Dispatches from the Field & Project Summaries
April 16, 2009
This city is up early and the sun came streaming in the windows early, along with the sounds of a rooster crowing so it was time for us to take our next boat ride out to the Brazil nut reserves. A quick ride by go-kart cab and boat and we were at the first concession. A very lively and hard-at-work 74-year-old concession owner named Patricio Leon met us. He easily outdid us when it came to heat, heights, and hiking. First, we went for a two hour hike through the jungle where he told us all about the brazil nut trees, posed for the camera and told us all about his life here. He was born in this concession and lived his entire life there, raising 12 children and is now the proud grandfather of 27, and even a great grandfather of 1.
What makes Brazil nuts so special and what does this have to do with saving the Amazon? Well, first, they grow best in primary forests, thus owners have an incentive to not cut the forest down with hopes that it will re-grow, because the trees won’t produce as much this way. This makes their job harder, as owners have to wait until all of the coconuts fall (the trees can be 150 feet tall and a hit with one of those can be deadly) and then they navigate through all of the trees and vines in the jungle to get to the brazil nuts. In addition, there is a certain bee species that is specifically able to get into the brazil nut flowers to pollinate them and these bees are happiest in primary forests.
Patricio told us that currently prices for Brazil nuts are down to about half what they were last year, so currently he is holding onto the nuts until the price gets a bit better. He estimates that for a 70 kilogram bag of shelled brazil nuts, he can make $700 solis when the prices are high. Currently he can only get about $350 solis. After lunch, we wanted Patricio to take a siesta so we traveled via boat to another area village to find out more about brazil nuts. We met a local female concession owner, who told us about her experience managing a concession. The cost of shipping the nuts to market and paying workers to bag/haul the nuts consumes over half of the money that they get for selling the nuts, particularly now in this slower market. Though she did admit that she is very proud to have a job that is conserving the forest. While they do need help from the government, and it would be better if the market were in her favor, she said she will get by as you never know – next year could be a favorable year.
We also talked to a local park ranger, who helps to monitor the concessions, mediate disputes and find solutions for farmers looking for more area. He is responsible for monitoring visitors to this area of roughly 250,000 hectares, and teaching area concession owners how to better manage their resources. He can also use GPS and maps to determine where property lines end to more accurately determine who has the rights to resources. Another change that has helped the area is farmers have switched from tractors to bulls, which seems counterintuitive, but the tractors tear up the dirt roads, whereas the bulls do no damage.
Then it was back to Patricio’s property to ask him more about his work and to take a few parting shots. When asked about how things have changed over the last 74 years, he said that has definitely noticed a drop in rainfall. Since the 1960s, there has been a definite decline in brazil nut production and around this time there was a very large rain. He thinks its possible that this rainfall affected nut production or possibly that it has something to do with the changing climate. You may have noticed that I am old, Patricio said, and I plan to leave my concession to someone I trust won’t cut it down and will protect it. I could have left a long time ago, but a deer is always called to the forest and I love living here.
Our fearless translator Augosto Mulanovich, from the Amazon Conservation Association, bravely faced all of our questions about both Brazil nuts and CICRA. One goal for both areas is to try and earn carbon credits for the land. If you can make the forest valuable, the owners will have an incentive to maintain it. At this time they are trying to determine a baseline carbon concentration to determine how much carbon each can hold and therefore what it is worth. In addition, there are a lot of people moving here from the Andes for work and they are not as tied to the land. So you have to improve conditions in the Andes, give them an incentive to stay so that this place is not flooded with people. Brazil nuts are one way to sustainably manage a forest because they need a strong, healthy forest to produce. Over 2.5 million hectares of forest are currently divided into roughly 1,200 brazil nut concessions, offering income and livelihood for over 200,000 people.
Next Stop: Bosque Nublado, Santa Lucia; Nanegal, Ecuador.
April 15, 2009
If you want to see animals in their habitat, as we have learned, you have to get up early. So today the team went for a walk-along with one of the short-eared dogs that they are studying. The team had to hide behind trees to get ‘natural’ shots of the dog. It could tell something was there but it just couldn’t find them. When the dog came out and started growling, this brought a bunch of monkeys out to the trees and they were wound up and making a lot of noise so the team got really good photos of active monkeys too. Then back for a quick bite to eat and it was off to see the work of a lead entomologist. She showed us a few samples of her long horned beetles and talked about how the tourists at the site are helping her monitor beetles and collect beetles when they are out bird watching.
