Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Saturday, 17 July 2010 12:07 UK

The battle for Peru's jungle

Locals rallying in Peru
Hundreds of locals have protested over government plans for their region

By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Iquitos, Peru

As Peru's government races to tap the natural resources of the country's last untamed frontier, a British Catholic missionary has found himself locked in a battle to stay in the country and stop the environmental destruction of the jungle he calls home.

You never forget the first time you leave Lima's greyish-white skies behind and, little more than an hour later, feel a blast of hot air, like a hairdryer in your face, as you step onto the tarmac underneath a shimmering blue expanse of sky.

This is Peru's largest but most isolated jungle city, Iquitos.

It is not advisable to rush anything this far into the Amazon basin, where the heavy humidity and oppressive heat can quash the most energetic of spirits.

Brother Paul McAuley
Brother Paul McAuley is accused of stirring up local opposition

"Gringos" puff and perspire amid the deafening buzz of motorised rickshaws while the people of Iquitos move around languidly and efficiently. Not a footstep wasted nor a bead of sweat shed unnecessarily.

But some foreigners gradually find the rhythm and adapt. Brother Paul McAuley - like hundreds of missionaries before him - has put down roots in the Amazon rainforest.

With a flat-footed gait, a sun-reddened face and strings of beads around his neck, Brother Paul has a slightly distracted but affable air when I meet him at Iquitos' grandly named Palace of Justice.

He also has the calm assurance of an English vicar. Perhaps it is his quiet good manners, and his handshake.

Born in England to Irish parents and educated at Oxford University, he feels like someone I already know and should have a cup of tea with. Given the tropical location, however, we drink cold beer.

Jungle outpost

As a Catholic brother with the De La Salle teaching order he has spent the past 20 years in Peru.

He was awarded an MBE by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II for founding a school in an arid Lima shanty town before he moved to the Amazon region a decade ago.

And it is here, with the Awajun, the Achuar and the Kichwa tribes which are battling to stop the environmental destruction of their territories, that he wants to see out his days.

But as a result of his opposition to the government's approach, Brother Paul is facing expulsion from Peru, accused by the authorities of taking part in political activities against the state.

This week, a local judge overturned an order forcing him to leave the country, but the Peruvian government is appealing against the decision.

It's a clash between two worlds and it has got to a crunch point
Brother Paul McAuley

Faces and bodies painted, hundreds of locals marched to show their support for this self-effacing Brit they call simply Hermano Paul. "You're staying right here, Brother Paul," shouted street vendors. "Don't go anywhere."

"It came like a rocket out of the blue, there was no warning," he said of the order.

Brother Paul feels right at home. However his is quite a different experience from the first Franciscan missionaries to venture into Peru's Amazon.

They were repelled or killed by hostile tribes but, undeterred, they kept coming. They were followed by the Jesuits who founded Iquitos, then just a jungle outpost, in the 18th Century.

Its shambolic, faded grandeur is a reminder of how the 19th Century rubber boom changed it in to a city.

Map of Peru

The rubber merchants' grand homes are still spaced along Iquitos' Malecon Maldonado promenade which looks out onto the wide Amazon River and the endless rainforest beyond.

German, French and British merchants used to send their children up the Amazon and across the Atlantic Ocean to be schooled in the old continent until the boom abruptly went bust.

Cut off from Peru's Pacific-facing capital by the great Andes Cordillera, Iquitos was a strange, exotic annex to colonial, conservative Lima.

Even now that divide is stark.

Many in Lima's government continue to view the Amazon as a vast, empty space but one that's rich in natural resources.

Last frontier

For Brother Paul, President Alan Garcia's vision of how to exploit the rainforest's wealth still has a distinctly 19th Century flavour.

"It's a clash between two worlds and it's got to a crunch point," he told me.

In the government model, man is able to exploit nature ferociously without any consequences. In the native model, man maintains a harmonic relationship with nature.

President Garcia sees Peru's Amazon as the last frontier to be tamed in a country with such exuberant and challenging geography. In doing so, he says he is fighting poverty.

But Brother Paul says that in the Amazon, the pollution and ecological destruction caused by those keen to exploit it has just increased misery.

Flying out from Iquitos I gaze at clouds which rise, like a forest of zeppelins, out of the carpet of green trees and the snakelike rivers which seem to extend to the curve of the earth
Dan Collyns

It is this attitude which has brought him into conflict with the authorities. They accuse him of stirring up local opposition to government plans for the region.

We sit talking over an evening drink in his back garden. It is full of twilight jungle sounds. The garden is a little jungle within a city within a jungle.

Iquitos' irresistible magic captivated the German film director Werner Herzog, who directed a manic Klaus Kinski as Fitzcarraldo here more than 25 years ago.

Kinski embodies the obsessive folly of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman who goes to incredible lengths to realise his dream of building an opera house in the jungle.

Flying out from Iquitos I gaze at clouds which rise, like a forest of zeppelins, out of the carpet of green trees and the snakelike rivers which seem to extend to the curve of the earth.

And I think about all the English - and Irish - men who have come here and found it impossible to leave.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Activist wins bid to stay in Peru
08 Jul 10 |  Latin America & Caribbean

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific