Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis Between July and August, 435 hectares of forest were lost around Iberia, a Peruvian town that has been turned into a deforestation hotspot.The Interoceanic Highway is threatening forests in eastern Peru’s Amazon rainforest where many residents depend on sustainably harvesting rubber for their livelihoods. IBERIA, Peru — Saturnino Cuchama is proud of the business he runs in the middle of a lush tropical rainforest. Every day at 4 a.m., the 42-year-old rubber gatherer walks through the trails in the forest extracting latex from the bark of wild rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis), which grow naturally in this part of the Peruvian Amazon.It’s an exhausting job. Cuchama has to collect latex from three trails every day; each one consists of about 100 individual trees. Since the rubber trees grow sporadically throughout the terrain, a single trail in the tropical rainforest can measure up to five kilometers in length.The Shiringa Concession in Iberia. Ecological leather is made from the latex from the Shiringa trees. Saturnino Cuchama Puma works in the concession. Photo by Rochi León.I follow Cuchama through the forest. He stops at each tree to make an incision with a sharp knife, letting the rubber fall into plastic bottles that he will later collect. It is a practice that has existed for centuries in this part of the Amazon, especially during the Amazon Rubber Boom at the end of the 19th century, in which hundreds of thousands of people worked as slaves in the tropical rainforest.But times have changed. Cuchama leads a social enterprise of 22 traditional rubber workers who live around the Peruvian town of Iberia in Madre de Dios, close to the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. The communal rubber company, Ecomusa, helps protect the rights of the rubber workers and lets them collectively sell their latex at fair prices on the market.Saturnino Cuchama shows a rubber tree and demonstrates how latex is extracted. Photo by Rochi León.Last year, the rubber workers, or shiringueros, as they are known locally, produced a total of more than 2,000 kilograms of natural latex, valued at $4 per kilogram. After being dried and pressed, the latex is sent to Portugal to make shoe soles. It’s a sustainable forest practice: people extract goods, but they don’t destroy the forest. Ecomusa’s work wouldn’t be possible if the company didn’t have the right to use the tropical jungle for rubber extraction. In 2008, the Regional Government of Madre de Dios awarded the rubber worker collective about 7,900 hectares of rubber trees in a concession.However, almost ten years later, only half of that area remains. Over the years, 4,000 hectares of low-lying tropical forest, which is about half of the original concession of rubber trees, has been invaded and burned by farmers.“They keep taking our lands,” Cuchama said. “The biggest part of the forest has been converted into cornfields, but they also use it to plant bananas, papaya, or for livestock grazing.”The Interoceanic HighwayCuchama’s rubber trails are only 15 kilometers away from the Interoceanic Highway, a road completed in July 2010 that goes through the Peruvian Amazon from the Andes on the west to the Brazilian border on the east. The monumental project —one of the largest and most expensive roads in Peru— was intended to connect Brazil’s economic strength with Lima and other strategic ports along the Pacific coast.Travelers on the Interoceanic Highway from Puerto Maldonado to Iñapari, on the Peruvian-Brazilian border. Photo by Rochi León.However, this 2,400-kilometer highway, built by Brazilian companies like Odebrecht (which is currently part of an investigation into allegations of bribery of Peruvian civil servants to win a bid) opened the doors to other social and environmental problems.One of those problems: the rapid advancement of deforestation in the area where Ecomusa’s rubber concessions are located. Between 2012 and 2014, the area around Iberia had low to medium levels of deforestation. In 2015, the levels passed from medium to high.Between 2013 and 2015, the deforestation surrounding the town of Iberia and on both sides of the Interoceanic Highway totaled 1,830 hectares (MAAP #28). This loss of forest, which is evidenced by small patches visible in satellite images, is situated within the forest concessions set aside for the use of wood and rubber collection. The satellite images concur with on-the-ground observations made by Mongabay Latam.A map showing the increase of newly-deforested areas for small-scale agricultural use within the Shiringa concession area. Image courtesy