“How are things in Peru?”
These are often the words that begin your messages, from family, from friends, and from the many of you who sometimes reach out to check in on what’s new with Camino Verde.
And lately we have been receiving this question more often than usual, more pointedly than usual, and with perhaps a slightly different meaning.
That’s because, as many of you already know, the country that is home to Camino Verde and its people, our querido Perú, has been in a period of remarkable upheaval that began before the New Year and is still, at the time of this writing, actively upheaving away.
While most of these Missives are painted in the tones of the forest, today we want to take you on a little journey to Peru’s current events – hopefully reassuring some of your worst fears, and probably raising a few new questions.
Because so many of you have asked, in this missive I’ll also share a bit about what this situation of political turmoil has meant for Camino Verde and the people of the Peruvian Amazon with whom we work. And perhaps I should start there: by saying that, yes, we have still been able to plant trees, even during a coup attempt and the successive shockwaves that have paralyzed the country and our region in particular.
So buckle your seatbelts, and let’s head to Peru in times of unrest.
Warm greetings from Tambopata,
Robin Van Loon
Now, more than ever, with Peru’s political situation still shrouded in the dust and tear gas of uncertainty, your contributions are what make Camino Verde’s work possible. Please consider making a contribution through GlobalGiving today. We are grateful beyond words for your support. When the going gets tough, your support makes a bigger difference than ever.
A Crash Course
So far, 2023 has been an austere one. As I write this Missive, the region of Madre de Dios (where Camino Verde was founded back in 2008) has suffered through the 6 weeks of this new year with precious few opportunities for supply trucks to enter its borders. Gasoline hasn’t been available, nor the vegetables grown in the nearby Andes. Roadblocks set up by protesters have prevented the flow in of even the most basic supplies, crippling the region’s economy. Since December, the departmento’s capital of Puerto Maldonado has been under siege by political activists willing to use violence toward authorities and fellow citizens.
But where did this all start? How did a region the size of South Carolina find itself in complete lockdown once again, so soon, as such an unwelcome echo of the recently buried Covid quarantine times?
To give a quick review of Peru’s current political situation, one has little choice but to begin with the last national elections, held in 2021. The presidential ballot was where the fiercest elements from right and left extremes faced off. Many were relieved when the leftist political outsider Pedro Castillo was sworn in – perceived as a Quechua-speaking savior by a segment of the population but seen more as a lesser of evils by the great majority of those who voted for him.
Castillo squeaked in with less than a percentage point margin. His election meant one bullet dodged but another bullet landed. Castillo’s detractors predicted and then witnessed a unique blend of corruption and incompetence coloring the executive branch’s attempts to get off on the right foot with governance. Entire cabinets resigned again and again; a revolving door of new officials were introduced and then had the rug pulled out from under them. Public opinion was more and more against Castillo.
But public opinion was, and is, also more and more against a Congress characterized by career politicians steeped in white collar crime and corruption scandals – and this Congress was gunning for Castillo. Keep in mind that during the last presidential term from 2016-2021, four presidents came and went, usually being forced out by an impeachment-like process that the Congress played again and again as a trump card.
That’s the setting of the scene for an episode that was remarkable and of which you probably have already heard.
What’s in a name? Coup edition
Congress was getting ready to impeach Castillo. It was a known thing. Whether due to his own legal naivety or because of the meddling of advisors who wanted to kill a king, that day Castillo made the fateful decision to dissolve Congress before they could oust him. This reminded Peru of the 90’s when Fujimori did the same thing, a self-coup. But Fujimori had the backing of the police and military and a significant constellation of the political establishment. Castillo had, well, the opposite. No support. That this was obvious to all but him was somehow tragic and farcical at the same time. After making his loaded decree, he was quietly arrested in heavy traffic in Lima while ostensibly driving to the Mexican Embassy to make an escape. His vice president (Peru’s first woman president) was sworn in before we knew it.
Was his a coup attempt? Well, if you were one of the 50.5% of Peruvians who voted for him, not necessarily. After seeing the past 4 presidents thrown to the hyenas one by one by Congress, a significant percentage of citizens were fed up with this form of business as usual, even if they didn’t support Castillo. And the Castillo faithful, well, they were feeling betrayed – again, by their frequently recurring betrayers in the political class. And so they took to the streets.
The protesters were:
This is how Peru goes on strike. Highways were blocked by loosely organized mobs. More daring groups of protesters attempted to take over, then took over, several airports across the country. Via megaphones, demands were made that could not constitutionally be met. At Lima’s signal, helicopters jettisoned tear gas over plazas full of people across the Andes and police opened fire on political activists and bystanders alike. The death toll reached the dozens, injuries shot into the hundreds, and various regions were declared in a special “state of emergency” just one step shy of martial law.
One of those regions under emergency status was Madre de Dios, here at the southern end of the Peruvian Amazon. With just one major highway (the Interoceanic) running through it, MDD is all bottlenecks. Barricades were erected from whatever debris was available at perhaps a dozen different villages across the region. Cars that made the mistake of approaching the roadblocks would have their tires popped with stakes. “Tolls” were collected by protesters.
