The Stars and the Moon

Visitors to the Amazon rainforest are often left in awe of powerful and magnificent nature. But few stop and observe the beauty that unfolds in the night sky once many of the forest’s inhabitants go to sleep. With no light pollution, the view of the stars at Posada Amazonas was simply magnificent. After helping some of the staff at the Posada with their English, I walked back to my room when I heard my classmate’s voice whisper urgently, “turn off your flashlight! Look up!” As I did, my breath was caught in my throat – the stars were clearly visible from the night sky. There they were in all of their loveliness. The southern cross shone in the distance and even the Milky Way was clearly visible.

The longer I remained standing there with no light to shield the beauty, the brighter the stars became and soon I was able to distinguish the outline of the little shed where our rain boots were stored. The closest I ever got to a view like this was on the pier near my parents’ house. The further away you went on the pier, the further you were from light pollution, and the clearer the night sky became. But even then it was difficult to completely get away from the light from the streets. That night on my community’s pier I watched a meteor shower. What I wouldn’t give to see the same one at Posada Amazonas!

Once my classmates departed to their rooms – we had to be up very early the next morning – the surroundings became quieter. Then I was fully exposed to the sounds of the night. Sadly, I was not able to identify all of the sounds and, frankly, most of them were terrifying, but that was part of the experience. The longer I stood there, the more the forest itself around me shimmered – thousands of fireflies came out to illuminate the forest as the stars lit up the sky. At that particular moment I didn’t think about anything at all. Not a single thought crossed my mind of whether any of the stars that I was looking at harbored any life, whether we were alone in the vast universe. This seems strange, but I was just happy to enjoy the moment and be part of the beautifully shimmering forest.

The moon was just going into its first phase and was shining as bright as ever. In Inca mythology, the goddess of the moon, Mama Quilla (Quechua: Mama Killa or Mama Kilya) was the third most important deity. She was envisioned as a beautiful woman and was often regarded as the protector of women – her temples were served by dedicated priestesses. As the protector of women she presided over women’s general welfare, marriage, and menstrual cycle. Mama Quilla was the sister and wife of Inti, the sun god, and mother to Mando Capac and Mama Ocllo – the mythical founders of the Inca empire. Myths about the moon goddess focus on her crying silver tears. There is also an extensive myth regarding the lunar eclipses, which were believed to be caused when she was being attacked by an animal. In every ancient religion the moon plays an important role, and it is not hard to guess the reason behind it – she controls the tides on Earth and illuminates the passage of the lonely wonderer at night. And it is definitely not hard to imagine thousands of poets and dreamers looking up at the moon and the stars and attributing beautiful and mysterious myths to their existence.

– Inna Tsys


Posada Amazonas as a Socially Responsible Business Venture



Photo: T. Hilde

We had the great privilege to stay at the beautiful Posada Amazonas lodge and observe not only a vibrant natural landscape, but also a dynamic and innovative ecotourism business partnership.  Posada Amazonas is managed by ecotourism company Rainforest Expeditions in partnership with the local mixed-indigenous forest community of Infierno. This post will explore some of the traits and results of that business relationship.

Rainforest Expeditions entered into a formal contract in 1996 with the Ese’eja community of Infierno to build and run the ecotourism lodge of Posada Amazonas. In effect, Rainforest Expeditions brought to the table its business expertise (management, marketing, etc.) and its knowledge of the tourism industry, while the Ese’eja brought ownership of the land and knowledge of the ecosystem and of traditional practices, such as local farming techniques and the community medicinal garden, that are of interest to visitors. The local community also provided manpower for the construction and maintenance of the lodge and, to date, supplies most of the workers in the lodge’s day-to-day operations.

According to the original 20-year contract between Rainforest Expeditions and the Ese’eja, decision making authority was split at an even 50-50 between the two parties. The community is represented in deliberations by a 10-person Ecotourism Committee, which is democratically elected every two years. While the divided decision making power has caused headaches at times, it has greatly helped in holding the partnership together. From Rainforest Expeditions’ point of view, ceding some authority to the community has kept the local people engaged and insulated the company against hints of exploitation. From the Ese’eja side, equal decision making power has provided the opportunity to learn about standard business practices and impersonal decision making – principles that may not come naturally in a native community. Indeed, this on-the-job business training among community leaders may be helping to fill some of the gaps that cause native communities too often to fall prey to unscrupulous outside interests.

The majority of Posada Amazonas’ staff come from local Infierno families. The learning curve is steep for individuals unaccustomed to a highly structured employment setting. And then there is the necessity of satisfying well-to-do foreign tourists. To prepare workers to meet the heavy demands of a job at the lodge, employees go through a thorough training regimen. Workers are employed for two year stints before handing the job off to another member of the community. This practice of intense but limited two-year periods of on-the-job experience allows the community to build up a reserve of experienced tourism workers, ensuring that the venture is not overly dependent on a limited number of permanent staff – and thus vulnerable to staff shortages if workers take their newly-acquired skills elsewhere. The experience gained working at Posada Amazonas is very valuable to the local workers. Some employees in particular, such as the guides or those who have risen to management positions at the lodge, have learned invaluable skills that are in high demand in the tourism market.

The 50-50 decision making structure and the intensive investment made in staff training both point to one of the distinctive features of Rainforest Expeditions’ investment in Posada Amazonas: the goal to build the community’s capacity to fully manage the lodge without the need for outside assistance. The initial 20-year contract establishing the managing partnership for Posada Amazonas stipulated that management of the lodge would revert fully to the Ese’eja at the end of the contract period. As it happened, the community has decided that it is not yet prepared to receive full operational responsibility and negotiated an extension of the contract for an additional three years, to 2019. The new contract shifts the profit sharing ratio from 60-40, with the community receiving the largest share, to 70-30. The willingness of Rainforest Expeditions to exit a profitable partnership, and indeed its intentional and transparent efforts to build up the community’s capacity to successfully manage the venture on its own, reveals an unusually deep interest in social responsibility in a private for-profit company. Perhaps it is that very social conscience – not only refusing to take advantage of the less experienced partner but going to extraordinary lengths to foster that partner’s future ability to operate independently – that has led Posada Amazonas to become a successful and profitable ecotourism venture.

– Jeremy Hinch


Assessing the Progress and Limitations of Economic Development in Peru

While in Peru, we had the opportunity to meet with Professor Fernando Villarán. The decorated scholar currently serves as the Dean of the School of Engineering and Management at Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University. He previously served on the administration of past President Alejandro Toledo as the Minister of Labor and Employment Promotion of Peru. Villarán’s lecture touched on Peru’s current economy and historical developments that have led to the country’s current state. He also discussed factors contributing to the economic growth that the country has recently seen.

Currently, Peru has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The country experienced an economic boom from 2002-2012 during which the GDP grew at an average 6.5% annually, the poverty rate (income less than $2/day) decreased from 54% in 1990 to 23.9% in 2013 and the extreme poverty rate (income less than $1.25/day) decreased from 23% in 1990 to 4.7% in 2013. During this period, individual household incomes also increased. Peru has also seen a significant decrease in the unemployment rate, which peaked at 9.5% in 2005 and was at 6% in 2014. The 2012 GDP growth rate was 6.3%; in 2014, Peru’s GDP was at its highest in history at 202.6 billion dollars. The country boasts one of the largest GDP growth rates in the world. Peru’s GDP is driven by services, mining, manufacturing, natural resources, agriculture, taxes, and, more recently, gastronomy. Historically, Peru’s economy was built on agriculture, farming, fishing, and internal trade. Industrialization and globalization, however, have helped the country to capture value and improve economic status through increased efficiency and access to other markets.

In addition to globalization and macroeconomic stability, increased foreign trade, refined spending, debt reduction, improved investment rating, and increased fiscal reserves (held in US dollars) have contributed to the economic boom in Peru. Peru’s underground economy makes up about 60% of its GNP and activities such as illegal gold mining and drug and human trafficking have promoted the economic status of select communities. However, this has yet to lead to investment in the country or growth of the national economy. Peru has suffered from deforestation and human rights violations that have marred the feelings of happiness or prosperity that are usually common with economic growth and development. Furthermore, informal activities increase economic loss when considering missed revenue from taxes, registration and administrative fees, and other requirements that would be necessary for legitimate business operations.

Much of the country’s poverty is sequestered into its rural areas with many cities, including the capital Lima, experiencing significantly lower rates of poverty and unemployment than national averages and reaping the benefits of an economy that is on par with many first world countries. The Andes, however, remains one of the most impoverished regions in the country. The marked difference in economic status is especially jarring given that areas populated with indigenous peoples are likely victimized by illegal activities that are used to promote the profitability of large national and international corporations. The rural communities that are left suffer the consequences of this exploitation and are rarely compensated for their losses.

