Why do people settle in the Amazon

Most of the new settlers moving into the Amazon come from the Andes, often being indigenous Quechua speakers. They are usually small scale farmers seeking new land outside the highly populated mountain region where land available for cultivation is extremely limited.

In the Andes small communities have carefully created and maintained terraces on steep hillsides for hundreds of years so as to increase the area they can plant. However the improvements in primary health care over the last sixty years have lead to rapid population growth which in an area where arable land was always at a premium has put unmanageable pressure on these limited resources, forcing many young men or young families to seek new lands to live on and farm and avoid the conflict for land in their home communities.

The obvious place for land seekers to go is the rainforest where, in addition to government promotion of settlement, indigenous land use has historically been much less intensive making it seem apparently “empty of people” to settlers and urban Peruvians.

The movement of people into rainforest lands is now so established that there are clandestine organisations known as “buscadores de tierras” (seekers of land) who, at a price, help locate “available” plots for needy Andean families. These businesses are not concerned with Amazonian indigenous peoples’ claims over the land they “offer”, nor with the problems those settlers may face once there.

Government promotion of rainforest settlement

Over population in the Andes and strong social movements to end the feudal legacy of the colonial haciendas and a landless peasantry across large parts of Latin America put national governments in the 20th century under a lot of pressure to redistribute fiscal lands.

In an effort to alleviate and diffuse the mounting social and political pressure encapsulated in the demand “Tierra para quien la trabaja” (land for those who work it) the Peruvian Government implemented policies to encourage the migration of Andean “peasants” (usually indigenous Quechua speakers) into “empty” rainforest areas. The policy makers did not consider or care about the impacts this migration could have on Amazonian indigenous peoples or their territories but rather saw the forest as empty: “land without people for people without land”.

Adjustments were made to land laws so that settlers could obtain rights to fiscal lands on which they made “improvements”. In this context “improve” usually means clearing rainforest for construction, agriculture or cattle farming.

Today government policies and laws still favour settler over indigenous land claims:

Example: Upper Urubamba: Territory and titles

Andean settlers started to put pressure on Machiguenga territory in the Upper Urubamba in the 1950s. By the time the Agrarian Reforms came into force in 1974 and permitted the titling of communal lands, there were already settlers in many parts of Machiguenga territory. The titles the Machiguenga were then given were allocated in lands that the settlers had not yet worked upon. Thirty years later the map of community lands in the Upper Urubamba is an archipelago of small islands – many too small to maintain their way of life – in a sea of settlers. Many of the sacred places that are part of Machiguenga myths now lie outside their titled lands. Settler pressure continues and many communities have longstanding conflicts with settlers who have invaded even the titled lands and refuse to move; but legislation and the authorities support the settlers more often than the Machiguenga and new aggressive invasions of communal lands occur every year in the Upper (and Lower) Urubamba. Although they submit reports of these invasions, their cases are pending response and the representative federation, COMARU, is always busy trying to get government support to evict illegal settlers.

Social impacts of settlers

Land conflicts and border disputes are common between indigenous titled communities and settlers and the relationships between can become hostile.

Example: Violent intervention

In the 1980s a settler in the Lower Urubamba sent his workers to clear land inside the titled communal lands of the community of Timpía. The community protested, with the support of the local Dominican Mission, but to little avail. Eventually a group of comuneros went to stop the men at work and brief gun battle followed during which the leader of the community was injured. The dispute was eventually settled with the intervention of the Mission and Ministry of Agriculture officials and the community border is now respected.

Much of the time indigenous people and settlers live side by side without too many apparent problems. Many indigenous people recognise that they have learnt from their new friends, although these “friendships” may be ambiguous, especially if there are economic interests at stake and the settlers gain acceptance into the community.

Some indigenous communities have accepted settlers as community members either because they were already living within community lands at the time of titling, or because a community member requested acceptance of a spouse from outside. This incorporation of settlers is being increasingly questioned by neighbouring communities who see its effects.

Example: Prostitution in Timpía

In 2002 the community of Ticumpinía tried to evict a settler who was living with a Machiguenga woman in the community and providing a prostitute service for local petrol company workers. In response the settler reported the community leaders to the police with a price on their heads that has taken years to clear. The community continue to have problems with this family but now fear the consequences of approaching them themselves.

