Why is an indigenous community destroying paradise?

Why is an indigenous community destroying paradise?

This article was first published in The Ecologist.

A controversial new road is tearing through the most biodiverse place in Peru’s Amazon rainforest, bringing conflict and destruction. For one indigenous group, desperate for change, it also brings hope.

A new road will reach the native community of Diamante this summer. It is a day that the indigenous Yine people have been praying for.

The national government’s long awaited approval of this road marks the end of a three year battle between the community and environmentalists.

Surrounded by thick jungle, Diamante sits between two protected areas: Amarakaeri Communal Reserve and Manu National Park, the world’s top biodiversity hotspot. To reach the community, bulldozers are carving a way between these two reserves, opening the rainforest up to further illegal logging.

Deforestation and trafficking

The road is predicted to cause over 40,000 hectares of deforestation: an area equivalent to the combined size of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

It will threaten the survival of indigenous people living in isolation and endangered wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.

The road will also bring an increase in cocaine trafficking, deepening the humanitarian abuses that are already rife throughout the Madre de Dios region.

So, why have Manu’s communities been campaigning for the road so fearlessly?


Edgar Morales Gomez, the district mayor, said: “The road will bring water, communication, internet – so many things. Only with the road can we change our life.” He added:

“We cannot in another way because, in the end, we live forgotten by the state.”

The community feel that their basic human rights are not being met: access to a good education, well-equipped medical centres, and clean running water.

Miryam Lupaca Medina, a primary school teacher from Diamante, explained: “In primary I taught two children who have already left their studies. They only live with their grandparents and they can’t cover all their needs. So they have finished studying in order to go and look for money.”

On 15 November 2018, the community of Diamante celebrated the approval of their new road. In the middle of the jungle, bulldozers were decorated with balloons, Latin pop music blared from speakers, and drinks were handed around.

The crowd listened attentively to a rousing speech made by Luis Otsuka Salazar, the former regional governor: “Here I see this poverty that disgusts me, that outrageous me.

“Other countries – of the Americans, the Japanese, the English, of all of the Europeans – how do they live? And how do our children live? Because you cannot knock down a tree here? You can’t open this road here?” He added:

“Fight for your children to have a quality of life, to live with dignity and pride to be Peruvian.”

The bulldozers moved in. The Amazonian trees fell.


This controversial extension of Manu Road is part of its steady advancement through the Biosphere Reserve since the 1950s.

Poor farmers from the Andes were encouraged to populate Manu; these ‘colonists’ were offered cheap land by the state to exploit the Amazon’s untapped natural resources. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Manu Biosphere Reserve should be protected. In reality, illegal logging is rampant and uncontrolled.

Once the trees are logged, the land is burnt and a monoculture of banana crops are grown, with the heavy use of pesticides. The soils are nutrient-poor and before long crops fail and the barren plot is abandoned. A new area must be logged and the agricultural frontier progresses deeper into untouched jungle.


Encouraged to become farmers, indigenous communities were promised that they too would prosper from agriculture as the road advanced. This has failed to happen.

Mateo Augusto Mavite, leader of the native community of Shipetiari, who have had road access for over three years, said:

“Farming still isn’t commercial. We have to have a market.”

Despite this, the community of Diamante – an hour’s boat ride downriver – still believe the promises made by charismatic politicians.

Gloria Palma Mormontoi, community leader of Diamante, said: “When it arrives we will be able to leave with our produce. It’s going to create economic movement – with a little of that we can sustain a family.”

The community of Shintuya are still struggling to make a living through farming, even a 50-year-old road connection. Miguel Visse said:

“There is almost a permanent market, but we sell to intermediaries, which is difficult.”

Often refusing to pay a fair price, intermediaries control the market and make it unprofitable. Miguel added: “Because the price is low sometimes we are forced to work with timber, with extracting trees.”

Forced to continue logging to make a living, Shintuya are still waiting for the better life promised through road connection.

Victoria Corisepa said: “The road has been here 50 years and we have not seen a good benefit. In fact, we are losing our customs so the community is trying to rescue our culture, our identity, our respect.”


