Monday, December 01, 2008

Devon discovers illegal scam, rushes to protect forest

Devon Graham of Project Amazonas

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.

The drivers in this story, Ricardo and Luis

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 Iquitos and Mazan in the Peruvian Amazon might be new, but it is far from finished.

The new road from Iquitos, under construction

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.

The sign at the eastern extension of Project Amazonas new land purchase

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 Peru. This site is different from the other three that Project Amazonas already operates. It has no river access, but instead is located on a new road between the Peruvian Amazon’s largest city (Iquitos), and the Napo River port city of Mazan. Once that new road is a little less new, and presumably in better condition, there is little doubt that the tall primary forest that covers the hilly upland terrain will soon disappear. In January 2008, we purchased the first two lots of land with funding from Margarita Tours. In February and March, two additional purchases and some creative land-swapping enabled us to double the size of the acquired lands to 84 hectares (208 acres). In the subsequent months, all the survey work and title-work for the 4 parcels we’ve acquired of lands was completed though the Ministry of Agriculture which handles such matters. In July, however, an adjacent land-owner offered to sell his parcel of 24 ha to us as well – acquiring this parcel would put us just two narrow parcels away from the Santa Cruz community’s forest reserve lot of 300 hectares – and so I say yes, we’ll buy it, I’ll get the money one way or another! If we can border the community’s forest reserve, it will create a block of protected forest area of over 600 acres, and open up many possibilities for developing collaborative management of the lands for education, conservation, research, and ecotourism purposes. So we’re there to check out the new parcel, as well as to determine where we’d like to put a caretaker’s house and, in the near future, an educational center. To seal the deal with the landowner, Fernando has given him a used motorcycle and a cash sum from his salary. Tomorrow I’ll pay the landowner the remaining amount and we’ll sign the paperwork for the bill of sale. Both Fernando and I will be reimbursed our personal funds out of a conservation donation from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey which was made for the express purpose of acquiring the new parcel of land. Perhaps we could have waited until those funds arrived in a week or so, but things can change fast when a new road opens in the Amazon, and we aren’t taking any chances.

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 Iquitos by boat, and where I’ll be headed in two days.

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 Iquitos, but that would mean sitting on the back of the motorcycle for twice the distance that we’ve already come. I’m not ready for that – maybe when the road is in better shape, but not today. The trip back doesn’t seem so long – we stop once to watch a troupe of marmosets cross the road, and again to visit a local farm. Then my driver hits a slick spot and we start to fishtail. The fishtail turns into a wipe-out and there is the sound of breaking plastic. We both hop off, unhurt, and upright the motorcycle. Fortunately damage is minimal – just some plastic housing broken, nothing essential. We head on to Mazan again.

A mature rain forest tree, a prime target for illegal loggers, in the Santa Cruz forestry reserve

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 Santa Cruz isn’t responsible either, but they do have more information. The posts were installed two days previously by unknown persons who were marking a “bosque local” (a local forest slated for logging) belonging to the community of Paraiso (Paradise), some 20 km distant on the Napo River. How one community can designate logging lands inside of the titled lands of another community is a mystery to me, but Paradise has designated about 1000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) of Santa Cruz land as having timber belonging to Paradise. Community leaders and land-owners in Santa Cruz are upset, and rightfully so, and on Tuesday (5 August) are presenting a formal denunciation in Iquitos at INRENA (the government agency in charge of forestry and natural resources use). Fernando patiently unravels my confusion. He explains that crooked forestry engineers take money from equally crooked logging barons to fabricate official looking studies and documentation giving the loggers the authority to log on lands that don’t lie within any logging concessions, and which may or may not cross into private lands that are somewhat remote from community centers where everyone would know if something was going on. Inspection and enforcement is expensive and sparse, and loggers may move fast, counting on official inertia to allow them to take out high value lumber from an area and be gone before anything can be done. Some landlords don’t actually live on their plots of titled lands, others may agree to accept a small sum of money from the loggers in exchange for not raising a fuss – while such sums may seem like a fair bit of money to a poor landowner in need of ready cash, these payments are a mere fraction of what the timber on the land is actually worth. Bribing of key community officials sometimes helps as well. It really is still a frontier area. Ironically, community leaders in Paradise may not even be aware of their “claim” to the timber of Santa Cruz. Instead they are probably being set up to take the blame and to shield the identity of the true parties responsible. Fernando refers to such fabricated land claims as “títulos fantásmicos” (phantom land titles) that have no legal basis to them, and which count on local people not having the economic resources to fight a well-financed logging scam. It costs money to send a delegation to Iquitos, and many communities simply don’t have the resources. Besides, everyone “knows” that you can’t fight the government, so when loggers show up waving official-looking papers with all the stamps and signatures and backed with plenty of muscle-power, what is a simple land-owner without connections in high places supposed to do? Most just try to make the best of an unjust situation.

