5 years later, Peruvian farmers reveal new attitudes toward forest protection

I first visited Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest in 2008. At the time, deforestation rates there were among the highest in the country. CI-Peru wanted to find a way to help communities and Peru’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) keep their trees standing.

On that trip, we had hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility analysis to determine whether we should implement conservation agreements in the forests of the Yuracyacu watershed. I remember the consultant was worried about the reaction local people would have when they met us walking in the forest. At that point the farmers living there were unfriendly to visitors, as they were afraid that they would be expelled from the area.

Last week I returned to the Alto Mayo with staff from CI-Peru and CI-Europe, from local partner organizations ECOAN and EcoYungas, and from Fondation Ensemble. We walked for an hour and a half to one of the settlements in the Aguas Verdes watershed where farmers have signed conservation agreements — and I was struck by the differences I saw.

Following the conservation agreements model developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program, these agreements allow farmers or communities to receive determined benefits in exchange for making certain commitments to protect nearby ecosystems. In the Alto Mayo region, farmers refrain from expanding coffee plantations and logging for commercial purposes. They also inform the rangers from SERNANP about influxes of people coming from the highlands, so that the rangers can control immigration.

Five years after my original visit, this time local families were excited to see us. They were all interested in showing us their coffee plantations. They shared with us their concerns about the fungus known as coffee rust that has attacked most of their crop. However, they mentioned that thanks to the conservation agreements, they were starting to replace their plantations with coffee varieties resistant to coffee rust.

The local farmers also showed us how they produce bokashi, an organic fertilizer made of coffee pulp and other organic material, which was introduced to the area as part of the benefits provided by the conservation agreements. At the end of the visit, these farmers even invited us to eat lunch with them.

The following day we went to the coffee plantation of Doña Maxi, a woman who signed a conservation agreement three years ago. Thanks to the agreement, she learned how to produce her own bokashi. When compared to the plantations we had seen the previous day, fewer coffee plants on her plot had been hit by coffee rust. At her farm, the technicians who provide training to coffee growers showed us the different minerals used to improve coffee production, as well as the ingredients they use for bokashi.

We also visited a tree nursery where participating families come to select tree seedlings to switch from traditional coffee production to shade-grown coffee production. Additionally we saw Doña Maxi’s improved cookstove, a benefit provided to the farmers who have been actively engaged with the conservation agreements. This stove is helping reduce wood consumption and respiratory illnesses; it also allows her to spend less time cleaning pots, as the pots don’t get burned by the fire.

Afterwards we went to a training session where farmers were learning how to improve coffee management. These farmers would go on to train others in their communities in these new skills.

At the training session, we had the opportunity to talk to a leader from Aguas Verdes. A couple of years ago he was against signing conservation agreements, as he thought SERNANP was going to expel the farmers from the area. Now he is talking about the importance of maintaining the forest and controlling immigration, as he has seen that by protecting the forest farmers are receiving support to improve their crops.

During the visit it kept hitting me how much things have changed in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest in the last five years. Now it is possible for outsiders to visit the different watersheds of the protected forest. Local settlers are willing to cooperate and work together with SERNANP and CI, and they are changing their agricultural practices to better protect forests — all because of conservation agreements. Currently there are more than 500 agreements in place in the eight watersheds of the protected forest.

I also thought about all the people involved in the initiative — not only in Lima and CI’s headquarters outside Washington, D.C., but especially in the Alto Mayo. Staff working in the field often walk for hours to reach communities, and spend more than eight hours a day — and usually weekends — working. Many of them have been verbally threatened in some areas; some have even had stones thrown at them. But they are also the ones who have gained the farmers’ trust.

Often, this involves leaving their families and just visiting them once per month or every six weeks. In the extreme case of Braulio Andrade, CI-Peru’s coordinator of activities in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, it meant moving his family to the area to be able to fulfill his work, and consequently dealing with his daughter contracting appendicitis in a town located far from adequate health facilities. Thankfully, she has made a full recovery.

My visit served as a strong reminder that co-managing the Alto Mayo Protected Forest involves the hard work of at least 62 people from CI, the Peruvian government and partner organizations. Without the work and sacrifices of this team, it would have been impossible to engage the Alto Mayo farmers in conservation and to reduce deforestation inside this protected area. And seeing how the agreements have transformed local lives, I’m sure all would agree that it’s worth it.

Margarita Mora is the regional manager for Latin America for CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.