Report From Iquitos

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I am writing from Iquitos, a town in Peru, encircled by the jungle of the Amazon. The only connection to the external world is by air. Boats — loaded with cattle, exotic animals, human beings, and forest-produce that in the US would put you in prison for several lives — go downstream and upstream, providing access to smaller villages and tribes, but not to anything beyond. Iquitos is very spacious and well-planned. The mighty Amazon and its tributaries surround the town, and most people have come here from its tribal areas.

For less than $40 a day, I can have a very good style of life. It costs me $22 for a good, clean, air-conditioned hotel, with full breakfast included. A tip of 30 cents a day gets me all the attention I want. A very good meal at an “expensive” restaurant costs me $8. The cost is much less — about $3 — if I go to a good, busy place for locals. Most taxi rides cost 60 cents. Yet because most things are flown in, Iquitos tends to be about 25% more “expensive,” in my estimation, than similar places I have visited in Peru.

During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait.

I tend to eat at local places. I buy fruit from roadside vendors; a handful costs me 30 cents. This helps the local economy the most, for the money that I spend in touristic areas mostly accrues to the well-connected, entrenched interests. Moreover, spending money directly with locals ensures that their emotions get aligned with my interests and safety — eventually they will go out of their way to win my favors. People are very friendly.

The Amazon offers cheap and good food. During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait. Fruit trees are easy to find. It is hard to go hungry.

Not too far away is dense jungle and animals of all sorts, all of which are hunted down, irrespective of the diktats of the federal government, the World Wildlife Fund, and so forth. If something “protected” is not killed, it is because its meat is not tasty. In the local market every endangered or protected species can be bought. Locals might show revulsion if you asked them directly whether they hunt monkeys and dolphins. But ask them subtly — without evoking any implanted defences — what dolphin and monkey meat tastes like, and they will describe it.

I feel very free in Iquitos. But for locals it is not a libertarian paradise, not even close. Outside the core, touristic area, Iquitos is very dirty, because people utterly lack the concept of hygiene.

The receptionist at my hotel works every single day, from 3 PM to 11 PM. She works 365 days a year, with no vacation or weekends. This is how they all exist. In the morning she looks after her younger siblings while her own parents go to work. She has nine siblings, all younger, six of them are girls. When asked, she had to count to remind herself how many there are. All of them share a couple of small, dark rooms. Every woman is loaded with children, mostly girls.

The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future.

There is something about this area that results in a high female-to-male ratio. Some say there might be twice as many — or more — female births than male births in this area; anecdotal evidence shows this. One possible reason is a local fruit called aguaje, which apparently encourages certain hormones in women, although I failed to find a properly researched document to support this.

Girls here want to get pregnant quickly, partly because they have very strong maternal instincts, and being a single mother is perfectly acceptable socially — in fact this is the only way. The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future. My travel guide, who speaks fluent English, sees absolutely no reason why he should have any discussion with his daughters about the risks of unplanned, early, single motherhood. At the age of 23, he has three daughters, from three different women. Mostly he does not care what the woman he has a relationship with does when he is not with her. Incest is not uncommon.

People have enough to eat, so major crimes do not happen. But when crime must be controlled, it is through fear of punishment and much more importantly through real-time policing; those who cannot think much into a future don’t worry about punishment tomorrow. This reminds me that in many parts of Africa there is no word for “tomorrow” or “future.”

As I have seen elsewhere among people lacking reflective, critical reason — which is the situation in most of the non-Western world — petty crime, such as seizure of cellphones, is not considered immoral and hence is very common. The police and military must stand on every corner.

The area around Iquitos could be better than Switzerland. It isn’t. But you cannot blame lack of resources, lack of space, or even lack of educational possibilities. People here have a very high time-preference. A remote village of 500 people that I went to, about two hours away by boat from Iquitos, started getting surplus money through its interactions with jungle-related tourism, so it set up a night club and two bars. Not a piece of machinery was bought.

Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Any excess money over basic needs gets spent on pleasure, right away. Iquitos is very noisy, because people like loud music and other loud sounds. Girls in very short skirts stand outside shops to attract people to buy motorbikes, TVs, and big, high-capacity sound systems, all playing at full blast. Casinos (and I am told brothels, in this rather promiscuous society) are everywhere, showing how bored people are. They are addicted to constant distractions.

Any rational person would have expected the surplus to go into investments in capital. But of course, the World Bank with its Ivy League educated “economists” must be happy, for they want consumption to go up. Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Outside the supermarket here, there are several women sitting with scales, to let people weigh themselves for a few cents. None has business. There are shops after shops after shops, all well stocked, selling exactly the same wares, with none too busy. Hundreds of women sit next to one another selling exactly the same vegetables and fruit, all staring in oblivion, from early morning to late in the evening. Everywhere people, including the receptionist at my hotel, sit glued to the soap operas on their TVs. Soap operas are packed with fighting and exaggerated emotional dramas.

