THE LAST AQUAJAL OF TARAPOTO: The Struggle for land rights in Amazonia continues

The life of the land is preserved in righteousness.
Ua mau ke ea o ka `aina i ka pono.
Hawaiian proverb

I live at Yacumaman Ethnobotanical center in Tarapoto, Peru.  Yacumaman is situated just on the outskirts of the city, perched atop a hill with stunning 360-degree panoramic views of verdant jungle-covered mountains.  Directly across from here is located one of the last Aguajales in Tarapoto.  An Aguajal is a wild stand of Aguaje palms (Mauritia flexuosa) that creates a very specific eco-system within the embrace of its dense jungle covering.  Each Aguaje palm can reach up to 35 meters in height and yield hundreds of tiny brown scaled fruits whose vivid orange flesh contains rich sources of Vitamins A, C, oleic acid, tocopherols, carotenoids and phytohormones. In many Amazonian cities, where Aguaje fruit is a popular snack sold on street corners, people can consume as much as twenty tons of this fruit per day.   This presents a significant nutritional contribution to the largely devitalized and starch-based local diet, worth consideration.  This quiet oasis is located in the midst of what is rapidly becoming a sprawling Amazonian metropolis, full of noisy, exhaust-producing motocars, and clusters of dusty tin-roofed, cinderblock shantytowns.  The Aguajal is a sanctuary for many species of colorful birds and provides a canopy for endemic low-growing plants to thrive.  It offers beauty, breeze and coolness in a region where the heat of the sun quickly becomes intense and unforgiving.  For me, this Aguajal represents a glimpse of the expansive and vibrant wilderness that attracted me to Amazonia 8 years ago.

Two days ago, in the dark of the night, a group of 70 mestizos, local to the vicinity and armed with machetes, invaded the Aguajal. They began to cut the undergrowth and lay claim to the land that has rested untouched for decades.  Surely this takeover had been planned and organized for some time, unbeknownst to the neighbors and residents of this area.  By Sunday morning, a large crowd had gathered at the Aguajal and the police were called to intervene.  Apparently, most of the trespassers do not own their own homes and the local government does not provide any kind of lower income housing or programs to support them.  The majority of these groups carve out a meager living by taking odd jobs and selling what little they can find, grow or procure.

The concept of land invasion is something all too common in this part of the world and many people acquire property through these means. Disputes over land titles and property boundaries are quite common.  Landowners who don’t live on their property year-round typically install a family to act as guardians in his absence, so that the property remains secure.  The stand-off between the group of trespassers and the police ended peacefully yesterday with the owner of the property deciding to sell off a large fraction of the land in lots that will be paid over time.  It is immensely disheartening to see one of the last wild habitats in this neighborhood be auctioned off piece by piece, without a thought for conservation.

As someone living on private property here in Amazonia, I am aware that the concept of ecological preservation is a luxury not afforded by the majority of the population who are driven by the demands of necessity for survival, nor fully comprehended by those that lack the means for education.  I feel impotent against the onslaught of trickle down industrialism in the developing world that has devolved into the form of an alien mono-culture based on the consumption of material goods, usurping the minds of indigenous populations by injecting false desire and resulting in the abandonment of these cultures’ ancient ways.  Nevertheless, a seed of hope dwells in my heart that one day soon will blossom a global reawakening of awareness for the importance of preserving our precious ecosystems, an ignition of yearning to protect and value wisdom of indigenous cultures that descend from these wild places, culminating in the collective recognition that our survival as a species is intricately and inextricably connected to the continuation thereof.  May the realization of this planetary vision come to pass before long and may the Aguajal continue to shade the play of children, weather the brunt of many more storms and welcome the sunrise of countless new days to come.

Mauritia flexuosa
Watching the standoff from afar.
Makeshift squatter house in the Aguajal.
Crowd celebrates decision to develop part of the Aguajal.
Police monitoring the crowd.
Stand of Aguaje palms.