Backwater Peruvian town pins its hopes on Brazil

November 11, 1990|By Chicago Tribune

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru -- For the old-timers, this jungle town plopped in the middle of nowhere just isn't what it used to be.

The problem, they say, is "civilization." It's arrived, or at least the locals think so, and most don't like it much.

"When I first got here, the houses were all thatched. The roads and airport were dirt. Everybody knew everybody else," said Tom Moore, a U.S. environmentalist who has lived in Puerto Maldonado since 1971. "It was a nice, friendly place. Now, it's almost like a big city."

Well, not quite. With the boom in Peru's gold mining industry, Puerto Maldonado's population has tripled in the past two decades to about 20,000 residents.

The tallest building is three stories. The paved roads in the center of town give way to dirt two blocks from City Hall. A letter still travels fastest if is carried by a friend.

As for entertainment, there are three discos and one movie theater, but life pretty well shuts down after dark except for some heavy drinking that often involves a home brew made from sugar cane and molasses.

"I can't wait to get out of here. We all want to leave. It's a very hard life," said Dr. Zenon Gonzales, the new head of the local hospital who has lived in Puerto Maldonado eight years.

Dr. Gonzales is from Cuzco, the nearest relatively big city, which can take two weeks or longer to reach by car and canoe during the rainy season, when the rivers rise and the dirt roads turn to mush. It's about 250 miles away.

Because the Puerto Maldonado municipal government is broke, no section of town receives more than four hours of water or electricity a day. That can make life uncomfortable, especially with temperatures averaging about 90 degrees and suffocating humidity.

That may be fine for the snakes and tarantulas that abound, but the people seem to be in a perpetual sweat. They unbutton their shirts, fan themselves relentlessly, sit slouched in their chairs or walk around -- slowly -- trying to catch a wind that never seems to blow.

The last time people remember any relief was in 1987 when the president of Peru came to town to sign some agreements with his Brazilian counterpart. During the two-day summit, the president's crew installed a portable electrical and telephone grid and a water purification system.

Residents dialed directly all over the world, drank clean tap water and bathed at will. Air conditioners hummed, electric fans blew, sweat dried up. But when the politicians left, their crews pulled the plug -- literally. They dismantled all the equipment, leaving behind a fervent wish for more summit meetings.

Things have gotten so bad that an area congressman recently asked Brazil to annex the entire province of Madre de Dios (where Puerto Maldonado is located) with its 49,000 residents. That caused quite a stir in Lima, Peru's capital, but was received in Puerto Maldonado with much approval.

Most trade already goes east to Brazil, rather than west to the rest of Peru. Several prominent local politicians are married to Brazilians, and in some towns the Brazilian currency, the cruzado, is used instead of the Peruvian inti. Many residents eat Brazilian food, listen to Brazilian music, watch Brazilian TV and speak Portuguese.

Recently, Madre de Dios' health minister and 10 members of his staff defected to Brazil after being offered 10 times their current salaries. The former head of the local hospital also left last month, along with more than 40 doctors, professors, engineers, agronomists and other professionals.

Many of those who stay behind wonder what they are doing here, like the local minister of education, who was recently offered $1,500 a month to work in Brazil. He now makes $50 a month.

But others say they don't need to move.

"The central government has abandoned this region, but not everybody has to leave. Brazil is peacefully settling the region. Brazil is coming to us," said William Mardini, a local radio journalist.

Not everyone is thinking about moving next door. The 5,000 or so Indians are more concerned about making it in Peruvian society while protecting their lands and resources.

First came the gold miners, who invaded their property and mined their minerals, without asking permission or paying a fee. Then came the local authorities, such as the police and the military, who used the Indians literally to do their dirty work.

When the police wanted their bathrooms cleaned, their lawns mowed or their houses painted, they jailed some Indians on trumped-up charges and set them free after the work was done.

For years, many Indians refused to go into town. Now they are organizing. Indian leaders are seeking titles to their land, mining their gold, and hiring lawyers to protect them against the police, the military and other outsiders.

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