In contemporary history, Peru’s economic growth has been largely attributed to the presidency of Alberto Fujimori—starting in 1993. In addition to defeating the Shining Path and quelling insurgency, the President successfully restored macroeconomic stability. Since Fujimori’s departure, the presidential approval rating has fallen, with his successor Alan Garcia seeing only 20-30% approval ratings. The economy nearly doubled in size. However, approval rates continued to dwindle. During this time, the average government approval rating was about 26%. Peru historically has the lowest rates of public trust in the country’s democratic institutions. Professor Villarán informed us that this distrust in government, coupled with inefficiency and corruption, have stifled the economic progress that could be possible throughout the country. Peru’s leaders must adopt a “bottom up” approach that focuses on the regional attributes and needs and investments in small businesses and entrepreneurs rather than large corporations and entities in order to truly disseminate the benefits of a prosperous economy. The government’s inability to let go of the neoliberal ideology adopted in the 1990s has stalled development and progress and limited its potential impact.

– Sharice Davis

Neutral Truth-Seeking Amidst a Painful History

Knowing where we come from helps us better understand the difficulties we face and the blessings we receive.  One important piece of Peruvian history is the war with the Shining Path. The Maoist guerrilla insurgency was most active in the 1980s, trying to replace the government. It took control of two thirds of Peru’s rural areas in 1991 but ultimately failed when President Fujimori succeeded in land reform which led to  the Shining Path losing support from farmers. The majority of the world deems the Shining Path a terrorist organization for the violence it inflicted throughout the country.

Our group fortunately had the chance to meet Félix Reátegui, Director of Sociological Research at la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Reátegui was the Final Report Coordinator on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2001-2003), which researched the war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian government during the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the most important messages from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that both the state and the Shining Path were responsible for the tragedy. Félix Reátegui said that the Shining Path is a criminal organization, but it does not mean that the state is innocent. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Shining Path was responsible for 54% of the deaths in addition to disappearances and other atrocities during that period, while the state was responsible for 38% of the deaths.

It is important for people to know about the truth. There may be a stereotyped image of communism in Western people’s minds, and the opposition may be easily considered to represent freedom and human rights. However, the truth can be more complicated than this. As Reátegui pointed out, the war is more about racism from both sides. Besides racism, the occurrence of the Shining Path was also the result of distrust between citizens and the state, as the state was not there to guarantee people’s rights.

Reátegui stressed that all the members of the Commission did not represent any particular segments of society. Although the composition of any such commission may be debated, it is important that the Commission tried to be neutral. History is usually written by the majority, and minorities often have little access to power and the dominant discourse. When there is a truth commission that tries to describe history on neutral terms, there is a better chance to serve justice.

It is fortunate for Peru to have such a truth commission. Not every truth commission can be as neutral as Peru’s. When I went to Ethiopia last summer, we visited the Red Terror Museum, which documented crimes that the “Derg” – a Soviet backed regime from 1974 to 1991 – had done. After talking to local people, we learned that not only the “Derg” but also the opposition movement known as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front committed crimes against humanity. However, the institution fostering transitional justice in Ethiopia was the Special Prosecutor’s Office created by the transitional government in 1992. As a result, it mainly focused on convictions of members of the Derg regime.

An ancient Chinese saying goes, “the winners are crowned and the losers are vilified.” Legitimacy is usually claimed by the victor. However, the dark side of humanity exists not only for the losers, and the winners are not necessarily the heroes fighting for justice. True justice exists in neutral truth-seeking. We should hope that transitional justice can achieve true justice while avoiding becoming a political tool, and that truth commissions can achieve neutrality in their recounting of history rather than becoming merely defenders of the new regime. In this sense, Peru has done better with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission than most.

Unfortunately, while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission achieved something in its search for the truth, it achieved less in terms of reconciliation. The government did not take up many of the recommendations from the commission. Social unrest and distrust towards the state persists in Peru. The state should be responsible for the ongoing tensions between segments of the citizenry and itself. The government should also strive to do a better job reconciling a past in which many Peruvians have lost much more than others.

-Lin Ge

Informal Economy

After climbing into a van and pulling out of Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport, we could see hordes of vans unloading occupants, leaving them to walk several hundred meters between the airport’s outer gates and the departure terminal. On the drive to the Barranco neighborhood of Lima, our driver frequently needed to apply the brakes as brightly colored buses packed with riders swerved to the curb to load even more passengers. Sitting in the van, I scrolled through the photos I had taken on the plane. I had a bird’s eye shots of the seemingly endless green expanse of the Amazon broken up only by brown smudges and murky pools of water, signs that miners had been to work, tearing up forest in search of the gold that has turned the world’s gaze towards the region since the Spanish arrived roughly 500 years ago. Days later, we would drive south from Lima into the surrounding coastal desert to meet Grammy-winning Afro-Peruvian musician Susana Baca. On the way, the rolling sandy hills brought to mind the scenes of Jaku from the latest Star Wars film, but these hills were dotted with dilapidated homes and malnourished looking livestock, the only color in the landscape coming from the bright orange “Keiko” sign scrawled across crumbling walls. Three scenes, the buses, the mining, and the shanty towns, witnessed days and miles apart from one another, all sharing one key attribute: they are all the result of informal activity.