Our next interview was with Adrian Tejedor, the current Director of Los Amigos Biological Station (CICRA). He had a lot to say about how mining activities are affecting the research at the station and why Los Amigos is so special in terms of biodiversity. This reserve is 160,000 hectares (and combines three parks in the area – which are not parceled out) and so remote that in a few days stay you can see several monkey species, hundreds of birds, large mammals (including jaguars) and hundreds of bugs. In addition, on a really clear day, this is the only place that you can see glaciers in the Andes from the Amazon Rainforest. The research going on at this site is very crucial as they attempt to find out about the habits of species that are rarely seen and little is known about. Thus far, over 4,631 species have been identified at the site, including humans, says Adrian.
To find out more about these unknown species we talked with a local villager who left logging and mining to come back and work in the forest. Like many villagers we talked to, Emeterio Nuncca Sencia, is a rarity in these parts as he decided one day that he didn’t want to senselessly and indiscriminately kill animals left and right as they rip up the forests and break the earth for gold. He got a job with Los Amigos and now is responsible for monitoring the short-eared dog to learn more about its eating habits, and which habitats it prefers or is not attracted to.
At this point, our time had drawn to a close at CICRA and it was time to walk back down the 238 steps and hop back aboard those skinny boats to Puerto Maldonado. During the boat ride, Adrian pointed out lots of interesting features in the landscape. We saw roughly 10 mining outfits while we traveled down the river. Adrian said that right now the river is still high and it’s not as easy to mine. In a few months when the river has dropped, there will be 60-70 additional mining rigs along the banks of the river in the section that we were traveling, as well as an additional 40 rigs north of the reserve. Mining for gold is quite a lucrative business in these parts – 6 months of work can net roughly $60,000, not a small chunk of change by any standard. When the price of gold was quite high a few years ago, everyone was running to the river to setup a mining operation. Adrian also pointed out the Brazil nut trees that we will be seeing tomorrow and noted that they are much taller than the surrounding trees. Harvesters of the Brazil nuts have to wait until after the rainy season to gather nuts when all of the nuts have fallen. The nuts are in a shell the size of a coconut and falling from those heights can kill you, so the harvesters have to wait until the danger has passed.
After the boat ride, we had one more drive down one straight, long, dirt road back to Puerto Maldonado where we would be staying the night. There was lots of construction going on so we were constantly covered in dust clouds during the ride. Wednesday nights in Puerto Maldonado are apparently going-out nights as it seemed the whole city was alive. The streets were full of hundreds of motorcycles zipping every direction. On our way to dinner, we got to ride in one of the motorcycle cabs, which is basically a motorcycle with a bench on two wheels attached to the back and a pod covering the whole contraption. The scooter cab doesn’t go much faster than a go-kart and a few times we thought we would have to get out and push it through the intersection before a motorcycled rammed us. We met up with Miguel Moran from Amazon Conservation Association and talked about the Brazil nut project over a pizza pie and a few beers. Then it was back in the go-kart cab and off to sleep in the sweltering heat.
April 14, 2009
The Inca Trail leading up to Macchu Piccu is currently experiencing heavy traffic due to the influx of tourists hiking the trail. Since there are other routes up to this impressive site, Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) created several eco-lodges along the 50 km route to promote sustainable tourism while improving the lives of the 200 families living along the route. They created 4 eco-resorts that combine sustainability with high-class tourist hotels, yet this group wasn’t happy just creating luxury. They also wanted to help the community, so they founded Yanapana, an organization that creates income and provides training to help local businesses get started and succeed.
Working with the community, the lodges staff over 80% of their positions with workers from the local community, thus filtering income into the community through multiple avenues. For example, area mule-drivers (the gentlemen that move the mules loaded with guests’ luggage through the area) used to be treated like slaves and required to do an unending number of tasks throughout the journey. MLP, however, decided to double what mule-drivers are typically paid and clarified what their roles are so they’re not abused. They donated 7 new horses (valued at $30,000 USD) to improve the stock and breeding of the horses and also created an office for the mule-drivers. They are also working with mule-drivers to develop a plastic recycling program to create additional income from the plastic they pick up along the trail.
