For the past few days I’ve been in Puerto Maldonado in the Madre de Dios region of south-eastern Peru – known by many as the gateway to the Amazon. And described by Lonely Planet as “the least riveting tourist city in Peru”. I, personally, have felt quite riveted being here.
Puerto Maldonado is basically a grid of dirt roads, carrying motorbikes loaded with whole families zooming past alongside nonchalant stray dogs. It’s hot, humid and exotic – and home to some incredible Amazonian foods. I’ve tasted cupuaçu (a sweet, juicy relative of cacao) and Brazil nut ice cream, lemon-flavoured yellow mashed potatoes and all these different juices with flavours like nothing I’ve ever tried before.
And it’s full of surprises. Walking around town on day one, a mango fell out of the sky and nearly knocked me to the ground. I decided to exact my revenge by taking it home for breakfast. But the fruit was sadly too unripe for me to carry out the course of justice.
This is a vibrant city, with multi-coloured shop fronts that I’m told not long ago used to be covered in signs marketing the sale and purchase of gold. Puerto Maldonado is a gold-mining town. And as the price of this shiny commodity has sky-rocketed, so the city has swelled to accommodate a continuous stream of migrants looking for a better life.
Gold-mining is the newest serious threat to the Amazon region. And it’s spreading like wildfire in the forest, putting pressure on the people and species that live here. Madre de Dios – championed as the biodiversity capital of Peru – is faced with a serious problem as the boom of informal gold-mining tears up riverbeds and releases heavy mercury pollution into essential water systems.
But with a growing number of curious eyes questioning the impact of gold mining on the Amazon, I’m told that small-scale gold mining is now officially illegal in Peru. The ‘Buy Gold / Sell Gold’ signs have been erased from the shop fronts of Puerto Maldonado. But the city continues to grow – as demand for gold is satiated by the black market.
Why is this happening now? The experts usually talk about two key causes: 1) the insecurity of the world’s financial markets has driven cautious investors towards more tangible forms of wealth and 2) growing middle classes in emerging markets like China and India are increasing the demand for gold-plated personal possessions.
Fortunately gold mining isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all for Madre de Dios, as I discovered on a journey down the river which gives the region its name.
The water of the Madre de Dios is a tan-coloured brown, with high jagged banks lined with towering green trees. My Brazilian colleague Jorge, who has lived his whole life in the Amazonian city of Manaus, says brown rivers like this are new rivers. In his words, ‘it’s still finding its way’ – breaking down river banks and mixing with the sand to become reddish brown.
The river is also fluttering with multicoloured butterflies – reds, greens, yellows, whites, browns – at times, positively swarming in a rainbow dance.
Together with colleagues from WWF’s Amazon programme, I’m heading on a once-in-a-lifetime riverboat ride to visit an indigenous community called Boca Pariamanu, which is made up of people from the Amahuaca tribe.
The 20 or so families who live here are finding ways to make a living in harmony with the forest. While I’m told there are a couple of gold miners in the community, Boca Pariamanu is focusing on the alternatives.
When we arrive, we’re greeted by the community president, Juanito, and the head of the indigenous associations of Madre de Dios, Martin. It’s customary for everybody to stand in a circle and introduce themselves, which means that I have to put my very poor Spanish to the test to explain my name, that I live in England and that I’m very excited and grateful to be there.
I think I may have mixed in a couple Portuguese words by accident (never try to learn two languages at once) but there were nods of understanding all round. Which reminded me that communicating is about far more than getting all the words right.
Juanito took us on a walk through the forest to show us how he and his community live. We were shown the small plots of land where they grow maize, rice and plantains. Then like ants, we marched single file up a hillside into the jungle.
The air is hot and sticky and buzzing with the most unexpected sounds. My favourite was the chicharra which makes this crazy electronic buzzing sound, ‘like a Kraftwerk song’ as my colleague Lucy put it.
We made a stop at a Brazil nut tree, which is the lifeblood of the Boca Pariamanu community. These plants are incredible. Pollinated by only one species of bee, which relies on one species of orchid, the Brazil nut tree only survives when surrounded by healthy forest.
In Boca Pariamanu, each family owns a Brazil nut route (around 70 trees), which they visit regularly during the harvesting season to collect nuts from fallen seed pods. Each tree can produce about 20kg of nuts per season, which the families sell on, largely to be exported to the EU and USA.
Crucially, Boca Pariamanu has achieved organic certification for its Brazil nuts, which means they’re earning around 10% more per kilo than they otherwise would.
After a detour left us temporarily lost in the jungle, we made it back to the main house and gathering point of Boca Pariamanu. We were generously treated to lunch – a chicken and potato stew with yucca and rice – which was lovely after the two-hour trek through the jungle. Vanessa – a tiny but incredibly confident little girl – joined us and promptly asked for someone to point out who the gringos were.
My Colombian colleague swiftly waved a finger in my direction – “ella es gringa” – and continued around the circle until all the leche(milk)-skinned people in the group had been identified. I’m getting used to the stares.
Before heading back to the city, we meet up with Senora Ruth Belmira, the first female president of the Brazil Nut Committee. Together with farming, harvesting fruits, artisanal jewellery and some sustainable extraction of timber, Brazil nut harvesting means the people of Boca Pariamanu are getting by while maintaining the vibrancy of their forestland.
It’s a delicate symbiosis, with the Brazil nut plant relying on rich forests to produce its valuable nuts and the people relying on these trees for their livelihoods. It’s a strong example of how the forest can provide economic opportunities to the region’s poor without undermining the ecosystems on which life depends.
The boat ride back to Puerto Maldonado was quiet and beautiful – with dense green forest stretching out for miles in the waning sunlight. And as we headed by bus from the river port back to the city, we stopped for one last photo opportunity along the road side.
On a hill overlooking the Madre de Dios river, we captured the glow of an incredible sunset – pinks, oranges and yellows radiating against the dark green of the treetops. And in the shadows of the dry-season-high river bank, you could just glimpse the peaked sand piles of a small-scale gold-mining operation.