By Mitra Taj
LIMA (Reuters) - Deforestation in Peru has slowed since peaking at nearly 180,000 hectares (700 square miles) in 2014 when swaths of the Amazon were illegally cleared for oil palm plantations, the head of the country's forest service said on Friday.
Fabiola Munoz said tougher new laws and enforcement, including fines 700 percent higher and jailtime for people who destroy primary forest, are helping Peru rein in deforestation.
"People really used to think there would be no consequences," Munoz told foreign media. "That's changed."
In 2015, Peru lost about 160,000 hectares of forest cover, and less should be cleared this year, Munoz said. So far in 2016, about 120,000 hectares have been destroyed, according to satellite imagery.
"We expect the trend to continue to be downward. But that means we have to be more active, we can't let our guard down," Munoz said.
Peru controls about a tenth of the Amazon, a tropical forest home to unrivaled biodiversity and vast stores of carbon dioxide that fuel global warming when destroyed.
Environmentalists have criticized Peru for not doing enough to keep wood and gold from being torn illegally from its forests for export, and for allowing local authorities to dole out agricultural concessions that include swaths of virgin rainforest.
Munoz said the government has ordered oil palm plantations in Peru owned by United Cacao Limited SEZC to halt activities after finding they had illegally cleared primary forest in previous years.
But efforts to evict workers from the land have been met with threats, Munoz said.
United Cacao, headquartered in the Cayman Islands, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The company has previously denied any wrongdoing.
The dispute is now in Peruvians courts.
"We're still fighting that battle," Munoz said. "We hope the courts understand the importance of these emblematic cases...of sending the right message."
A large Indonesian palm oil company interested in operating in Peru recently requested a meeting with Munoz and other public officials to discuss possible investments, Munoz said.
The officials told the company that the kind of large-scale oil palm plantations that have contributed to rapid deforestation in Indonesia are not viable in Peru.
"We do want investments, but we don't want investments at any price," Munoz said.
Munoz added that it was unclear how much a recent spate of forest fires might hurt efforts to slow deforestation as the Amazon suffers its driest year in nearly two decades.
(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Andrew Hay)