This week an international team is setting off on a unique journey, aiming to be the first to descend the Amazon River using inflatable Stand Up Paddle boards.
The group, led by Dr. Mika Peck, a conservation biologist from the University of Sussex with years of work in Ecuador and Colombia, includes Brazilian and Colombian researchers as well as an indigenous community leader.
They will be traveling during a month over 1300 kilometers through the Ecuadorean, Peruvian and Colombian Amazon before finishing at the border with Brazil. The main purpose of the project, “Stand Up for the Amazon”, is to raise funds for local conservation organizations and increase awareness of some of the challenges facing the Amazon basin.
One of the NGOs that will receive funds is Entropika, which works with communities to offer them alternatives to abandon the unsustainable hunting of night monkeys. “Approximately 4000 night monkeys are annually traded for the Colombian biomedical research market, from which around 75% are illegally sourced from Peru”, Dr Peck told Mongabay.
The team will also purchase and deliver to Entropika an “ecocanoa”, an ecologically friendly boat built with ancient techniques but modern materials by the Cofan, one of the oldest indigenous cultures in the Ecuadorean Amazon. The Cofan Survival Fund has developed a Cofan Ranger Program to care of one million acres of pristine forest.
Funds will be donated also to Maikuchiga, a centre established to rescue confiscated wildlife, especially primates and birds.
The trip is starting in the Coca river, site of an oil pipeline rupture in June in the Ecuadorean Amazon, and the team will be able to report on effects of the spill as they travel downstream.
For Dr. Peck, the journey is the realization of a long term dream and a quest to find “some good news stories about conservation and sustainable development”. It is also, he says, a reaction to a very personal challenge. “I broke my neck in March 2012. I was lucky to be able to regain my fitness and it gave me added resolve to seek out the challenges that might always otherwise have remained simply a dream”.
Training for the Stand Up Paddle Expedition in Brazil earlier in the year
Alex Rodriguez: Could you describe the journey, where and how will you travel and with whom?
Mika Peck: Our journey due to start on the 10th July 2013 begins in Coca, Ecuador, and follows at 1300 km route through the Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Colombian Amazon to the border with Brazil at Leticia.
We will travel downstream on inflatable stand up paddle boards, with our camping equipment and food being transported alongside us in a 13m ‘Ecocanoa’. The team includes myself, Dr Mika Peck, a conservation biologist who has worked in Ecuador and Colombia on wildlife conservation and Dr Marcia Masiero, a Brazilian biologist and my partner.
We also have Daniel Aristizábal, a Colombian sociologist who has worked for a number of years in the Colombian Amazon, both as a researcher and as a member of the Colombian National Parks. His interest lies in finding bridges for the intercultural management of the Amazon.
Juan F. Millán, a Colombian conservation biologist working in the Colombian Amazon and Orinoco basin also joins us. He is currently involved in woolly monkey rehabilitation and behavioral research in the Colombian Amazon and in Orinoco Crocodile and giant river turtle conservation projects in the Colombian Eastern Llanos.
Our penultimate member is Dr. Sam Shanee, a conservationist who has worked in conservation for over 10 years throughout South America and Asia, specializing in Primatology and community-based conservation initiatives. In 2007 he helped set up the NGO Neotropical Primate Conservation and runs the NGO’s projects in Peru.
Finally, we are joined by Lorenzo – a Tikuna community leader from near Leticia who is an extremely experienced river man and will probably be the key to our survival. He is keen to join us in this journey down to his homelands to see how other indigenous groups are living in harmony with the river system.
Woolly monkeys, high levels of hunting of this large arboreal species have impacted wild population levels
Alex Rodriguez: Why did you come up with this idea?
Mika Peck: The idea is a realization of a long term dream, to travel the Amazon. I am also fascinated to discover how people are working to preserve this fragile ecosystem in the face of many development pressures – to find some good news stories about conservation and sustainable development. It is also, clearly, part of a mid-life crisis and a reaction to breaking my neck in March 2012. I was lucky to be able to regain my fitness and it gave the added resolve to seek out the challenges that might always otherwise have remained simply a dream.
The phrase ‘Stand Up for the Amazon’ came to me as I thought about the challenge of doing the voyage on a Stand Up Paddle Board (effectively a large surfboard that can be paddled. An email to the Red Paddle Company (a UK inflatable Paddle Board company http://www.redpaddleco.com/) resulted in them saying they would sponsor us with their paddle boards and the idea started to become a reality! Inflatable paddle boards are ideal for travel as they can be easily deflated and transported to and from the river systems. Normal fiberglass boards of 13 ft length can become unwieldy on a bus! The challenge is to paddle the river system – and that is how we are hoping to attract sponsorship.
Alex Rodriguez: Could you tell us more about the NGOs you are aiming to help? how are they helping primates in the Amazon?