Eco-Team at Mountain Lodges of Peru
So how does MLP ensure that their lodges are environmentally sustainable? First they created an Eco-Team, which looks at the entire footprint of each building. Since the buildings are very remote, it was important to MLP that they not create a giant mess for each community to clean up.
How do you deal with waste when you don’t have a giant landfill or septic system to take care of everything? First, all food waste is composted behind the building in a large pit. Next, they have a greywater filtering system where all shower, sink, kitchen, and toilet water is filtered down through several tanks and then used for irrigation for the local area. The government is also watching this project to measure success and determine if it has applications in other areas.
Deforestation is a problem in the area, so MLP is using the land around the lodges, as well as help from the local community, to come up with a solution. They coordinated with 7 families to grow 100 local trees and plant them in the area. Yanapana essentially gives all the resources and training to the community members and then lets them take the project on themselves. They get seedlings for the trees and containers to grow them in, then use the compost from the kitchen and water from the water filtration system to grow the trees. Next year they plan to work with 14 families and expand the program to the other 3 lodges.
Many of the projects are tested at the main lodge then implemented at the other three lodges. As the eco-programs succeed, scientific tourism is encouraged because scientists realize this area is special and worth investing time and energy in.
MLP, besides building sustainable lodges, works to improve the lives of the 200 families living in nearby communities. They created Yanapana Peru, the social arm of MLP. Their goal is to eradicate poverty in the area; they found a way to work with what they have, i.e. employing lots of community members. Yanapana Peru provides seed funding and resources to purchase materials and pay for training to give community members a trade. For example, all of the Mountain Lodges are staffed 80% by people from the local community. Many other hotels and lodges in the area bring in staff from the big cities, leaving the communities out in the cold. By involving local community members, MLP provides additional income to the community, giving educational training such as hotel management and culinary skills. They also help community members grow local fruits and vegetables (all organic) to increase the variety in their diet.
Their idea of sustainability is long-term and community-wide. To keep a project going you have to work with a community, using their own skills and ideas to give them resources, instead of just a gift or donation, to really implement a project. By investing in the community, they took flat-lined towns and “began to move the economy,” says Ricardo Hernandez, Planning and Compliance Manager of MLP. MLP and their Yanapana Peru Foundation support these local businesses by giving them funding and education to purchase materials and to get started. They then bring the tourists on a hike to Macchu Piccu through the town where they can purchase local crafts. They also give women and children resources and education, which brings the quality of life up for everyone. While there, we got to visit several of the projects that MLP supports, including Local Artisans, a woman’s clothing co-op and a local school.
First we met up with a local marmalade lady who showed us how she was learning to make marmalades and jams out of locally grown produce. She originally made a living by creating a variety of foods, but it was too expensive to purchase all of the ingredients and equipment. She found out about the health benefits of eating natural marmalades and thought this could be a great way for her to earn income for her family while also producing something good for the world.
Since the materials for her jams all come from local farms, the more successful she is, the more successful the farmers are. One fruit she uses – the ahuaymanto (a quetchua word) – is used as a medicine to lower cholesterol and fight osteoporosis and is packed with many vitamins. It has 23 preventative properties and 4 healing properties. The natural pectin inside works as a preservative, so she doesn’t have to add any unnecessary chemicals. She had several of her jams on display when we arrived and we got to try this magical healing fruit. To be honest, it tastes a bit like a tomato when you eat the fruit raw. The community wasn’t even eating it until recently–it just grew wild around the town and everyone ignored it. Now they are growing it to sell and eat. A large jar of her marmalade sells for 10 solis or $3.50USD.
She has been so successful that she has expanded to other towns, teaching other women her process and how to earn income for themselves. She is also teaching some of the local children so they learn more about local foods. She only makes marmalades that are in season and can make special orders by working with her clients. For example, for diabetics, she can make the marmalade without sugar.
