Nearly everyone agreed that the changes started when the road was built. Just ten years ago, the first interstate highway to run through Iñapari, a small southern Peruvian town on the border of Brazil and Bolivia, was paved. The Interoceanic Highway connects the coast of Peru to the coast of Brazil, and it opened the Amazon to the rest of South America.
Peru's part of the Amazon, dense with towering trees and winding rivers, had previously been populated by pockets of native communities and small towns of people lured into the jungle by lucrative natural resource industries.
With more connectivity, Iñapari's economy is growing.
From a newly built tower in the town plaza, visitors can stand at the intersection of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru like a South American Four Corners Monument. It's in a region called Madre de Dios, or “Mother of God,” one of the most biodiverse regions of the Amazon.
To Veronica Cardozo, an Iñapari native, Madre de Dios is her whole world.
“If the forest disappeared, I wouldn't know how to live,” she says.
Cardozo's family, originally of Portuguese and Lebanese descent, has been living in Iñapari for three generations. They came to the region to work as laborers on rubber plantations, harvesting from the shiringa trees. When the rubber market crashed, they stayed and cultivated the land.
When growing up in the region, she remembers only about eight households in Iñapari, but now about 1,500 people live in the border town. It's not just Iñapari that's changing. Peru's pristine and once untouched Amazon is increasingly under pressure from illegal logging, encroaching illegal mining, and climate change.
“What I know about the world is Iñapari,” she says. “I know what the forest needs, and I know what I need from the forest.”
Many of those who grew up in Madre de Dios, like the Cardozos—a family of three brothers and two sisters—say they know the best way to adapt to living in a changing Amazon. But they say they need more support in the form of funding and government law enforcement to manage to live sustainably in the region.
“They Feel The Heat”
According to a review of scientific literature on climate change in the Amazon conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, the region could experience temperatures two to three degrees celsius warmer by 2050.
On the ground, those who work outside say they're already feeling the heat. One indigenous community called Bélgica sits about an hour away from Iñapari and many of its residents have worked as field hands for a logging company called Maderyja, says the community's president, Nelson Lopez.
“They feel the heat when they are out working,” says Lopez of some of the members of his community. “They feel the sun is coming down closer to them.”
In addition to increased temperatures, Lopez says the community has noticed more intense rainy seasons and more prolonged periods of drought.
Adapting to Climate Change
Climate change is a global problem that requires global effort, but the Cardozo family, like many in the region, are not able to wait for nations to put plans into place. They are already adapting their businesses to be more climate resilient.
Maria Cardozo owns a large cattle ranch on the outskirts of Iñapari. Cattle ranching on an industrial scale is the largest driver of deforestationin the Amazon, but even smaller-scale operations like Maria's require clearing several large hectares of trees.
“We know climate change will impact us,” says Maria, who points to more erratic weather in recent years as a recurring problem.
“You think it's going to rain, and then it doesn't come,” she says. “With the heat, it's now impossible to be outside.”
Maria says she doesn't have access to the latest research on ranching and climate resilience, but she improvises where she can. After seeing an informative program on an Argentinian TV channel, her team changed their fencing to allow their cattle less space to roam. It was an experiment Maria says worked: it reduced the number of calories the cattle burned and made them easier to coral in the heat.
They now rotate where the cattle roam and for how long, to reduce wear on the soil.
Maria notes that they haven't been able to sell as much beef as they used to.
“We haven't lost money, but we also haven't grown,” she says of their business over the past decade.
She and her family have begun to diversify the livestock they raise, adding pigs, chickens, and goats. And they also breed and sell stallions.
While making ends meet, she says the operation could be even more sustainable if they had more support from the Peruvian government to buy better machinery, construct a silo to hold cattle feed, and build a lab where they can genetically test their livestock.
Maria's brother Elias received 100,000 Peruvian soles (about 30,000 U.S. dollars) for his aquaculture project. His plan to farm fish, instead of wild catching them, won a sustainability competition called Innóvate Peru meant to help fund projects like his. Aquaculture is often talked about as a way to ensure food security for a growing population. Animal protein can be generated in much less space, and with less associated greenhouse gases, than beef production.
In the nearby rivers, some species of fish like the larger Amazonian paiche are being overfished, but in his fish farms, Elias can raise paiche without threatening wild populations.
Without the continued help of government subsidies for his farm-raised fish, Elias says he wouldn't be able to compete with the cheaper Brazilian fish that flood the market.
It's Abraham Cardozo who works in the forest the most. In 2002, he founded a certified sustainable timber company called Maderacre that he sold in 2011. On the 220,000-hectare plot, only the older trees are harvested, and they're done so on a rotating basis so that the soil stays intact.
“My dad used to say, 'When you learn to live with the forest, you can have a good life,'” says Abraham. He wants other businesses in the region to benefit from the forest, but in a way that they can continue using it indefinitely, he says.
Abraham plans to run for mayor during Iñapari's next election, replacing his brother Alfonso. In Alfonso's tenure, he lobbied for more sustainable infrastructure and oversaw the construction of a central city plaza with lights powered by solar panels.
While sitting at a table in Don Alberto, the farm-to-table restaurant owned by Veronica, Alfonso talks about his parents. His father was also once the mayor, and he describes his mom as a “dreamer.” Both made a living in the forest and saw it as critical to protect at the same time. It's a lifestyle Alfonso says was passed to all the Cardozo children, and which they are trying to pass to their own children.
As the world changes around them, Veronica says they want to ensure that the Amazon forest in which they grew up stays as intact as possible.
“I'm sad that things are changing,” she says. “For towns like this one, we only have the forest.”