Editor’s note: Despite its protected status, Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest — a swath of Amazonian rainforest twice the size of New York City — has seen some of the country’s highest rates of deforestation. Since 2012, Conservation International has sought to halt the loss of forests by brokering “conservation agreements” with local communities, who agree to stop clearing forests in exchange for technical and financial advice.
To date, nearly 1,000 agreements have been signed, reducing deforestation and helping create a culture of sustainable development.
In this piece, Zoila Álvarez describes her life in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest and how it has changed since she signed a conservation agreement.
I grew up in Chachapoyas in the Amazonas Region [southwest of the Alto Mayo]. My family used to grow corn, but one year a tremendous drought came, and we were left with nothing. So, we decided to migrate. Through a family member, my mom and my brothers arrived in Alto Mayo. The number of animals and birds that we could see at that time was impressive. It wasn’t very populated then, but little by little more people started coming. It has been 35 years already since I moved here.
When we first learned that this was a Natural Protected Area, we heard rumors that the park authorities wanted to chuck us out. But then we realized that that wasn’t true. The park authorities asked me to support them in gathering people, so that they could talk to us about the conservation agreements, but nobody wanted to go. The authorities wanted to work with people living inside the forest, so I told them that they could start by working with us. There were only a few of us in Aguas Verdes then, a place located in the buffer zone of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest.
What struck me the most at first was that the technical experts from Conservation International and the Asociacion Ecosistemas Andinos, or ECOAN, stayed on the farms from Monday to Friday to teach us best practices, monitor our work, and provide instructions and answer questions. They came all the way up to our farms and gave us 1,500 seeds and taught us how to plant our coffee. We realized we weren’t doing things sustainably. Now we know that if we don’t use organic fertilizers there won’t be a good harvest. And nowadays, even when there are no farmhands for the harvest the technicians also come to help us.
After the support we received with the coffee, they helped us build a nursery and organic gardens. I have one in my house and another one on my farm. Before, we used to buy all our vegetables, and when we had no money we simply did not eat them. Now we eat what we grow, and there’s even enough to sell. I have learned that as a woman and mother, I can also put bread on the table.
The dragonfruit that I grow also helps us generate income. At first I only had 10 little fruits. When I saw that it was selling for a good price, I bought some plants from a few ladies here and went to sell them to the city of Moyobamba (the capital of the San Martín region). Now I have several new plants and once they start producing, I will go all the way to the capital to sell them. They sell at a really good price! When my son sees me growing more dragonfruit, he says: “You motivate us to work, you encourage us, and it is worth all the hard work.”
My children also want to help me in the garden, but I tell them that I don’t need their help here because it’s my special place. There, I pick my organic tomatoes, my lettuce and my chives that the local restaurants buy, and they sell out quickly. The technicians however advised me not to sell it by the pound, but instead, to sell it on the streets in smaller amounts because that way I will earn more.
I have a daughter who loves orchids. As part of the conservation agreements, we also received support to build our own orchid farm, and my son got involved, too. He brings the orchids from our farm and cultivates them. Everyone in the family likes to get involved, although when it is the coffee harvest time we have to neglect the orchids a little.
We want to generate an income from tourists who come to see the beautiful orchids. There’s already a few people who like to come to see them. But I’m sure that little by little there will be more. We know that we must be patient. We’ve also thought of offering hikes to the mountains, where you can see beautiful birds like the cock of the rocks, and other animals like the pacarana, a rare and slow-moving rodent endemic to South America.
Over time, our friends have seen how the authorities of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest have supported us, not only by giving us tools, but also with all the skills that they’ve taught us, so more people were encouraged to sign the agreements. I can say with complete honesty that my income has improved. My family has also joined the COOPBAM, the cooperative created by the first conservation agreement subscribers. Even if someone wants to buy my coffee independently, I find that it’s better to work with the cooperative because at the end of every year I get a refund. This refund depends on how much the cooperative sells, and every year they’re selling more.
My dream for conservation is that in 2020 my grandchildren will still see everything that exists today, and that they can also live off nature. Trees gather water and they absorb carbon. Hopefully the people in the forests around the world will gain more awareness about the value and importance of nature.
Zoila Álvarez is a Conservation Agreement subscriber in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. This post was translated to English by Daniela Amico, communications manager at Conservation International-Peru.
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Cover image: Zoila Álvarez, a farmer who lives in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. (© Conservation International)
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