of USGS, PNCB/MINAM, UMD/GLADAccording to a report recently published by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP #68), the town of Iberia continues to be one of the most deforested areas in the Peruvian Amazon. Based on the latest high-resolution satellite data, MAAP calculated that between June and August 2017, 435 hectares of low-lying tropical rainforests were deforested around this town bordering the Interoceanic Highway.Satellite data show deforestation of 435 hectares of land (the size of 595 soccer fields). MAAP’s report indicates that a large part of the deforestation occurred in areas designated as forest concessions. Photo courtesy of MAAP and Planet Labs.Evidence of deforestation is obvious when traveling to Iberia. Large expanses of forest have recently been burned, leaving vacant land that will soon be turned into fields for growing papaya or corn. On portions of the land, active fires continue to burn.A large part of this new deforestation is occurring within the forest concessions set aside for the use of rubber collection, such as those used by Saturnino Cuchama.Roadside deforestation along the Interoceanic Highway. Photo by Rochi León.However, until the first half of 2017, in the middle of July, Ibera was not considered a big deforestation hotspot. Because of this, those working in the area say the recent forest losses are probably associated with the beginning of the dry season, which generally starts in June and creates the best conditions for local farmers to practice slash-and-burn agriculture.Deforested and burned land that will soon be converted into agricultural fields. Photo by Rochi León.During last year’s dry season —which resulted in one of the most severe droughts in decades— the portion of the Interoceanic Highway along the Brazilian border, from Iberia to Iñapari, was the scene of many forest fires. These forest fires led to deforestation, with almost 600 hectares lost in this area during the dry season of 2016.The National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation of Peru, confirmed to Mongabay Latam that there were indeed 435 hectares of forest recently deforested around Iberia. According to SERFOR, Peru is establishing a department for the control and vigilance for forests in Madre de Dios, which will coordinate the activities of various public institutions to confront the area’s deforestation.Deforestation continues around the town of Iberia, where those who depend on the forest fear losing their land. Photo by Rochi León.Low demandThe Interoceanic Highway, which has facilitated this increase in deforestation, has played a central role in the corruption scandal that continues to torment Peruvian politics. Brazilian construction company Odebrecht won a contract for the construction of the highway after bribing former president Alejandro Toledo with $20 million. This is according to a declaration by financial collaborators from Panama, Costa Rica, and the U.S. Department of Justice.This wasn’t the only case of bribery. Today it is known that the Brazilian construction company paid $788 million in bribes in 11 Latin American countries in order to gain the rights to construct large-scale profitable infrastructure projects.A part of the route connecting Puerto Maldonado and Iñapari, on the border with Brazil. Photo by Rochi León.The Interoceanic Highway, which passes through Iberia, was one of the most expensive of all. The total cost of the project tripled from $658 million to almost $2 billion upon completion (IIRSA), much of which was paid by the Peruvian government and by Brazilian development banks.The hopes that the new highway would allow Peru to export agricultural products —like potatoes— to Brazil were high. However, the demand for Peruvian products continues to be low in the western Brazilian states of Acre and Rondônia. The Brazilian states closest to Peru are also its most populated states. The increase in population means that the demand for Peruvian food products should also increase, but Peruvian exporters still prefer to send their products for less money to the east coast of Brazil, which has more demand.However, the disappointing level of demand hasn’t stopped farmers from using the new highway to put Madre de Dios’ “virgin territories” to use. When driving outside of the capital, Puerto Maldonado, one can see burned forests for miles and miles. The empty fields are only interrupted by tall, blackened chestnut trees. These solitary trees are a reminder of what was once a lush tropical rainforest.Burned forests are part of the scenery in the town of Iberia. Photo by Rochi León.Papaya has been the preferred crop for this area. In 