Peru’s bustling economy generates a GNP of roughly 339 billion PPP USD (World Bank). According to Fernando Villarán, Dean of Engineering and Management at Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University and former Minister of Labor, approximately 60 percent of that GNP is generated informally. That means about 203.4 billion PPP dollars are unregistered and untaxed in Peru. In this post, I will attempt to give some background on the various informal businesses and their economic and political implications.

In the early 1980s, renowned economist Hernando de Soto returned to his home country of Peru to explore the booming informal economy that had come to prominence during the instability of the Shining Path insurgency. He authored The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism in which he explores three key informal markets: transportation, trade, and housing. These same three markets persist into the present day in much the same way they used to, operating in the public eye and providing vital services to consumers where the government falls short. While de Soto referred to the informal economy as “clandestine,” the modern terminology has evolved to distinguish between informal, meaning unregistered but otherwise legally permissible activity, and illegal, which is both informal and against the law. De Soto openly criticized the Peruvian government’s efforts, or lack thereof, to regulate the clandestine economy. De Soto principally targeted overly complicated registration procedures and overly burdensome tax structures as the cause of the informal economy rising to meet the demand for employment and housing.

Informal transportation is dominant in Peru’s largest cities, particularly Lima, where a historic dearth of government investment in public transportation has left the city drastically undersupplied. According to research sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, it is estimated that only 90,000 of the 230,000 taxis and “combi” vans operating in Lima are registered while the rest operate informally. De Soto estimated that 90 percent of daily commutes were made informally in Lima, and using data from the annual Lima Como Vamos survey, it does not appear that the formal to informal ratio has changed significantly. While the informal transport market provides valuable service, the associated negative externalities make it critical to formalize. Informal transport accounts for an overwhelming amount of transport related emissions because the vehicle types associated with informal transport – vans, taxis, and mototaxis – emit seven to ten times higher emissions per passenger than even half full city buses. Additionally, their road space to passenger ratio is significantly higher than city buses, contributing to greater congestion and thus increasing time spent idling and creating further emissions. Formalizing and subsequently regulating vehicle numbers and emission standards could help reduce the impact of these externalities. These informal operators are regulated when possible, such as with access to the airport’s drop-off and pick-up areas. The government has made a number of efforts in just the past few years to provide legal public transportation alternatives with the bus rapid transit (BRT) route which opened in 2010, and the Metro de Lima metrorail which opened in 2012 and is set to expand over the next decade to include a second line.


A bus stopped to pick up passengers in the middle of an intersection during a green light (Photo: Dan Meier)

Like the transport market, the informal mining and logging industries also provide valuable stimulus to the Peruvian economy. According to a mining industry report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers, mining accounted for over 14 percent of the Peruvian GDP in 2007. According to Fernando Villarán, mining is the primary industry in the Madre de Dios region in the Peruvian Amazon and, thanks to mining, Madre de Dios also ranks as one of Peru’s highest earning regions in a ranking of GDP per capita. Again, the service is valuable, providing employment, high relative income, and international prestige as a world leader in mining. Yet, it is the negative externalities associated with unregistered mining that make it problematic. Unlike informal transportation, much of the mining activity is actually illegal. Mining is responsible for tremendous deforestation, which in turn contributes a larger percentage of Peru’s total greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. Additionally, the mercury used in the mining process is dumped into rivers and soil, killing plant and animal life and making water undrinkable and fish inedible. The Peruvian government is making efforts to treat the cancer of illegal mining that is killing the world’s most biodiverse forest, but the overwhelming number of illegal miners, 30,000, and their prominent role in society, government, and industry, makes regulation both complex and unpopular.


An illegal mining operation gradually flooding and deforesting part of the rainforest between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado (Photo: Dan Meier)

Finally, the informal economy provides housing options for Peru’s rapidly urbanizing population, which grows annually to include an additional 0.5 percent of Peru’s total population, according to the World Bank. As Peruvians continue to relocate from rural to urban areas, infrastructure and housing options are underprovided by both public and private formal means. This leaves migrants looking for economic opportunity to provide for themselves, forming massive shantytowns around Lima and other cities, known as pueblos jovenes or “young villages.”


