Jim Penn and Greg Neise
A villager on the Quebrada Blano holds Guanabana fruit

A villager on the Quebrada Blano holds Guanabana fruit

While many non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have initiated conservation projects in the Peruvian Amazon in recent years, most have devised short-term (3 to 5 years) plans in areas which were selected based on their location, population, and size in order to achieve predetermined “eco-development” objectives. Few have carried out long-term (at least 2 years or 4 harvest seasons) studies in close cooperation with local residents concerning the ecology, ecological history, socioeconomic and cultural conditions before their decision to develop conservation and eco-development programs.

Since most of these NGO’s are directed by Peruvians who are amongst the educated elite which have access to computers, international publications, technical assistance and financing entities, very few of them have lived among the poor and under-educated inhabitants of the Peruvian Amazon. With an environmentalist perspective of North American or European origin, the many so called “eco-development” programs in the Peruvian Amazon have attempted to teach the rainforest dwellers what is important to them (the program’s directors), with an overriding emphasis on the promotion of the image of the NGO itself and its scheduled project. Novelties such as machineries and films, direct monetary and other gifts, and direct aid to local and village authorities are used to quickly win their approval or acceptance of the NGO’s presence-while failing to understand the local peoples true attitudes about natural resource use and their future in the rainforest.

…many so called “eco-development” programs in the Peruvian Amazon have attempted to teach the rainforest dwellers what is important to them (the program’s directors).

Rainforest inhabitants are too often seen as nothing more than destroyers of natural resources through their subsistence and commercial exploitation of these resources. With the people hunting, fishing, practicing agriculture, building homes and marketing products from their local environment, NGO’s act as policemen-and are viewed this way by most. As a result, top-heavy projects emerge, usually directed by people of non-Amazonian origin, with rigid policies aimed at doing something in the rainforest which is viewed as “pro-environment” by the environmental community. Familiar “paper projects” which rely heavily on appearances and media coverage have become all too common in the Peruvian Amazon.

In this environment opportunities for conservation are lost, and field personnel have little time or fail to see the important factors which influence the people’s lives and shape their attitudes about conservation and the future. The local people are usually well aware of the differences between what is being shown and said in environmentalist circles, and what actually occurs in their own local environment on a daily basis. This is due to the extensive radio promotion of NGO projects in the Peruvian Amazon. Chronic poverty, poor health, inferior education, and unjust economic, political and legal systems are of foremost concern for rainforest inhabitants. Living in frequently dysfunctional villages or political systems, the people want and need assistance with these problems, which are considered “non-environmental”. Often called “social extension”, a genuine commitment to these needs inherently fosters conditions for real advancement in conservation and research programs. This requires field workers of local origin who have a true dedication to the long-term welfare of both the rainforest and its inhabitants; knowing that it is necessary for urban Peruvians to be educated by their fellow Peruvians in the rainforest.

A villager on the Rio Tahuayo holds her pet parakeet.

A villager on the Rio Tahuayo holds her pet parakeet.

This reserve has an important historical base with respect to the local inhabitants, scientific research, and conservation projects. Located in the Napo area of endemism, which is regarded as one of the tropics’ most ecologically diverse zones, the 322,500 hectare Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Community Reserve is home to more primate species (14) than any other protected area in South America. While called a “community reserve”, no one lives within it-the area’s inhabitants live in small villages located near its perimeter. Some areas of the settlement zone are subject to strong population and market pressures, others are uninhabited and unaffected by markets. The local people have a history of community initiatives and agreements to manage natural resources which are extracted from both upland “terra firme” and seasonally flooded “varzea” forests. They have also collaborated with Peruvian and foreign scientists doing research since 1974.

For the past two decades a unique series of biological, economic and social studies have been carried out with direct participation by the local people; the ultimate goal being the establishment of a long-term management plan of local character for the reserve, which was created in 1991. Much of the data to be used is available from the studies of Drs. Richard Bodmer and Oliver Coomes. Dr. Bodmer has conducted pre and post-doctoral studies on local hunting practices, frugivory in ungulates, population biology,and the biology and economics of sustainable hunting programs since 1984 with the assistance of James Penn and Peruvian biologist Pablo Puertas,

The importance of palm fruits in the diets of game species, the biology, micro and macro-economics of hunting, the effects of deforestation on biodiversity loss and the establishment of community-based hunting management plans are just some of the many themes covered in over a score of publications in scientific journals by Dr. Bodmer. Dr. Coomes doctoral thesis was an extensive study of household extractive and agricultural practices, market output, product and transportation prices, household demographics, and income and wealth sources in the Tahuayo River Basin conducted in 1989-90 with the assistance of Carlos Rengifo. James Penn has spent over fifteen years working in support of scientific research and the local communities, determining the people’s attitudes towards the creation of the reserve, natural resource use, money, economic development, individual and community welfare and the future. This was done through a diverse array of pilot projects in support of the reserve during 1990-94 which include agroforestry, protection of the reserve and buffer zones, natural resource management, legal rights, land acquisition, women’s programs, education and self-help programs, community organization and development and health care support. Carlos Rengifo, Doris Díaz, Gerardo Bertiz, César Reyes, Gloria Saenz, Pablo Puertas,and Etersit Pezo have been the principal extension workers in these efforts. Together with biologists Luis Moya and Juan Garcia, all of the named in this summary formed the Asociación para la Conservacion de la Amazonia (ACA), an Iquitos- based NGO registered with the Regional Government of Loreto in their office of International Technical Cooperation and Development.

A family on the Quebrada Blanco prepares charcoal for sale.

A family on the Quebrada Blanco prepares charcoal for sale.

The continuous involvement of the Regional Government of Loreto and the Universidad Nacional de la Amazonia Peruana (UNAP) in the reserve program and their need for education and orientation in the project will be of benefit to other NGO’s and conservation efforts as a whole in the Peruvian Amazon.

The RCF/ACA program evolved as a flexible, goal oriented project of local grass-roots character based on the challenges and realities of the reserve. The goal is to keep the RCTT project going- our organizations are NOTthe priority. To that end, RCF has contributed to the work of other conservation efforts in the area. When ACA suspended its organizational operations in 1998, RCF and ex-ACA members simply continued to work together on the reserve. Since then, RCF has hired additional workers, and continued its programs. Years of diligent work with the local people have enabled us, together, to further the conservation and development of the area. This is partly due to the emergence of organized, functioning communities understanding and voluntarily applying scientific methodologies to their local traditions. At the same time, extensionists and researchers have been well-trained by the local people. The creation of a large buffer zone under community possession outside the reserve (in Tahuayo) not only accords with the desires of the local people, but with proven methods for sound land use and conservation, which will enhance the management of the protected reserve area.

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