2015, papaya fields covered 204 hectares, more than half of the total annual deforestation along the Interoceanic Highway from Puerto Maldonado to the Brazilian border. Papaya coverage has increased significantly since 2014, when the crop only covered 55 hectares.Papaya fields in Iberia. Photo by Rochi León.Fieldwork conducted by the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment confirmed that all papaya crops in the area are small (less than five hectares) or medium (between five and 50 hectares), which is consistent with the type of small-scale deforestation indicated by satellite imagery.However, since 2016, papaya has suffered from low prices because of overproduction and viral diseases, such as papaya ringspot virus. Cuchama told Mongabay Latam that the majority of the newly cleared forest that threatens his rubber trails is now used to grow corn, which suggests a transition from papaya to this new crop. Rubber as an alternative“Of course, the Interoceanic Highway has had a big impact,” said Alejandro López, a colleague of Cuchama. López is a chemical engineer who helps Ecomusa process latex and turn it into products like bags, shoes, and toys.The road, which was once just a small dirt trail, has improved access to markets. It allows the rubber worker collective to send their rubber to the Peruvian coast, from where it is sent on to Portugal. “The road has brought progress,” says López, “but also destruction.”López isn’t only referring to slash-and-burn agriculture, which each year brings more destruction to Ecomusa’s rubber. “At the moment, it’s much more easy to cut wood.” The State itself has granted logging concessions close to the Shiringuero land, so there is not much they can do about it, he explained.A small farm in the area bordering forest concessions like that of Ecomusa. Photo by Rochi León.Logging not only threatens Ecomusa’s rubber concessions, but also conservation areas like Rodal Semillero Tahuamanu, which is only a few kilometers from the Interoceanic Highway. Cuchama is sure that the loggers are illegally taking wood from this protected area. “Ever since they built a logging trail in the forest three years ago, the loggers regularly enter with trucks,” he said.Luis Espinel is the vice president of International Conservation Peru, an institution that owned this protected area until June 1, when the Ecological and Environmental Association of Tahuamanu (Ecomath) took charge of it. Espinel confirmed to Mongabay Latam that illegal logging is the main threat to Rodal.“During the [past] 10 years, we have suffered from at least three illegal entrances with the goal of cutting down mahogany trees, which were reported to the respective authorities in Madre de Dios,” he explained. “These events generally occurred in the rainy season, when activities like control and vigilance are made more complicated, since the concession has flooded areas that are inaccessible at those times.”The Rodal Semillero Tahuamanu conservation area functions as a refuge for wildlife coming from neighboring areas where agriculture or other activities have altered the ecosystem, says Espinel. The area also serves as a seed bank for many species. “Its 12,000 hectares house a sample of the biodiversity in the Madre de Dios region,” Espinel said.According to SERFOR, the conservation concession is particularly important for its diversity of bird species (at least 124), including macaws and toucans.López believes that the only way to protect the forest is to give it a different economic value. “The State tells us that we should protect the forest, but it doesn’t tell us how to live. With rubber we can do both.”Saturnino Cuchama cuts the Shiringa trees carefully to extract rubber without killing the tree. Every day, they cut into up to 100 trees and collect the latex in recycled bottles. Photo by Rochi León.López and Cuchama hope to expand Ecomusa’s rubber business to include more high-quality products. They know that only the increase in income will allow them to open more rubber trails.