Over a century’s resource extraction has inflicted visible wounds that abrasively come into view as you fly into Puerto Maldonado, the humid capital of Peru’s Madre de Dios region.
Hosting up to 15 percent of the world’s flora and fauna, the region’s divine moniker – which means ‘Mother of God’ – seems positively modest. Lush canopy fans out to the horizon where south-eastern Peru spills into Brazil and Bolivia, but the landscape is pockmarked by swathes of deforested land and sporadic pools of sunburst orange, the result of mercury poisoning caused by illegal mining.
The vastness of the Peruvian Amazon and a patchy state presence has for years made it a den for illegal mining and logging. But this is beginning to change with the advent of ecotourism and the encouragement of more sustainable management of Peru’s natural resources.
Incentives for Conservation
Macaws squawk and monkeys loiter in the dense rainforest that covers 60 percent of a country better known for Machu Picchu and the mysterious Nazca Lines. Home to the fourth largest extension of tropical forest in the world, Peru plays a vital role in tackling global carbon emissions. But the degradation of the nation’s forests is serious – 246,000 hectares were deforested in 2012, twice that of 2011 according to official figures.
Ahead of the United Nations climate change mega-summit in Lima in December, Peru has pledged to halt deforestation by 2021, safeguarding about 70 percent of its 78 million hectares of forest. Moreover, it is a signatory of the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) mechanism, and in September it inked a US$300 million deal with Norway which will provide financing if it hits its targets.
Critics remain skeptical. Land titles for 18 million hectares of the jungle remain unawarded despite indigenous communities’ demands for ownership, while the government plans to auction another five million hectares of legal concessions. Nonetheless, Peru has made progress. “Twenty years ago the jungle was the land of nobody,” says Alfonso Cardozo, the mayor-elect of the Tahuamanu province, which shares a border with Brazil and Bolivia.
Forestry laws and logging concessions have raised environmental safeguards, although waves of migration from the Andean highlands have caused an increase in unsustainable slash-and-burn agriculture. Limited employment opportunities aside from farming, hunting bushmeat or illegal activity have historically presented few options. Yet this is all changing with the advent of ecotourism, while a cultural shift takes root regarding sustainable management of the country’s best assets. Future revenue from carbon credits as Peru meets targets also represents an unprecedented source of income.
A 30-minute boat ride from Puerto Maldonado – a boomtown of 190,000 inhabitants where scores of three-wheeled mototaxis and mopeds zip to calypso-infused chicha music – is the Tambopata Reserve. Set up in 1990, the protected zone spans 1.5 million hectares and is the self-proclaimed “biodiversity capital of the world.”
Jaguars, tapirs and anacondas stalk its forests, alongside towering hardwoods such as cedar or cumaru. It’s also famed for its collpas, mineral-rich mud mounds on its riverbanks where macaws and parakeets feed. Boggy jungle paths offer a spellbinding brush with nature for the tourists that stay in its lodges.
“Trails are easy to get through, they’re not kept clean, if a branch falls big ones are cut up but small ones aren’t, it’s fairly rustic,” says Babir Chaudhary, a visitor from New York. After a day of adventure in the wilderness, Chaudhary adds that he likes to relax to the “calming din of cicadas and other sounds of the jungle at night.”
Aside from the jungle treks, other popular activities include a 30-meter canopy tour affording panoramic views of the forest and a visit to the Tres Chimbadas lake on a catamaran. There are also options to visit an ethnobotanical garden and a working farm.
The industry is providing jobs and changing attitudes; there are now 160 accredited guides who educate locals about caring for the forests. “In 2000 there wasn’t the level of awareness among locals,” says Juan Mercado, a specialist in forestry management at the national reserve protection service, SERNANP. “Not only were they unaware of the reserve’s existence, foreigners were more familiar.”
An hour-long trek from the main control point and a short canoe ride through the dank glades, shared with caimans and turtles, is the tranquil Lake Sandoval. Here five families moved along the two-mile stretch of water in the 1950s, felling trees to make way for farming and pastures for livestock. But in the past decade they quit farming and built eco-lodges, some of which now house the reserve’s 40,000 annual visitors.
“Smallholdings and pastures are now forests again,” says Percy Reyes, a park ranger. “An old car used to transport wood and cattle rusts away.”
Indigenous Communities Benefit
Within the reserve live three native communities, including the ominously named “Comunidad del Infierno” (Community of Hell), which partnered with a for-profit tourism company Rainforest Expeditions in 1996. The relationship has empowered natives of the Esa-Eja community.
The Posadas Amazonas is a 30-bedroom luxury lodge on the banks of the river Tambopata that hosts visitors from all over the world. Made from locally sourced timber and materials like bamboo, palm and adobe mud, it is one of four establishments in which nearly all the community’s 200 families have a stake, meaning their income is boosted by annual dividends.
While critics once “demonized” the “traditional unequal relationship” between private businesses and native communities, many now have strong records of social responsibility, says Helga Bañon, a forestry engineer at Peru’s Ministry of Environment.
Still, ecotourism has much progress to make if it is to supplant other more reliable sources of cash. While forays by Peru’s military drove out miners and destroyed operations in the buffer zone of the reserve earlier this year, mining still continues. Moreover, the completion of the 2,600-kilometer Interoceanic Highway, connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic, has opened up previously untouched forest in the buffer zone.
But now at least there is hope of a brighter future. “Ecotourism has taught us conservation,” says Robin Duran, a guide and a member of the Esa-Eja tribe. “In the past people used to turn to hunting or logging, and perhaps I would be doing the same. (Ecotourism) is the best and only route to protect the rainforest.”
A three-night stay at Posadas Amazonas costs $270. Click here for more information.