My family met Devon Graham in June of 2008 - he's a tropical biologist and president of Project Amazonas, a conservation nonprofit in the Peruvian Amazon. See our previous post about our visit to Iquitos and to two Project Amazonas biological stations on tributaries of the Amazon River. We loved Iquitos - part of its charm is being the biggest city in the world inaccessible by road. But Devon told me recently that this distinction is changing - a new road is underway that will link Iquitos with the Napo River port of Mazan. A road through rainforest brings bad news for rainforest wildlife. The road provides, for commercial interests, access to areas that were previously too remote to be profitable. Loggers, slash-and-burn ranchers, and illegal wildlife traders move in. A new road unleashes an avalanche of forest exploitation and development.
Devon points out that the Amazon is in many ways a frontier. The area lacks adequate law enforcement, so illegal exploitation is commonplace. See our post on the market in Iquitos, where threatened wildlife species are sold for the same price as a couple of mangos. The following is a story of Devon's discovery of attempted theft of rainforest trees along the new road-under-construction. It's a systematic exploitation by logging companies that works because local communities lack the infrastructure to stop it. But this time, maybe it won't work, if Devon has his way.
Here is the story, in Devon's words:
"I’m really starting to regret having decided to check out the new road. What was going to be a quick jaunt has turned into aching thighs, sunburned face, tense arms, hand spasms from gripping too tightly, and a lot of déjà vu of the time I put 10,000 km on a 75 HP Suzuki motorcycle in 5 months – most of it off-road.
But that was in the Peace Corps 20+ years ago, and my body isn’t as tolerant of such punishment any more. The new road between
Some sections are 50 feet wide and relatively smooth (apart from grader-tracks), but other, longer sections are definitely of “off-road” quality: deeply rutted, muddy, dusty, blocked by heavy machinery, covered with grasses and brush, composed of curving 20-percent grades, and crossed by drainage channels – sometimes seemingly all at once. At one point the road crosses directly across a soccer field in front of a school, and we zoom though the goal posts. “!Gol!” exclaims Luis, my driver; “doble-gol” I respond, and he chuckles as we bounce along. I wonder what happens when a game is actually in progress. Later on we lose Fernando Rios, the in-country Project Amazonas manager, and his driver Ricardo for a while. When they catch up they explain that they were held up by an ornery cow. “¿La vacita negra?” (“The little black cow?”) Luis asks. They nod. We’d both noticed it staring madly at us as we went past where the road crossed a pasture. I guess a suffering gringo on the back of a roaring motorcycle pushed its bovine brain over the edge. It couldn’t take any more, and I’m getting to the same point. The pasture-lands and farms grade into tall forest on both sides as the ribbon of dirt and mud slides by beneath the wheels, and fourteen kilometers down the road I spot a sign on the side of the road – the first sign we’ve seen on this newest of roads. I breathe a sigh of relief, tell Luis to stop, and stiffly and ungracefully get off the back of the motorcycle. We have arrived.
Fernando and I are on a mission to check out the road access to the newest of the Project Amazonas field sites and forest reserves in
Fernando Rios in forest interior at the Santa Cruz site
The sign we’ve reached was installed by Fernando in July at the eastward extension of our new lands. He has another sign ready to install at the western extension border with the road once the pending land sale is completed. I’m so glad to be off the motorcycle that we walk the entire 2 km extension of road frontage of the property. Approximately mid-way along, there is a bend of the road with a nice flat area lacking large trees. Centrally, it drops off gently to the valley bottom, and more steeply on either side to a pair of small creeks. Fernando and I agree that it would be an ideal location for a caretaker’s house and educational center. Patrolling the road frontage would be easy from such a centrally located site (we’re envisioning a regular dirt-bike for the caretaker to use), and a trail network could be started from the same location without having to navigate any immediate steep slopes. As we walk along the road, we notice numerous shungos, (below) the hard, rot-resistant heartwood of long-dead trees of various species bulldozed to the side.