Roadside hovels on the outskirts of Lima (Photo: Dan Meier)

According to Villarán, the Peruvian government tried for a time to implement de Soto’s bureaucratic simplification strategy, and he feels that the strategy has been unsuccessful in reducing Peru’s informal economy. However, using the indicators Villarán provided related to government corruption, taxes, and labor regulations, as well as the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index (which includes ease of opening a business derived from the number of forms, meetings, and taxes prior to opening a business), and the OECD Foreign Direct Investment regulatory restrictiveness report, I am not convinced that Peru has truly tried to open markets and facilitate formalization. Further efforts should to be made to simplify Peru’s new business taxes and operations, as well as efforts to implement Villarán’s suggestions related to small business subsidization and support in order to allow small business to formalize and grow.

-Dan Meier

The Catacombs of the Monastery of St. Francisco

On March 16th, our large group of University of Maryland graduate students visited the Monastery and Church of San Francisco. The beautiful building is located just blocks away from the President’s Palace and is surrounded by little shops and rustic bars in which tourists and locals gather to watch the latest soccer match and share a beer. The monastery charms the visitors from the very second you walk through the gate by its magnificent architecture and two identical towers. Once you make your way inside, you are continuously amazed by the beautiful carvings, which are so realistic that it is hard to believe that the robes of the saints are actually intricate carvings from the wood that once was a living and breathing tree deep in the jungle. The walls of the monastery are adorned by the extravagant paintings of the patrons and saints. In one of the halls hangs the painting of the “Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata. Unlike the famous one by Leonardo da Vinci, this one plays with darker colors and includes many more players, such as women and children as well as food and animals native to Peru.

Once you make it up the gorgeous wide stairwell, you find yourself in the library – the perfect place to visit for anyone who is still slightly upset about the library of Alexandria burning to ashes. The library contains thousands of antique texts in Spanish, Latin, and Quechua, including the first Spanish dictionary and the Holy Bible from 1571. However, it is not difficult to see how deteriorated the pages and the bindings of the books have become due to the high humidity of the city. As you look at this magnificent treasure of knowledge, you cannot help but wonder why these books have not been moved to a place where they can be safe from the elements. But then you realize how empty this room will become and, grudgingly, you realize that you would rather see the books deteriorate on the shelves than be separated from the library. But be wary of letting the monastery charm you completely, because down deep below Lima exists the shadowy world of the catacombs of the San Francisco Monastery – the city’s first cemetery. To this day you can clearly distinguish the skulls, hip bones and femurs that are fabulously arranged in their individual niches.

Catacombs are human-made underground passageways usually used for religious practices. Within these passages the bodies of the priests and nobles, including women, have found their final resting place. Up until 1808, the catacombs were used as the burial site for commoners as well until the city cemetery opened outside Lima that year. However, being buried on the church grounds was considered highly prestigious and since the demand from the nobles and middle class was so high, the undertakers of the church took to dousing the bodies with quicklime, which caused them to decay quickly. The skeletons were then removed from the shallower graves and tossed into the common well, mixing the commoners and the persons of higher rank quite intimately. It is quite ironic that these people who worked so hard in life to separate themselves from those less fortunate ended up buried in the same grave. However, the practice of dousing the bodies with quicklime was halted in 1821 through an official decree from José de San Martín.

When you first walk down the steps, you have to stoop down so low that you are almost bowing. It seemed that even the monastery was forcing you to show respect to the deceased who lived centuries before you. As you are standing among the bones of the people long dead, famous and not so famous, you can also see the supporting columns of the monastery itself. What adds to the mystery of the place is the fact that there are additional passages that have not been used or seen by the public for hundreds of years. The monastery also houses a miraculous guest – Friar Juan Gomez, a 16th century doctor and miracle worker. His grave was located in the middle of one of the halls, where in the center of the floor a small stairwell was constructed leading down to a smaller room within the catacombs. While we had a good view of the grave, we could not approach the friar’s resting place since it was blocked off by metal bars. I doubt, however, that the little cell could have housed our entire group.

The catacombs were discovered in 1943 and are estimated to house the remains of about 25,000 people. After this time, anthropologists and archaeologists were invited to organize and catalogue the bodies. This is why today when you go down the stone steps and immerse yourself in the musky smell of the catacombs you will see skulls and femurs and tibia bones placed in their individual niches. One has to remember that this was done after the catacombs were discovered and not when the bodies were first buried. Overall, this was a mysterious and beautiful place, which leaves you wondering about the lives of the catacomb inhabitants prior to departing from this world.