Women’s Textile Cooperative – Asociacion Apu Salkantay Huarmicunas de Mollepata
This cooperative started when a group of women saw the many tourists going through the town of Mollepata and decided they wanted to do or make something that would earn them extra income. They went to Yanapana to pitch their idea and succeeded. Yanapana brought in specialists to teach them about making natural dyes, blending colors and how to make weavings, especially symbols that represent local life. Yanapana also helped them get legalized, unionized, organized and licensed. Now the women bring money into their homes to help out their families.
The women members use all natural dyes, many from the local area. For example, eucalyptus is used for a plum color, moss is used for an orange color, and pepper tree leaves are used for a green. There is also a little worm the women use that is ground up, sun-dried, and mixed with oil, water and fixers. It makes up to 16 different shades of purple. Scarves retail for 60 solis ($21 USD) and a poncho sells for 400 solis ($139).
Supporting Area Schools
MLP and Yanapana Peru (YP) also help communities by providing resources and improvements to area schools. In the town of Mollepata, the local school has one teacher and one helper for the 50 children that attend. YP provided school supplies, cereal, and hygienic materials while we were there. Since many homes lack these items, there are serious cavity problems in just about every community that YP works in. Talking with one staff member, she said YP’s goal is to prevent massive problems, so they are working with the children at a young age to teach them about things like proper dental care.
Since this trail system has been so successful, Hernandez wants to use this program as a pilot project for other communities. You too can be a part of this exciting adventure and support communities throughout rural Peru. This trip retails for approximately $3,000 USD and includes stays in all 4 eco-lodges, food, and mules to carry your equipment, and transportation around the area.
April 14, 2009
This morning, we packed up, took the last few photos of Salkantay Peak and drove back down the mountain to Cuzco. With a few minutes to spare, we hopped on the next plane and headed back into the jungle to Puerto Maldonado, Peru. The flight was quick, just 35 minutes, and no sooner did we leave Cuzco than the land below became a sea of trees – no houses, no farms no roads. Just muddy, brown rivers and trees as far as the eye could see. It was hard even to see the runway, but the pilot found a break in the trees and the runway, and then we were down.
Next, we hopped in two cabs and raced through the jungle for an hour and a half, and then took a 5-hour boat ride through the Peruvian Amazon up the Rio Madre to Dios to CICRA. The first half of the ride we held on through a torrential downpour with just the cover of a small wooden roof and a couple of ponchos. Once the rain passed, it was just the trees, a few birds, and us for the next few hours. We arrived after dark and climbed a very steep stairway (over 238 steps) up to the CICRA research facility and camp.
The site was a very successful mining lodge and so all of the buildings are well made. As far back as 10 years ago the buildings were abandoned, with no roofs and weeds growing inside the buildings. With a lot of hard work, the team restored the site and the buildings and opened CICRA about 8 years ago. The buildings are all really nice and very energy efficient with open-air, screen walls. The downstairs rooms are all research labs and classrooms, while the upstairs are all offices – picture a restored barn or a cozy, large, thatched-roof tiki hut, with windows. We all agreed that you would be a lucky person to have an office in one of these buildings. We talked to several of the guests and researchers staying here and then it was off to bed to get ready for a very busy day.
This is the first year that CICRA is allowing tourists to come and stay at the site. Guests are treated to not only bird watching, but also many larger animals (including jaguars and anacondas) living right there on the site, and for the very lucky, are possible for viewing. One guest we spoke to said that he saw easily over 250 bird species over his 3 day stay, and that he got to help several researchers with their projects – something that you don’t get to do when you vacation at a standard resort or hotel. The place is very remote, making for better conditions for getting up close and personal with animals, but also great for just getting away and getting back to nature.
April 13, 2009
The morning began with a nice breakfast of homemade bread, jam from the previous evening (yay to lower cholesterol!) and their special coca tea. We then walked down to the local school to interview the teacher and help Yanapana pass out donated school supplies – like notebooks, toothbrushes and cereal. All of the children were very excited. We also saw the bathrooms that Yanapana recently helped facilitate and saw where the new playground will be built. Next, we had a quick stopover with the Mayor of Mollepata to talk about plans for the community.