A "shungo" or long-dead tree good for construction instead of living trees
These will serve as excellent material both for fencing the road frontage, as well as for construction. There won’t be any need to cut large living trees for those purposes. Fernando is enthused by the number of large tornillo trees (right and next page) – these are highly valued for boat building purposes and for certain types of construction that require a very dense wood that can resist the rot that results from frequent wetting and drying. I’m more enthused by the number of birds that I can hear in the forest or that are flying across the road. Unfortunately my binoculars are waiting for me at the Madre Selva Biological Station – several hours downriver from
Before long we reach the border of the lands that Project Amazonas has title to. A narrow cleared line in the understory marks where one parcel of land begins and the other ends. These border lines are the standard means of marking property boundaries in the Amazon. Curiously, however, this border line appears to be freshly cleared, and at the road edge is a wooden post sporting a trio of blue plastic “A’s”.
The mysterious blue "A's"
We puzzle over why the land owner would bother to put in a post and clear the border right before a sale is finalized. Walking down the road to the other edge of the to-be-acquired-parcel, we spot another wooden post with the enigmatic blue “A’s”. Fernando tries to call the land-owner, but cell-phone reception is spotty in this hilly area, and so we continue to wonder. We decide to take the motorcycles a bit further onward to where the Santa Cruz forest reserve lands end and another community’s lands begin. The delineation couldn’t be much more obvious. On one side of the cleared border strip is tall forest, the other side is covered by bananas and plantains, with the odd remnant tree sticking up as if to emphasize the lack of forest cover. The air itself feels hotter. We hop back on the motorcycles and head back toward Mazan – we could have continued on to
Once in Mazan, there is good cell coverage again. Fernando makes a series of calls, and eventually we’re in touch with the landowner. The mystery of the triple blue “A’s” begins to unfold. The landowner is surprised, and is not responsible for them. The community of
This time, however, the plot has been caught early before any damage has been done. I instruct Fernando to let the
My butt may be sore, my arms and face burned, but I’m burning hottest inside! There’s forest to be saved and work to do."
Photos and text by Devon Graham, PhD
Project Amazonas needs to raise $175/month to fund a caretaker position at the new forest reserve. The caretaker will assist students and researchers, maintain trails and buildings, and prevent logging and other activities that might damage the mature rainforest at this site. To make a tax-deductible donation (in the USA), please contact Project Amazonas president Devon Graham (firstname.lastname@example.org) or mail a check to:
Postscripts by Devon:
On 6 August 2008, thanks to a lot of footwork by Fernando Rios, we finalized the purchase of the adjacent 24 ha (60 acres) from the adjacent landowner, and now have the official title to Lot 77, along with the transfer of title and all other legal papers. We need about $750 to finalize the transfer of title, official survey papers, and notarization fees for Lots 73, 74, 75 and 76 which, when done will give us the single contiguous block of land of 104 ha (260 acres).
At the same time, the Iquitos-Mazan road has undergone further improvements, and is now accessible to 4-wheeled vehicles. At the
Project Amazonas, Inc., is a USA-Peruvian non-profit organization which maintains and operates four biological reserves in the Peruvian Amazon. These are open for use by students, researchers, courses and ecotourists. Project Amazonas manages the sites in collaboration with local communities, and also engages in medical, education, and community development activities with isolated communities in the north-eastern Peruvian Amazon. Project Amazonas is registered as a 501(c)3 organization in the state of
Dr. Devon Graham is a tropical biologist who has been involved with Project Amazonas since the fall of 1994, and who became president of the organization in 2000. When not working in the Peruvian Amazon with Project Amazonas, Dr. Graham hosts a variety of ecotours in the Amazon and elsewhere with Margarita Tours, Inc., and also teaches in The Honors College at
If you’d like to have Devon's previous article "Ancient trees look for love in the Amazon" (Aug 08), contact him at email@example.com and he will be happy to send it to you.
Devon with a Smoky Jungle Frog
Keywords:: birding Peru Amazon Devon Graham Project Amazonas deforestation logging Iquitos road ecotourism biodiversity