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Migration between Peruvian Andes and Amazon impacts both environments

  • The southern Andes is Peru’s poorest region, with its workingmen drawn to the backbreaking and heartbreaking labor of the lowland jungles, where they clear rainforest for small farms and pollute rivers in search of gold.
  • Now, an end to insurgency and a rise in tourism is bringing a reverse migration, as men come home from the lowlands to work in the Andes tourist trade, farm and be near their families.
  • The resulting prosperity brings with it new problems; the mountain population prospers and grows, leaving less land for the next generation, maybe bringing a new cycle of boom and bust.

At 4,500 meters altitude, almost 15,000 feet, there are no trees; nothing at all to stop the icy wind blasting across the highlands of the southern Andes. Juan Yupanqui stands beside a small rectangle of stones — perhaps eight by twelve feet square — perched on a hill. He looks down on a maze of mossy islands floating in a marsh, where his llamas and alpacas pull at highland mosses with their teeth.

“My parents grew up in this house,” Yupanqui said, gesturing at the stones.

He is a tall man, a community leader in the small Quechua farming village of Patacancha which also lies below. He shares his surname with one of the Inca emperors, and this suits him: unlike most men in his village he speaks a clear and jovial Spanish, the result of spending his adolescence at school in nearby Cusco.

Juan Yupanqui crouches in the shell of the house his father grew up in above the town of Patacancha. “My grandparents raised six kids in here,” he said. Credit: Saul Elbein
Juan Yupanqui crouches in the shell of the house his father grew up in above the town of Patacancha. “My grandparents raised six kids in here,” he said. Credit: Saul Elbein

Juan adjusts his rainbow-colored poncho against the wind, and picks a piece of lichen from the stones and offers it to me. “You can make a good soup with this, and with plants from the swamp. You cook it up over alpaca dung. You see how small the house is? They raised six kids in there.”

The southern Andes are Peru’s poorest region. Over the last century that grinding poverty fed guerrilla insurgency and then migration, as hundreds of thousands of highlanders left scarcity behind to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

Tens of thousands moved down into the Peruvian jungle, a mass migration that has spurred deforestation along the rim of the Amazon. (See other reporting in this series: “Poor Enticed By Gold Leave Behind Environmental Ruin”).

“When you go to the highlands, you see why,” people fled the mountains, said American anthropologist Gordon Ulmer, who studies mining and tourism in the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. “People talk about how bad the [lowland] mining camps are here, but up there is its own particular sort of frozen hell.”

In much of Western reporting on the gold boom that has devastated Madre de Dios’ forests, there is a curious inevitability, laid out like a math problem: the mountains are cold and poor; the jungle is hot and rich in resources. Now there is a good highway between them. Therefore the miners will keep coming and the trees will keep falling.

Except Juan Yupanqui isn’t leaving, and he’s thriving.

Though Patacancha lost many of its residents to the jungles of Madre de Dios during the gold booms of the 1980s and 1990s — including Yupanqui’s brother and sister in law — over the last 15 years the local economy has boomed enough to bring migrants home; enough so that Yupanqui now looks on life in the jungle with something close to disdain.

Yupanqui, his wife Elena and a neighbor warming up for a tourist visit. Credit: Saul Elbein
Yupanqui, his wife Elena and a neighbor warming up for a tourist visit. Credit: Saul Elbein

In terms of that rainforest deforestation math problem, the local mountain boom now means more trees standing in the lowlands; fewer holes in the ground from gold mining; less contamination of rivers with mercury and other toxic mining waste. Patacancha thus represents a modest and limited example of how to keep rural Peruvians out of the jungle — preserving forests for future generations.

Hell in the lowlands

Yupanqui’s brother-in-law Victor went down to Madre de Dios in 1993, and could have served as a poster boy for the typical “Andean migrant” — a young peasant with a limited command of Spanish and an ambition to get ahead. Victor followed his older sister there. She had fled home to escape their father, who tended to drink away what money he made and then beat their mother. That was the push: the pull, as every highlander knew in those days, was that you could get rich in the jungle. Victor spent four days coming down from the mountains in the back of a truck, and ended up in a small agricultural town on the Madre de Dios River, clearing the jungle for farmhand.

He hated the work. It was oppressively hot, and Victor hated the food: the monotonous piles of white rice and yucca that characterize cheap Amazonian cooking. “You couldn’t get natural food,” he said — as an Andean peasant, he was used to potatoes three times a day. The jungle terrified him, too: one day, a friend hacked into a vine with a machete and was struck by a venomous snake. He watched other friends as they were mutilated by the dreaded uta, or leishmaniasis, a kind of rotting disease, like an insect-born sort of leprosy, transmitted by the sand flies that plagued the men on riverbanks at dawn and dusk.

