by Sy Montgomery

The tourists venturing up the Tahuayo River on June 16, 2007, may have noticed nothing amiss. Since there are no roads here, only waterways, adventurers on these remote tributaries of the Amazon sometimes pass a little “pecky-pecky” boat, powered by a lawnmower size motor, occasionally towing something. But in this case, what was in tow deeply disturbed the tourists’ guides: At least 50 large logs, each more than two feet in diameter, were heading downriver toward the Amazon. The guides knew what this meant. In fact, the RCF Board of Directors had witnessed a similar scene the first time they visited the reserve in 1997. In both cases, the logs had almost certainly been cut in the Reserva Comunal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo (RCTT), a large community reserve lying near this river, or its buffer zone, and they were probably headed for sale in Iquitos, the capital of the Department of Loreto in Peru. Both cutting and selling them was undoubtedly illegal.

Back in 1997, no one had been able to do anything about this poaching. Even though the reserve has been protected by law since its creation in 1991, there was no effective system to enforce that protection. Although at that time RCF board members had taken photos and videos, the logs were never confiscated, the poachers never prosecuted. But all that was about to change. Thanks to a new law enacted just weeks before, a system had just been established for protected areas in Loreto (the largest department – equivalent to a state – in Peru). The reserve, formerly 800,000 acres, now be enlarged by 25 percent, and renamed Area de Conservacion Regional Communal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo, would serve as a model, or pilot program, for all future protected areas in the Loreto. But little did the lawmakers realize that the scene on the Tahuayo on June 16 would set in motion a drama to put the new system to the test — and empower village leaders in a way that would set a precedent for Peruvian conservation.

The guides and tourists returned from their adventure to their home base, the Amazonia Expeditions Lodge near the village of Chino. They told their boss, Peruvian Dolly Beaver, what they’d seen. She immediately reported it to village leaders in Chino and to the police at Buena Vista Village, as well as to RCF president Dave Meyer, who was visiting the RCF field station at the time. What should be done? When and where to intercept the poachers? With the boat’s slow motor, everyone presumed that the boat would not reach Chino for a couple of days. There would be plenty of time to decide what to do. And everyone was busy preparing for the holiday. For the next day was Father’s Day, and a huge regional celebration was planned, with soccer games, food, drink and other festivities. But on the day of the holiday, the Amazon Expeditions guides brought grim news. The three poachers piloting the pecky-pecky had ditched the logs somewhere, and had driven slowly past the lodge, apparently checking to see if anyone was waiting for them.

They knew they had been detected. They were probably planning to tow the logs past the lodge, past Chino and past the Buena Vista police station in the dark of night, when no one was awake to question them. “There is no time to wait until tomorrow,” said Dave Meyer to his RCF staff and Manuel Shahuano, a community leader who was visiting Dave at the field station. Clearly the situation called for a summit of community leaders. But it was Father’s Day. Would anyone come? Dave, Manuel, and the RCF team (Rosa Vasquez, Gerardo Bertiz, Exiles Guerra, Cesar Gil, Rosana Gonzales, Graciela Blanco, and Jeanina Castilla) crossed the river to the village of Chino, which was fully engaged in celebration. Within minutes, a quorum of leaders had assembled at the community house. They were worried. “We don’t know what rights we have,” they said. The new laws were not widely known, and completely untested. “Do we have the authority to stop these guys?” Nobody really knew. “Will the police back us up?” In the past, police have been reluctant to do so, unsupported by clear laws. Will we get in trouble if we take action? “But what we do today,” Dave reminded the crowd, “will set a precedent forever. If they know they can get away it, they will do it again.”

After much deliberation, the group decided to travel downriver to the police station at Buena Vista. They would tell the police what they intended to do—and see if they would be supported. By now it was near dark. The chief of police was not in, but his second in command was interrupted from his Father’s Day dinner. The leaders met with him on the sidewalk. “These people have no permit to cut the logs,” the policeman said. “I’ll stop them when they pass my station.” “But what if they come in the middle of the night?” the leaders asked. “What if we intercept them?” “If you want to stop them,” the policeman replied, “you can do it. But I don’t have a boat to do it right now.” The leaders knew what they had to do. As night fell, they gathered supplies and flashlights from Chino. And then, in the RCF motorboat, RCF field manager, Gerardo Bertiz and his assistant, Exiles Guerra, took a group of half a dozen village leaders upriver to confront the poachers. They confiscated the logs.

There were 76 in all, some a valuable hardwood known locally as cumala, and the remainder, an important emergent species, lipuma. But the three men claimed they had permission from the upriver village of Jerusalem. They produced a piece of paper with signatures on it. But Gerardo knew better. “No one in Jerusalem had the authority to let you cut these trees,” he told them. “You have no right to take these.” The group towed the logs back to Chino, where a guard was posted overnight. The men were not arrested. But the community members knew that the poachers weren’t going to disappear. They knew the men already had buyers for their stolen trees, and they weren’t going to give up easily. That’s why Rosa Vasquez next took the RCF boat up another remote tributary, the Rio Blanco, to use the satellite phone at the German primate research station. She called the authorities in Iquitos who comprised the newly created administrative body, PROCREL/SICREL that supports the new laws. She asked the Iquitos team to come to Chino, and they agreed, but no one knew when the team might arrive. The community leaders were still unsure that their action would be supported – or what the consequences would be if it were not. Just two days later, they would find out.

It was supposed to be a meeting for RCF’s new family planning program. But by the time Dave Meyer showed up, well in advance of the meeting, the community house at Chino was already jammed with about 60 agitated people. The poachers had come to get their logs back. And this time they had brought the buyers with them. “We are all river people,” the poachers and buyers were telling the community. “We don’t want the government tell us what to do! We can regulate ourselves. And,” the men argued ominously, “we wouldn’t want any of this to end up in violence.” The community leaders recognized the thinly veiled threat: The next time mere villagers tried to take their logs, the poachers might resist. “The tension in the room was palpable,” Dave said.

But just as the threat was uttered, someone came running with an announcement, “The people from PROCREL are coming!” The five people from Iquitos, a panel of three women and two men, had been spotted coming upriver in their speedboat. With them was the head policeman from Buena Vista . “No more discussion!” proclaimed Marcial Tello, a Chino official. “We’re going to wait for them.” As the contingent from PROCREL entered the building, the room went silent. They quietly spoke with the village leaders and the loggers. The discussion lasted perhaps two minutes. And then PROCREL delivered its verdict. Victor Raygada, the official liaison between PROCREL, the communities, and RCF, spoke first. He delivered a brief digest of the new laws and the relationship between the reserve and the communities that border it. He concluded his digest forcefully: “This is a communal reserve, and if it’s going to work, it will work because of the actions of the community.”

The community began to relax. PROCREL lawyer Gloria Sarmiento spoke next. She stated unequivocally what the new law decreed: “These men,” she said of the loggers, “have no rights at all to take these trees. Your course of action was absolutely the right thing to do. What you have done sets a precedent for all protected areas in Peru. And that you have done this will influence all future conservation action in Loreto.” Community pride and determination now supplanted fear. Finally, the chief of police, a tall, burly man with a bushy moustache, impressive in his fatigues, stood to address the crowd. “We all know the history of corruption in law enforcement in Peru,” he said. And the crowd well remembered: fake “permits” signed by Iquitos officials allowing huge trawlers to wipe out the best fishing areas and allowing loggers to take logs like those the RCF board saw in 1997. And then he made a promise: “It stops right here on the Tahuayo River today.” It started right there: Collaboration among government, community, tourist lodge and non-governmental organization (RCF) to secure the rainforest for future generations.