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Voices of the Alto Mayo: ‘The forest gives me everything’

© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans

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.

Here, Abdías Vásquez describes his life in the Alto Mayo and how it has changed since he signed a conservation agreement. Read about other conservation agreements here.

I have lived in El Afluente within the Alto Mayo Protected Forest for 14 years. Before that, I lived in Cajamarca, in the mountains, where it rained very little and was very hard to find water and firewood. My mother had to walk for miles to fetch it. It was a huge sacrifice, so I decided to move to the jungle. With a lot of work, I managed to buy a patch of land and bring my family to join me. I grew coffee and harvested it a year later, but then a plague destroyed it completely. I had planted it using mountain techniques and didn’t realize that in the jungle it would have to be planted differently.

Around 2004, the authorities from the government protected-area agency [known as SERNANP, its acronym in Spanish], visited us and led training workshops about the forest and protected areas. We were prohibited from extracting wood, but we were offered nothing in exchange. People disagreed the conservation discourse.  We thought that they really intended to take our lands.

We first approached SERNANP and told them that we understood that logging was prohibited, but that we needed support or some kind of technical assistance for our farms in return.

I made them understand that if we had come from so far in search of water and resources, we had to make sure to protect them. It was around that time that we began hearing about the conservation agreements. Wow, I thought, this is what we had been asking for.

The first benefit package was the delivery of fertilizers, which I found were effective. SERNANP gave us training on how to plant and how to look after our crops. It’s been three years since I signed, and I’ve been able to acquire a coffee dryer, an ecological toilet in my farm, and a tank-tub where I select my coffee. I’ve also installed plumbing that comes from a ravine in the little forest.

But some friends began to pressure me. Many people still didn’t sympathize with SERNANP’s vision and didn’t understand why it was important to stop using the trees in the forest. They were still very suspicious of the authorities, and even though I’ve received some threats to quit the conservation agreements, I know that I’m not doing anything wrong, but quite the opposite.

I noticed a change in my feeling toward nature. My relationship with nature is good. I feel very happy and calm here. I am very grateful because the engineers work hand in hand with us. I’ve learned which plants attract hummingbirds, and when I sit down to rest here, I see my birds and I stay to watch them, feeling happy. I’m becoming used to being here rather than in the village, but as my children have to go to school they stay there with my wife. I live here away from everything, and when they come to see me, I share with them what I have learned. They also bring their friends: “My dad lives in a paradise on the riverbank, planting his flowers, surrounded by his butterflies,” they say.

Currently, I’m growing vanilla as part of the agreements, in addition to the coffee. It sells for a good price. Vanilla is a plant that we’ve always mistreated because we didn’t know about its uses, just like the pitahaya [dragon fruit], which besides selling at a good price, has healing properties. For lack of knowledge we didn’t eat the fruit; we considered it a weed. Some even burned it.

Now, I dedicate my life to natural resources. Nobody has convinced me or forced me. I’m in this because I endured shortages when I was in the mountains, and I know very well what it’s like to lose them because we’re not taking care of them. Today, to build my house or my coffee dryer, I look for fallen wood, instead of cutting down a tree.

I want this place to become a tourist attraction. I’ve created a path that is now covered with trees and clear to walk through. I’m also building a staircase to the river where there is a pretty beach. We already have a sanitary landfill and ecological toilet, although we still need to sort things out a little. I’ve talked with the park authorities and Conservation International, and told them that after four years in a conservation agreement, I hope to have this place ready for ecotourism.

That is the dream that started years ago, when I was invited to participate in an internship in tourism at the Ecological Reserve of Chaparrí, a model for ecotourism where the local population benefits from the conservation of its natural resources, in the dry forests of Lambayeque. That beautiful place stayed with me, and I told myself that one day I would have an appropriate area for ecotourism. That dream is close to becoming a reality.

Abdías Vásquez 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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