“If we don’t work in the forests, the loggers and farmers will enter. With rubber, we try to give people an alternative.” Agriculture, Agroforestry, Corn, Crops, Deforestation, Environment, Featured, Forest Loss, Forests, Infrastructure, Logging, Protected Areas, Rainforests, Research, Roads, Rubber, Tropical Forests Popular in the CommunitySponsoredSponsoredOrangutan found tortured and decapitated prompts Indonesia probeEMGIES17 Jan, 2018We will never know the full extent of what this poor Orangutan went through before he died, the same must be done to this evil perpetrator(s) they don’t deserve the air that they breathe this has truly upset me and I wonder for the future for these wonderful creatures. So called ‘Mankind’ has a lot to answer for we are the only ones ruining this world I prefer animals to humans any day of the week.What makes community ecotourism succeed? In Madagascar, location, location, locationScissors1dOther countries should also learn and try to incorporateWhy you should care about the current wave of mass extinctions (commentary)Processor1 DecAfter all, there is no infinite anything in the whole galaxy!Infinite stupidity, right here on earth.The wildlife trade threatens people and animals alike (commentary)Anchor3dUnfortunately I feel The Chinese have no compassion for any living animal. They are a cruel country that as we knowneatbeverything that moves and do not humanily kill these poor animals and insects. They have no health and safety on their markets and they then contract these diseases. Maybe its karma maybe they should look at the way they live and stop using animals for all there so called remedies. DisgustingConservationists welcome China’s wildlife trade banThobolo27 JanChina has consistently been the worlds worst, “ Face of Evil “ in regards our planets flora and fauna survival. In some ways, this is nature trying to fight back. This ban is great, but the rest of the world just cannot allow it to be temporary, because history has demonstrated that once this coronavirus passes, they will in all likelihood, simply revert to been the planets worst Ecco Terrorists. Let’s simply not allow this to happen! How and why they have been able to degrade this planets iconic species, rape the planets rivers, oceans and forests, with apparent impunity, is just mind boggling! Please no more.Probing rural poachers in Africa: Why do they poach?Carrot3dOne day I feel like animals will be more scarce, and I agree with one of my friends, they said that poaching will take over the world, but I also hope notUpset about Amazon fires last year? Focus on deforestation this year (commentary)Bullhorn4dLies and more leisSponsoredSponsoredCoke is again the biggest culprit behind plastic waste in the PhilippinesGrapes7 NovOnce again the article blames companies for the actions of individuals. It is individuals that buy these products, it is individuals that dispose of them improperly. If we want to change it, we have to change, not just create bad guys to blame.Brazilian response to Bolsonaro policies and Amazon fires growsCar4 SepThank you for this excellent report. I feel overwhelmed by the ecocidal intent of the Bolsonaro government in the name of ‘developing’ their ‘God-given’ resources.U.S. allocates first of $30M in grants for forest conservation in SumatraPlanet4dcarrot hella thick ;)Melting Arctic sea ice may be altering winds, weather at equator: studyleftylarry30 JanThe Arctic sea ice seems to be recovering this winter as per the last 10-12 years, good news.Malaysia has the world’s highest deforestation rate, reveals Google forest mapBone27 Sep, 2018Who you’re trying to fool with selective data revelation?You can’t hide the truth if you show historical deforestation for all countries, especially in Europe from 1800s to this day. WorldBank has a good wholesome data on this.Mass tree planting along India’s Cauvery River has scientists worriedSurendra Nekkanti23 JanHi Mongabay. Good effort trying to be objective in this article. I would like to give a constructive feedback which could help in clearing things up.1. It is mentioned that planting trees in village common lands will have negative affects socially and ecologically. There is no need to even have to agree or disagree with it, because, you also mentioned the fact that Cauvery Calling aims to plant trees only in the private lands of the farmers. So, plantation in the common lands doesn’t come into the picture.2.I don’t see that the ecologists are totally against this project, but just they they have some concerns, mainly in terms of what species of trees will be planted. And because there was no direct communication between the ecologists and Isha Foundation, it was not possible for them to address the concerns. As you seem to have spoken with an Isha spokesperson, if you could connect the concerned parties, it would be great, because I see that the ecologists are genuinely interested in making sure things are done the right way.May we all come together and make things happen.Rare Amazon bush dogs caught on camera in BoliviaCarrot1 Feba very good iniciative to be fallowed by the ranchers all overSponsored This story was first published in Spanish by Mongabay Latam on October 24, 2017.Banner image by Rochi León.FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.