Next it was time to back our bags and head to the first lodge on the Mountain Lodges of Peru route. The ride was beautiful, as we snaked along very steep, very tiny roads along the mountainside. Several times we had to get out of the truck so that it could make it over rocky, washed-out parts in the road. The views were amazing – with thick clouds, rain in the distance and green in every direction. Throughout the ride, several ladies in the truck kept pointing out local flora and explaining what they are used for in traditional medicine, which made for an interesting and entertaining ride.
We were at the lodge before we even knew it – literally. The lodge is tucked back in a valley and you don’t see it until you are right upon it. The building is beautiful and the backyard is a clear view of snow-covered Salkantay and several other mountain peaks. There was even a very thin waterfall, called Bride’s Veil, visible from the lodge. The lodge itself is very upscale and inviting, even more so if you’ve been hiking through the Andes for the last 6 hours. Visitors trekking this route to Machu Picchu typically stay at this lodge for two nights in order to acclimate, and each of us remarked that we definitely could have stayed longer. The rooms have a warm, cozy cabin decor and are very modern. The food was outstanding and they even cater to vegetarians with several faux-meat dishes that are identical to their meat counterparts.
After a quick lunch, we were back out in the field, trying to beat the clouds (and sun) and get as many shots in before our time was up. We talked with Vilma Arcef, the coordinator of the EcoTeam and the many projects they are working on at the four lodges. They are doing a very interesting forest reclamation project with several families in the local community – they are providing resources and land, and the community members can grow seedlings for native trees and then replant them in the area – thus far over 100 trees have been planted. Compost from the kitchen is used to fertilize these growing trees. In addition, each of the lodges has a grey/black water reclamation system that filters all water from the kitchen & bathroom sinks, showers and toilets. We also talked with a local researcher, Rob Williams from the Frankfort Zoological Institute, who was very valuable in explaining the current situation of spectacled bears, Andean condors and Andean cats, all three of which are currently nearing extinction. They are working with Mountain Lodges of Peru to try to quantify and track the patterns of each of these species to better develop preservation plans. Having species in the area, and having scientific data to back up what visitors are seeing helps bring in more tourism, but also helps justify further protection of the area. After a day fighting the rain, the cold, and a touch of altitude sickness we were all ready for dinner. But first, we were treated to a demonstration on how to make Pisco Sours. The drinks were good and strong, and quickly warmed us up. After dinner, it was back to work for a few more hours and then we all enjoyed a good nights sleep.
Next stop: Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
April 12, 2009
Bright and early, and we mean early, we left for the airport. Luckily we didn’t run into any early morning traffic and we were off to Lima. As we flew over Lima, we could tell it was a big city and right on the ocean, but everything (mountains, buildings, land) was brown and sort of blah, very different from our next stop in Cuzco. As we flew into Cuzco, we were covered in thick, swirling clouds, and then we descended onto a very, very green city. Every direction we looked, there were green trees, mountains covered with trees and generally green everywhere. We were very impressed and despite the very tight landing, we were awed to be in this ancient city. Our guide told us that the city of Cuzco dates back to at least 1200 BC and was a major hub for the Inca during its time. The city was bustling this day, as it was Sunday and everyone was bringing goods to the market. We drove up the steep hillsides out of Cuzco and then for the next three hours tried to acclimate to the altitude as we snaked along scenic, mountain vistas.
Our first stop was the town of Mollepata, where we talked with several programs that Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) is supporting. First a little background, the current Inca Trail that is commonly used to get to Machu Picchu is very overcrowded and regulated. MLP knew of an alternative route to Machu Picchu that, if done correctly, could also help several hundred villages along the route earn extra income by providing goods and services to the many travelers that visit this ancient relic each year. To cement this route, MLP created four lodges, each a day’s hike from each other, and also began working with groups in each of the communities to promote local entrepreneurs. In the pueblo of Mollepata, MLP partnered with Yanapana, a community development organization, to identify local businesses in need of some support. Our first night in Mollepata, we went to visit several of these entrepreneurs.
