Tourism, traditions combine in fight to save a threatened forest

© Thomas Muller

 Editor’s note: Deep in the Peruvian Amazon, a remote, flooded forest supports a menagerie of life and livelihoods — but faces increasing incursions from farmland and fertilizers that threaten the vitality of this unique wetland. In this piece, Paulina Jenney gives an inside look at how a small community took charge as caretakers of the nature around them.

The journey to the world’s highest flooded forest begins on a winding dirt road out of the city of Moyobamba, Peru. About an hour’s drive down the road, there is a small dock, where visitors climb into a long, wooden boat called a pekepeke, named for the noise the motor makes.

The boat gurgles down the Avisado River, startling white herons from the reeds. As the channel narrows, the captain stands up and pulls the boat around overhanging vegetation. After half an hour, a small stream branches to the right, and a sign reading “Tingana” marks the exit on this aquatic highway.

Tingana lies just east of the Andes in the rainforests of northern Peru’s Alto Mayo region. As one of the last remaining wetlands in the area, it’s a stronghold for swamp-loving plants and animals, like kingfishers and the San Martín titi monkey (found nowhere else on Earth), that attract researchers and tourists from around the world. It’s also home to a small community of about 25 families who depend on this land — and water — for survival.

In recent decades, farmers in Alto Mayo replaced large swaths of rainforest with rice paddies and rows of corn and beans. Gradually, they transformed forested areas into a patchy mix of forests and open fields. Wildlife habitats became small islands of trees. The water, which had always been filtered by the natural swamps, was now in danger of contamination by fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals.

As their wetlands disintegrated around them, the small community of Tingana decided to act.

Building new livelihoods — one step at a time

In 2003, seven families established the Refugio Natural de Aguajales Renacales del Alto Mayo, a protected area intended to bringing alternative, sustainable income to the community by replacing traditional occupations, like hunting and farming, with ecotourism and hospitality. Now, more than a decade later, Tingana has a kitchen, guest cabins, composting restrooms and a small gift shop that sells local crafts, coffee, honey and liqueur.

But local residents want to do more.

A few months ago, I traveled to Tingana with a group of staff from Conservation International (CI) to discuss project ideas for a potential partnership. Accompanying the group was Dino Cabrera Mestanza, the 24-year-old son of an organic coffee farmer and Tingana local. He was 13 when the first efforts were made to establish Tingana as a reserve. As a child, Mestanza helped show tourists around, taking them in boats with his uncle and assisting in conservation activities. Often, the visitors were students from the local university.

“That motivated me,” Mestanza said as we chatted on the boat. “I said to myself, ‘You have to study to help manage your community.’ ” Two years ago, he graduated from San Martin National University with a degree in environmental engineering.

Mestanza is now working with CI’s BioCuencas Project to support his hometown. With the expansion of infrastructure development and agribusiness in these regions, the rate of deforestation has increased, threatening the ecosystems that provide water for thousands of people. Since 2012, the BioCuencas project has been improving conditions of freshwater ecosystems in Peru and Colombia.

In Peru, BioCuencas is helping Tingana and other communities keep an eye on changes in the local ecosystem and promote jobs that don’t come at the expense of the forests.

Further reading

“It’s been a difficult, complicated process to change the mentality of an Amazonian population that has always been accustomed to hunting and agriculture,” Mestanza said. “You can go and knock on doors in the government, and say, ‘… Here’s what we want to do.’ And they tell you ‘Okay, leave us the proposal,’ and in two, maybe three years they evaluate it. But what do I do with the people in those years? The people want to work. They say, ‘Great, let’s conserve, we won’t cut down trees, but what can you give me instead? How can we replace those activities?’”

He explained that in order to see quicker results, it makes more sense to work with NGOs. By setting up partnerships with visiting researchers, like CI, the Tingana community also gets to share in the results. “If there isn’t local research,” Mestanza says, “you don’t really know what potential you have, what biodiversity exists. It’s like if you’re sick, and you decide, ‘I’m going to take this medicine because why not?’ No — you have to know what [illness] you really have.”

Solving problems with fruit

Ulla Helimo, coordinator of the BioCuencas Project, opened the meeting in Tingana with a simple invitation: “We’re here to ask you what you would like to work on, and what you need, and how we can accomplish that.”

Maria Bercelia Fernandez, Mestanza’s mother, was in attendance. After a few beats, she was the first to speak. “Those of us here have been residents for many years,” she said, “almost a lifetime in the case of my husband. And we’re seeing now a necessity on behalf of the animals, who have begun to repopulate the area but don’t have anything to eat.”

Fernandez was referring to the squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys that have recently been spotted more frequently in the region. “The neighbors in the surrounding areas have a problem, because the animals come into their farms and they eat … corn, cacao, everything! So if we could reforest with fruit trees, not only would we here have local fruit to enjoy with the tourists, but the animals would have food as well.”

Heads around the room nodded in agreement. It was a smart suggestion, because it benefits the families of Tingana, the neighboring communities and the wildlife on which tourism depends. For the next hour, Mestanza stood at a whiteboard in the front of the room and took notes as the group outlined actions and materials needed and talked through their concerns in undertaking a reforestation project. They talked about how to acquire and start seedlings, as well as the best time to plant them.

Several months after this meeting, CI’s Peru office signed an agreement with Tingana to combine efforts in order to implement several conservation activities that would benefit the watershed — including the forest restoration project.

Driving the future

After the workshop was over and lunch had been served, I sat down with Fernandez, who also runs the lodge’s kitchen. “I’m from Cajamarca,” she said. “My parents moved here when I was six.” From across the way, someone held up a pair of feather earrings and asked her how much they cost. “3 soles,” she replied, and turned back to me. “I do everything here,” she said, laughing, “Besides the kitchen, I do the crafts, I coordinate everything. You can’t imagine … I also raise animals, and have three sons.” She told me that her other sons are studying tourism and sanitation engineering.

“They’re a whole team,” I pointed out.

“That’s the dream,” she said, “That they drive the future in a professional way.”

“And I assume they owe their interest in the environment to you?”

“I’m a person that desires things natural and clean. I try to produce my own food for me and my family. I took a course in permaculture in Lima.” After a moment, she added, “And working here with people from all over the world … they give you ideas.”

Paulina Jenney was an intern with Conservation International Peru in 2015.