Iquitos was founded in 1757 as a Jesuit mission, fending off attacks from indigenous tribes that didn’t want to be converted. In the 1870s the great rubber boom boosted the population 16-fold and for the next 30 years, Iquitos was at once the scene of ostentatious wealth and abject poverty. Rubber barons became fabulously rich, while rubber tappers (mainly local tribespeople and poor mestizos – people of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent) suffered virtual enslavement and sometimes death from disease or harsh treatment.
By WWI, the bottom fell out of the rubber boom as suddenly as it had begun. A British entrepreneur smuggled some rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil, and plantations were seeded in the Malay Peninsula. It was much cheaper and easier to collect the rubber from orderly rubber tree plantations than from wild trees scattered in the Amazon Basin.
Iquitos suffered subsequent economic decline, supporting itself with a combination of logging, agriculture (Brazil nuts, tobacco, bananas and barbasco − a poisonous vine used by indigenous peoples to hunt fish and now exported for use in insecticides) and the export of wild animals to zoos. Then, in the 1960s, a second boom revitalized the area. This time the resource was oil, and its discovery made Iquitos a prosperous modern town. In recent years tourism has also played an important part in the area’s economy.
The order has come from on high: Belén – perhaps the character-defining district of Iquitos – needs to be moved. The main reason cited is sanitation. When water levels are high, this shantytown-cum-market on the river floats, but it sits on the stinking mud when the water drops. But how do you relocate an entire district, and to where? It's proving a headache. At the time of writing, a few families of the hundreds living here have signed up for the scheme. The rest have strongly opposed it and, as you will see if you visit the market here, staying put. Without residents' consent, and with a relocation threatening the only livelihood most of them know (fishing and river trade), any uprooting of Belén will be a struggle taking many years.