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Peru: Marañón dry forests protected as a regional conservation area

  • Peru has formalized the creation of the Regional Conservation Area of Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests of the Marañón through a Supreme Decree.
  • The new regional conservation area will ensure the conservation of a representative sample of this ecosystem, which is home to 143 plant species, 22 bird species and 14 reptile species that live nowhere else in the world.
  • A second Supreme Decree, passed on the same day, has formalized the creation of the Regional Conservation Area of the Vista Alegre Omia. These conservation areas are the first of their kind in the Amazonas region.

Peru has lost much of its dry forest in recent years, to the extent that only around 5 percent remains today. To stop further loss, residents of communities in northern Peru are trying to protect an area of the Marañón dry forests.

Leoncio Vásquez, 51, lives within the boundaries of the new Regional Conservation Area of Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests of the Marañón promoted by the Amazonas regional government and declared recently with a Supreme Decree signed by Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra and Minister of the Environment Fabiola Martha Muñoz Dodero. In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Vásquez recalled these efforts began in 2012 when residents of inhabitants of towns of Luya and Chachapoyas organized to halt the construction of two hydroelectric dam projects planned for the Marañón.

Residents of 44 districts who were interviewed said that they were once enthusiastic about these dams because of the potential creation of new jobs before they started to understand the radical transformation that these projects would have on their lives. The greatest threats were flooding of their lands, deforestation and other types of alteration of the surrounding ecosystem. With this in mind, they developed a proposal to create a protected area.

Vásquez said that to ensure the proposal was received, they travelled to Chachapoyas to check on the progress of the process at the regional governmental offices. It is not easy to travel to the capital of Amazonas, which is where the main authorities are located. Vásquez lives in Hondul, in a village in the Providencia district. From there, it is a four-hour journey by horse to reach the road that leads to Chachapoyas, and following this, another six hours by car. This distance made the inhabitants in Hondul feel unimportant to the state for many years. But Vásquez also said that the proposal has helped them connect with the region and their country.

The Marañón dry forests comprise approximately 373,000 hectares. The proposal for the Regional Conservation Area of Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests of the Marañón includes 13,929 hectares. Photo courtesy of Nature and Culture International (NCI) / Amazonas regional government

While the area of Marañón where Vásquez lives is relatively pristine compared to other areas of dry forest, human habitation has taken a toll on the ecosystem. However, he said that residents have learned from past mistakes and today live more in harmony with the surrounding environment.

“When we arrived with my family from Jaén, in Cajamarca, there were so many more little animals,” Vásquez said. He was seven years old when he and his family crossed the Marañón River on a raft made from wooden boards tied together. His family started growing corn, moving on to a wide variety of crops, including coffee, which is now the main source of his family’s income.

“When we were younger, Andean bears and red deer would walk around here. There were also some parrots we called ‘chichirichis’ and we always followed them.” Chichirichis are known formally yellow-faced parrotlets (Forpus xanthops) and are a threatened species. Leoncio pauses. “We didn’t know we were doing anything wrong. Now we are no longer harming them, and we are educating children not to hunt them.”

In addition to indiscriminate hunting, the residents of Luya and Chachapoyas have also organized to stop illegal logging and deforestation in their territory. This grew in parallel with the process of having the territory declared a regional conservation area, which received technical support from the non-governmental organization (NGO) Nature and Culture International (NCI), one of the organizations promoting this work.

The Marañón dry forests include a combination of rocky scenery and vegetation. Photo courtesy of Michell León / NCI

Iván Mejía, the NCI coordinator for the Amazonas and Cajamarca conservation areas, told Mongabay Latam that “the proposal was [processed for] more than five years by the National Service of State Protected National Areas (SERNANP), but they absolved all issues.”

Along the way, it was also suggested that the regional government and NCI prepare a report that would rule out the presence of indigenous populations in the area, which would have required a prior consultation process. “Since the beginning, we have presented 44 agreements to which the village has committed itself in order to promote the regional conservation area, as well as the biological support for its creation,” Mejía said.

