The precipitation interacts with the region's varying soils and topography, giving rise to an astounding array of life. Stretching from the humid, low-altitude jungle through high-elevation cloud forests are an estimated 45,000 species of plants — more than 30 times that found in comparably sized Great Britain as well as 1,666 species of birds, 830 amphibian and 479 reptile species.
"The Tropical Andes hotspot leads all other hotspots in terms of species diversity and the number of species found nowhere else," explains Tim Killeen, a Bolivia-based senior fellow with the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) at CI.
Like other hotspots, the region is under threat from myriad human activities — notably logging, mining and colonization. Yet from Peru's Vilcabamba mountains to Amboró National Park in Bolivia — a 30-million-acre corridor — the breaks are few and farther between, the area still a relatively unspoiled frontier. "The Vilcabamba-Amboró corridor distinguishes itself from other parts of the hotspot because it is intact," explains Killeen, who is conducting research and supporting regional programs in the area. "Elsewhere the hotspot has become highly fragmented. Keeping this corridor in one piece is a priority for CI."
Turning the tide: Peruvian initiatives counter threats to biodiversity
Carmela Landeo, director of Peru's Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, describes the riot like this: A crowd of about 2,000 people, most of them loggers, gathered in the city center, then spread across the town. Their targets were deliberate: any organization responsible for the passage of a new forestry law. When the dust finally settled, the offices of INRENA, Peru's parks agency, had burned to the ground.
Welcome to Puerto Maldonado, mining and logging center, launching point of ecoexpeditions up and down tributaries of the Amazon — and ground zero in CI's Vilcabamba-Amboró corridor initiative. Nestled next to the Bolivian border close to the foot of the Andes range, the town and surrounding Tambopata region are frontlines for CI's Peru program.
Why the riots? The Peruvian government had put some teeth in a new forestry law to better regulate logging concessions. This irked logging companies who, until then, could remove trees pretty much free of regulatory oversight. Now they would have to ensure that their footprint was held to a minimum.
The backlash underscored the extent of the obstacles conservation faces in the region, not only from extractive industries but also from settlers looking to start anew in Peru's last frontier. "Places like Tambopata can be the weakest link in the corridor chain but also the site of its greatest accomplishments," explains CI-Tambopata Director Ernesto Raez-Luna. "If the corridor strategy is to be successful, then we must make it work here, where the needs of communities and the economy come face to face with the needs of conservation."
CI's Andes program and partners have realized successes in Tambopata on a number of fronts. Most notable is the creation of two large national parks — Madidi and Bahuaja-Sonene — which straddle the Peru/Bolivia border. Established after CI Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) surveys revealed their extraordinary biodiversity, the two constitute one of the largest contiguous expanses of protected rainforest in the corridor. They also are the site of an unprecedented binational initiative to coordinate park management between the two countries. Park directors, CI staff and other partners, with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), are working closely to ensure that management policies are in sync.
"Both sides would suffer if management plans were developed separately and ran at cross purposes with each other," says Luis Espinel, CI-Peru's technical director. "The coordination we now have is exceptional and a direct result of the corridor initiative."
Critical to the success of the parks has been buy-in from the communities. To this end, CI-Peru has been working with local groups bordering the protected areas to support low-impact economic enterprises and sustainable hunting practices.
Partnering with the local indigenous community Infierno, staff biologists implemented a wildlife management plan that is helping depleted species populations rebound. Similar partnerships have been established with other isolated communities in the region, such as Chalalán Ecolodge in Madidi National Park. This CI-Bolivia project is now completely in the hands of the local indigenous community and a model for successful Andes ecotourism.
CI-Peru has also partnered with local nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and park authorities to support Brazil nut gatherers in the buffer zone bordering the Tambopata National Reserve and elsewhere. In Tambopata, Brazil nut trees grow naturally over roughly six million acres of mostly unprotected primary forest, providing income for over one-third of families. Competition from Bolivian and Brazilian growers have hurt Tambopata farmers, who now face pressure to sell trees to loggers. To prevent this, CI-Peru is developing techniques to more effectively harvest, process and market Brazil nut products.
"A successful corridor strategy needs ecobusinesses such as Brazil nuts and ecotourism," explains Raez-Luna. "These provide income for local communities, making them conservation allies, and preserve natural links between larger protected areas."
