The list of threats to the Amazon rainforest is extensive: deforestation, poaching, extraction of minerals via mining, construction of mega-infrastructure (including the Interoceanic Highway that will connect the Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Peru), and climate change. With the exclusion of climate change, the exacerbation of these threats can largely be attributed to the movement of people from one place to another. Domestic migration is a major issue in Peru; this migration poses huge challenges for development and governance in the capital city of Lima and also threatens the biodiversity of the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios.
Upon returning to the small city of Puerto Maldonado following our stay at Posada Amazonas, we met with Juan Loja of ACCA (Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica), the Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin. According to Mr. Loja, deforestation is a growing threat to Peru’s rainforest that has intensified over the last couple of decades. In 2000, a total of 161,505 hectares in the Madre de Dios region had been deforested. In 2009, this number had more than doubled to 338,177 hectares. This trend is correlated with an increase in gold mining in Madre de Dios. Much of this deforestation has occurred along the interoceanic highway. During a presentation by Kurt Holle of Rainforest Expeditions – the company that built Posada Amazonas and remains a part owner – we learned that approximately 80% of deforestation occurs within 20 kilometers of a road. Mining has led to increased movement of Andean immigrants to Madre de Dios and resulted in huge growth of human communities, predominantly along the highway. Subsequently, this has posed challenges to the existing land titling process and many immigrants live in informal squatter settlements that have little infrastructure and no access to government services.
One of the issues that ACCA deals with is the discrepancies between overlapping land rights and concessions; a parcel of land can be designated for a combination of mining, agriculture, logging, and indigenous land concessions. This creates conflict between multiple stakeholders who all have some ownership of the land. These overlaps seem straightforward: miners have rights below the soil; farmers have rights on the soil; loggers have rights above the soil. Unfortunately, these distinctions are not so clear-cut in practice. It doesn’t seem possible for these competing interests to successfully extract resources from the land concurrently without completely exploiting the area.
ACCA’s primary strategy to conserve the biota of the Amazon is to create and protect conservation corridors that will reduce the ecological impacts of the Interoceanic Highway and allow for flora and fauna to be exchanged across the road, preventing forest fragmentation and ensuring genetic diversity within species. ACCA is working on several corridors, including the Brazil nut conservation corridor (Proyecto Conservado Castañales) that connects the Peruvian rainforest to forests in Bolivia. This corridor covers five Brazil nut concessions, covering some 400,000 hectares of forest. These were the first Brazil nut concessions formed in Peru and serve as an important alternative livelihood for Amazon residents who might otherwise be drawn to mining.
Another important project is the Manu-Tambopata corridor which stretches north to south from the Manu National Park in Peru to the Madidi National Park in Bolivia and covers the Los Amigos conservation concession and the Tambopata National Reserve (both in Peru). The Los Amigos concession of 146,000 hectares was obtained by ACCA in 2001 for 40 years. These corridors contain important research centers, including the Los Amigos Biological Station in the Manu-Tambopata corridor and the Wayqecha Research Center in the Andean Cloud Forest corridor. ACCA aims to have biological research centers along multiple altitudinal gradients, which will be crucial as climate change forces some species to move to higher altitudes due to changing temperatures and weather patterns. Recent investigations by researchers at the Los Amigos Biological Station include the discovery of a new species of frog – this is a testament to the importance of these research centers and also an indication of the continued need to expand research in the Amazon. This center also conducts research on fish farms and forest management, producing options for alternative livelihoods for Amazonian residents. One goal of ACCA is to increase coordination between the concessions in the Manu-Tambopata corridor and create a network of conservationists and researchers.
In addition to conserving flora and fauna of the Amazon, ACCA is working with several indigenous communities to establish a network focused on forestry management and development of alternative livelihoods. Mr. Loja stated that indigenous communities are more likely to work together than private concession holders, although some collaboration has been seen among Brazil nut concession holders. Additionally, ACCA has made some contact with indigenous populations living in isolation and is hoping to develop policies that allow Peruvians to live in harmony with these tribes. The Peruvian government has set aside a territorial reserve for uncontacted people north of the Los Amigos concession, but these people, who are members of three different tribes all within the same ethnic group, are moving outward due to pressures from drug trafficking and logging. How should the Peruvian government deal peacefully with these people, while allowing them to maintain their culture, identity, and way of life? It’s not as if the government can just put up a fence or post a sign to a tree.
Recently, several indigenous people came into conflict with a guard at a control post in one of the research centers – they shot at him with arrows. We got to pass one of the “arrows” around; it was at least five feet long and made of natural materials (bamboo, beeswax, feathers) excluding part of the shaft that was fashioned of varnished wood; it’s likely that this piece was taken from the control station during a previous break-in. Although conflict has so far been limited to a few incidents, it won’t be too long before these tribes reach local people or mining settlements – and then what? The guards follow a protocol of leaving the area if they see members of uncontacted tribes, but others may not be willing to abide by this policy. The guard who was shot at has since quit his job, saying that he would rather work in a dangerous mining settlement!
In Peru, people are moving. Uncontacted tribes are traveling outside of their existing ranges. Residents of the Andes are relocating to Madre de Dios in search of income through gold mining, or migrating to the coast for other economic opportunities in cities. Unplanned, informal settlements on the outskirts of Lima are growing. Even plants and animals are likely to move to higher altitudes as climate change impacts increase; local people in the Amazon have noted that the dry seasons are becoming dryer and the wet seasons are wetter. Human migration will lead to conflict and increase the need for conservation of species that are facing an array of threats. The Interoceanic Highway will be completed, gold mining will go on, and Peruvians will continue to move from place to place within their country. ACCA is working to ensure that this is done sustainably by creating conservation corridors, conducting biological research (including studies of climate change), and investigating possibilities for alternative livelihoods.
– Whitney Hoot