also, the loggers were harvesting disallowed species, like mahogany.
As a result of the inspection, the Public Prosecutors office opened criminal and administrative investigations into the non-compliant loggers and the government officials who were complicit in the illegal harvest of the trees. We understand one official in the Mi Ambiente regional office has been re-assigned and the other has been suspended while the investigations are in progress.
Although these actions do not return Aruza's territory to its rightful owners, they are important steps toward rooting out corruption in a system that led to the annulment of Aruza's title application in the first place. It also proves in whose hands it is best to leave these globally important tropical forest.