Gasoline and other supplies were still allowed through to most of the illegal gold mining camps, while the towns and the region’s one city of Puerto Maldonado were straining under a tightening noose. There, in the urban center, strikers descended on regional government buildings which they attempted unsuccessfully to destroy with fire. They clashed with police leaving injured and dead on both sides. Many of the protesters were armed to the teeth. Famously, so was MDD’s governor, who shot live rounds out his window after having it shattered by stones thrown by shouting marchers. Stores that attempted to open their shutters for business were looted and destroyed. Transit in and to the city was completely closed off. Burning tires marked the street corners.
Living the Green Way
Could we get to the hopeful part, already? (Believe me, we have asked ourselves this question many times over the last 2 months.) You might by now be remembering that you were promised an update on how this political situation has affected Camino Verde, our team, our people, our forests. So let’s go ahead and get to that part of the story. If not the “inspiring” part, at least the reassuring part.
Needless to say, in a region shut down to the arrival of vegetables, there’s no place like a farm. Our primary reforestation center on the Tambopata River, CV Baltimori was its usual self throughout the maelstrom – its usual, isolated, productive self. Lucky for us who have been at Baltimori, this is a season of many fruits – pijuayo (Bactris gasipaes) is eaten in hand or with a spicy ají salad on it. The fruits of sinamillo (Oenocarpus mapora) and huasaí (Euterpe precatoria) are made into thick, nutritious beverages full of antioxidants and healthy fats.
One of the giants of our conservation area, the manchinga tree (Brosimum alicastrum and B. guianense) has dropped its nutrient-dense edible seeds all over us – a famine food consumed in times of war and scarcity in Amazonian history. All this (and more familiar fare like bananas and plantains) were what allowed us to weather the storm in relative comfort.
What was not so pleasant was news from nearby – a neighbor’s land being invaded by squatters. While some are noble, it’s safe to say that not all land grab invasions are created equal. On the spectrum whose poles are landless peasant movements on one end and malicious black market actors on the other, this particular instance was somewhere in the middle. While it poses no immediate threat to the integrity of Camino Verde’s land, this invasion does mean an increase in deforestation in the area, and new tensions between old neighbors. And it also means we are now obliged to triple our team’s monitoring rounds on our border paths, increasing our regularly ongoing efforts to ensure there are no incursions by the invaders in our government-certified Conservation Area. So far, so good.
Yes, we’ve stayed hard at work on the farm, with thousands of trees planted already in the new year. But our team is not only out on the farm at our reforestation centers. What about the team living in Puerto Maldonado, or the team living near our La Joya center, who commute to work along secondary roads subject to blocks? In a way that was reminiscent of the pandemic, they hunkered down, practiced prudence, and waited it out. And they went to extraordinary lengths to keep our farm teams stocked with whatever food or other supplies could be made available. Then, as always, our teams out in the field gratefully relied on the teams in town to keep us hard at work.
Out in the Communities
Meanwhile, at the other (northern) end of the Peruvian Amazon, you might mistake it for another planet. In the city of Iquitos, perhaps a day or two of protests happened, it’s true. But then this wild town was back to normal. You see, the surrounding region of Loreto, larger than Ecuador, has never relied on the kinds of roads that can be blocked. Its roads are rivers.
There, the CV Loreto team was able to carry on life and work as normal, meaning continuing visits to over 100 families with whom we work in 5 native communities, growing endangered rosewood and 40 other tree species. In these communities, the strike was barely felt. We continued harvesting and distilling rosewood, and just a few days ago celebrated a historic occasion – the first native beekeeping workshop with our rosewood farmers, with the aid of beekeepers of the Maijuna people. Native Amazonian bees are stingless and produce an exceptionally medicinal honey. We are introducing them to these Bora and Huitoto communities as another valuable product like rosewood, compatible with conservation and regeneration.
It's a gift to still be able to point proudly to some inspiring work going on, even during country-wide crisis. It’s a privilege to speak of fruits savored when surrounded by scarcity. Neighbors casually requested and carted off from our nurseries seedlings of those nutritious palm fruits we were eating. Light bulbs were going off about resilience and self-reliance, even in the darkness and thick fog of this national moment. Literally and figuratively, seeds were sprouting and taking root.
Whether the most memorable seeds of this season will be inspiring ones or terrible ones, we have still to find out. Whether the harvests to come will be embittered or soaring, we can’t yet know. For now, Puerto Maldonado is slowly re-opening its shutters, and the police have managed just in the last 72 hours to clear the highways, bringing desperately needed supplies back to the region. Some small but hopeful dawn appears to be in the making. It’s too soon to say whether this shift will be lasting, or whether tomorrow the protesters will regroup and come back stronger than ever. Lord knows their concerns are justified, even if their methods are causing misery. Our hopes are for peace, for the least violence possible in the course of needed transformations.
In the face of isolation, we pray for community. In the midst of separation, we pray for solidarity. And in the presence of despair, we pray for hope. In this way, a reforestation center can become a refuge – and a farm, a lighthouse. Thank you for helping us to spread inspiration and optimism in the midst of so many storms. We couldn’t do it without you.
We are asking once again: Please consider making a contribution to our GlobalGiving project today. In these strange times and in all times, your belief and your support are the motor that keep us going. Thank you once again for believing in what we do and what we are.
From Tambopata, Peru, with gratitude,
The Camino Verde Team
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