The colonization of the Peruvian montaña

The eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes are covered by tropical rainforest. The landscape of this region is known as montaña and features steeply rising mountains and deep valleys, dug out over the millennia by large rivers such as the Huallaga, the Urubamba, the Madre de Diós and their tributaries running towards the Amazon basin. These watersheds have a total surface area of 270 000 km2, and until the beginning of the twentieth century they were almost solely inhabited by a few thousand Indians from such groups as the Aguaruna, the Ashaninka and the Machiguenga.

The building of roads across the mountains facilitated the migration of highland Quechua farmers and unemployed Mestizo urban dwellers towards the montaña. Large international businesses, such as the Peruvian Corporation, established enormous coffee, cocoa and ranching estates offering jobs in the region. The population began to increase and had reached 240 000 in 1940. By 1981, 1.2 million people had settled in the montaña watersheds, representing a fivefold increase since 1940. Natural growth accounts for only a twofold increase, so most of this increment was due to immigration.

According to B. Lesevic, a Peruvian demographer, such a large migration flow should be analysed in terms of both attraction and expulsion factors. Among the former is a national policy that extended the agricultural frontier to colonize the Amazonian uplands. This policy provided for road and infrastructure construction, facilitated land entitlement, assisted farmers, and provided credit to small and medium-sized businesses. A side-effect was the development of a seasonal labour market, attracting thousands of landless highland farmers to the montaña watersheds. Among the expulsion factors, Lesevic includes the unequal distribution of land in the Andes and the low productivity of mountain agriculture; a natural increase in population that was higher than the increase in on-site employment opportunities; and a national macroeconomic crisis, which increased unemployment in urban areas of the country

Colonization of the montaña watersheds was a safety valve for Andean agricultural land tenure and productive structures. Supported by governments and international agencies, the process had severe environmental and social consequences. Deforestation, soil erosion, river pollution, conflict with indigenous people, drug trafficking, civil war and poverty can all be attributed to this attempt to provide for the landless by expanding the agricultural frontier, without resolving inequities in access to natural resources and the unsustainable livelihoods systems prevailing in the Andean highlands.

Adapted from T. Bharton, G. Borrini-Feyerabend, A. de Sherbinin and P. Warren. 1997. Our people, our resources. Supporting rural communities in participatory action-research on population dynamics and the local environment. Gland, Switzerland, World Conservation Union, Issues in Social Policy Series. Available at:

last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007