for National Geographic News
Every week truckloads of farmers desperate for work leave their homes and begin the grueling journey down the eastern flanks of the Peruvian Andes to southeastern Peru, deep in the Amazon River Basin.
Their final destination, which can take up to a week to reach, is the frontier town of Puerto Maldonado in the vast region known as Madre de Dios. They arrive by the hundreds, riding on top of modified gasoline tankers. Most of the farmers who arrive in Puerto Maldonado join one of the hundreds of logging camps in the region along tributaries of the Amazon River.
The farmers are hunting for work logging mahogany and cedar trees from some of the most pristine forests left on the planet, said Enrique Ortiz, a senior program officer with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Ortiz and colleague Doug McConnell, director of communications at the foundation's San Francisco, California headquarters, produced a five-part series currently airing on National Geographic Today about the issues facing the people in the region of Madre de Dios.
Eduardo Salhuna, the congressional representative for Madre de Dios told Ortiz and McConnell that the farmers are desperate when they arrive. "They move to the jungle in search of work and well being for their families," he said. "Their only alternative is to exploit the jungle's natural resources."
"Almost 90 percent of us extract our wood, which is today mostly cedar and mahogany, on our backs and we then utilize the deltas of the rivers to take our wood back down," said Wilson Miranda, president of the Association of Small Loggers of Tambopata (APEFOT) in Madre de Dios, in an interview with Ortiz and McConnell.
The wood the loggers send down the river goes into the hands of a broker who in turn sells it to industrial timber companies who are able to sell the logs on the international market.
Conservationists estimate that for a single log extracted from the Amazon, a logger may get paid U.S. $30. That same log, turned into doors, chairs, and coffee tables can reap U.S. $128,000 on the open market.
"So, they make almost no money for the hardest work," Walter Wust, a Peruvian journalist familiar with the plight of the loggers, told Ortiz and McConnell.
To survive, the loggers in the camps have taken to hunting and eating spider monkeys, one of the largest monkeys of the region and important for spreading seeds around the rainforest, said Ortiz.
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