Our first stop was a local, woman-owned business making traditional marmalades. Margarita Pereya Salas needed extra income and was making several different edible products, but the costs to purchase all of the machinery and ingredients was too high. That is when she stumbled upon natural marmalade production. She realized that she could make a product, using all 100% locally produced fruits, and one that would give nutritional benefits to the community, particularly using products that have natural healing properties. In this way, she also supports other local farmers in giving them an additional outlet to sell their goods. One tiny fruit, the aguaymanto, (tastes like a tomato mixed with fruit) is thought to lower cholesterol and fight osteoporosis, with an additional 23 preventive and 4 healing properties. The investment is just a few dollars and she can make double or triple that with the sale of each jar. Now she is working, with the help of Yanapana, to teach local school children how to make natural preserves, as well as teaching women in other communities along the route. Many of the dishes we tried at the hotel were made with marmalades from her shop.
Our next stop was a women’s textile coop, the Association Civil Apusalcantay Warnycuna. Women in the village traditionally don’t have a way to earn income and provide for their families. So, several women in the community organized to make textiles from local materials to sell to the many tourists trekking through the area. Yanapana provided resources, materials and education on how to take raw cotton, weave it into yarn, dye it from locally found plants and berries, and then dye the wool and turn it into scarves, ponchos, belts, coin purses, hats and other local handicrafts. MLP also helps by bringing tourists through the area with their four lodges program, which helps to keep their cooperative sustainable.
Finally, we had a brief meeting with Yanapana (the social and economic development arm of MLP) and a local traditional medicine healer. Yanapana explained how they offer resources to local businesses to alleviate poverty, as well as provide resources for local health care and education to help over 200 families along a 230-mile route north of Cuzco. The local healer taught us about how natural herbs can be used for stomachaches, lotions, salves, and to alleviate other ailments. After that, it was late and time for bed. We went back to the Nan Tika hotel, another project of Yanapana and MLP, for a good nights rest. The accommodations were very nice and it was great to hear about how this young couple was given resources to restore their hotel into a very cozy spot. The food was incredible, with several dishes that you would find in any upscale restaurant. The hosts could not have been more friendly or helpful – it was a wonderful rest after a very long day.
April 11, 2009
Established in 1992 when sustainability and eco-tourism were virtually unknown concepts, the Cristalino Jungle Lodge is the product of owner Vitoria Da Riva Carvalho’s labor. It began, as a way to protect the rainforest and her homeland but today it’s so much more. If the lodge didn’t exist, most of the rainforest near Cristalino would have been cut down a long time ago. When something threatens the habitat, the owners pull together to find a way to purchase more land to conserve. They successfully recovered 26 of the 126 watersheds in the area, and they have preserved roughly 2 million hectares in under 20 years. The lodge sits near an Air Force base, which means an even greater area of undeveloped land exists. They have been so successful that the government designated Cristalino as a national park. When land across the river was up for sale, they managed to pull together and purchase it.
Cristalino is a demonstration of both successful green building and sustainability. You may be in the middle of the Amazon, but you don’t have to rough it: Each housing facility comes with running water heated by solar panels. As this is a green building and resources can be hard to come by in the jungle, there is no space for garbage. All of the water (toilet, shower and sink) for each lodge is filtered into a small garden that grows both bananas (which feed guests and monkeys) and birds of paradise. Compost systems and recycling are also prevalent here. All waste materials are taken back into town where they are sorted and disposed of properly.
Guests who stay at the lodge are treated to several up-close encounters with wildlife, including over 600 different species of birds–1/3 of all known bird species in the Amazon live in this area. Local guides, some with over a decade of guiding experience, take guests on hikes through several trails in the jungle. One trail leads guests to a 150’ observation tower, high above the tree line with a clear view of the land. Early morning is best for sightseeing since the animals are really active, making them great subjects for camera-wielding visitors. From here, guides bring high-powered telescopes and show their amazing “Where’s Waldo’ing” abilities by picking the animals out of very dense canopies. The tower was built just 8 years ago through donations from Chip Haven, a bird researcher working at the site. He wanted people to be able to see the birds properly. From the ground, the jungle is so thick that it’s impossible to see very far in front of you, let alone up the 80’ trees. There are 3 platforms on the tower: the first is roughly 50’ in the air, the second 90’, and the third is 150′ at the very top of the tower. For someone afraid of heights, it’s not too bad until the tower sways a bit when other people begin climbing up. This is most noticeable from the top. All that holds the tower up is the concrete base and a couple of guide wires. Yikes.