Forest creek at the Santa Cruz site – although there was only a couple of inches of water with intermittent deeper pools, at least a half-dozen fish species were present

This time, however, the plot has been caught early before any damage has been done. I instruct Fernando to let the Santa Cruz community leaders know that we’ll help out with transportation expenses for their delegation if needed. The incident also drives home the need to quickly fence the lands that we’ve acquired and to build a caretakers house* so that there is someone on site to keep track of things on a daily basis, and, more importantly, so that everyone else knows that the land is valued, cared for, and not to be messed with! As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Fortunately, I already have a financial commitment from Nature’s Images, Inc., natural history writing and photo company in Texas to fund the fencing of the property, Building a sturdy caretakers house with associated kitchen and bathroom and a water collection system will be around $1,800; monthly salary and benefits for a rotating caretakership (where all community members who wish to participate can do so for three months at a stretch) will be about $175 monthly. This is the fourth time that Project Amazonas has had to face the threat of illegal logging, and so far we’ve “won” three times, thanks to the intervention of local communities and the fast action of our on-the-ground people in Peru. We won’t loose the fourth time, either, and with strong local community support as well as international assistance, we’ll be going 'four for four'.

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

*If you would like to help protect the new Santa Cruz forest reserve from illegal logging and poaching, here's how:
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 ( or mail a check to:

Treasurer, Project Amazonas, Inc.
701 E. Commercial Blvd, #200
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33334, USA

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).

5 August 2008: The authorities of Santa Cruz presented the formal denunciation of the logging claim within their community. Project Amazonas helped to cover their transportation costs, and we have a copy of the denunciation. This will now be worked through in the courts, and the forestry engineer and/or logging company responsible will be sanctioned accordingly. There is virtually no chance that the community will lose its case.

1 September 2008: An additional plot of land has become available which would connect our existing 260 acres directly with the Mazan River, giving us a long corridor of protected lands. The asking price is s/10,000 (about US $4,000 including administrative and titling fees). If you would like to fully fund the acquisition of this parcel of land, we would be willing to name the annex as you wished (assuming of course, that you wouldn’t choose an offensive or derogatory name for it!).

At the same time, the Iquitos-Mazan road has undergone further improvements, and is now accessible to 4-wheeled vehicles. At the Iquitos end of the road, extensive land-clearing activity is already underway. This activity will march steadily toward Mazan, so the window of opportunity for acquiring additional tall forest is very limited.

22 September 2008: In October, Peruvian herpetology student Jhon Jairo Lopez began the very first scientific work at the Santa Cruz property - herpetological survey of the area. In December, ornithological, fish and botanical surveys will also begin with the work of Dr. Haven Wiley (UNC) and myself (FIU). Volunteer Nicholas Arms will be assisting with the herpetological work as well. We will be spending the Christmas holidays at the site starting around the 15th of December. If you would like to participate in survey and other work at the new field site, please contact us as soon as possible.

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 Florida, and as the Asociación Civil Proyecto Amazonas (as it is formally called) is registered at the national level in the Republic of Peru. For more information, visit

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 Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He can be contacted at

If you’d like to have Devon's previous article "Ancient trees look for love in the Amazon" (Aug 08), contact him at 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

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