Peru's 'invaders' put down roots in Amazon

by @saul_elbein September 22, 2015 5:30AM ET

A new highway and loose land right laws have incentivized deforestation and mass migration in southeastern Peru

Community members install poles for electricity that will be run with a generator in the community of La Joya near Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on how Peru’s environmental policies and highway development projects have contributed to deforestation in the Amazon. Read the first part, on illegal gold mining, here

LA JOYITA, Peru — It was nearly dark one August evening when the women of La Joyita realized they were about to lose their chance at building a decent road. Rainy season was coming, with its threat of floods, and mud was already a problem. When it rained in La Joyita, an illegal settlement carved out of the dense rain forest in Peru’s southern Amazon, loose ground soaked up water, creating a muck that swallowed tires and flip-flops alike. This made getting in and out so difficult that the cistern truck drivers delivering water from the nearby city of Puerto Maldonado refused to enter, forcing some residents to drink water from untreated creeks.

Most of the residents of La Joyita were homesteaders from elsewhere in Peru, drawn to the Amazon in search of wages often several times higher than in other parts of the country. Three years earlier, the invaders, as members of these settlements are called, arrived on this vacant land, which legally belongs to Peru’s air force, cleared trees and built their wood-plank and tarp houses on the red sandy loam.

Since then, a threat has hung over the community: No one knew if or when the government would arrive to kick them out. But until it did, there was work to be done. After laying out plans for a road connecting the town to the highway, the junta that ran La Joyita finally scraped up the money to hire a bulldozer. All afternoon, the machine rolled through the remaining pockets of jungle separating the houses, crushing trees and packing down mud.

A private company uses a bulldozer to clear grass and trees for streets in the community of La Joya near Puerto Maldonado.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

But there was a problem. The former president of the community, a paunchy mechanic, Juan Carlos Alaya Cordori, left several motorcycles and gasoline barrels in the middle of the dirt track, blocking the bulldozer’s passage. “That man, he just wants to be in charge of everything,” said Flori Ramirez Pisco, a short woman with jet black hair who succeeded Alaya as president of La Joyita’s junta. She was almost literally hopping mad, stepping back and forth anxiously while she talked. Alaya swore at her when she asked him to move his things, she said. He looked out over the group of women gathered on the side of the road. “He told me, ‘I don’t care what you want. I’m not afraid of a bunch of women,’” she said.

This moment — a tense showdown over a public works project in a small illegal community — was one of the far-reaching consequences of a much larger development, the 3,600-mile Southern Interoceanic Highway, which reached the region in 2011 and is the first paved east-to-west road across the Amazon. The Peruvian and Brazilian governments sold the $1.8 billion highway to the public as an example of economic integration on a global scale. It would be the future route by which truckers would carry loads of Brazilian corn and soy to Peruvian ports so they could be shipped to China. But as of 2015, said Marc Dourojeanni, a professor emeritus at the National Agrarian University of La Molina, “not a single truckload of soy has gone to Peru.”

What happened instead was something that researchers such as Dourojeanni warned about before the highway was finished: mass migration onto land that is already claimed, a process known as invasion. Before the Interoceanic was built, the Andes stood like a 2-mile-high dam between the impoverished Peruvian heartland and the resource-rich, vulnerable jungles of Madre de Dios. Travel from Cusco, the nearest large city, to the region’s capital, Puerto Maldonado, could take weeks on a pitted dirt track not much better than the one in La Joyita. The Interoceanic Highway, he and others cautioned, would blast a hole in that dam, cutting the trip to 10 hours and putting masses of people in striking distance of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

Ongoing and completed construction projects moving into the Peruvian Amazon.

The debate over the highway was the latest chapter in a decades-long effort by the Peruvian and Brazilian governments to integrate Amazonia into their economies. Since at least the 1990s, farmers and civil society activists in Madre de Dios clamored for a better road so they could sell their crops to the rest of Peru. “We were practically isolated,” said Victor Sambrano, who headed the farmers’ union in the 1990s. But in Latin America, highways come at a price: Dourojeanni’s research found that new highways through the rain forest bring, on average, 30 miles of deforestation on each side. Unlike rivers, trains and air routes — which rely on stations and ports to control entry and access — highways open up travel to anyone with a vehicle, making it almost impossible to regulate development. “In the United States and Europe, you can build roads into protected zones, and no deforestation happens because people follow the law,” Dourojeanni said. “People don’t go off the highway to log or build their farms.”

In Peru, people often do, facilitated by a weak national government and laws that grant squatters land titles if they can demonstrate to the Ministry of Agriculture that they have improved the land. In practical terms, this incentivizes deforestation, since an invader who does not clear the forest may not win a claim to his plot. In a region where fewer than a third of people hold formal title to the land they live on, it can also mean conflict.

