The northwestern-most tip of Bolivia is covered by the department of Pando, a remote and sparsely populated rainforest region where logging and the collection of wild rubber and Brazil nuts are the main economic activities. At one time Pando was accessible only by boat along the Madre de Dios, Tahuamanu and Orthon rivers, which flow into the region from Peru, but now a rough road cut through the rainforest runs from just south of Riberalta to Cobija, the departmental capital, on the Brazilian border. While the bus journey along this route is an adventure in itself, involving a short and somewhat surreal cruise along a tributary of the Madre de Dios, large swathes of land on both sides of the road have already been deforested, with blackened stumps of trees protruding like broken teeth from pale green pasture and scrubby secondary growth.
Though the southwest corner of Pando is covered by the Reserva Nacional Amazónica Manuripi, the forests of much of this wild frontier region remain hotly disputed. The businessmen who control the collection of rubber and Brazil nuts, some of whom are descended from the nineteenth-century rubber barons, claim ownership rights over some thirty thousand square kilometres of forest – nearly half the department. But these claims are contested by the indigenous and campesino communities who collect the nuts and rubber – often working under a system of permanent debt so severe it amounts to a disguised form of slavery. While these communities are now using land-rights legislation to demand that the forest be recognized as theirs, with government plans to redistribute five hundred hectares per family, the political situation in the region remains volatile (see The Pando massacre).