– Inna Tsys


Photo: T. Hilde


“Juntos Hacia el Futuro”: The Elections in Peru

As in the United States, Peru is in the throes of a presidential election. The topic seems to be present everywhere we go – from Lima, where billboards cover nearly every roadside, into even the Amazon where our guides jokingly promised the latest news on Peruvian elections to get our attention. Yet, despite the familiarity of being bombarded with campaign ads, something unprecedented has happened in Peruvian electoral history: two candidates have been removed from the running. The first, Julio Guzmán, who one of our speakers, Fernando Villarán, identified as a “well-trained technocrat,” was formerly at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He was seen as one of the best candidates to challenge the frontrunner, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori. Guzmán was removed from the election on the grounds of a technicality in the process of registering for the election. The other candidate, Cesar Acuña, was removed for breaking the law. Acuña was found to have handed out money to voters.

These recent events have paved a clearer path for Keiko to win. What now stands in her way is an irritated voter base composed primarily of the young and well-educated. Protests have been popping up throughout Lima since the news broke about Acuña and Guzmán just a few weeks ago. On our trip to the Plaza de Armas we were able to see one such protest outside the Palacio de la Justicia, demanding that the candidates be allowed to re-enter. With confidence in the government being one of the greater struggles facing the Peruvian state, these events only heighten the population’s conception of corruption. And in this way, the Peruvian election greatly mirrors the current state of the election in the U.S. Many Peruvians are tired of being governed by what they see as corrupt politicians. During both elections, the emphasis has been on the “new” candidates. The top candidate in this category would have been Julio Guzmán but some voters have looked to support another candidate since Guzmán‘s removal – Verónika Mendoza. She’s 35 years old, at the minimum age for entering a presidential race and, unlike most of the politicians that come from a background in law, Mendoza is a sociologist.

But as Keiko Fujimori continues to look like the most likely candidate to win, echoes of Peru’s not so distant war have arisen, especially in the rural sectors of the country where her popularity is highest. By running in part on her father’s legacy, Keiko earns the support of many Quechua speaking indigenous people for her father’s defeat of the radical Maoist group, the Shining Path, which dominated much of the Andean region and even parts of the Amazon from the early 1980s to 2000. Following this violent conflict, the Peruvian government sought to enfranchise these historically marginalized groups. This de jure universal suffrage remains important for the upcoming election and debate continues as to just how far-reaching access to voting actually is. Specifically in the area of Madre de Dios, where we spent our time at Posada Amazonas, voter participation and hope for the elections are low. In many regions with significant indigenous populations, demonstrations demanding voter ID cards are common because without one, citizens are denied access to voting. Despite the apparent difficulties in voting, several members of the indigenous community of Infierno, including our wonderful guides and the staff, were prepared to take the long boat ride from the town near Posada Amazonas downriver to the closest polling station in Puerto Maldonado.

To date, Peru’s election has been full of contradictions – de jure universal suffrage alongside demonstrations for real voter inclusion, democracy in the midst of diminished competition, and an emphasis on the new with a front-runner campaigning on her father’s legacy. There is little time until Peru makes a decision on its future, and our class and Peruvians alike will wait with anticipation for the result.

– Angie Garvey

Las Barriadas: An Informal Answer to Lima’s Housing Problems?

Driving through the outskirts of Lima presents an entirely different view of the city structure, one that someone wouldn’t necessarily pick up on if they stayed in the hotspots of Barranco, Miraflores, or San Isidro. Outside of the city proper are squatter settlements, known colloquially as barriadas, that house a huge portion of the city’s population. These houses are built informally, without legal standing or any real connection to property rights or the government as a whole. Much like the well-known favelas in Brazil, the barriadas can be unsafe, rife with poverty, unemployment, a lack of sanitation or electricity, and at times political unrest. Many families in the barriadas have migrated from poorer areas of Peru in search of economic opportunity but have been faced with a lack of legitimate living options. As Peru’s population has expanded, and in particular as the population of Lima has steadily risen, the government has been unable to meet housing needs for its citizens.


Photo: T. Hilde

My initial impression of the barriadas was negative – I found it to be particularly troubling that I was able to see, from my safe spot in one of the bustling main squares of Lima, the barriadas piled atop one another on an unstable, rocky mountainside, peering down at a city so physically close but incredibly distant to them in terms of economic or social mobility. The yellows, blues, and other bright colors of the barriadas houses seemed cruelly ironic – a physical manifestation of a desperate attempt to maintain a positive attitude in an intractable state of serious poverty.

Yet after reading a few in-depth articles on the barriadas and listening to the talks given by Iván Lanegra and Fernando Villarán, my perception of the situation shifted from sadness and disdain to a quiet understanding of the social, cultural, and economic intricacies of the housing crisis in Lima and the barriadas as a whole. Professor Bill Chambers, who spent 40 years living in and studying the barriadas, writes that the barriadas actually act as the only functional solution to Lima’s inability to provide housing for its growing population. He argues that since the state has been unable to meet this need, the barriadas serve as an important service to the lower class and migrant worker populations of Lima who would be effectively homeless without the squatter settlements. While the barriadas are certainly not without their problems, Chambers’ writes that he saw distinct changes in the communities over the course of 40 years – over time the houses became safer, electricity was present in many areas, and families were able to rise in economic and educational status. From this perspective, the informal settlements might prove to be a gradual solution to Lima’s housing problems.

Fernando Villarán and Iván Lanegra also shed some light on the context of the barriadas. Villarán talked at length about the informal sector of the Peruvian economy – since the government has been unable to economically absorb the growing population and needs of Peru, informal economies have sprouted up as a means to an end for many citizens. The majority of taxi cabs, for example, are not formally registered or connected to any certified cab company; they simply operate and provide services without any formal connection to the state. In our other meeting with Iván Lanegra, Professor Hilde mentioned that from an American perspective, we have a difficulty understanding both the overt illegality and informality of much of the Peruvian lifestyle. The US, at least in most aspects, appears to be incredibly regulated and formal (thanks to our strictly-by-the-rules Puritan roots). But in Peru informality permeates the culture, and looking at something as vast and challenging as providing adequate housing for a populous city, it’s no wonder that the barriadas have arisen as a solution in Lima.

As Professor Hilde suggested, I think I have a great deal of difficulty wrapping my head around a state and culture that operates in a style so different from the one in which I’ve grown up. My personal bias tells me to equate informality with illegality, or at least with a negative connotation.  I can’t help but ask myself questions like: shouldn’t the government be in charge of ways to provide legitimate, formal services to its citizens? Isn’t that what the government is for in the first place? Is informality really an appropriate way to handle major civil issues? But, then again, my knowledge is certainly limited, and it’s evident that Peru is facing major problems that won’t have simple, clear-cut solutions.

The class saw a glimpse of the barriadas as we drove south towards Cañete to visit Susana Baca. The houses were in various states, some with walls of crumbling brick and others with sturdier concrete sides. Children in school uniforms were walking with their friends through the streets, and many of the major roads, while unpaved, had streetlights with working electricity. The barriadas may not be the best solution to the housing crisis in Lima, and it remains to be seen as to whether the widespread informality of the Peruvian state and culture is an asset or a curse to complicated civil problems. But maybe, like Chambers said, the barriadas are the best option that Lima has for now.  

– Jen Crino

Symbiosis in Oxbow Lakes: Havens of Biodiversity…

This was not the first time I have been to the Amazon. Indeed, I have traveled deep into the interior in years past on several occasions. I have seen incredible diversity and believed I was well versed in the flora and fauna that we would encounter in Madre de Dios. However, the biodiversity at Posada Amazonas blew me away. I have seen animals I never knew existed, and I have seen birds considered to be exceptionally rare throughout the Amazon but in relative abundance here. Unfortunately, the Tres Chimbadas oxbow lake we visited, an oasis of biodiversity, is in an area rich in both biota and gold.


Hoatzin, oxbow lake. Photo: T. Hilde

Oxbow lakes are formed when a meander in a river is cut off from the primary flow through silting and becomes an isolated body of water. Rivers in the Amazon are volatile. Oxbow lakes are more stable than a flowing river and provide unique habitats for wildlife. Since rivers generally deposit silt along meanders and these lakes are essentially large meanders, however, they are also rich in mineral deposits that wash downstream. Indeed, they are prized by locals, wildlife enthusiasts, scientists, and gold miners. Their continued existence hinges on the tension between many of these parties.

OxBow Lake Formation



The flora and fauna of the Amazon often exist in unique symbioses. Organisms compete and cooperate with multiple species in the same area. While competition is a well recognized aspect of natural selection, cooperation is less recognized although just as important to evolution. Bodies are, of course, collections of cooperating cells of many different species (the non-human cells inside a human being number about the same as human cells). We generally assume that these collectives compete with others and cooperation is rare. However, this is a misconception.