Rosita Silvano Cushichinari, the secretary of the Santa Rita de Casia section of La Joya, talks with a neighbor in her home where she lives with her family and elderly mother, pictured in the mirror, who is unable to walk on her own.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

No one knows how many people went to Madre de Dios after the highway reached Puerto Maldonado four years ago, but estimates are in the tens of thousands. Gold miners pushed into the forest and farms along the highway; loggers invaded indigenous territories; longtime residents of the region complained of spikes in crime. In Puerto Maldonado, the population boom brought a housing crisis. According to Miguel Figallo Excurra, a real estate agent and the mayor of La Joya, the sprawling municipality that includes La Joyita, land prices went up as much as 50 percent after the highway was completed. “The city,” he said, “wasn’t ready to receive so many people.”

So migrants spilled out into the surrounding forest. Most of the 20 or so people interviewed in La Joya told the same story: They arrived for a chance to earn several times what was possible back home — in regions such as Cusco, Puno and Ucayali — and for a chance at cheap land. Instead, they found themselves crammed in rented rooms in the city. In 2013 groups of migrants began moving into the air force territory outside town, setting up the settlements that now hold about 5,000 people. Some of the new invaders established community juntas to govern the settlements, charging new associates about $65 to enter and set up houses.

A 26-year old construction worker who paid about $300 for his plot saw the purchase as a gamble. If he and his wife get to stay, it would be like winning the real estate lottery. “If they kick us out, we lose everything. It is total chaos here.”
The Billinghurst Bridge in Puerto Maldonado was built as part of the Interoceanic Highway, linking Brazil with Peru's Pacific Coast ports.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Less scrupulous practices were common too, ranging from land speculation to fraud. At Santa Rita, a community near La Joyita, a woman who claimed her grandparents owned the land before the air force did began selling lots to migrants. She had no legal claim to the land; new arrivals were buying her permission to be there, nothing more. “You feel you’re being scammed, but we didn’t have a choice,” said William Medin, a 26-year-old construction worker from the mountains below Cusco. He and his wife paid about $300 for their plot. They saw the purchase as a gamble. He estimated the land would have cost 30 times as much in the crowded valleys back home. If they get to stay, they it would be like winning the real estate lottery. “If they kick us out, we lose everything. It is total chaos here.”

Life in the settlements is rough but pleasant. In La Joyita, the houses are picturesque, built of rough-cut wood harvested from the rain forest and painted in cheerful colors. Ornamental plants sit in coffee cans and buckets on people’s front porches; yucca patches grow in the shade of papaya and banana trees in backyards. Children, dogs, chickens and ducks are everywhere, playing and occasionally getting into fights. Some people run informal general stores, mechanic shops or little stands selling sweet purple corn juice, stuffed yucca or masato, a heavy yucca beer. Yet many residents were under the mistaken impression that the military donated the land and that their future was secure.

“It’s a game of broken telephone,” said Figallo. “They hear what they want to hear.” He’s negotiating with the air force in the hope that it will sell the land to the community. “If it doesn’t sell, these people are going to get kicked out.” 

Residents have not only the government to fear. Peruvian law, in certain cases, allows the landless to gain rights to previously claimed land if the owners aren’t using it. The irony of Madre de Dios is that the same factors that allowed for land invasions — a flexible land tenure system and ambiguous land rights — have left the invaders vulnerable to dispossession by future waves of migrants. Julia, a schoolteacher in Puerto Maldonado, bought a lot in Santa Rita that she planned to use for a school. But a few months ago she found someone else, Medin’s brother-in-law, squatting on her land. To her horror, the local junta, which Medin belonged to, upheld the man’s claim, ruling that every lot needed to be occupied in order to back up the settlement’s general claim to the land and to encourage the municipality to fund further development.

Despite their precarious position, many settlers are still putting down roots — installing concrete floors and brick walls for their houses and connecting their houses to small fuel-powered generators that allow them a few hours of electricity each night for about $10 a month.

As night fell, the women of La Joyita came to a decision. Led by Ramirez, they moved in a group toward Alaya’s house, working in pairs to move his barrels out of the road. They carefully wheeled his motorcycles into his makeshift garage, followed by a truck tire with “24 hour tire repair” written on it.

“Go help them,” one woman said to two men standing by watching. When they declined, she rolled her eyes. “Men here aren’t men, I guess,” she said. Meanwhile, the work was almost done; Alaya’s things were hidden behind a green awning hanging limply in front of his garage. The job finished, the women watched with satisfaction as the bulldozer rolled back and forth over the newly open road, tamping down the loose earth into something solid enough to withstand the coming rains.

Residents of La Joya spend time together while watching a neighbor paint his recently-constructed home.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist based in Lima, Peru. She is the recipient of the 2015 Inge Morath Award. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @davillasana.