People in Diamante still fear losing their culture and territory, despite being pro-road. Eduardo Pancho Pizarro said: “People from Diamante don’t know how to benefit. But colonist people – woooh! – they really know how to.”

Due to their desperate economic situation the community are already selling timber and logging rights to colonists at an unsustainably low price.

The road has failed to improve the livelihoods and living standards of indigenous communities in Manu because empowering local people has never been its true intention. Corisepa said:

“The road is not for the benefit of communities. It’s for the benefit of big business.”

During Otsuka’s speech, it became clear why he wanted the road: “The other day I was talking to Petroperú and [they said …] this is where the main concentration of gas is passing.”

In Peruvian law, it is illegal to build a road to explore for oil or gas. This road has a long history of skirting the thin line of legality and Otsuka is shrouded in controversy.

Before being elected as governor, Otsuka was president of the Mining Federation of Madre de Dios (Fedemin). In the Madre de Dios region, 90 percent of the gold mining is illegal and is a hotbed of modern day slavery, especially the trafficking of women and girls into sex work. The final destination of the new road is the epicentre of illegal gold mining.

Although the full extension of this road has yet to be approved, campaigners are confident. Morales said: “It’ll be easier because there’s no-one preventing it. What has prevented us here is Manu National Park and Amarakaeri Communal Reserve; we are breaking the heart. That is why it has been a lot of trouble. Down there, it’s not the same.”


The road has penetrated the heart of Manu and now its advancement appears unstoppable. Not only does it threaten the region’s natural and cultural heritage, it also brings an increase in drug trafficking.

Many colonists who settled in Manu, initially to log and farm, later turn to coca as an alternative cash crop due to a lack of economic options. Although in general decline nationwide, coca production in the Madre de Dios region has increased by 52 percent.

In Diamante, people fear that they will get caught up in drug trafficking. Waldir Gomez Zorrillo said: “They could make us accomplices. The army, when they catch you, they catch you innocently because they think you’re working.” He added:

“They blame us. It’s us who pay.”

Despite this, Diamante is willing to overlook all the threats posed by the road; they are desperate for change and believe there is no other way to improve their lives.


For decades, indigenous communities in Manu have been promised a road and over generations it has become a deeply entrenched symbol of hope.

Researcher Eduardo Salazar Moreira said: “There has been a lot of time for these ideas and these aspirations to change, to evolve. They go deep inside the minds of people. They are totally legitimate necessities and expectations.” He added: 

“The issue comes when people hope that the road will bring them all this.”

Under the guise of empowerment, indigenous people’s desperation has been used by corrupt politicians who profit from the black market economy.

Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos, director of human rights organisation Asociación Huarayo, said: “We have a state that doesn’t worry about the employment of people. They play with people’s natural desire; they sell us roads, but they don’t sell us development. How are we going to use this tool – the road – to improve the family economically, to improve the education of our children?”

The Peruvian government has green-lighted the construction of numerous new roads across this Amazon region, declaring them to be“a national priority”.

The most major of these roads is predicted to cause 680,000 hectares of deforestation in primary rainforest – an area the size of the country of Samoa.

Based on the experiences of people in Manu, the roads will bring environmental and cultural devastation, with little to no improvement in livelihoods or living standards. Guadalupe asked:

“Development for what? For who? This is the question we are constantly asking ourselves.

“We are going to witness families destroyed. Natural resources destroyed. The world destroyed. This will not just have a local impact, this is going to have an impact in other parts of the planet. That is our concern.”

About this Author 

Bethan John is a freelance multimedia journalist and team member of a film expedition that journeyed to Manu at the end of 2018. They are producing a documentary to give a voice to indigenous communities, which will launch this summer. Follow the story as it unfolds:
Twitter @voicesontheroad
Instagram @voicesontheroadfilm
Facebook @voicesontheroadfilm

Corrupt police caught in Peruvian Amazon drug gang

Corrupt police caught in Peruvian Amazon drug gang


This article was first published by Mongabay.

  • Three policemen were arrested after a year-long investigation into narco-trafficking in Peru’s Manú Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and top global biodiversity hotspot.
  • The operation in late June seized over $38,000, more than 290 kilograms (about 640 pounds) of cocaine, a small airplane, and two firearms. A total of 15 people have been arrested for their involvement.
  • Within the Kosñipata district of Manú, production of coca increased from 338 hectares (835 acres) in 2010 to 1,322 hectares (3,267 acres) in 2014. Coca production throughout this Amazon region has increased by 52 percent.

On June 23, three police officers in Peru were arrested and now stand accused of providing security and information to narco-traffickers who are part of an international criminal organization.

The policemen, Pedro Eber Pocohuanca, Julio Javier Muñoz Meza, and Jhano Guzmán Valer, worked in Pillcopata in the Kosñipata district of Manú province, where coca production has escalated in recent years.

The drugs bust, involving 100 police officers and 12 prosecutors, resulted in 15 arrests and spanned three different regions of Peru: Cusco and Madre de Dios within the Manú Biosphere Reserve, and Ayacucho in the Andes. The alleged ringleader of the drugs gang, Julio César Sánchez Tello, is originally from Ayacucho and was arrested along with many others from this Andean region.

The narcotics operation highlights how opening up the Manú Biosphere Reserve to the outside world has caused environmental destruction and social injustice. Since the 1950s, the one main road into Manú has steadily been advancing into the rainforest, causing indigenous communities to suffer cultural assimilation, land grabbing and resource exploitation within their native territories.

The Diamante native community believes the road is the only route to socio-economic improvements, yet they fear the negative impacts and increased threat of narco traffickers. Photo by Bethan John.

Farmers from the Andes, known as “colonists,” were offered various incentives by the state to encourage them to populate the biosphere reserve. The government was keen to exploit the Amazon’s untapped natural resources, and this continues unchecked. The government has created a situation in Manú and the surrounding Amazon region that has given rise to a black market economy: logging, wildlife trafficking, gold mining and cocaine production. There’s little to no control over these illegal activities that are facilitated by corruption within the police.

The government has green-lighted the construction of numerous new roads across the Madre de Dios region, declaring them to be “a national priority.” If the status quo continues, then the issues impacting Manú are expected to spread along these new roads, increasing environmental and human rights abuses.

Native community’s narco threat

The community of Diamante, in the middle of the Manú rainforest and home to the indigenous Yine people, has become embroiled in this latest narcotics operation. The president of the community, Gloria Palma Mormontoy, is one of the 15 detained. A 43-year-old mother, Palma is originally from the Andes but has been living in the native community for 28 years. She allegedly took payments totaling more than $6,000 from the narco-traffickers in return for allowing them to use the community’s airfield.

Along with many local politicians, Palma has spent the past three years campaigning for the Manú road to be extended and built through the community, which currently can only be reached by boat. Most community members are desperate for the road, as they believe it will drastically improve their livelihoods and living standards.

It’s expensive and dangerous to navigate the Madre de Dios river, so many communities living in isolated regions of the jungle have been demanding a road. Photo by Eilidh Munro.

“We urgently need the road,” said Miryam Lupaca Medina, a primary school teacher living in Diamante. “We are human beings that need a quality of life. And that is what we ask, a quality of life.” She added:

“We suffer a lot. We suffer a lot for [the lack of] water here.”

Despite the widespread popularity of the road, when asked about the potential impacts, community members were matter-of-fact. “Negatives?” asked Waldir Gomez Zorrillo. “It could be what always happens, no? Narco-trafficking. … It’s already happening. That’s why we are afraid at this moment. How can I defend myself? How can the community?”

Indigenous people fear they will become scapegoats. “The ones that work, they run and they escape,” said Gomez. “Because the police aren’t able to catch them, they come in and they blame us. It’s us that pay for it.” Locals claim that when the military are sent in by the state to crack down on narco-trafficking, the soldiers kill innocent people. “This is a red zone. We are in danger. But nobody says anything,” said Adrian Valles Vela. He added:

“There have already been three deaths and now there is another. Three dead. Yeah, that’s how it is.”

Despite the threats posed by this extension of the Manú road, its construction was approved by the national government in November 2018 and the road will be built through Diamante this summer.

A road from logging to coca production

The Manú road has always facilitated illegal logging, which is rampant and uncontrolled within the biosphere reserve. “I think it is very clear that the road is going to serve the interests of logging,” said Eduardo Salazar Moreira, a Ph.D. student who is studying the impact of the road. He added:

“The timber industry is going to continue to follow the road in the same way that it has been following it so far.”

It is widely known that the majority of timber traded inside Peru and exported to the rest of the world is logged illegally, laundered with documents that appear official but contain fraudulent information.

Illegal logging is uncontrolled throughout Manu and native communities are often scammed into selling logging rights to their land at a very low price due to their desperate economic situation. Photo by Bethan John.

Logging is a boom-and-bust activity. Once all the valuable timber has been removed, there’s no more work. Locals say the high-value tree species within Manú are now extremely scarce. “From our Western perspective,” said Salazar Moreira, “it’s very easy to say: ‘Oh, how bad are the loggers that go to destroy the forest.’ But they’re people who are simply looking to get out of their own poverty, to improve the well-being of their family.” He added:

“They’ve had a lot of incentives from the government to go and work the land, right? To log and to farm.”

Typically, once they’ve logged the valuable trees, they burn the land and plant a monoculture of bananas that are highly dependent on pesticides. The agricultural market is extremely insecure in Manú and generates little profit due to the low price paid by intermediaries. “All of these [agricultural] programs fail simply because of the market,” said Pedro Juan Rey Fernández, the region’s Catholic priest. He added:

“There’s no control on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture. The market in Cusco becomes saturated; there are many bananas, the prices drop, and people get discouraged.”

People have been encouraged to move to this remote area of the rainforest, where very few economic opportunities are realistically accessible without capital or well-planned, long-standing state support. “We have a state that doesn’t worry about the employment of people,” said Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos, director of a human rights organization. He added:

“It doesn’t have a vision for the future. It is taking care of nothing. The poor Peruvians continue being so poor.”

Struggling to generate a secure income, many farmers in Manú turn to growing coca as an alternative cash crop. Peru’s cultivation of coca leaves, the source of cocaine, is second in volume only to Colombia. Although permitted in some quantity for traditional use, as it is extremely important culturally in Peru, it is mostly illegal. Cocaine production is rife throughout the Manú Biosphere Reserve, and narco-traffickers, connected to an international network, have infiltrated many communities.

After a three year campaign by the regional government and local communities, the national government approved the new road and construction began on 15 November 2018. Photo by Bethan John.

Much of this production is destined for Bolivia or Brazil, the world’s second-largest market for cocaine. Both these neighboring countries are accessed easily by the newly built Interoceanic Highway. Although yet to be approved, the plan is to extend the Manú road to connect with the Interoceanic Highway. This could have a dramatic impact on illicit coca production and cocaine trafficking within the biosphere reserve, according to research led by Geoffrey Gallice of the University of Florida.

Politicians’ empty promises

The extension of the Manú road has been a source of prolonged conflict between the regional government and conservationists, especially the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP). It is predicted to cause 12,399 hectares (30,640 acres) of deforestation by next year, increasing to 43,347 hectares (107,110 acres) by 2040, according to SePerú. It is cutting through the buffer zone of Manú National Park — declared the world’s top biodiversity hotspot — and Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, co-owned by indigenous communities.

The former regional governor, Luis Otsuka Salazar, has promised native communities that the road will bring improved livelihoods and living standards. He said:

“This road will serve so that you can bring bread, a book, a notebook, a shoe for your children.” 

Communities in Manu, who have had a road for over 50 years, warn that connection has destroyed their way of life and has not brought the improved living conditions promised by politicians. Photo by Bethan John.

Yet some question the true motivation behind its construction. “The road is not for the benefit of communities,” said Victoria Corisepa Dreve, a Harakmbut indigenous woman from the Shintuya native community. She added:

“It’s for the benefit of big businesses, for illegal activities.”

Many in Shintuya, a few hours upriver from Diamante, say the road has brought cultural assimilation, land grabbing and resource exploitation within their native territory.

Some argue that indigenous communities living far from the road are being manipulated; their desperation to improve their living standards is being used as a political tool to force through infrastructure development in the Amazon.

