Park ranger Roberto Carlos García Vela spends days at a time patrolling the cloud forests of northern Peru's Alto Mayo Protected Forest. Rather than tracking animals or arresting poachers, he spends much of his time talking with local people.
García Vela visits houses, farms and nurseries throughout the protected area, often walking for hours between sites. "One of the activities of a park ranger is to monitor progress, ask about people's concerns, find out whether they're benefitting from the project," he says.
Spanning 182,000 hectares (about 450,000 acres) in the region of San Martín, the Alto Mayo was established by the Peruvian government in 1987, partially to protect its freshwater resources. The forest feeds a number of tributaries emptying into the Mayo River, which supplies water for thousands of residents. This area of the Amazon is also home to rare species like the yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax flavicauda) — currently classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Despite its status as a protected area, the Alto Mayo region remains threatened by human activities. The area's intact forests have attracted migrants from other parts of Peru. Many new residents in the Alto Mayo are clear-cutting forests to make room for sun-grown coffee plantations and cattle pastures — releasing tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere in the process. Deforestation has also slowed the flow of the Mayo River, reducing the amount of water available to people downstream.
Through conservation agreements, local farmers commit to protect natural ecosystems in exchange for specific benefits determined in discussions with village leaders and members of the community.
García Vela has seen firsthand that local support is critical for the success of protected areas like Alto Mayo. In 2009, CI's Conservation Stewards Program and CI-Peru partnered with the Peruvian government and a local NGO to set up conservation agreements in six regions of the Alto Mayo. Through these agreements, local farmers commit to protect natural ecosystems in exchange for specific benefits determined in discussions with village leaders and members of the community.
In the Mayo River watershed, local residents have agreed to ban logging, reforest degraded areas, conduct surveillance activities and restrict entry by illegal settlers. In exchange, they receive technical support and agricultural supplies, as well as income from activities like patrolling and monitoring the protected forest.
García Vela and his fellow rangers are also discussing other ways people can earn income from standing forests, such as the sale of handicrafts, wildlife tourism or beekeeping.
In the local villages, sustainable agriculture training for coffee farmers has been especially beneficial for both the forest and people. CI and partner ECOAN have conducted technical trainings about the benefits of shade-grown coffee practices over traditional sun-grown coffee production, which results in deforestation. Not only is shade-grown coffee better for the land in the long term, but following these practices can also help farmers get a better price for their beans on the market.
"The first thing you hear when you arrive is, 'We live on coffee and livestock,'" García Vela says. "We explained to them, 'Let's try to improve that coffee in the small plot you have. This is going to help improve your production.' They welcome the idea … We started to recover these farms and diversification of other species, and people begin to understand the importance and the benefit of sustainable agriculture."
More than 240 conservation agreements already have been signed, directly providing benefits for the local families in the Alto Mayo. Clear-cutting has decreased across the region, and baby yellow-tailed woolly monkeys have been sighted by several local residents — a hopeful sign for the survival of the species.
The job isn't easy, but García Vela likes the challenge. "It is very open-ended work — there is no recipe. We are always trying to learn more and be in harmony with nature."
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