When we signed up for “the complete Manu experience,” little did we know just how complete it would be. We anticipated the Madre de Dios River, jaguars, tapirs, caiman, monkeys, snakes, wild pigs, piranha, parrots and such (we were given a checklist of 235 species of birds), but we had not thought that “complete” would include thrills and chills.
The first of our chills was taking the road from the UNESCO Heritage city of Cusco down to the upper reaches of the Madre de Dios, probably so named because once you were on it you were liable to call out to God’s mother from time to time. The road was built in 1929. It is closed during the rainy season. We travelled on May 1st, the first day of the dry season. The two extra wheels on the back of the vehicle should have been a clue.
Note the condition of the road. The 2,000-foot drop-off was chilling. Waterfalls surged across the road, and the mud was ankle-deep. Not to worry. We passengers were perfectly capable of getting out of the vehicle and throwing rocks into the mud to give the tires some traction.
No sooner than we had boarded our “bus,” then we learned that our return trip had been re-scheduled. Originally we were to fly out of a small landing strip down river from the Manu Lodge. But… because drug traffickers were beginning to use the strip, the management had decided to avoid a possible conflict: we would leave Manu by an alternate route.
On our last day we would take a boat three hours down-river to the town of Colorado. From there we would take two cars with bald tires to another river where we would take a boat across. Once we were on the far side, we would take two other cars with bald tires and drive to Puerto Moldonado’s airport for a flight to Cusco.
If this sounds straight forward, let me say a bit about the town of Colorado. Colorado is home to illegal gold miners. The price of gold has tripled since 2000, so gold mining is increasingly attractive. Illegal gold mining is running rampant in Peru, and therein lies the conflict.
The miners hate the tourists because most tourists oppose mining; the tourists hate the miners because their use of mercury in the mining process is toxic to fish and shellfish. All humans and animals who eat the contaminated fish suffer the effects of mercury poisoning: reduced reproduction, slower development, abnormal behavior and/or death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control: “Methylmercury can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system to include cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor, and visual spacial skills.”
Are the people living downstream from the mining operations eating the fish? You bet they are. Are you eating the contaminated fish? Probably.
Needless to say, ecologically aware tourists would like the use of mercury stopped. (In hardscrabble mining, the high density of mercury allows gold to sink while sand and gravel pass over the mercury and through the sluice.)
Because Colorado, Peru, is a bit too rough- and-ready for tourists, our guide recommended that we use the bush toilet prior to reaching the town, a cluster of blue tarp shelters, garbage and bars. We were cautioned to keep a low profile. There was no need for the warning. We could easily see the miners along the shore signaling obscene gestures. We were definitely not welcome. I had no intention of looking anyone in the eye or taking anyone’s picture.
All in all, I would say that I experienced somewhat of an epiphany. It is quite one thing for those of us who live secure lives to wave the ecological banner and point the finger at slash and burn practices, illegal logging, illegal mining, or growing coca, but if your family were starving, wouldn’t you follow the path to food?
Poor people don’t have the luxury of making life choices. Their choices are live or die. Most opt for living… by whatever means. Unless the government invests in education and employment options, the people will do whatever they can to keep body and soul together.
As for our taking the moral high ground, I don’t think so.
At the entrance to Manu National Reserve, the ranger station had an interesting exhibit on our daily water consumption. According to the display, we (individually) use 5,000 ml (1.32 U.S. gal.) of water for meat and dairy daily and 2,000 ml (.53 U.S. gal.) for growing vegetables. The average person only needs 20 to 50 litres of water (21.13 to 52.83 U.S. gal) a day, The average daily water consumption in the U.K. is 150 litres (39.63 U.S. gal.) , and in the U.S. the average rate is 610 litres (161.14 U.S. gal.).
“At current rates, by 2025 1,800 million people will be living with water scarcity; 2/3rds of the world’s population will be under stress.”
Careful now. That pointing finger might just be pointing at us.