Unique biological richness

In 2012, the Amazonas regional government prioritized five biodiverse conservation areas, which included the Marañón dry forests. In total, this ecosystem covers an area of approximately 373,000 hectares, lies between 600 and 1,200 meters (1,970 and 3,940 feet) above sea level between the central and western Andes Mountains, and is surrounded by large rocky walls. In the middle of it all runs the wide Marañón River.

There are 143 endemic plant species in the Marañón dry forests that are found nowhere else in the world. This ecosystem is unique in Peru, as it is home to a high level of biodiversity in a small area. Photo courtesy of Michell León / NCI

Mejía noted that the concentration of natural wealth in the area is comparable to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. The valley boasts many endemic plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet, including 143 plant species, 22 bird species, 14 reptile species and two amphibian species. According to studies from the National Agrarian University – La Molina, the Marañón basin holds six to eight times more species than other nearby ecosystems.

“It is a small area, but one of the richest in the world,” Mejía said. Representing a bit more than 1 percent of Peru’s land area, the Marañón basin extends into parts of the Ancash, Amazonas, Cajamarca and La Libertad regions.

Residents of the region and Amazonas authorities say they wanted to create a conservation area because only 0.1 percent of the ecosystem was protected.

“There is a small portion which can be found within the National Huascarán Park,” Mejía said. The new regional conservation area increases the amount of protected Marañón forest by a further 13,929 hectares.

Fernando Angulo, a forestry engineer and principal researcher at the Center for Ornithology and Biodiversity (CORBIDI), says that conserving the Marañón dry forests will protect unique species in the world. “The mandate to create protected natural areas in Peru is to maintain a representative sample of ecosystems. The central government needs to be consistent with this policy,” Angulo told Mongabay Latam.

The Peruvian pigeon (Patagioenas oenops) is one of the endemic species that inhabit the Marañón dry forests. It is currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Photo courtesy of Michell León / NCI

Angulo underlines the importance of protecting threatened species of the region, such as the yellow-faced parrotlet, which is found only in the Marañón dry forests.

“It has been the species most threatened by deforestation and habitat destruction, as well as by trade and pet capture,” he said. The parrotlett is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Angulo said that other endemic, threatened species, such as the Peruvian pigeon (Patagioenas oenops), the chestnut-backed thornbird (Phacellodomus dorsalis) and the different species of the Inca finch (Incaspiza genus) – three of five of which reside in in this area – also inhabit Marañón. And since they’re only found here, habitat destruction has the potential to wipe their entire species off the face of the earth.

Although not endemic, the vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) often frequents Marañón dry forests. Adult males have red breasts, while females are mostly brown. Photo courtesy of Luis Herrera / NCI Archive

An area that benefits everyone

Environmental authorities point out that the new regional conservation area does not seek to restrict access to the area, as there are 44 established farms and many families’ livelihoods depend on growing coffee, cacao and fruit.

Julio Ravines, director of Natural Resources at the Amazon Regional Environmental Authority, says the project will work as productive conservation. This means that “within the management plan that contains the regional conservation component, tourism will be included as a major component, both scientifically and recreationally.” Ravines added that partnerships already exist with local associations and that more public-private agreements will be promoted so that these projects can continue.

Iván Mejía added that another aim is developing patrol programs that involve local residents in order to both increase surveillance and community inclusion. “There are also universities and scientific organizations researching productive projects – we want to collaborate with them so that we can make better use of our resources and improve the inhabitants economy,” Mejía said.

The buff-bridled Inca finch (Incaspiza laeta) is another endemic bird species in the Marañón dry forests. There are three Inca finch species found only in this area. Photo courtesy of Michell León / NCI

Resident expectations that more jobs would come from the construction of hydroelectric projects back in 2012 have been converted into hopes that new businesses will be developed through creation of the regional conservation area. Mejía highlights the efforts made by the villagers to grow mango, lemon, peanut, cacao and coffee, and the upcoming production of taro, Porcelana cacao and bee honey as a result of the training they are receiving.

