A glimpse into the Amazon rainforest: social, economic, and environmental health in communities across the Colombia-Brazil-Peru tri-border region

Published 03/15/2024 in Alumni Features, Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Marcela Correa | 03/15/2024

Last year was the first full year of a leftist government in Colombia’s 200+ year history. This landmark socio-political shift came on the heels of a global pandemic and some of the largest public protests the country ever experienced.

The president, a former guerilla fighter, and the vice-president, the first Afrodescendent woman to hold the position, campaigned on an anti-establishment platform that elevated environmentalism and the “silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth” [1]. I traveled to Leticia, Colombia’s southernmost city in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, to speak directly with this ‘silent majority’ and hear from them how they are faring, in order to understand how they are facing the economic challenges of the present and preparing themselves for the future. In line with the interests of the Milken Institute and the Milken Family Foundation, I wished to explore the intersection of financial and environmental health and education from the point of view of the local population.

Leticia, the capital city of Colombia’s Amazonas department, shares a land border with Brazil and a river border with Peru. One of the major ports on the Amazon river, Leticia was once involved in a long-standing border dispute between Colombia and Peru, finally settled in 1934 by the League of Nations in the aftermath of an armed conflict known as the Colombia-Peru war. One is reminded of the frontier character of this region by the military bases in Leticia and Tabatinga (the adjoining Brazilian city), as well as the naval ships occasionally seen on the river. Nowadays, however, the borders are fluid and nearly imperceptible as the population moves across them seamlessly, and the languages, culture, and currency of three countries (and many indigenous tribes) intermingle. The combined population of Leticia and Tabatinga totals approximately 110,000, which increases during the day as residents of neighboring communities from Peru, Colombia, and Brazil commute in for shopping and work. I experienced no checkpoints between the countries and found people of all three nationalities and indigenous tribes working in Leticia and nearby sites. 


Amazon from above2

Seen from above, small cities in the Amazon are seemingly swallowed by the immensity of the jungle around them. On the ground in Leticia, we found thriving street scenes. 

Tourism is a major economic driver for the region and I wanted to leverage my interactions with local tourism actors to explore the impact of the national socio-political dynamics on their local livelihoods. I spent five days in the area including four nights in Leticia, one night in a rainforest reserve in Peru, and day excursions to reserves, towns, and indigenous villages in all three countries. The area, which must be accessed by air or river because there are no roads through the Amazon jungle, feels like a world in itself, and I found little interest in conversation about national Colombian politics. Instead, I discovered a region where livelihood transcends borders and primarily relies on social ties, indigenous knowledge, and shared needs for environmental sustainability.

Social networks and indigenous knowledge proved paramount, from the time of the Covid-induced economic lockdown through the time of my visit. I met an indigenous (Peruvian) rainforest guide who, amidst the worst of the Covid pandemic, was able to get vaccinated months ahead of his neighbors thanks to Colombian connections with access to Colombian health clinics in Leticia. This same guide’s family survived the economic stress of the pandemic by moving from a small town to an indigenous village, both in Peru, because the rule of law, and pandemic-era restrictions on economic activity, were more lax under indigenous authority. Although not of the same ethnicity, the guide had social networks within the indigenous community resulting from years of serving as a rainforest guide. In the village, everyone survived on subsistence farming, bartering, and indigenous cures for Covid. In Leticia, Tabatinga, and the nearby towns, the locals survived by consuming their savings and relying on the subsistence farming of their rural family members. One Brazilian indigenous family ran a successful forest reserve and rehabilitation center but laid off all of their employees when the lockdown stopped all tourism. They weathered the pandemic by employing only extended family to maintain a reduced footprint of their operations. Now, the business is drawing tourists again, and they are expanding facilities, drawing back family members who had moved away before considering hiring non-family employees. In contrast, a Colombian transport operator who is a skilled boat captain navigator moved to Leicia from the Colombian coast in search of job opportunities but struggled to find work due to his lack of a social network. River jobs are coveted by locals and he was pushed aside. Instead he invested in a tuk-tuk (a popular form of motorized transportation) that allows him to be self-employed. 

Rainforest Guide 1

Mr. Pablo, our rainforest guide, saw and captured a caiman at night, under water! 

Overall, I found the various tour operators and service providers to be more interested in localized opportunities and economic shifts than they were in making comparisons to the economies and opportunities of other cities in Colombia. Specifically, people spoke of making decisions on jobs and household economies based on the cross-border opportunities that were economically advantageous. One memorable example was the Colombian tuk tuk driver who spoke in-depth about his experiences in “Leticia” and the challenges he faced there, but when we spoke in detail, we learned that a great deal of his livelihood actually takes place on Brazilian soil–he purchased land for his family home on unincorporated Brazilian land next to Leticia because real estate taxes are lower and he makes purchases in Tabatinga, where manufactured goods are significantly cheaper because the Amazon river provides connectivity to other Brazilian supply chains unavailable to the Colombian side, which can only be accessed by air. 

Marcela Correa

(Left) Mr. Pablo guides my son through the jungle in Peru.  (Right) Mr. Eliecer, our tuk tuk driver, giving us a tour of Tabatinga, Brazil. 

Another topic that I erroneously expected to be more prevalent in day-to-day interactions was environmentalism. The “Leticia Pact” was signed in September of 2019 by authorities from seven Amazon countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Suriname) to protect the rainforest and prevent continuing deforestation by expanding regional cooperation. Two years later, however, its pledges remained largely unfulfilled, with illegal mining, expansion of cattle ranching and farms, and drug trafficking still widespread [2]. With the addition of Venezuela, a new Amazon Summit took place in August of 2023 with renewed plans to drive economic development while preventing the Amazon’s ongoing degradation from reaching a point of no return [3]. However, none of this was top of mind amongst the tourism operators with whom I interacted. While I witnessed several efforts at wildlife conservation, good waste management in practice, and no overt illicit activity, I also found no interest in discussions of environmental stewardship. Further exploration of personal responsibility for environmental sustainability and accountability by powerful public and private sector actors will remain for a future trip.

I look forward to a return trip to navigate the Amazon River and explore whether the livelihoods of the riverside communities–both towns and indigenous villages–continue to rely more heavily on cross-border social and indigenous networks than national ties, language, and politics.


This 300+ year old ceiba tree makes it easy to understand why the Amazon is referred to as the lungs of the planet.



[1] https://www.npr.org/2022/06/19/1106118791/tight-colombian-runoff-pits-former-rebel-millionaire

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-amazon-rainforest-idUSKBN2G21LO/

[3] https://apnews.com/article/amazon-deforestation-brazil-climate-change-summit-314d7127864fbb6e709c1ffa0fab0b3e