Indeed, tree-dwelling ants like the tangarana tree ant generally live in mutually beneficial harmony with their hosts as do bullet ants, fire ants, and many others. However, this cooperation is not exclusive to ants. Squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys form mutualistic relationships. And without the agouti (a small mammal) there would be no Brazil nuts as only the agouti have the teeth and will hard enough to pierce the thick Brazil nut shell and thus spread the tree’s seeds. Granted, there is no shortage of competition. Strangler figs are a common sight and often kill their host tree. However, the death and decay of the host provides a hollow shelter often used as a roosting spot for multiple species of bats. There are species of plants that release pheromones that attract parasitic wasps to lay eggs inside damaging herbivorous caterpillars; pollinators that fertilize species while getting a meal; and birds that follow army ants picking off insects that flee from the invaders.

The forest is incredibly interconnected and the shaman here understand it. Their depictions of the jungle drawn on textiles are usually deeply interconnected geometric designs that at face value look nothing like an ecosystem until one realizes they are usually maps of relationships or perhaps biodiversity itself. How much are these relationships “worth”? Do they even have value?

The local, national, and international communities must ask tough questions: What do we value more? Are these complex relationships worth more than the utilitarian value of the land or the minerals buried within it? Many areas are choosing to exploit land in order to make a quick buck and leave it to regrow on its own, but these forests (if they grow back… and that’s a big IF) may never be the same as they were before. Does their intrinsic value merit their preservation in “pristine” condition, or are pristine forests simply incompatible with the current material needs of human populations?

The posada has presented a tempting alternative path in ecotourism where these environments gain value for locals seeking to appease tourists who seek “unspoiled” jungle. Perhaps this is the only way to stop the spread of papaya plantations, loggers, and gold miners into the Amazon rainforest. Or perhaps the extraction of economically valuable resources removes an intrinsic value that cannot be recuperated. Regardless of the “right” answer (and I doubt there is one right answer), oxbow lakes support an incredible degree of biodiversity that is perhaps unsurpassed in the Amazon. They are a unique habitat for species seen nowhere else and I am beyond elated to have had the opportunity to visit one.

-Ryan Helcoski

For our group’s complete species list click here:

Economics of Gold Mining

Illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon has become a big challenge in recent years. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the gold price per ounce has steadily grown, despite a more recent downturn. As a result of market demand about 30-40 thousand people have moved to the Madre de Dios region in the southeast of Peru looking for work predominantly in illegal gold mining. The recent completion of the Interoceanic Highway from the Atlantic coast in Brazil to the Pacific in Peru, has provided further infrastructure for the expansion of illegal mining. At the same time, miners have already destroyed about 50,000 hectares of Amazon jungle in Peru.

The price of gold per ounce (1975-2015)



The development of gold mining provided work for marginalized groups of low-skilled and under-educated people who moved to Madre de Dios from other parts of Peru. These people and their families finally started earning some income and covering the cost of basic household needs. The average illegal worker earns around 80 USD per day. It is considered to be a good income considering that the minimum monthly salary in Peru is around 220 USD.

The emergence of this industry in Madre de Dios also created side services to support the growing mining operations. People in the local area service the miners through providing food, accommodation, and other services. They also started earning some cash that was otherwise not available in this remote region of Peru.

Illegal gold mining operations lead to deforestation of the Amazon, causing the devastation of ecosystems and natural habitat for wildlife. The destruction of the Amazon forest may become the major environmental disaster that will cause high economic costs in the medium and long term.

Many illegal miners tend to spend much of their income on alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes. Demand from illegal mining towns forces the illegal recruitment of underage sex workers, violating their human rights. As a result, young girls find themselves in the brothels emerging around the illegal mining towns.

Weak governance and corruption seem to be the major reasons why illegal mining is growing in Madre de Dios. Registration or formalization as a legal miner is complicated, costly, and provides too few incentives. It turns out to be economically more attractive to be an informal miner even if sometimes the miners have to deal with law enforcement. As a result, the vast majority of miners in Madre de Dios are informal. Many are illegal in addition to their informality, working in areas in which mining is prohibited outright, such as conservation areas or indigenous peoples’ lands.

This issue cannot be disregarded from a political perspective. But policy intervention requires a strong local governance system with support from the central government. Peru is holding presidential elections in 2016. Some presidential candidates promised to address this issue in their campaign. The hope is that their campaign slogans will translate into effective policy actions in handling illegal mining in Peru.

– Maksat Korooluev