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My ‘aha!’ moment: A day in the life of an illegal logger

© Asier Solana Bermejo/Flickr

Above: Sepahua, Peru in 2012, one decade after Natasha Calderwood completed the research project that set her on a conservation career path.

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the third post in an occasional series called “ My ‘aha!’ moment,” in which CI staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. For Natasha Calderwood, director of projects for CI’s Carbon Fund, that moment came during a summer she spent in the Peruvian Amazon.

In 2002, I was completing my second year of an undergraduate degree in French and Spanish literature. But by the end of my first year I already knew a career in publishing or academia was not for me. So that summer, with a sense of adventure and a love for nature nurtured during my childhood in Mexico, I joined a seven-student research expedition to the Peruvian Amazon.

We were headed to a frontier riverine town called Sepahua, a settlement of 4,000 residents sandwiched between four ecologically important reserves rich with teak and mahogany. Fifteen years later, these forests are still home to a number of indigenous tribes who choose to isolate themselves from the outside world. Our team’s goal was to complete additional research on the threats — namely illegal logging and mining and gas exploration — that were putting increasing pressure on these forests and on the indigenous peoples who lived there.

Armed with a photocopied map of Sepahua that we had sourced from the Royal Geographical Society in London, and an official invitation letter from the town’s head missionary, we began the two-day journey to Sepahua from Lima. With no road access, we made the final leg of the trip squeezed into an eight-seater plane, landing on the local football field.

Sepahua was home to a military base, a religious mission and a rundown collection of buildings. There was one functioning telephone, and incoming calls were announced over a loudspeaker for the entire town to hear. Sepahua served as an intersection for river traffic and different communities. It was home to people who had resettled there from the Andes, and on the outskirts of town, small, alienated groups of indigenous peoples who had migrated from their homes deep in the forest at the prospect of salt, hunting guns and other commodities but had never integrated fully into the Sepahua community.

When we arrived in Sepahua, we assumed we would be spending a lot of our time with these indigenous groups, trying to find ways we could help them protect their lands and their traditional way of life from the intrusions of logging and mining. However, as the weeks went by, we realized that we were also spending a lot of time with the “villainized” people who lived in Sepahua — the merchants, fishermen, loggers and oil workers who also had families to care for and ambitions to lead more financially secure lives. We learned that the logging industry in that area was owned and operated by a few very wealthy “patrons” who lived in a more affluent town much farther downstream, and who earned big profits selling wood, often harvested illegally from indigenous lands, for export in Lima. Yet the financial benefits barely reached the laborers in Sepahua who spent months at a time doing backbreaking work in the remotest parts of the jungle to extract the wood.

Toward the end of our trip, Juan, a logger we had gotten to know well, invited us to accompany him to a logging operation he was managing. Fronted money by one of the wealthy patrons, he was now required to deliver a certain volume of hardwood or risk falling into debt. While we were never told exactly where we were going, we knew the wood was being extracted illegally. After a three-day boat journey upstream and a day’s hike on a trail carved through the forest, we arrived at the camp — home to 20 men and boys, and two female camp “cooks.”

This group of people would live in the forest for four months at a time in squalid conditions, sheltered by tarps and forced to subsist on dried cassava and any bushmeat (wild animals) they could kill. They would use chainsaws to cut the trees and then roll the logs down to the river using a system of pulleys and levers, often covering a distance of 4 to 5 kilometers (about 2.5 to 3 miles). Once the logs reached the river’s edge, they would be stored there until the rainy season, and then floated in huge convoys downstream to the logging mill. It was an almost unimaginable feat — yet we watched boys as young as 12 push and roll logs that were up to 2 meters (more than 6.5 feet) in diameter, wearing nothing but gum boots.

It was then that I realized that while it was extremely hard to see these huge old trees cut down — and to see monkeys, peccaries and tapirs shot for food — finding a way to improve the lives of the loggers and indigenous peoples was essential. We all returned to Sepahua after that trip with a different perspective of the harshness of life in the jungle, and a more nuanced understanding that if conservation approaches were to really work, they needed to be inclusive of human well-being and development considerations.

I guess that is where it all began — my “aha!” moment. Our final report from that trip was focused almost entirely on the loggers in Sepahua and the ways in which sustainability could be improved if they were considered not only as the drivers of deforestation, but also as active participants and beneficiaries of conservation actions. Back in England, I finished my undergrad degree and immediately began a career in international conservation. At CI, I have been working on the development of REDD+ (a mechanism to avoid carbon emissions caused by deforestation) and sustainable landscape initiatives that provide resources and incentives to enable local people to change their land-use practices, promoting conservation while also improving livelihoods.

Though I haven’t been back to Sepahua, I am still in touch with Juan, the logger who showed us his camp. Unfortunately, Peru’s forestry sector has been slow to change, and illegal logging remains rampant. Juan still logs to support his family, but unlike many loggers, who remain trapped in a self-perpetuating pattern of debt within the patronage system, he has been able to establish his business and invest in his children’s future. His daughter, a child when we were there, is now studying architecture at university in Lima and has grand plans of her own to secure a better future for the planet and for her generation.

Natasha Calderwood is the director of projects for CI’s Carbon Fund.

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