“These products can be marketed with the organic certification and sustainable management logo, allowing them to enter a market that better values these conservation efforts,” Ravines said. There are also plans to promote adventure sports festivals, especially canoeing in the lower part of the Marañón River.

Segundo Orrego, from the village of Gramalote, is also excited about the changes in behavior he is now seeing in many of his neighbors.

“It is sad when they start burning grass, especially in the lower parts. Many have already learned not to do this, and we have heard how they preserve land in other places and live more peacefully,” Orrego said.

The population also hopes the conservation area will bring improvements in road conditions and extent, the poor quality of which has kept communities partially isolated.

“If there was a road to Gramalote or other communities, we could receive more tourists,” Segundo said.

Leoncio Vásquez adds that the community hopes that the state will promote more education projects for their children now that the new regional conservation area has been declared. “I hope they’ll take more notice of us now,” he said.

Around 82 percent of the lizard species in this ecoregion are endemic. There are also two species of amphibians unique to this area. Photo courtesy of Michell León / NCI

The issue of dams

Iván Mejía said that the first proposal for the Regional Conservation Area of Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests of the Marañón considered 30,000 hectares of land. However, the government awarded 16,000 hectares for the development of two hydroelectric dam projects on the Marañón River: Chadín 2 (operated by the Odebrecht company) and Veracruz (Veracruz Energy Company). In addition, in 2011, then-President Alan García declared the dams to be of “national and social interest” along with 18 other hydroelectric projects.

“We talked to the companies and told them that we would conserve these hectares, but none of them wanted to give us the space because at the time, they didn’t know where their offices and warehouses would be located,” Mejía said. Faced with this refusal, they had to reduce the protected area extent to 13,929 hectares.

For Mejía, the Environmental Impact Study (EIA) for the construction of Chadín 2 does not propose a effective solutions to the environmental consequences it could bring. The study states that in order to reduce damage, the cactus population would need to be “extracted and relocated” and “fish trapped in river remnants caught and moved to other areas with suitable habitats.”

“We can’t move [them] some to another area so easily. We have to assess whether we are causing a bigger problem in the local ecosystem,” Mejía said.

The majority of the population living in the vicinity of the hydroelectric projects is opposed to their construction. In 2016, Mongabay Latam heard their views when visiting some of the communities that would be flooded by the Chadín 2 project. Photo courtesy of Luis Herrera / Archive

According to Bruno Monteferri from the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA) and Percy Grandez from the Marañón Waterkeeper Association, the EIA for the Veracruz project has already lost its validity and says EIA for Chadín 2 is about to experience the same fate.

“The regulations of the National System of Environmental Impact Assessment Law state that environmental certification loses its validity if, within three years of its issuance, the concession holder does not initiate works to execute its project,” states a report published in Actualidad Ambiental.

In both cases, a request has been made for the maximum extension, which is two years. The Veracruz energy project EIA expired on April 1, 2018, and that for the Chadín 2 project will expire on February 20, 2019. Once the EIAs expire, both projects will be obligated to conduct new assessments. The Amazonas regional government confirmed to Mongabay Latam that the concessions granted to Odebrecht and Veracruz Energy Company are still in force.

Before the official declaration of the Regional Conservation Area of Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests of the Marañón, Luya and Chachapoyas residents had received many visits from scientists, authorities and various media outlets. Leoncio Vásquez said this had given them hope, as they took it as a sign that they would soon be able to celebrate the creation of their first regional conservation area.

In addition to receiving official protection to their land, Vásquez believes that the conservation education they have gained along the way is the most valuable part of the experience. Thanks to conservationists like him, perhaps future generations will be able to meet the Andean bear or the chichirichi that so marveled Vásquez as a child.


This article was reported by Mongabay Latam and first appeared in Spanish on June 14.

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