“It is very human to desire to be interconnected, to have a road,” said Guadalupe. “So they play with people’s natural desire and they sell us roads, but they’re not selling us development. How are we going to use that development tool, the road, to improve the family economically, to improve the education of children? We are going to witness families destroyed. Natural resources destroyed.” He added:

“And if we summarize, we are talking about the development of the country!”

Gallice, G. R., Larrea-Gallegos, G., & Vázquez-Rowe, I. (2017). The threat of road expansion in the Peruvian Amazon. Oryx, 53(2), 284-292. doi:10.1017/s0030605317000412

This article was first published by Mongabay – the world’s leading environmental news site.

Bethan John is a freelance multimedia journalist specializing in biodiversity conservation and social justice. Her team spent two months on a film expedition to Manú, interviewing communities about the social, economic and environmental issues they face. They’re producing a documentary, Voices on the Road, which will be released later this year. To discover more, visit voicesontheroadfilm.com or follow the story on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Film expedition: Voices on the Road

Film expedition: Voices on the Road


Our all-female team are about to embark on a film expedition to the remote Peruvian Amazon, unearthing stories on an illegal road that’s bringing conflict, destruction… and hope.

The road is creating a path of destruction to the world’s top biodiversity hotspot, Manu National Park, threatening the survival of uncontacted indigenous tribes and a wealth of wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. It will increase illegal activities in the area: logging, hunting, drug and human trafficking.

But it is local people who are building the road with their own hands. They feel disenfranchised and that their basic needs are not being met by the Peruvian government – access to education, medical care, sanitation, job opportunities and markets.

The road is a promise of a better life, but will the hopes and aspirations it inspires ever become reality – and at what cost?


What’s the aim of the expedition

Through extensive interviews with a range of stakeholders across Manu, we will unearth and document the views, experiences and aspirations of diverse people living throughout the region as expressed in their own voice.

These interviews will form the narrative of a documentary film, titled Voices on the Road, which will be used as an educational tool to foster dialogue and understanding so that solutions for Manu’s sustainable future can begin to emerge.

Historically, conservationists have taken a single minded approach when communicating about construction, particularly in protected areas. But the truth is, we don’t have a clear insight into this road’s potential impact; the level of biodiversity loss and the threat to the region’s cultural heritage, or the potential for job creation and improved living standards.

The road will be built, the question is: can there be any positive outcomes?


Why is the film needed

Through a compelling documentary, we will bring these issues to a worldwide audience for the first time. The aim: to show that conservation research and action in remote corners of the world are relevant and engaging issues that impact us as a global society.

Beyond this, the film expedition must have a lasting legacy by fostering local stakeholder collaboration and problem-solving so that in the long-term an environmental management plan for the road can be created.

Currently, there is a stalemate: pro-road campaigners (namely the regional government and many within off-road communities) are antagonistic towards anti-road spokespeople and have been silencing opposing views. There is also very little known about the experience of on-road communities who are disillusioned as road connection has not brought the promised economical and educational benefits. Documenting and sharing these perspectives to foster dialogue and understanding is extremely difficult to accomplish, yet this is the only way we can move forward in creating a sustainable future for Manu.

peruvian-black-faced-spider-monkey-ateles-chamek-endangered-jungle-wildlife-peru-amazon-rainforest-bethan-john-DSC_0346 (2)

About the expedition team

All team members have worked together in Manu Biosphere Reserve for several years, giving us crucial contacts with local scientific researchers, sustainable development experts and community members. We are a multidisciplinary team – journalist Bethan John, filmmaker Eilidh Munro, and scientist Jennifer Serrano Rojas – and we have extensive fieldwork experience working in remote tropical locations. We are committed to uniting compelling visual storytelling with scientific research and local knowledge for meaningful on-the-ground action.

Despite our experience, this is the most ambitious project we have embarked on to date; with constant cultural awareness and sensitivity, we must unearth authentic stories about a hugely polarising issue in the region, tapping into a myriad of economic, social and cultural matters. We must then produce a compelling documentary that is relevant both locally and internationally to engage people in conservation action.

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