Success also requires the buy-in of government leaders. CI's Peru and Andes programs have mobilized critical support from Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo — and the United States government — for the corridor initiative. Seventy percent of a recent debt-for-nature swap with the U.S., or roughly $7.5 million, is being used to support corridor conservation.
"The Peruvian government has officially adopted the strategy," stresses Carlos Ponce, CI-Peru vice president, who has been instrumental in moving the project forward. In 2002, collaboration with CI-Peru and other partners convinced the federal government to revise its environmental laws, allowing for the creation of conservation concessions. This opened the door to the creation of Peru's first concession, a 340,000-acre former logging site in the Los Amigos region. Farther west, an initiative led by INRENA, CI and local NGOs recently led to the creation of a 4.2-million-acre protected area in the Vilcabamba mountains. The new area protects the ancestral lands of four indigenous communities and some of the Andes' most spectacular biodiversity.
"Government and community support, binational cooperation and scientific research have combined with critical financing to make the corridor initiative a success," says CI-Andes Senior Director Roberto Roca. "CI is now working to apply the same model throughout the Andes region."
Creating options: Bolivian groups offer alternative approaches to conservation
The Bolivian children stop what they are doing and stare up at the camera, posing. They seem to know the routine. Beside them is a small mat covered with drying coca leaves. Destined for gilded streets to the north? Perhaps. If they were, no one would admit to it. Coca has been grown for centuries in the region. It is, after all, an endemic species and consumed locally.
Of course, coca is — or can be — a lot more than tradition. It is a lucrative commodity with a seemingly insatiable international market. But in Bolivia it is illegal and the target of an eradication program. It also is front and center in the battle to protect the southern reaches of the Vilcabamba-Amboró corridor as well as provide sustainable economic alternatives for communities in the region.
"The eradication program is causing coca farmers to move their operations into remote areas of Carrasco and Amboró national parks, where they are clearing forest for cultivation," explains CI-Bolivia Director Eduardo Forno. "Providing them alternative economic activities is key to protecting the parks."
Providing such options for local communities, and mitigating other environmental threats, is now the focus of CI-Bolivia and its allies operating along the corridor in Bolivia.
In Carrasco and Amboró national parks, CI is partnering with a consortium of groups, including Bolivia's national parks agency SERNAP and local and international NGOs, to develop ecotourism as a sustainable alternative. The region's spectacular environment offers numerous attractions to adventure seekers, including whitewater rafting, mountain biking and hiking, and is only a short distance from a major international airport.
"This area has huge potential in terms of conservation and ecotourism," says Felipe Caceres, mayor of Villa Tunari, a small town nestled in the shadow of Carrasco National Park. It seems to be catching on — a recent promotion of the area filled all local accommodations for several weeks.
Further up the corridor, in the town of Cochabamba, the community is involved in a different type of initiative. Rather than wait for the national government to protect a threatened rainforest, a local NGO went ahead and did it itself. The resulting 1.3-million-acre Altamachi-Cotacajes State Park, supported by CI-Bolivia and other major NGOs, provides a critical link between established parks in the southern portion of the corridor.
CEPF and CI's Global Conservation Fund (GCF) are playing central support roles in Bolivia. NGO Tropico, for example, is one of several conservation groups receiving funding from CEPF. Tropico is using the grant to implement a reforestation program in an old mining community, helping undo decades of damage caused by the use of local trees to prop up old mine shafts. Further north, next to Madidi National Park, tough CI-Bolivia negotiating and nimble GCF funding combined to remove the last remaining logging concession in Pilón Lajas National Park. The agreement also eliminated threats in the area surrounding the park. CI-Bolivia and CEPF continue to support community efforts to protect the area and promote sustainable economic activities.
Bolivia's central government is now playing a leading role in the corridor project, reflected in strides made by SERNAP. "When SERNAP was created in 1992, there were only a handful of national parks," explains Victor Hugo, protected area specialist for CI's Andes Center for Biodiversity Conservation. "Now we have a national network of 21, with seven inside of the corridor, each with a budget, trained staff and a future."
Bolivian Environmental Vice Minister Ovidio Roca stresses that the strategy goes beyond protected areas. "The corridor concept has provided us an important planning tool that is helping integrate different points of view and properly organize the area. Ultimately, we want to show all the actors in the region that conservation is viable economically and benefits both the environment and communities. To make a case for conservation in Bolivia, it must benefit the people."