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Illegal logger turned forest champion — with help from hummingbirds

© CI/photo by Alejandra Naganoma

Norbil Becerra once knew only one way to make a living: cutting down trees for illegal logging companies in the Peruvian Amazon, a 12-hour walk from his family in Peru’s northeastern San Martín region.

Now, Becerra provides for his wife and three children in a way that keeps Peru’s trees standing.

“I know that my future and my family’s future depend on my conservation decisions,” Becerra said from the wooden observation platform he built with his own hands, overlooking a dozen bird feeders and an array of bright flowers and plants.

His new livelihood: hummingbirds.

Becerra opened his hummingbird ecotourism center in Aguas Verdes, a town 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) outside San Martín’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest (AMPF), with some money out of his own pocket — and with a little help from REDD+, an approach proven to prevent the clearing and burning of tropical forests and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

Short for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation” — the “+” stands for additional features including the role of conservation and sustainable forest management — REDD+ provides financial incentives for communities, regions and countries to keep forests intact.

In the case of the AMPF, REDD+ funds incentives for conservation through a negotiated benefit package in return for conservation actions by communities and individuals. Becerra’s family is one of 821 who have pledged to not cut down the Alto Mayo’s trees in return for benefits like agricultural training, improved cookstoves, educational materials and medical supplies.

Incentivizing Becerra and other individuals like him to keep trees standing is but a small step to reducing global carbon emissions, but it’s an important one: Halting tropical deforestation and allowing forests to regrow can provide 30% or more of the carbon storage and sequestration we need to limit warming to safe levels. Take the AMPF: From 2008 to 2014, the REDD+ project generated 4.4 million metric tons of emissions reductions — equivalent to taking around 926,000 passenger cars off the road for one year.

“When conservation offers concrete benefits to rural farmers and local communities, protecting the environment becomes an increasingly viable and attractive choice,” said Braulio Andrade, who works for Conservation International (CI) in Peru. “This approach helps conserve biodiversity and slow climate change, while improving the quality of life for local communities.”

Persistence pays off

The first conservation agreements in the Alto Mayo region focused on coffee farmers, as the conversion of forest to coffee plantations was one of the biggest local drivers of deforestation. Despite its protected status since 1987, the AMPF experienced Peru’s  second-highest deforestation rate in 2005, due to illegal logging; the conversion of forest to coffee plantations; an influx of people migrating from other regions; and unsustainable farming practices — all exacerbated by the lack of enforcement in the protected area.

Now, in exchange for not clearing any additional forest, farmers receive organic fertilizer, pruning tools and technical assistance to improve the quality of their coffee crops.

After illegally logging trees for a year, Becerra had made his way back to Aguas Verdes by January 2013 to begin coffee farming when he learned about the conservation agreements from neighbors and friends — and he wanted in.

Further reading

He reached out to Andrade to discuss an agreement and was told to gather at least 10 nearby coffee producers — at the time, Andrade was focused on families inside the protected area and required 10 subscribers to sign for logistical reasons.

After contacting 10 of his neighbors and confirming their attendance, Becerra called Andrade up — but only four of them showed, a common situation, according to Andrade.

“It’s hard for them to understand that not cutting trees will give them money,” Andrade said. “In general, conservation itself is not well perceived as a part of development, not only in local communities but also by authorities. As soon as we can demonstrate the success of conservation agreements in the field, things get easier.”

“The main challenge is to make them understand that the most valuable benefit is not the fertilizers or the tools, but the knowledge and technical assistance.”

A few weeks later, Becerra insisted on another chance — but again, too few of his neighbors showed. By April, he finally gained enough support to sign an agreement. 

A new interest

In the beginning, Becerra was in it for the benefits to his coffee crop, but then he and Andrade visited the Huembo Interpretation Center, a 39-hectare (96-acre) community-owned reserve that provides habitat for native and migratory birds and other wildlife.

While walking along one of the reserve’s trails, Becerra saw a hummingbird for the first time in his life, and not just any hummingbird: the marvellous spatuletail, a medium-sized white, green and bronze hummingbird adorned with blue crest feathers, found only on the forest edges of the Utcubamba River Valley, just to the west of the AMPF.

By his own telling, Becerra was transfixed. After a conservation agreement coordinator suggested starting a birding pilot on Becerra’s farm, Becerra purchased 2 hectares (5 acres) of land from a neighbor, specifically for protected hummingbird habitat.

“He started the birding pilot by himself, so I went to his place to see what he really wanted and largely talked about his story and his dreams,” Andrade said. “After that conversation, I decided to support and guide any sustainable initiative he might choose.”

Living the benefits of conservation

The conservation agreement coordinator, a bird and orchid expert, taught Becerra how to build feeders and identify species and the unique flowers that attract them.

Now, two years later, tourists trekking along Peru’s northern birding route learn of Becerra’s center through Alto Nieva, a private bird reserve near the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. For 20 Peruvian soles (about US$ 7), they walk along a short path Becerra built out of stones, small boulders and old tires to the observation platforms, from where they can fixate their binoculars and cameras on the 24 hummingbird species that flutter between the flowers and feeders.

In 2014, 415 birders visited from all corners of the world: New Zealand, Belgium, Britain and the United States, as indicated in the logbook Becerra maintains. As of November, 2015’s count totaled 131.

To attract more tourists, Becerra is using a portion of his conservation agreement funds to buy pipes and a water tank to install a bathroom — which naturally he is building himself.

One August morning, a steady rain pattering on the observation platform’s roof did not deter a variety of colorful hummingbirds and butterflies from feasting on the nectar in the feeders filled by Becerra and his 13-year-old son. From the drawer of a desk on the platform, Becerra retrieved a copy of “Birds of Peru,” a premier field guide, and points to his two favorite hummingbirds: the rufous-crested coquette and wire-crested thorntail.

Once the rain tapered, he showed off the rest of his land, covered in native pineapple and ferns. Becerra still grows organic, shade-grown coffee, as well as dragon fruit. He also owns 12 hectares (30 acres) of standing forest inside the protected area — and by choosing not to sell this area, he is one man helping to stop deforestation.

“I’m living the benefits of conservation,” he said.

Cassandra Kane is a staff writer at CI.

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