Mika Peck: The project will support the work of 3 NGOs – the Cofán Survival Fund, Entropika and Maikuchiga.
The Cofán are among the oldest surviving indigenous cultures in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Over 1 million acres of Cofán territory provides direct environmental, social and economic services for the Cofán – whilst also provide environmental services to everyone else on the planet! Founded in 1999, the Cofán Survival Fund is a non-profit organization with Cofán leadership, dedicated to their survival and the conservation of their Amazonian rainforest environment. One of their activities is building ‘Ecocanoas’ (an ecologically friendly boat – more information below) – we are raising funds to purchase a 13-m Ecocanoa and this supports the NGO directly.
The boat will be delivered downstream at our destination on the Colombian/Brazilian border to Entropika, an NGO that aims to contribute to the conservation of tropical biodiversity in the south of the Colombian Amazon by facilitating local community-led projects and establishing education and research programs whilst working closely with local indigenous people. They are in need of a boat to carry out their work more effectively as their vessel is no longer functioning. The delivery of the Ecocanoa means they can reach the indigenous groups they work with much more efficiently.
Any extra funds raised over the costs of the boat and motor are to be donated to Maikuchiga – a centre established to rescue, care an rehabilitate confiscated wildlife, especially primates and birds. This NGO came into being in 2003 when the indigenous communities along the southern border of Amacayacu National Park decided to stop hunting woolly monkeys, a threatened species of primates. This agreement catalyzed the development of a regional rescue centre.
(See links to NGOs for further details on http://www.entropika.org/en/supamazon.html)
Indigenous kids with a saki monkey
Alex Rodriguez: What are the main risks faced by these primates? what species are involved?
Mika Peck: In the triborder region (Colombia/Peru/Brazil) perverse incentives are driving local people to over-extract natural resources in return for marginal economic profits. Our previous research suggesting that uncontrolled harvest is drastically diminishing the standing biomass of six game species crucial to indigenous diet, jeopardizing food security.
In terms of primates, the hunting of woolly spider monkeys is of particular concern, and there is also regional risk to night monkeys. Approximately 4000 night monkeys (Aotus spp; CITES appendix II) are annually traded for the Colombian biomedical research market, from which around 75% are illegally sourced from Peru.
Alex Rodriguez: How are these organizations managing to reach out and change behaviors?
Mika Peck: The Cofan Survival Fund is a non-profit organization with Cofán leadership dedicated to the survival of the Cofán indigenous culture and its Amazonian rain forest environment in the Ecuadorian Amazon. CSF developed as a response to the needs of the Cofán Nation of Ecuador, which, after surviving Spanish conquest, environmental disasters and encroachment by the modern world, required a legitimate organization able to raise funds, develop strategies, collaborate with national and international partners and work on behalf of Cofán interests. Their innovative programs and activities range from scientific expeditions into the heart of Cofan territories to the development of an entire Cofan Ranger Program to care for the 1,000,000 acres of pristine forests and natural treasures and small business such as the Ecocanoa production. In 2013 they were honored by being awarded the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Angela and her team at Fundación Entropika design methods that generate income for indigenous people, giving them incentives to abandon unsustainable hunting of monkeys and as such not affect the Amazonian ecosystem. They are also directly involved in ensuring effective enforcement, based on existing legal requirements, is enacted. Their research recently highlighted the illegal trade in night monkeys for the Colombian biomedical research market and they have subsequently undertaken legal action themselves to ensure action is taken to conserve these species. In 2010 Angela Maldonado won the Whitley award for conservation for her participatory conservation work with indigenous communities to address the illegal trade of night monkeys.
The name of the NGO Maikuchiga means “the monkeys’ story” in Tikuna, the dominant indigenous language in the tri-border area. Their mission is to contribute to the development of systems in which the care and rehabilitation of Amazonian animals confiscated from the illegal trade in wildlife is linked to coherent and effective programs of ecosystem conservation, environmental education in its broadest sense, and participative research.
Workshop in indigenous Tikuna village of Macedonia – ‘Workshop on primate conservation in indigenous Tikuna village of Macedonia
Alex Rodriguez: Tell us about the ecoboat
Mika Peck: Although we will be paddling the distance on the Stand Up Paddle Boards we will be accompanied by a 13-m Ecocanoa that will carry our food and camping equipment for the month long voyage.
In the tropical rainforests of Ecuador, an ancient technique exists for making immense canoes out of giant tree trunks. This technology has been developed over centuries to produce very sophisticated designs. However, in order to make one of these canoes, one must cut down a tree that is more than two hundred years old. The average lifespan of one of these canoes is less than five years. In order to confront this situation by creating an eco-friendly solution, the Fundación para la Sobrevivencia del Pueblo Cofán collaborated with the European Union’s Proyecto Petramaz to find an ecologically friendly version of the canoe that incorporated the quality of the design of the ancient technique without destroying century-old trees. Communities throughout the Amazon use these canoes as their primary form of transportation, and there are not many alternatives on the market. Speed boats cannot carry heavy loads, they create large waves that erode the river banks, and they are dangerous on smaller streams. Metal canoes are heavy and delicate, and have a short lifespan.
