By Vincent Bax. Edited by Wendy Francesconi
The pristine, natural, and intensely green Amazonian forests have captured my interest for as long as I can remember. My second hand knowledge of tropical rain forests was built on an accumulation of books, courses, television, and of course the internet. The wait and hard work had paid off, I was finally going to experience first-hand one of the most biodiverse biomes in our planet. Within the framework of the ASSETS project, I had the opportunity to conduct research on deforestation processes in the Central Peruvian Amazon. From my home town in the Netherlands, I moved and lived in the jungle city of Pucallpa for about 8 months. Not too long ago, Pucallpa was a small settlement at the margins of the Ucayali River (a major tributary to the Amazon River). Today the city is the most important commercial port of the region. Since the 1940s, people from many different origins have migrated to Pucallpa resulting in a society of mixed cultures and traditions.
The lush green rain forest has rapidly been replaced by an ever growing concrete jungle. The life threatening traffic, the never ending construction work on every corner, the open air concerts and drum bands late into the evening, the beggars and vagabonds, the stray dogs and rats, all bombard and assault your senses as you attempt to stroll the door to door cemented streets. Very soon it became clear to me that Pucallpa’s multicultural population brings along a divergence of values and living standards. The fact is that not everyone subscribes to a consensus on social harmony and hygiene. This forest- agricultural frontier in the Amazon could easily be thought of as the 21st century’s “Wild West”. The ability to adapt to this harsh urban environment is an important one if one wants to reside in Pucallpa. Although life in this jungle city is far from perfect, living there enabled me to gain insight on the environmental and social problems affecting the Peruvian Amazon region.
The massive destruction of the tropical rainforests becomes painfully evident as fully loaded timber ships arrive at Pucallpa’s harbor every single day. It is well known that much of this timber is extracted illegally. However, for many reasons the government completely fails, to reduce or manage these activities. The rural areas surrounding Pucallpa and along the main highway are already completely deforested. The highly degraded environment makes it easy for you to forget that you are standing in the Amazon basin, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Along with the exploitation of the forest timber, the native wildlife is under great pressure as well. River turtles, salamanders, birds and monkeys can be bought dead, alive, and somewhere in between, at the market in Pucallpa for just a couple of Peruvian soles (less than a dollar). Though this trade is illegal and concerns many endangered species, no serious action is taken by the authorities to prevent these crimes on nature.
Far away from the chaos of Pucallpa, some indigenous communities in rural areas along the Ucayali River maintain a different way of life. I visited one Shipibo village about 5 hours from Pucallpa. Though conveniences such as piped water, electricity, etc., are lacking, and life can be very difficult from time to time, the indigenous population seems to adopt a less stressful lifestyle compared to the urban dwellers. People seem less interested in gaining monetary wealth since most of the resources they use and need are found in their immediate surroundings. Fresh fish is extracted from the river, fruits are collected in the forest, and vegetables are cultivated on small plots of land. The village is full of life surrounded by trees, birds, primates, reptiles and other wildlife. In contrast to Pucallpa, the songs and calls, earthy fresh smells, and green, blue, brown sights inspire and embrace you.
It was not obvious to me how ongoing deforestation and other environmental issues in the region are affecting this community. Hopefully, the villagers will be able to maintain their harmonious life style for a very long time. However, we know that this will probably not be the case. The desire for achieving development under the conceptual framework of western society, as the power to acquire of manufactured goods, is too heavy to counterbalance when the legacy involves centuries of undermining indigenous wisdom and culture. The most likely outcome is for migration to Pucallpa to continue to grow, strengthening the unsustainable extraction of natural resources, given that a living environment in the concrete jungle is favored over a living environment in agreement with nature.