Anyone who tried to understand the situation might come, quite contrary to what the mainstream developmental economists would suggest, to the conclusion that in the final analysis the problem here — as elsewhere in the developing world — is not lack of capital, space, resources, safety, or property rights; nor is it overpopulation. The World Bank, the IMF and most economists are looking in the wrong direction.

The problem of poor societies is their lack of imagination, creativity, and reason, which is the dominant characteristic of the non-Western world. Modern education has completely failed to inculcate these human qualities. Perhaps it has made the situation worse, for education has been marketed to people in the non-Western world as something that offers a better material future, not a bigger vision of life. This has encouraged rote learning, not a passion for understanding the universe. In the end the education instilled in such students becomes just another baggage of beliefs, burdening them and distancing them from imagination, creativity, and reason.

Material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable.

In most parts of the poor world (Africa, India, Peru, Central America, the Middle East, etc.) economic growth — the kind encouraged by international institutions — has had many bad consequences. These regions did not develop the concept of reasoning, planning, and strategic thinking. In the absence of these things, removing people from their tribal lives leads to emptiness and confusion. Any money they get goes into showing off and into too much drinking and partying. Noise, smell, chaos seem to develop quickly wherever surplus money comes to exist. Obesity and other lifestyle diseases are growing rapidly in all of these poor countries. And most rational people in the West fail to understand the situation: rational people’s rationality preempts them from understanding how irrational the developing world really is.

In such places wealth does not lead to peace, hygiene, improved health, and enlightened living. Even what could be an oasis becomes noisy, dirty, and diseased. The developing world has been the economic beneficiary of easy imports of technology, almost all of it attributable to the internet and telephony — both of which, during the past two decades, opened the floodgates of quick economic growth. Contrary to the claims of international institutions, growth in most of the developing world cannot be shown to be a product of liberalization, the spread of democracy, or public education.

For now, the World Bank and the IMF can justify their existence, but correlation is not causation. Liberalization didn’t really happen, although democracy is rearing its ugly head everywhere in the developing world. It has involved masses of people in public policy, masses who cannot think and reason, and are mostly driven by the desire for bread and circuses. Public education hasn’t delivered.

At the core, material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable. Now the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and growth rate in the developing world is falling rapidly. The consequences of overconsumption and lack of capital investment are becoming visible.

A true developmental economist should look at the reality beyond the superficial economic numbers. I am extremely happy and free in Iquitos, but what a tourist and an outsider with money can experience is not the full reality. Never trust economists who do a quick fly-in and fly-out of a poor country and while there get driven around in Mercedes cars and stay in five-star hotels. Ask them if they have been to Iquitos, and the jungles with mosquitoes and naked tribes.




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Comments

Scott Robinson

Dear Jayant,

I reread your article and I realized that a problem with my previous comment was that I applied reason to explain your observations. You have mentioned this in other articles that you have written that the problem is that the locals don't apply logic to using their resources. It is as you've mentioned before independence and individualism. It is the principle of individualism in our society that leads to the independence and self-reliance that characterizes the West. Just like you mentioned in the article, in many parts of Africa, their is no word for future or tomorrow. You can't plan ahead if you don't even consider tomorrow. It would be interesting if the reason for the surplus of women is that the irresponsible lifestyle of the population means that evolution requires them to take the "shotgun" approach of just showering the world with as many children as possible. I base this on the speculation that each woman is worth at least 3 kids each; fewer men just means more partners per man.

Best Wishes,
Scott

Scott Robinson

Dear Mr. Bandhari,

Very interesting article. It is interesting that you observe that the locals waste their gifts. I've always supposed that the powers that be in these countries just took these gifts for themselves and didn't give them to the "needy". In the movie, "The Shining", Jack Nicholas said, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." The opposite should be, "All play and no work makes Jack a horny beggar." I know, horny beggar is an oxymoron. I guess this shows that when two words are mutually exclusive, the bad one, beggar, wins.

The observation that this high consumption doesn't result in prosperity, discrediting the claims of Keynesian theory is good because it is an actual result. It is interesting that everybody spends their gifts on quick short-term pleasure instead of anybody saving or growing these gifts by investing them or spending them on things of longer term value. I propose that this is why we've developed our religious guidance codes. This is why unearned gifts are called, "ill gotten gains." I think that this reflects that people don't appreciate unearned gifts, and therefore don't use them well.

Thanks,
Scott

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