All the while, “I dreamed of gold,” he said, his eyes gleaming in the dim light of Yupanqui’s guest room.

Eventually, after years on the farm, he got onto a mining crew. But gold mining was even worse than agriculture. The miners woke before dawn each day to the foreman banging on their door. Victor spent long shifts in the river, underwater, breathing through a tube while using a vacuum hose to suck up river bottom sediment, and hopefully small sums of filtered gold.

This was dangerous work — one miner told me of a companion who simply vanished one day beneath the water. “We pulled up his hose and it looked cut. All we could think was perhaps it had been a boa constrictor.”

Worst of all, Victor made almost no money as a miner – just 7 or 8 soles (less than $3) per bone-wearying day.

Time passed slowly. “Hombre,” he said. “what for you is fifty years, to me would have been like a hundred.” So finally, in 1998, unable to take any more heat, rice, or low pay, he caught a ride up the mountain and went home for good. “He was all pallido when he got home,” Yupanqui said. “They’re all like that when they get home. They might be 30 but they look 70.”

Prosperity comes to the Andes… slowly

The other reason Victor came back: there were now better things to do in the corner of the highlands where he grew up. The end of the armed conflict between the Peruvian government of Alberto Fujimori and highland Marxist rebels had led to a tourism boom in Peru’s Sacred Valley — the old Inca imperial heartland stretching from Cusco to high in the Andes. The village of Patacancha sits right next to Ollantaytambo, a tourist city that is one of the jumping off points for guided trips to the legendary ruins of Macchu Picchu.

Juan Yupanqui's llamas and alpacas in the highland moor below his grandparents' house, far above the treeline. Credit: Saul Elbein
Juan Yupanqui’s llamas and alpacas in the highland moor below his grandparents’ house, far above the treeline. Credit: Saul Elbein

The booming tourist economy means Victor and Juan can find work much closer to home. Today, Victor makes about 24 soles, $8 per day, as a porter on the Inca Trail — and he needn’t spend a minute of his time underwater. Though he could make twice as much as a machetero clearing forest for miners in Madre de Dios, he doesn’t want to go back.

This is a point worth examining. There is a line of argument which asserts that the “miners” migrating down to the jungle aren’t miners at all, at least not in the career sense: they’re simply poor people, physically capable and used to working with their hands, out to make some money any way they can. “In your country, the government supports farmers with subsidies and technical assistance,” explained Cesar Ascorra, a biologist and social worker who works for Caritas, the Catholic charity, in Madre de Dios. “The problem here is that our government doesn’t support farmers at all.”

Ludwing Bernal, another mining organizer, asserts that the root cause of lowland deforestation is a federal government that “has abandoned the highlands.” In the view of these activists, neither migration nor deforestation are inevitable: they’re responses to untenable economic circumstances back home.

The “government abandonment” theory is a bit simplistic — migration between the Andes and Amazon is an ancient phenomenon, likely predating the Spanish Conquest; and the Peruvian state was not the cause of the gold rush. But the theory points at something deeper: Peru’s upland-lowland economies are interconnected, and the informal miner sector is marked by what anthropologist Gordon Ulmer calls a “culture of contingency.” A lot of the Madre de Dios migrants are working-class renaissance men, jumping from job to job — agricultural laborer to miner, to jungle guide, to fisherman, to motorcycle taxi driver, to papaya farmer — as demanded by the market, its location, and their personal needs.

Victor fits the “culture of contingency” model perfectly: when other jobs were available to him that were less awful and better paid than lowland mining, he quit and came home to the mountains.

What is striking about Victor’s story is that the job close to home was neither easy nor, by Western standards, well-paid. He spends the summer repeatedly toting tourist bags on a strenuous trek lasting around five days and crossing over 4,200 meter (13,800 foot) high mountain passes. He is still an unskilled physical laborer, working for a relative pittance. But it is less dangerous work, and lets him stay on the land, near his family; which is enough for the jungle to no longer appeal.

A highland town on the upswing

Patacancha has benefited from its proximity to the tourism boom in other ways: its women, like those of many Andean villages, are accomplished weavers, who make stunning ponchos, blankets, shawls, and other handicrafts out of alpaca and lambs wool, all colored with handmade dyes, and decorated with intricate geometric patterns or with stylized animals such as condors.

For the last five years, Awamaki, a US-run NGO in nearby Ollantaytambo, has been bringing tourists to Patacancha as part of a project to increase the earning power of women in Andean villages — a goal accomplished by tying them into the world economy. The trips offers tourists a glance into traditional village life and the chance to buy handicrafts at bargain prices directly from women like Elena, Juan Yupanqui’s wife and Victor’s sister. Elena benefits because she receives far more money for her handicrafts directly from tourists than she ever could from wholesalers.

A 'combi' van unloads at a small market in Ollantaytambo, site of the nearest paved road — and market — to Patacancha. The vans are workhorses of Peruvian village life, carrying passengers and goods to and from market. Campesinos subject the vans to staggering loads. On my way up to Yupanqui's village, the van carried half a ton of plaster; on the way down, we took a ton of a corn. All male passengers, and some female, helped unload. Credit: Saul Elbein
A ‘combi’ van unloads at a small market in Ollantaytambo, site of the nearest paved road — and market — to Patacancha. The vans are workhorses of Peruvian village life, carrying passengers and goods to and from market. Campesinos subject the vans to staggering loads. On my way up to Yupanqui’s village, the van carried half a ton of plaster; on the way down, we took a ton of a corn. All male passengers, and some female, helped unload. Credit: Saul Elbein

Thanks to the tourism boom, Yupanqui and Elena have been able to open what can be described in essence as a small, vertically integrated business: they raise sheep and llamas, process the wool, then cut out the middle man, putting the final value-added product directly into the hands of the end-user.

The impact of that uptick in the family’s economic status can be seen all around the household: the Yupanqui family lives in a nice spacious home – not the eight by twelve foot square hovel of the last generation. There is enough money to eat meat with every meal, and to send their oldest boy down the mountain to boarding school in Ollantaytambo. Their village now has running water and electric lights, paid for by a district flush with tourist money.

Patacancha has used its new wealth to form a transport cooperative and buy a few Chinese-made vans. These can be seen at all hours, full of passengers, roof racks loaded with crops going down to Ollantaytambo, and construction materials coming back up to Patacancha. That’s a measurable sign of prosperity for a community that, when it wanted to bring goods to market in the past, had to do it on the backs of oxen or via expensive rented taxi.

Life is good… for now

After my visit with the family, I headed back down the mountain with Yupanqui aboard one of the village owned co-op vans, chewing coca as we wound down the pitted road. I asked him if he’d ever thought about going back to Puerto Maldonado in the lowlands.

“There’s a lot of bad things going on down there,” he said. “There are always men trying to run off with your wife. It’s a hard place to live. And why go? Life is good here.”

Yupanqui pointed to the example of his sister-in-law. She had managed to get her own banana farm, down in the lowlands, but ended up getting separated from her husband — now he was back in Patacancha. “Yes, she got ahead,” Yupanqui said. “She never would have gotten so much land up here. But it destroyed her family.” — And there are jobs, now, in the highlands for ambitious young men.

Life is good, but the economy remains tenuous. The mountain valleys are filling up with people; already 5 percent of Patacancha’s citizens are landless – they make do because the community lets them farm lands intended to be left fallow. But this is not a sustainable solution, and it’s already led to communal strife. The community has traditionally divided plots by family, leaving each generation to divide their farmland among their children. But with prosperity families grow, and so does competition between large and small families for limited plots.

“Families with a lot of kids say that the [land] titles should be divided equally between all members of the community. Families with few kids say, No, it’s your fault for having so many kids when you knew there wasn’t enough land.” The only solution Yupanqui sees is for the community to move toward individual property ownership — a long step away from the traditional egalitarian past that tourists currently trek up the mountain to see.

Yupanqui, his baby daughter Hilda, and Princesa, their long-suffering retriever. Credit: Saul Elbein
Yupanqui, his baby daughter Hilda, and Princesa, their long-suffering retriever. Credit: Saul Elbein

Even with individual titles, Yupaqui bleakly estimates that within a few decades half of the local people could end up landless; a difficult situation in an agricultural community. Where will they go? The road out of Cusco is good, now: the Interoceanic Highway has cut travel time from mountain to jungle from days to hours. Yupanqui shook his head, solemnly. “That’s the question,” he said.

Patacancha’s dilemma is as old as civilization: when local life is good, people stay home, thrive, and the population grows, until eventually the struggle for resources forces migration elsewhere to find land or a tenable living. If Peru’s remaining forests are to be preserved, this age-old cycle of moving from highland to lowland back to highland must be brought to a close, and long term sustainability instituted.

Today, Patacancha and other Andean towns are much closer to the vulnerable lowland jungle than they were when Victor rode down the mountain in the back of a truck in the 1990s, thanks to the new Interoceanic Highway. If Yupanqui’s kids’ generation finds itself without a livelihood, and wants more land to clear or gold to mine, they won’t have far to go.

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