In communities where a large proportion of the population are settlers, the indigenous people loose a great deal of control over communal decisions. Indigenous families note that there is more violence, more stealing, that their children do not want to learn their own language and prefer to speak only Spanish, adopting settler customs more and more. Many indigenous peoples say that in these communities it is becoming harder and harder to live in peace. (LINK eg N. Koribeni casestudy)

Environmental impacts - agriculture

Settlers’ objectives in moving to their new “home” is almost always commercial agriculture and a determined attempt to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. This means a very different approach to those practiced and adapted over centuries by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

Indigenous people clear small plots each year by slash and burn and plant a garden of mixed crops for subsistence. Some crops are planted in the first year, others are known to grow better in the second, but after three or four years use most gardens are abandoned and the rainforest allowed to grow back.

Settlers use similar slash and burn tactics but their aim is to produce enough to sell and live on the earnings. The areas cleared are much larger and where settlement pressure is high people apply these clearance methods even on steep slopes in order to take advantage of every last scrap of land. Many settlers also clear land for cattle ranching removing all but the smallest vegetation.

Rainforest soils are thin and depend on a constant supply of organic forest material (leaves, bark, fruits etc) to maintain the fertile topsoil; on steep slopes the forest canopy is also a crucial protection to break the force of the rain while plant roots help to retain the soil. Settlers’ intensive use of the land destroys the soil until it is useless. Once they have exhausted one area they move on to clear another, pushing the settlement frontier further into indigenous lands. They leave a trail of destruction where the soil is too weak for native plants to take root and where heavy rains (most jungle rains are very heavy) have washed away what little topsoil remains and few animals can shelter there, leading to increasing desertification.

The steep slopes around the town of Quillabamba are almost entirely bare PHOTO. It is hard to believe that 150 years ago this was Machiguenga territory and the slopes were covered in rainforest.

Environmental impacts – hunting and fishing

Settlers in the Upper Urubamba have had huge impacts on hunting and fishing resources due to the methods they use to commercialise them, which are very different to the subsistence methods employed by the majority of the Machiguenga communities.

Many settlers fish with dynamite (illegally provided – the only source is the local police force). Dynamite kills everything, including many young fish that are too small to be commercially viable and are left to rot. These techniques rapidly exhaust fish stocks and the waste it produces goes against everything the Machiguenga have taught their children throughout the generations.

The increase in population density caused by Andean settlement in the area and consequent over-hunting have made most of the large animals the Machiguenga used to hunt extinct in those areas. Machiguenga children growing up in the upriver communities of the Upper Urubamba now only hear of kemari (tapir) and shintori (peccary) and many species of monkey from their grandparents, but have never seen or eaten them.

Many young men do not even learn how to hunt and thus the knowledge and adaptation to live in the rainforest will disappear with the passing away of the older generation.

The Machiguenga in the Upper Urubamba can no longer maintain their traditional diet of fish and forest animals; their principal sources of protein are now tinned tuna and sausages, and these only when they can afford them. Out of season and when the price of their main commercial products (coffee and cocoa) is low the Machiguenga are forced to rely entirely on their gardens for food, with minimal animal protein. This poor nutritional status has serious consequences, especially for infant and child nutrition, exposing them further to disease.

Case study; Koribeni

Koribeni is a Machiguenga community in the Upper Urubamba founded around a Dominican Mission at the beginning of the twentieth century, when all the surrounding lands were lived in and used by Machiguenga families. It is now almost entirely surrounded by settler lands. The original title given to the community was small, partly because the Mission encouraged the Machiguenga families to live close and stay close and because the government gave little thought to traditional land and resource use; at the time population density in the area was low and there was no problem, the river was close and virgin forest near by, Machiguenga men hunted inside and outside the titled lands as they had always done.

However many settlers moving into the area settled inside communal lands with Machiguenga women; early on the community statutes were changed so that settlers could become comuneros (community members). The population grew and there is now no land left to farm, no unused forest to hunt in or make new gardens, and no space outside the original title to expand communal lands because they are hemmed in on all sides by settlers. The community requested and obtained an extension to their titled lands but it is several days walk away from their original title, crossing settlers’ lands.

The children in Koribeni speak little Machiguenga. Many understand the language because they live with their grandparents but they use Spanish to communicate. Few men hunt because there are no animals, and many young men have not even learnt how. The river has been heavily over fished and dynamited by settlers. In addition many Machiguenga say that life has become much more violent and you can’t leave your home unattended without someone stealing something; things that never happened before.

Some families from Koribeni have chosen to move down river, although this means leaving behind relatives and farms, and seek acceptance in other Machiguenga communities with larger territories and further away from the advancing settler frontier.