From the first landing, you can look down to see iridescent blue butterflies floating around the rainforest. When they close their wings, they disappear into the darkness of the canopy. When they open up, they shoot a burst of blue light. This is especially impressive to see as they bob along on gusts of air flickering in and out of sight. From the top of the tower, you can see out for miles and watch as the beautiful thick dark clouds of rainstorms race across the jungle. You can also see monkeys doing, well, what monkeys do – picking ticks off of each other and swinging around the treetops. There are also giant eagles, known to eat those monkeys, scanning the canopy. Parrots and toucans can be seen racing along the tops of the canopy, their colors seemingly more brilliant against the green surrounding them. While standing in the early morning calm, you can hear them calling back and forth to each other from across the jungle. If you’re lucky, you might stumble upon larger mammals, and if you’re exceptionally lucky, you might spot a jaguar (come in the dry season to increase your odds).
While staying at Cristalino, you feel like you’re part of their family and have access to just about everything on-site. The guides are always available and very friendly. The staff is ready and willing to help you out and make your stay as comfortable as possible. During our stay, we were treated to a relaxing drink under a full-moon on the dock – we could not have planned a better night if we tried. On the last night of our stay we were served a beautiful feast, complete with piranha soup, fresh fish from the river, and decorated tables with giant palm leaves. All of the guests feasted by candlelight.
The people of Cristalino really make the experience unforgettable. One of the researchers from a nearby part of the rainforest still lives and works here. For her, it’s very important for people to get to know the forest and the treasures that exist in their own backyard. This area (and the Amazon in general) are under intense pressure from outside forces who want to cut the land–reserves like this are crucial to protecting the area. Cristalino encourages scientists to research on this land not only to better understand this ecosystem, but also to help justify the need for its indefinite protection. In the time Vitoria’s been working in this part of the forest, four new species have been found. As big and dense as this forest is, consider all of the other species that have yet to be discovered.
The guides are all very special to Vitoria because they all have a story to tell and have become some of her most vocal advocates for rainforest preservation. They all originally had other occupations-–miners, ranchers, rubber tappers, etc.–-but most of them decided that those other jobs were unsavory, especially because they harmed the rainforest and killed large mammals.
Now, working at Cristalino, they are trained guides who have become advocates for its preservation. Cristalino Lodge gives them many things: the chance to earn a respectable living in ecotourism, have pride in their job, and do something they believe in and are happy to be a part of. The guides teach guests about the rainforest, but also teach people in their local community that there is another way to live that doesn’t involve destroying the forest. Many now earn enough money that their children can afford to go to school, and many say it is a gift to be able to wake up and work in the rainforest. The guides also have plans beyond Cristalino involving opening up their own rainforest programs and learning English so they can better communicate what they know to visitors. The lodge is helping each of the guides achieve their goals by paying them a living wage and funding their further education in a variety of classes.
If man is one of the greatest threats to the rainforest, it’s partly because he’s continually edging closer and closer, often pushing the rainforest further back as he expands his reach. Cattle farms and soy plantations were two of the biggest threats we heard about again and again while at Cristalino. During our visit we were fortunate enough to stay at the reserve at the same time as local cattle farmer Otavio Franco who had taken his family for vacation. This brought an interesting twist to the experience because for people on the front line working to protect the rainforest, cattle farmers are a direct threat to keeping the forest intact. Cattle farmers are always pushing for more land, encroaching on the forest and cutting it down. When their cattle are killed by jaguars, for example, the disgruntled ranchers see no problem with killing jaguars. When cattle ranchers need more land, they simply parcel out different areas and cut down more trees. Flying over this area, we could see that there were tiny corridors of jungle surrounded by many farms and ranches. None of these corridors were connected and it would be virtually impossible for animals to call any of those tiny forest parcels home.
We were not exactly sure what Otavio would say, but since he chose this lodge to stay for his vacation and was willing to talk to us on camera, we were eager to hear his side of the story. He is an executive in a multinational company and also owns a cattle farm in the area. In his opinion, conservationists have to find a way to demonstrate how the “general stand” (leaving the forest intact) is worth more than the resources obtained after cutting it down. We have to put a price on the forest that is high enough to ensure its protection. Tourism is one way to do this. Bringing people to the rainforest, showing them its value – their business brings money into the rainforest and shows that it’s worth preserving.
