Although a great deal of Peru consists of forest (72.8 million hectares), very little (<1%) of the country’s GNP comes from it. Large-scale ranching and agricultural projects began in the early twentieth century, but have never reached the amplitude of such activities in Brazil. However, the Peruvian government, as early as the 1940’s, encouraged settlement in the Amazon to garner wealth from the forest and to relieve social and demographic pressures on the cities. President Belaunde in the 1960’s proposed settlement in the Amazon as an alternative to land redistribution and agrarian reform, all attempts at which were blocked by an alliance of landowners and politicians. The government began by building highways to connect the towns of the Amazon for the purpose of improving access for colonizers. It encouraged the transformation of the rainforest into agricultural land and ranches in what it hoped would be Peru’s “breadbasket,” but the program was ill-conceived. Roads were built into many areas which were unsuited for agriculture. The movement of poor Andean farmers into the Amazon led to uncontrolled deforestation, and it is estimated that 20 million hectares of forest land had been lost by 1999 because of these policies. In the 1970’s some agrarian reform was carried out, to the advantage of cattle ranching, based on an assessment of the suitability of forest lands for various purposes. At this time 38% of land was termed usable for ranching and 51% for agriculture, while zero per cent of the land was considered to “require” protective forest cover, although 11% was deemed “suitable,” a remarkable judgment, since much if not all of this land was forested (Bedoya & Klein, 1996). The government formed agricultural cooperatives which used heavy machinery to cut forest for pasture and to raise rice and corn, but as the soil was compacted by the machinery, yields were very low and the cooperatives failed. Similarly, the Le Tonneau firm, a cattle-ranching operation, caused disastrous deforestation and ecological problems by practicing large-scale mechanized cutting. The use of heavy machinery on the Amazon soils was devastating. Another organization, the Summer Linguistic Institute, was responsible for an increase in extraction and commercial hunting. At present, approximately one-third of Peruvian agricultural land lies in the Amazon.
Oil exploration and pipeline construction has been extensive, and continues even within such protected reserves as the Pacayu-Samaria reserve. Timber extraction has been occurring for a long time, mahogany being a particularly desired wood. Now many other species, formerly in low demand, have become more important in Peruvian wood production as the harder woods become depleted. Even land legally logged has been mismanaged, as government policies do not encourage timber companies to reforest or to log sustainably.
Because of the demand for illegal drugs in many countries, particularly Europe and the United States, much forest has been cut – and continues to be cut – for coca cultivation. In 1964, only 16,000 hectares had been planted, but by 1988, 150,000-200,000 hectares were under cultivation, some of it on steep inclines on denuded soils (Salati, 1993; similar data in Bedoya & Klein, 1996). This activity is next to impossible to eradicate, given its clandestine nature, its control by violent guerilla organizations (mainly the “Shining Path”), and the tremendous amounts of money involved.
Although the Peruvian government has set up a number of reserves in the Amazon, it has failed to provide funds for their maintenance and monitoring. Furthermore, there are many commercial activities within some of these reserves, one of the more notorious being Pacayu-Samaria. Numerous people live within the reserve, and oil and mineral extraction activities are carried on, to the great detriment of the forest. Moreover, the unstable political situation in this country leaves the future of the Peruvian Amazon in doubt.