After significant research, we chose fiberglass to make our ecologically friendly Ecocanoas. With the help from experts in the use of fiberglass, we created molds from exceptional wood canoes. We trained young Cofáns with experience in making wood canoes in the new technique of using the molds to make fiberglass canoes, assuring that in the long-term the project combined the ancient knowledge and methods with modern techniques creating a new concept in fluvial transportation, the Ecocanoa.
We have commissioned the build of a 13m Ecocanoa that will then be delivered downstream as a donation to Entropika to ensure they can effectively deliver their work in the region.
Alex Rodriguez: You are traveling at an even more poignant time than planned, since you will be paddling in the Coca river, site of a recent oil spill that has now travelled from Ecuador to Peru while Brazil is preparing for its impact how will you be monitoring the impact of the spill?
Mika Peck: A landslide in early June ruptured an oil pipeline carrying crude from the Ecuadorian Amazon. The spill resulted in as estimated 11,000 barrels of oil entering the River Coca and put Peru and Brazil on Alert. Our journey starts in Coca and we will be able to report on effects of this spill as we journey downstream. Oil exploitation from the Amazon region has been and continues to be a major income earner for Ecuador and there is a history of environmental damage. The northern Ecuadorian Amazon has suffered significant deforestation as roads to connect oilfields attract settlers and subsequent deforestation. To date the Southern Ecuadorian Amazon has escaped the ravages of oil exploitation but there are now plans to extract the remaining oil from these regions.
Alex Rodriguez: Tell us about your own work in Ecuador, how many years have you been involved, what is your main area or research and since when have you been collecting data with remote control helicopters?
Mika Peck: I have been involved in working in Ecuador on a range of projects. Using satellite imagery, modeling and fieldwork we have been working to identify priority conservation areas for the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey in the Chocoan rainforests of NW Ecuador. I am also involved in work in the Ecuadorian Andean rainforests where we have a research site at the Santa Lucia Reserve to determine the impact of environmental change on wildlife. At this site we have investigated the potential of drones (remote controlled helicopter platforms) to collect high resolution imagery to identify tropical rainforest trees from canopy imagery.
This approach shows great potential in identifying selective illegal logging and upscaling datasets to better understand the spatial distribution of tropical tree species that can include up to 300 species per hectare.
More recently I have been collaborating with the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar in Quito to model the predicted deforestation rates on the Southern Ecuadorian Amazon should oil exploitation proceed. We have also been identifying biodiversity ‘hotspots’ within the region that should become the focus of conservation effort should the risks of deforestation increase substantially. This work is part of a multi-criteria study to investigate the long-term benefits of a range of alternative development strategies for the Southern Ecuadorian Amazon.
Ecuador has put forward a ground-breaking concept in the form of the Yasuni-ITT project. The Ecuadorian government would commit to leaving some 20% of remaining oil in the ground within the Yasuni National Park, in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves, or $3.6 billion over 13 years from the international community. We will be passing the Yasuni National Park during our trip and reporting on this project.
Group of students looking up at the rainforest canopy
Alex Rodriguez: You mentioned recently the use of 3D printers to create these helicopters. Is this already happening?
Mika Peck: The use of aerial drones is now becoming a reality to collect environmental data at low cost. We have just collaborated with the University of Lincoln to produce a quadcopter platform at a fraction of the price compared to just a few years ago. The use of 3D printers allows the plastic frames to be generated cheaply and to your own design criteria. We will be using these platforms next year to estimate arboreal biomass and continue our work on identification of tropical tree species from imagery.
Alex Rodriguez: How are you planning to reach out and increase awareness during the trip?
Mika Peck: We have a website and a blog that will report on our progress. Using a satellite phone we will be able to twitter our daily experience and then upload photographs and longer articles when we get to secure internet connections. You can follow us through my university blog page.
You can donate and support the expedition on our website.
Alex Rodriguez: what is the main message you would like people, the media and politicians to get?
Mika Peck: The challenge facing humanity in the next century can seem overwhelming as we approach peak human population numbers, and indeed our ongoing exploitation of natural resources will increase. We need to maintain a clear focus on the objective of development to ensure it becomes sustainable.
The recognition that nature provides key environmental services in terms of climate control, resource production and a role in emotional well being provides some optimism for the future and can be seen in the growing field of ecological economics.
The work of communities at the interface between biodiversity and development can provide great insight and inspiration for a sustainable future – we hope to meet some of these people and let them tell their story from one of the last great remaining wildernesses – the Amazon.