hantytowns are the new way of life in the Peruvian pampas on the outskirts of Madre de Dios along the road to Puerto Maldonado. Hundreds of flimsy constructions made of poles and boards covered in thick blue tarp and/or palm leaves, serve as shelter from the frequent rain of the Amazon. This housing suits the miners for the time being while they seek their fortune in the gold mines.
There is no order in these makeshift settlements that have spring up overnight. Between the houses and grocery stores are welding shops and mechanics alongside public showers and bathrooms, and prosti-bars, as they call the canteens where the men drink and party after a hard day of work.
Guacamayo, the vibrant capital of Peruvian shantytowns, takes its name from the once crystal clear stream that now channels the sewage from the itinerant population that numbers up to 30,000 people, as calculated by the local authorities. Along the roadside, like a permanent fair, is a constant blare of lively music competing with the engine noise of dozens of trucks and buses that transport supplies and personnel to the mines. Cooking smells waft from dingy roadside eateries, each of which claims to serve the finest recipes of Peru's famous cuisine.
The prosti-bars are entertainment centers for the miners. In these places one often finds minors who have been tricked into working in the sex trade.
As each area ceases to be productive, the miners move on and leave their villages in the jungle abandoned.
To enter these villages, vehicles must traverse thick logs that serve as a bridge over the deep ditch that separates the town from the Interoceanic Highway. After 200 m one comes to a square, which judging from metal arches at each end must sometimes serve as a soccer field. Whenever a stranger enters, the miners brusquely warn that this is private property. From the makeshift town square, new roads lead directly to the pits where the gold is mined. Leaving the shantytown, one sees fewer women. The miners say they bring bad luck, so they are confined to the camps.
Many of them are not here of their own free will, but have been forced into prostitution by gangs of traffickers..
Journalists from the Peruvian news service INFOS
, working with CONNECTAS on this special report, entered one of the 12 mining camps located at kilometer 103 on the road from Puerto Maldonado to Cuzco.
They recorded how the owners of the prosti-bars duped several women and girls from Puno and Cuzco. Unwittingly, the girls have ended indebted, and their employers will not release them until they have paid their debt. They remain trapped as sex slaves or forced laborers, without much hope of being released any time soon.
People do not seem to think that it is unusual that this happens, and the owners of the businesses talk freely about it. According to the Registry and Statistics on Trafficking in Persons and Related Crimes (RETA), from 2004 until October 2011 there were 1,681 cases of alleged trafficking. Since then, the police have stepped up operations, rescued 104 minors, and arrested 90 people for the crimes of human trafficking and pimping.
This is not the only crime to come by road with the mining boom. The people of Puerto Maldonado recall with nostalgia the time, not too long ago, when going out to walk at night or leaving the door of the house open was not a problem. David Cordoba, who now works as a driver for a hotel, says that he often hears about muggings, murders, like the case of the currency trader that took place a couple of months ago, or the stranger that a miner killed while defending himself from a robbery. "Now I have to go around more cautiously,"
This increase in violence is what most concerns the people living by the Interoceanic Highway, says Elsa Mendoza, who had predicted this in 2004, at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM)
where she works.
Madre de Dios is the region in Peru where the population is growing the fastest. Puerto Maldonado has doubled its population in the past five years, and today it is up to 200,000 according to estimates by local authorities. People are coming in waves to find their El Dorado. The town was not prepared, nor does it have the resources, to keep up with the rate of arrival. Shantytowns are springing up on the outskirts of the city. Squatters are taking over plots of land as if these were residential developments, but with no utilities, no parks, no roads. The water is pumped in with hoses; there is no sewage system or electricity.
According to a study by the Regional Housing Office, only 53 percent of the population in this region is connected to the water supply, and only half of these have some sort of water purification system. In fact in Iberia, the second biggest town in Madre de Dios, water only runs for two hours a day.
Health services and education have also collapsed, as one government official reports. This year they were unable to recruit the 200 teachers needed for what were previously one-room schools.
When the Pacahuara community arrived in the Amazon, it deforested large areas to make its buildings and establish a settlement. Now the local government is paying it to replant the forest.
Life in Iñapari, Peru, is so quiet that its nightclubs are filled Brazilian families who cross the border from the town of Asis.
In Iñapari there are hundreds of Haitians waiting to cross into Brazil. Every day they wander around the main square. They do not speak the local language and have nothing to do.
Everyone in the region agrees that the Interoceanic Highway makes reaching the country's interior much easier. There used to be stretches where cars could not get through and people had to use "toro buses,"
an ox pulling a cart through the mud. Shrinking the distance has reduced the cost of food that previously had to be shipped by plane and was sold by speculators. But social spending has not kept up with population growth. "We only have a highway and nothing else,"
an official from City Hall in the border town of Iñapari, said.
From the time construction began, the road has changed people's life. According to the priest in Iberia, René Salizar, at the public hearings to discuss the plans for the road, people just wanted to know how much they would get paid for their labor. As soon as construction started, the inhabitants abandoned their agricultural activities. When the road was finished, the workers went into mining, which pays twice as much as agriculture. "You can't find people who want to work in the fields," says a government official. Homes were even broken up, Father Salizar says, shocked, "because of women who went after the newcomers."
