Peru: The Peruvian Amazon

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon and Global Development 2011.

La amazonía

The Amazon

The Peruvian Amazon is almost always in the national news, but not always for the right reasons. The area has many environmental problems, including pollution, logging, the plundering and loss of flora and fauna and finally, desertification. But what does the Amazon mean to Peru and, in turn, Peru to it?

Peru is classified as an Andean country, yet the Amazon jungle takes up more than 60% of the country. And its reach was once far greater, between 13-16% of the total size of the Amazon. During colonial times, the viceroyalty of Peru continued to lose land with the advance of the Portuguese, resulting in the treaties of Tordesillas and San lldefonso. The creation of new regions, such as New Granada and Río de la Plata, also affected the size of the Peruvian Amazon. Further territory was lost during wars fought against Gran Colombia, Colombia and Ecuador. A further blow was dealt during the Acre war, between Brazil and Bolivia, in which Peru’s borders were moved, violating terms set out in the earlier treaties.

Despite the large presence of the Amazon, only 13% of Peruvians live there, while 30% of Peruvians live in Lima, on the coast. A large percentage of the Peruvian population are descendants from more than 60 existing Amazon ethnicities, speaking a range of languages, yet for the large majority, the Peruvian Amazon is an unknown and exotic place.

Lima - Iquitos, 13
Lima – Iquitos, 13 by Cyberjuan on Zooomr

For those indigenous communities who have inhabited the Amazon for the last 12,000 years the jungle is far from unknown. They have a vast knowledge of the terrain and have adapted successfully to their environment and its resources. It is almost laughable to speak of Franciso de Orellana’s “discovery” of the Amazon, an event that can be seen as the beginning of the occupation of indigenous land and the riches that they offered.

Since the Inca Empire attempts have been made to conquer the people of the Amazon and the Antisuyu, the eastern part of the once Inca Empire, with results that are still disputed today. But it was the arrival of Catholic missionaries during the Spanish conquest, under Jesuit and Franciscan supervision that, along with exploration of the jungle, brought Christianity to the Amazon’s indigenous people and occupation. With the beginnings of independence and consolidation of territory in the region, occupation of the Amazon zone became less important until the middle of the XIX century when the government of Castilla once again began to colonise the region, in particular the central jungle.

Colonisation of the jungle had a brief rest bite during Peru’s war with Chile, but started up again soon after at the beginning of the XX century. This time, however, it was driven by two principle aims: finding routes through the jungle to navigable rivers and use of the Amazon’s resources both in the central jungle and in the low lands, where rubber fever had taken hold.

Government interest in the area remained intermittent (for example, Fernando Belaúnde and his “March towards the East”) until the 1970s with the discovery of oil in Loreto. The oil boom lasted until the end of the decade. Nevertheless the exploration for oil has not stopped and with numerous oil wells in operation, a future oil boom in the area is predicted.

What this brief history of the Peruvian Amazon shows is that the area has always been seen as a free-for-all, a territory without an owner, ripe for colonisation and exploited on a whim. The original inhabitants of the Amazon have practically no rights, especially with regard to land ownership (this being one of the reasons behind the Bagua clashes in 2009), even in the eyes of their own government. Long-term mining and oil extraction in the area have failed to benefit the local population. In short, people do not know all there is to know and all they should know about the Amazon.

Pampa Michi, 13
Pampa Michi, 13 by Cyberjuan on Zooomr

But news on the Peruvian Amazon is not all bad. There is a great deal of potential and resources that, if wisely used, could bring great benefits not only to the communities that live there but also to the country as a whole. According to Wikipedia, the Peruvian Amazon is home to the second largest variety of bird species in the world. And is a habitat for one of the largest collections of butterflies and ferns. Four of Peru’s national reserves are found in the Amazon as well as three national parks and nature reserves.

The blog, Perú Hoy [es], posts a newspaper article explaining the origin, in an ongoing study, of this great biodiversity.

la región amazónica de América del Sur es, probablemente, la de mayor biodiversidad en el planeta y esa riqueza de especies es más antigua de lo que pensaban hasta ahora los científicos, de acuerdo con uno de los artículos que se enfoca en el lento levantamiento de la Cordillera de los Andes. […] se remonta a más de 65,5 millones de años

The Amazon region of South America is probably the area with the greatest biodiversity on the planet and its rich selection of species is older than scientists once thought, according to a study focussed on the slow rising of the Andean mountain range. [….] going back more than 65.5 million years.

It is also essential to mention the Amazon River, the deepest, longest and most extensive river in the world and collector of water in the immense basin to which it gives its name. Despite the rush by many to vote it one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the daily reality is that the average Peruvian is blind to the Amazon and what lies within, and government policy does little to encourage otherwise. Juan Ochoa comments on this in his blog [es]:

hemos planteado, en este espacio, el necesario acercamiento a las realidades culturales de nuestros hermanos amazónicos. Que la selva no sea un agregado del Perú, un acápite, un bosquecillo poblado por analfabetos tiraflechas. No. Aquí planteamos que nuestra selva sea considerada la mitad más uno del Perú, que el río Amazonas se convierta en el símbolo peruano del mundo, que las culturas étnicas selvícolas sean apreciadas no con ojos occidentales y que el Perú se enorgullezca de ser tan amazónico como patria del pisco, del ceviche y de los Incas.

We have set down, in this space, the necessary approach to the cultural realities of our Amazon brothers. That the jungle is not something added on to Peru, a section, a small forest populated by arrow throwers. No. Here we put forward the idea that our jungle should be considered the greatest part of Peru, that the Amazon River should be converted into the Peruvian symbol of the world, that indigenous communities from the jungle should not be appreciated through western eyes and that Peru should find pride in its Amazon as it does in its pisco (grape brandy), ceviche (raw fish) and its Incas.

And as César Álvarez Falcón, in his blog, states [es],

La gran paradoja del Perú radica en el hecho de que es un país con gran riqueza natural y cultural, y a la vez presenta una secular pobreza estructural en todos sus aspectos. El Desarrollo Sostenible no debe ser ajeno a la realidad, porque la actividad extractiva, sin responsabilidad social ni ambiental, asociada a una gran biodiversidad, puede provocar impactos negativos con efectos no solo en la degradación de los recursos naturales sino en la disminución crítica de las condiciones de vida de la población.

The great paradox of Peru stems from the fact that it is not only a country with great natural and culture wealth but it is also poor. Sustainable development must not ignore reality because mining and oil extraction without social or environmental responsibility could provoke negative impacts, spoiling not only natural resources but more importantly the habitat and quality of life of those living in the area.

Iquitos - Yurimaguas, 158
Iquitos – Yurimaguas, 158 by Cyberjuan on Zooomr

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon and Global Development 2011.

To write this post I was in part guided by “The Peruvian Amazon” by Alberto Chirif y Carlos Mora, published in the XII volume of the History of Peru, published by Juan Mejía Baca in 1980.

The map in this post comes from the blog giselamf05. The other photos are mine.


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