When we spoke with Vitoria, she explained another plan for putting a price on the rainforest. She said they are looking to receive carbon credits for the amount of standing forest they have in this area. Getting other countries and companies to pay them to keep the rainforest standing, intact, and healthy is one way to put a value on the area. A third option is to have tourism bring in money to the region and also to do scientific tourism to quantify the amount and types of species that are in the area, especially the rare and threatened ones. Vitoria started Cristalino Lodge with scientific tourism and encouraged lots of scientists to come here to study. She says this area has “alpha-biodiversity,” which means lots of variety in a small area. This is ideal for someone working to put value on the rainforest. You are more likely to show tourists more diverse species and researchers are more likely to come here because of the likelihood of finding new species.
Vitoria likes to use the phrases, “People don’t respect what they don’t know,” and, “You have to practice what you preach if you want others to follow along.” As a fourth method to protect the rainforest, Cristalino established a foundation to work with the community to develop solutions rather than impose anything on them. They also work with children by bringing them into the rainforest to show them its beauty, as well as teach a new generation to protect and preserve the rainforest. As we were leaving, one of the guides summed up his beliefs in the Amazon conservation project: “People in Brazil have to take the rainforest personally – to know and feel that the rainforest is a part of them and a part of their heritage. Especially for locals in Amazonia, it has to be something worth respecting, protecting and fighting for.”
Cristalino Jungle Lodge is a perfect example of a business working to improve the triple-bottom line. By supporting people and the planet while making a profit, Vitoria has established a thriving company that’s expanding its efforts to conserve the rainforest, while improving the lives of area residents and providing a service that people want and enjoy.
April 10, 2009
Thursday we took a few early morning shots from atop the observation tower, and hurried off to visit the Cristalino Ecological Foundation. We got to see the children in action – the foundation works to bring children into the jungle and teach them about why their backyard is so important not just to the community but to the planet. They also work with the community, talking about why they should protect jaguars despite the loss in livestock and also facilitate solutions for what to do when farmland is not producing enough but you don’t want to just cut down more rainforest. Instead of forcing rules on them, the Foundation facilitates discussion and empowers the community to find and adopt their own solutions.
After that we said goodbye to our hosts and guides for the week. It was sad to leave the site, and even a few wild boars were sad to see us leave as they kept darting in front of the truck while we were driving away, but our time was up and we had to be moving on to our next stop in Peru. Thanks again to all of the crew and staff at Cristalino – both for their hospitality and the work they are doing. This is a model for how things should be done and their success only a testament that it is working.
April 9, 2009
Day two started bright and early with a boat ride up the Amazon – we captured photos of parakeets, macaws and even a few white-whiskered spider monkeys, who were not too happy to see us. After the boat ride, we broke up and hit the trails with a several researchers – a botanist and a primatologist – who told us about their work in the jungle, as well as the importance of scientific tourism at the site. We learned about the medicinal purposes of several plants, saw an enormous ficus tree that was currently eating other trees, and even saw popular acai trees – which many locals believe have health-boosting properties. That afternoon two members of Green Living Project (GLP) were treated to an exclusive plane ride over the lodge and the jungle. Buzzing over the tree-tops, they got first hand experience shooting footage of the Amazon at several hundred miles per hour. Back on land, the other half of the crew interviewed owner Vitoria Da Riva Carvalho about her work at the lodge, why she is working to improve the lives of the local community while protecting the forest and tourists, and how everyone else can get involved with helping to protect these precious natural resources. The evening closed with a beautiful feast where all of the guests were treated to specially prepared curry fish cooked over an open flame, roasted vegetables and piranha soup. Afterwards, our local guide extraordinaire Juliana Valentim treated us to several Brazilian songs with a guitar, while we relaxed on rocking lounge chairs and gazed up at the many stars and the full moon. A good time was had by all.
April 8, 2009
The first day we were there we learned that they don’t call it a rainforest for nothing – after a beautiful, misty morning, the rain started and did not let up until sometime late in the evening. The team turned lemons into lemonade by taking the time to talk to many of the local guides, many with over 10 years guiding experience and who have turned away from what they see as destructive jobs, like mining, to one that protects nature – which they all say is their pride and responsibility.