José, not far from Puerto Esperanza, villagers
proposed to farm small but tasty local fish, then
sell them to wealthier neighbors in Brazil, where
incomes and demand are higher. In Santa Rey,
elders knew of a prime grove of rubber trees that
might produce enough high-quality natural rubber
to export for specialty markets. Another village,
inhabited by the Asháninka tribe, had found ways
to create biofuels from small plots of crops like
sugarcane to power their outboard motors and
Many of the cures I’d seen in the market in
Pucallpa grew wild and abundant near the villages.
One group had proposed to create a medicinal
plant garden to ensure that tribal traditions and
knowledge were passed on to the region’s youth.
Other villages grew cacao, kept bees, wove
baskets, and harvested mahogany seeds – all of
which have the potential for exportation.
The variety of products and ideas seemed as
diverse as the Amazon rainforest itself.
The idea of capitalizing on the Amazon’s forest
bounty is not new. In the early twentieth century, rubber barons infamously forced indigenous
laborers to tap the region’s shiringa, or rubber
trees (Hevea brasiliensis), to make tires for that
era’s great technological innovation: the automobile. And some of mankind’s most important
medicines originate from South America: quinine,
used to treat malaria; novocaine, a numbing agent
favored by dentists; and curare, a medicine used
to treat Parkinson’s disease.
By the late twentieth century, many scientists
and conservationists had begun to argue against
harvesting timber in the rainforests because of
the many other benefits these forests provide,
from carbon storage to natural medicines. The
movement had its roots in a 1989 study, published in the academic journal Nature, that tallied all of the seeds, latex, fruits, and medicinal
plants on a single hectare of land. Researchers
estimated their value at $700, far more than
many villagers made in a year and – theoretically
– many times higher than the value of the site’s
Conservationists celebrated. Here at last was
a viable and sustainable solution for those who
had long looked for ways to help forest peoples
bolster their earnings without chopping down
trees. But the study’s dramatic findings led many
to some hasty conclusions. Critics pointed out that
the researchers had failed to account for variables
like transportation costs, spoilage, and the drop in
price that would be triggered by increased supply.
More recent studies have shown that the
economic usefulness of forest products varies
greatly by region and by access to markets. Such
concerns are paramount in the Purús, where
transportation is slow and unreliable.
My last day on the river served as a cautionary
tale. Our return trip to Puerto Esperanza had been
delayed by torrential rains and flooding upriver, so
we were forced to travel along the river by night.
It was slow and dangerous going: we dodged submerged trees as we picked our way through the
water, guided by little more than a small plastic
flashlight. Twice the motor sputtered and died,
leaving us broadside to the current.
At the same time, I was stricken by fever and
a wrenching stomachache that in any other
circumstances would have required multiple
emergency trips to the bushes and a handful
of diarrhea medicine. But I quickly ruled out
abandoning ship to squat in the Amazon jungle
– alone, in a thunderstorm, and in the dark.
To make matters worse, in the morning I was
due to board a plane for a turbulent, two-hour
flight to Pucallpa aboard a cramped eight-seater
with no bathroom.
It was a tense few hours that seemed destined
to get worse until Jairo, one of our indigenous
guides, brought me to the home of his grandfather, a curandero (medicine man), from a
village upriver. The old man – dressed in western
clothes – spoke no Spanish, but Jairo explained
my predicament to him. The old man nodded
understandingly, then disappeared momentarily
into the forest behind his home.
He returned with a handful of leaves that
looked to me like basil. He placed them in a small
bowl with cool water he dipped from a wooden
barrel in the corner of his house, then stirred the
mix with a stick and waited.
Five minutes later, he handed me the bowl. I
was reluctant. The water was murky and hadn’t
been boiled. But my stomach grumbled in protest.
How much worse could it get?
I drank the concoction. Ten minutes later, the
diarrhea and stomach pains had subsided. I boarded
the plane cured and convinced that, despite the
challenges, non-timber forest products warrant a
Above: Transportation in the Peruvian Amazon is strictly
by boat; in the most remote regions, the rivers are the
roads. Below: A rubber tree is “tapped” for rubber with a
gash; a bottle below is used to collect the latex.