If you walk down one of the central boulevards of the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado, a few things will probably be apparent:
sidewalks with gaping holes a meter deep punched into them, buildings with second or third stories hastily slapped on top, stray dogs begging for scraps. But what so starkly contrasts with the crude, makeshift nature of this frontier town are the striking murals that stretch across its beaten concrete walls. Jubilant children of all ethnicities plant gardens on the walls of an elementary school; an underpass depicts a montage of hands that metamorphose into a bird taking flight; portraits of native tribespeople with full faces and deep eyes reflect on the motortaxis rumbling by. These passion projects encompass a diversity of sizes, styles, and scenes incorporated, but almost all of them share a common theme: an appreciation and connection with natural landscapes.
The capital of the Peruvian Department of Madre de Dios, Puerto Maldonado sits amidst some of the largest and most pristine continuous rainforests in the world. Home to elusive jaguars, tapirs, endangered giant river otters, and a menagerie of endemic plants and animals. This hub of ecotourism stands as one of the crown jewels of tropical biodiversity, an icon of international acclaim.
And yet despite all of this biological wealth, many working in Peru find more value in the land’s other resources. Encroaching on the forests is ever-expanding papaya plantations, thousands of illegal gold mines, and an army of loggers seeking mahogany and other hardwood trees. Macaws and monkeys are shot down to sell their babies into the black market pet trade, and mercury, as a byproduct of gold extraction, is dumped into the region’s waterways. It seems as if the end of these activities, as blatant and frequently illegal as they may be, is nowhere in sight. But the murals lining the city’s streets demand otherwise.
The scenes spelled out on stores and houses make apparent that the city’s people are well aware of the ongoing destruction: these paintings muse about the loss of forest, and frequently scream out against it. One of the more somber scenes displays a mining camp: blood-stained rivers give way to mounds of dug-up rocks, and terrified birds flee their homes. But the collective message of these paintings is not to insist we separate ourselves from the natural realm to be left untouched and alone. Sustainable management of forest products can provided income and livelihood, as suggested by the happy castañeros collecting castañas (brazil nuts) that surround the town’s Mirador Biodiversidad (a tower celebrating biodiversity). Like the indigenous woman standing guard near the central plaza, whose tanned skin gives way to the spotted fur of a jaguar, this city and its people are unified with the land and its wildlife.
The compositions scattered throghout this jungle city provide a fresh take on local views towards conservation, natural resource use, and indigenous presence. Madre de Dios is not full of ignorant people who see the forest as unclaimed land to be cut; this is a region proud of its natural and indigenous history. The street art alone may not possess the decision-making sway to kickstart enforcement of legal mining standards, or to directly cause a large federal buyout of private lands. But collective celebration of natural wonders is an integral part of building public momentum towards enacting positive change—so a little spray paint and a lot of passion may go a long way. Now engrained into the permanent foundations of the city, the murals of Puerto provide constant reminder of what is really of value in Peru.