The Amazonian Tropics

Peru Table of Contents

The Selva, which includes the humid tropics of the Amazon jungle and rivers, covers about 63 percent of Peru but contains only about 11 percent of the country's population. The region begins high in the eastern Andean cloud forests, called the ceja de montaña (eyebrow of the jungle), or Montãna or Selva Alta, and descends with the rush of silt-laden Andean rivers--such as the Marañon, Huallaga, Apurímac, and Urubamba--to the relatively flat, densely forested, Amazonian plain. These torrential rivers unite as they flow, forming the Amazon before reaching the burgeoning city of Iquitos. Regarded as an exotic land of mystery and promise throughout much of the twentieth century, the Selva has been seen in Peru as the great hope for future development, wealth, and the fulfillment of national destiny. As such, it became President Fernando Belaúnde Terry's "Holy Grail" as he devoted the energies of his two administrations (1963-68, 1980-85) to promoting colonization, development schemes, and highway construction across the Montaña and into the tropical domain.

Human settlements in the Amazonian region are invariably riverine, clustering at the edges of the hundreds of rivers and oxbow lakes that in natural conditions are virtual fish farms in terms of their productivity. The streams and rivers constitute a serpentine network of pathways plied by boats and canoes that provide the basic transport through the forest. Here, the Shipibo, Asháninka (Campa), Aguaruna, and other tribes lived in relative independence from the Peruvian state until the midtwentieth century. Although the native people have cleverly exploited the extraordinary riverine environment for at least 5,000 years, both they and the natural system have been under relentless pressures of population, extractive industries, and the conversion of forest into farm and pasture. Amazonian forest resources are enormous but not inexhaustible. Amazonian timber is prized worldwide, but when the great cedar, rosewood, and mahogany reserves are cut, they are rarely replaced.

Peru's tropics are also a fabled source for traditional medicinal plants, such as the four types of domesticated coca, which are prized through the entire Andean and upper Amazonian sphere, having been widely traded and bartered for 4,500 years. Unfortunately, coca's traditional uses as a beneficial drug for dietary, medical, and ritual purposes, and, during the twentieth century, as a primary flavoring for cola drinks have given way to illegal plantings on a large scale for cocaine production. All of the new, illegal plantations are located in Peru's upper Amazon drainage and have seriously deteriorated the forests, soils, and general environment where they exist. The use of chemical sprays and the widespread clearing of vegetation to eliminate illegal planting has also created unfortunate and extensive environmental side-effects.

In the early 1990s, the Selva was still considered an important potential source for new discoveries in the medicinal, fuel, and mineral fields. Petroleum and gas reserves have been known to exist in several areas, but remained difficult to exploit. And, in Peru's southern Amazonian department of Madre de Dios, a gold rush has been in progress since the 1970s, producing a frontier boom effect with various negative repercussions. The new population attracted to the region has placed numerous pressures on the native tribal communities and their lands.

All of these intrusions into the fragile Amazon tropics were fraught with environmental questions and human dilemmas of major scale. In this poorly understood environment, hopes and development programs have often gone awry at enormous cost. In their wake, serious problems of deforestation, population displacement, challenge to the tribal rights of the native "keepers of the forest," endless infrastructural costs, and the explosive expansion of cocaine capitalism have emerged. In the 1963-90 period, Peru looked to the tropics as the solution for socioeconomic problems that it did not want to confront in the highlands. In the early 1990s, it was faced with paradox and quandary in both areas.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress