Jim Penn and Greg Neise

The Peruvian Amazon has been subjected to large-scale commercial exploitation for the last two centuries. As Nauta, Tamshiyacu, and then Iquitos grew during the late 1800’s, they became centers of urban consumption and international export. Rubber from the Hevea species immediately comes to mind when one thinks of extraction. While fine rubber – “jebe fina” (Hevea brasiliensis) was recognized worldwide, Peru produced large amounts of weak rubber – “jebe debil” from upland varieties of Hevea species. See Barford and Coomes (1996) for an analysis of the rubber trade and the difficulties involved in the business. Over 3000 metric tons was exported annually from the Peruvian Amazon between 1902 and 1917 (Villarejo 1988). This export economy crashed after the second world war, but the tire industry in Lima rejuvenated the rubber trade during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Petroleum-based tires have effectively ended the rubber trade in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon. However, the many needs for natural rubber (such as in aircraft tires) may again provide opportunity for extractors in the region.

A medicinal plants stall in the Belen market

A medicinal plants stall in the Belen market

Several natural resources other than rubber extracted from the rainforest created large economies which exported latexes, resins, timber, plant, and animal products to overseas markets during the twentieth century. Between one and two thousand metric tons of “tagua” (vegetable ivory) from the yarina palm (Phtelephas spp.) was exported during 1920-40, with some 5,889 tons exported during the peak year of 1925 (Villarejo 1988). “Balata” is a latex that was extracted from trees of the Sapotaceae family. Used in electrical wiring and golf balls, up to 2000 tons was exported anually between 1925 and 1940 from the Peruvian Amazon (Villarejo 1988).

The nitrogen-fixing “pashaco” tree produced a bark rich in tannins (mainly Parkia spp.) which was used in tanning leather. It is still used to some extent today in Iquitos. The latex of the ojé tree (Ficus glabrata) was widely exported as an anti-parasite remedy until synthetic substitutes were developed by the Allies during World War II. Rosewood oil, extracted from the wood, branches, and roots of the widely dispersed Aniba rosaedora tree, was exported by the barrel during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

The resin of the leche caspi tree (Couma macrocarpa) was also exported up until the 1970s for use in chewing gum and paint manufacture. Curare, extracted as a resin from the vine Strichnos castellini, was also exported.

Street peddler selling aguaje in Iquitos

Street peddler selling aguaje in Iquitos

These are just some of the rainforest products that have been exported from the Peruvian Amazon. Most of the above- mentioned extractive activities were at one time important to the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo region. The local people remember them well, along with the “boom and bust” effects of these economies on their communities. Some resources were extracted until heavily depleated, with little or no management. Animal products, especially hides and skins, were subjected to the same type of uncontrolled extraction. There are, however, some notable exceptions. Rubber trees were commonly planted and managed in this region; including thousands in the Tahuayo basin.

“Barbasco”, a poison made from the root of Lonchocarpus sp. shrubs, was planted as part of an organized program to produce insecticides beginning in the 1930’s; much was planted in the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo region. Exports rose from 419 metric tons in 1935 to 5,459 metric tons in 1946, then slowly fell to 1,221 metric tons in 1960-mostly due to the invention of DDT (Villarejo 1988). The hunting of animals for hides, skins and meat was greatly restricted during the early 1970’s by the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture, as populations of felines, manatees, otters, and other animals were greatly reduced.

While timber exports in the region rose before and after the Second World War, it has dropped significantly over the last two decades. Petroleum and the cocaine trade have provided significant income for Iquitos residents during the last twenty years.

Rainforest tree being milled in Iquitos

Rainforest tree being milled in Iquitos

The Peruvian Amazon has always supported human populations. The first “modern” census in 1940 reported 268,404 inhabitants in the Peruvian Amazon (Villarejo 1988). While exports were often monitored, little quantitative information existed then or now about the subsistence consumption of natural resources by the people in rural or urban areas (Penn 1994). Parts of the Pacaya-Samiria area began to be classified as reserved for state-regulated fishing in 1942 by the Statistics and Commerce Office. Even today there is only minimal monitoring of resource extraction in the Peruvian Amazon.

The huge region of Loreto, Peru’s largest, is almost entirely forested. Besides the vast swamps and large rivers, there is an enormous number of lakes and streams. Loreto occupies 368,852 square kilometers, larger than Spain or today’s Germany. but still has no paved roads penetrating the rainforest. Almost all transport is by boat. The 1990 national census shows 654,100 people living in Loreto, which gives it a density of 1.77 inhabitants per square kilometer. Deforestation is not yet the cause of most biodiversity loss in Loreto. Instead, it is the unmanaged extraction of natural resources.

Iquitos is the only urban area with a modern infrastructure. It has grown very rapidly. Most sources show Iquitos with less than 100,000 residents in 1970, but the 1990 national census recorded at least 269,406 people in the city, and at least 388,092 inhabitants in the immediate vicinity (Maynas province). This puts increasing demand on the surrounding forest to feed, fuel, house and employ Iquitos. Figures are difficult to come by, and are usually estimates. The 1991 Campaign Against Cholera made an effort to reach all Loretanos. It and other private surveys show populations 10 to 20 percent higher than the government’s 1990 census. Regardless of the accuracy of these surveys, the local Iquitos market has an enormous need for natural resources.

Fish, game meat, building materials, thatch, flooring, fruits and medicines from the surrounding rainforest arrive daily in the Iquitos market. The species most commonly used by rainforest dwellers in Loreto are also used by Iquitos residents, particularly the poor. Over 60% of Iquitos residents are poor and live in “pueblo jovenes” and may depend on rainforest products for a large portion of their housing, and food needs, including employment (Penn 1994). We often hear of the need to create international markets in order to increase the value of standing rainforest. In Loreto, Peru, the rainforest already has great economic importance to the entire rural and urban population.

It is often difficult for the government to understand the value of the rainforest. Putting a monetary value on such resources is not easy (see Peters, Gentry, and Mendhelson 1990). The export of “rainforest products” can provide authorities with such numbers. The recent exports of camu-camu fruit pulp (Myrciaria sp.), sangre de grado (Croton sp.) and “cats claw” (Uncaria spp.) from the region have excited some members of the government and business community because they are seen as a desirable “new” ways to improve the economy, and Peru wants to export products for needed foreign exchange. However, the traditional, less glamorous products from the forest should not be overlooked, as they have probably more economic value (to the local and regional economy) than any of the new export crops.

Examples of resources that have been depleted throughout the settled areas of the Tamshiyacu and Tahuayo rivers.

Local name English Name Species Main use
Aguaje Aguaje Mauritia flexuosa Fruit
Cedro Tropical Cedar Cedrela spp. Lumber
Choro Wooly monkey Lagothrix lagothricha Meat
Coto Howler monkey Alouatta seniculus Meat
Huacrapona Stilt palm Iriartea deltoidea Flooring
Haussai Euterpe precatoria Palm heart, building material
Largarto negro Black caiman Melanosuchus niger Hides, meat
Lagarto blanco Spectacled caiman Caiman crocodilus Hides, meat
Leche huayo Milk tree Couma macrocarpa Latex, fruit
Lobo del r’o Giant otter Pteronura brasiliensis Fur
Lupuna Kapok Ceiba spp. Plywood
Maquisapa Spider monkey Ateles paniscus Meat
Naranja podrida Parahancornia peruviana Fruit
Paiche Arapaima Arapaima gigas Fish
Palo de rosa Rosewood Aniba rosaedora Perfume
Sachavaca Tapir Tapirus terrestris Meat
Vaca marina Manatee Trichechus inning Hides, meat