by Didem Tali
The taxi driver that was taking me from the airport to my hotel asked me why I was visiting Pucallpa, this sleepy Amazonian town that is quite off the beaten track for millions of tourists that visit Peru every year. “I am a journalist,” I said. “I will be investigating about the environmental issues that indigenous communities experience for the Irish press,” I explained, perhaps naively.
The driver looked at me from his mirror and studied me for a few seconds before responding “Senorita, you better don’t talk about this too much around here,” he warned.
My flight to Pucallpa, a port town on the edge of Peruvian Amazons, was only one hour from the capital Lima. Yet, within this one hour, I have seen the ocean, the majestic Andes Mountains and the Amazons from my window-seat. I have seen chunks of Amazons burning, which must be the reason for the intense smell of burn and fog that covers the city every now and again, but especially in the evenings.
Pucallpa has historically been a port town due to its strategic position in the mouth of the Ucayali River. It still has a vibrant port, brimming with tradesmen loading tree trunks and bananas to boats. From this port, boats can travel down the Amazon River to the Atlantic Ocean. However this town is now also the gateway to narcotrafficking and illegal logging.
It’s situated in the heart of Peru’s Ucayali region, which dominantly has an indigenous population and is also one of the most deprived regions of the country. Despite this, it’s also one of the most expensive cities in Peru, according to locals. Pucallpa isn’t your average Peruvian tourism destination, but it doesn’t have a shortage of luxury hotels and casinos around the port. Although the purchasing power of Pucallpa residents is limited, there are also new and big shopping malls, which many locals I talked to believed were built for money laundering purposes.
Whether by burning, chopping, illegal mining or palm oil factories, the Amazons, dubbed as the “lungs of the world”, are shrinking day by day. In Pucallpa, smelling the burnt wood every evening and watching tonnes of tree trunks being loaded in boats leave no doubts about that. The communities who called Amazons home since the beginning of the time are trapped further in poverty, and some of them even join the illegal logging mafia in the lack of economic opportunities.
There are some activists within these communities who are working to protect their sacred homelands and keep the loggers away. But the lands that these individuals reclaim is the fraction of the Amazons that disappear every day. Furthermore, these billion-dollar international crime organisations are so powerful and smart, no indigenous community on its own can deal with them. Thus, protecting Amazons is far from the responsibility of merely its own people.
Tackling the illegal logging problems to protect the planet’s future and the ancient Amazon tribes requires a robust global cooperation between states, law enforcement authorities and people.
Didem Tali is a freelance multimedia journalist. She was funded under the Winter 2015 round to travel to Peru to report on illegal logging in the country and its impact on the Asháninka. She is due to have a feature article with photographs published in The Irish Times in the coming month.