People began to sell their land cheaply and move to the towns. They made a bad bargain, because the land value went up with the new road, and many of those who left the countryside are now unemployed and living in the slums. The tourism business employs very few people. The land buyers include several companies with plans to set up businesses, but they are still undecided because the power supply is intermittent.
The regional president of Madre de Dios, José Luis Aguirre, says "No work was done parallel to the opening of the road on production projects or other activities to develop the economy of the region." Social spending to mitigate the impact of the road has been insufficient. This facet was linked to the environmental component
and a total of $18 million dollars in social spending was invested for the 2,600 km of the Interoceanic Highway that cross the jungle. The municipalities did not have enough resources to plan land use, let alone build new infrastructure for utilities.
Now the Peruvian Government is negotiating a new loan of $16 million dollars, and it is discussing with communities how to best mitigate the adverse social effects of the Interoceanic Highway. The Development Bank of Latin America has earmarked $1 million dollars for technical cooperation to support a community of alpaca breeders in the highlands along the road, for craftsmen in the city of Cuzco, and to promote good ecotourism practices in the Madre de Dios region. Even if these projects are successful, as the funders say they will be, they will clearly fall short of the needs of the region.
The Interoceanic Highway has also served as a doorway to Brazil from all of the Americas. This is the case of more than 4,000 Haitians who fled their country last year, where a story was circulating that, as a demonstration of solidarity over the 2010 earthquake, Brazil had opened its doors to those who wished to emigrate. But when the Haitians presented their visa applications, they encountered many obstacles and requirements. They became easy prey for coyotes that charge $4,000 or $5,000 for safe passage to Brazil.
Many people raised money through their relatives and liquidated their savings to embark on the long journey that first took them by plane to Panama, then to Ecuador, and from there overland to Peru. According to their testimony, to cross the border between Ecuador and Peru they paid $150 dollars for a stamp that allowed them to enter. Then they took the Interoceanic Highway to get to Brazil.
Most of them have arrived in the town of Brasilea, where they wait for the authorities to take pity on them and give them legal permission to reside in Brazil. Unable to accommodate them, at the end of last year Brazil closed the border crossing and 347 Haitians in transit could not leave Iñapari, the Peruvian town of just 1,500 inhabitants on the border with Brazil.
For several months, the Haitians lived on the charity of this Peruvian town. Most of them communicating with the locals through gestures because they only spoke Creole. In early 2012, the Acre River that marks the border between Peru and Brazil, overflowed and flooded the town. The Haitians, out of thanks to the people who had helped them, worked alongside the townspeople people to surmount the tragedy, and many were adopted by the town's families. The Catholic Church and the governments of Iñapari and Asís in Brazil also contributed aid, but none were able to sustain this situation for long. Finally, the Brazilian government allowed them to enter.
The illegal drug trade take advantage of the long border between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. The top photo shows the strict controls on the Interoceanic Highway in Brazil, then the controls on the Bolivian side in the jungle. The last picture shows one of the informal crossings between Peru and Bolivia, where there is no control.
At the same time, the government made it easier to get visas in Haiti, and reached an agreement under which the Peruvian Government would crack down on corruption among its immigration agents at the border with Ecuador. However, while the situation for the 347 Haitians was being resolved, another 150 arrived and were waiting in Iñapari for permission to enter Brazil. This time there was less solidarity, although one person provided an abandoned house where they could sleep. Today they are crowded in there, with 18 people sleeping in rooms measuring 5 square meters. Still, it is surprising how they dress impeccably. Both the Catholic Church and the local government have made appeals to the Government of Brazil to take the Haitians.
Fortune smiled on 48 of them, in that some employers needed labor and helped them with the paperwork. The rest remain in Iñapari and their future is uncertain. The sleepy town hopes that this situation will not disturb the peace, which is something rare in a border town. The town is so quiet that at night Brazilian families from the town of Asis go there to meet.Drug Trafficking
The opening of the Interoceanic Highway also facilitated another kind of illegal traffic: that of cocaine, shipped from the Peruvian highlands where it is produced, to the streets of Rio and São Paulo where it is sold. The authorities have stepped up inspections. According to figures from the police in Puerto Maldonado, so far this year they have seized 185 kg of cocaine. It was found hidden in baggage or cleverly camouflaged in vehicles in hopes of escaping detection during the strict controls at the Brazilian border.
Only a small percentage of the cocaine that is shipped is found. Hundreds people with packs loaded with drugs, use the Interoceanic Highway to approach the border and then cross the border between Peru and Bolivia on the informal roads. "We do not have the capacity to cover the whole area. There are hundreds of crossings, like ant trails,"
a border policeman in Bolivia said.
Clashes between traffickers to steal the drugs and settlings of accounts have already left 22 people dead this year in the Bolivian department of Pando, according to that country's authorities.
Illegal trafficking in persons and drugs, violence in towns that were once quiet, unchecked immigration, and shantytowns without services, are some of the undesirable consequences of the new road. In the absence of planning and adequate social spending, what has resulted has been a crazy, sometimes criminal, kind of progress. Contrary to what was expected, in the jungle region today people refer with nostalgia to life before the road brought "development."