In the southern Peruvian Andes, not far from the mountain-cradled remains of the Incan site Machu Picchu, Efraín Samochuallpa Solis can often be found working with the residents of the Cordillera de Vilcanota region, near his birthplace, to preserve its natural resources.
He and his colleagues from Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN) work closely with the people of 20 farming communities and the town of Yanahuara for their Vilcanota project, with the goal of conserving and restoring the area’s forests of polylepis trees, home to Critically Endangered bird species and an important source of water and soil conservation for area residents.
They have teamed up with the American Bird Conservancy, with support from the Global Conservation Fund, to establish a network of community-managed forest reserves and develop sustainable alternatives for fuel and food for the communities. The plan also includes health and training programs and ecotourism development.
To date 2,006 families have been engaged in the project, and two communities have had their land recognized by the national government as private conservation areas. The project has also resulted in the reforestation of more than 295 hectares of land.
Samochuallpa is one of the founding members of ECOAN, serves as treasurer of the organization, and is currently completing his master's degree in environmental planning with the Universidad Católica de Santa Maria – Arequipa. He also completed a protected-areas management course last year at Colorado State University through funding from GCF.
“I think he is very committed to conservation,” said Hugo Arnal, American Bird Conservancy’s Tropical Andes program director, “and he is very committed to improving the wellbeing of local communities in the High Andes.” Samochuallpa’s background, education and experience uniquely qualify him to fill the crucial role of facilitating communication between nongovernmental organizations and the communities of Vilcanota, Arnal said.
Samochuallpa recently talked with Julie Shaw about conservation, his work with ECOAN and the Vilcanota project.
Where in Peru are you from? Near the region of the Vilcanota project?
I was born one hour from the city of Cusco, near the area of the Vilcanota project. I spent 10 years in a rural area, learning farming, livestock raising and my mother language—Quechua—from my parents and grandparents.
How long have you worked in conservation? Why did you choose this type of work?
I have been involved in this noble work of conservation in some form for 18 years. During the 1990s I helped the Forestation Program, operated by the municipality of Cusco, under the slogan “One million trees for Cusco … one million trees for life.” Later I joined la Asociación Inca to work in its Environmental Education Program. Lastly, from 2001 I have been committed to the conservation activities of ECOAN.
How would you describe the attitudes toward environmental conservation in Peru? Have attitudes changed over the years?
The most significant changes in conservation in Peru have taken place since 2000. One of the most important factors for these changes was a series of weather events that were damaging for agriculture (drought). Meanwhile, in the cities, an organized youth environmental movement has developed that has drawn the government’s attention to environmental issues.
Why is conservation of the Peru’s forests important?
Because it is one of the principal reserves of oxygen for South America, a big part of our biological riches are found in this area. Similarly, there are Amazonian cities of rich culture that are little known. Actually, in the forest of the southeast Peru, where there are the headwaters of the Ucayali, Manu, Piedras, Tahumanu, Purus, Madre de Dios, Amigos and other rivers, thousands of nomadic people live in isolation, the last truly free people inhabiting our planet. They don’t use passports or identity cards, don’t recognize any authority but their own. They don’t vote, pay taxes, have insurance, use money, surf the Internet, watch TV or listen to the radio.
What role have you played in the Vilcanota project?
I was in on the creation, redesign and guidance of the project. Early on, we participated in the biodiversity studies of the polylepis forest the Vilcanota range, Alcabamba and Apurimac. Later the project evolved to the prioritization of areas for concrete conservation action: forestation and management of the forests, biological monitoring, among other things. Lastly, we provided the technical guidelines for the creation of private conservation areas.
How do the communities of the Vilcanota Project view the forest? Has their view changed over time?
In the “worldview” of the people of the Andes, the forest is “Sacha,” a sacred resource that nature has provided, and when the trees have better and deeper roots they are signs of a good forest. The people always and will always use this resource, and they have done so responsibly for decades. Deforestation has been greatest when civilization has reached out to them. For example, when the roads were constructed and they ran near the forest, the trees were felled indiscriminantly.
They are conscious that they need to replace the felled trees, or else their children will have to live without this resource; for this reason our afforestation campaigns have been successful.
What have you learned from your work on this project?
- Working with the rural communities is a slow process; the results show three to five years after the start of the work.
- We need to deal with them with absolute transparency, to deliver what we offer.
- Giving the people equal standing is important. Making them feel equal to us is key to building trust.
- It is important to know and understand the culture, and to speak the local language. It makes it easier for you to relate more quickly.
- Disseminating the results of what we do helps us gain support for our work from institutions and people in the environment.