A month-long stay in Peru, mostly in the Amazon cloud and rain forests, revealed the challenges of environmental and biodiversity protection in the tropics. Untold riches in natural resources such as gold and fossil fuels lie beneath the jungle floor. Indigenous tribes are threatened, and at times enslaved, by roving, ruthless narcos. The latter run cocaine-processing operations and illegal logging in the dense forests outside and, some insist, inside the boundaries of national parks with impunity.

And once again, a new Peruvian president, Martín Vizcarra, has taken up power in the wake of yet another fallen, corrupt presidential predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Vizcarra faces the daunting task of weighing the value of the long-term, global benefit of an intact Amazon against the short-term gain of mining, extraction and logging — both legal and illegal.

Vizcarra, 55, an engineer, is a former governor of a mining region. His party holds fewer than 20 of the 130 seats in a volatile Congress.

The only question is: What will Peru do now?

So much at stake

Gabriel Quijandaria ran his hands over his shaved head in exasperation. Seated in a loud restaurant in central Lima, Peru’s former vice minister of strategic development and natural resources in the Ministry of the Environment was in a sullen mood.

“Eighteen months have been wasted,” he said, referring to Kuczynski’s abbreviated presidential reign. When asked about the Vizcarra administration’s top priority, he responded: “Most of all, it’s survival. They want to be able to reach 2021 with the same president.”

That’s a low bar, especially with so much at stake.

Peru has the world’s fourth-largest tropical forests, critical to harboring biodiversity and acting as extraordinary carbon sinks to help curb global warming. Its vast rainforests produce weather worldwide. Yet deforestation is running rampant, faster than elsewhere in Latin America.

A giant mahogany tree, like this one in Cashu, is a rich target for illegal timbering in the Amazon. Photo courtesy Jason Houston.
Mahogany trees, like this giant specimen in Cocha Cashu, are a rich target for illegal logging in the Amazon. Photo courtesy Jason Houston.

Kuczynski took office in July 2016 with new, sweeping environmental laws aimed at leveraging international funds for climate mitigation and water preservation. In reality, he did nothing. Vizcarra took office in April this year with brand new environmental laws aimed at reducing Peru’s vulnerability to climate change and installing the nation’s first environmental court in Madre de Dios, the locus of South America’s illegal and accelerating gold-mining frenzy.

In interviews with sources ranging from new government leaders to Amazon park officials to indigenous peoples who live in the rainforests, hope that any change will come to protect Peru’s most vital natural resources is stubbornly low.

“We are not short on frameworks and laws,” Quijandaria said. “But always we fail in implementation. We continue to misunderstand how the environmental view should be linked with other national priorities, like economic growth. We have to see that a soundly managed environment is part of the solution. It is something that can give us responses to development challenges and something to use to help solve poverty and income issues.”

Peru’s chronic lack of environmental implementation is not only costing the Amazon, it’s costing the government millions in international funds. The majority of those funds are lashed tightly to actions, not simply the talk it takes to pass a law.

“We have received $6 million from Norway for passing deforestation laws they wanted,” Quijandaria said, sounding exasperated. “We are still waiting on $50 million, which we won’t get unless the laws are enforced in the Amazon.”

One year ago a tree, today a road

In July 2017, I hiked deep into the rainforest along the Pantiacolla Mountain Range. I was in the lowlands just outside Manu on the Upper Madre de Dios River. The forests were lush with exotic birds and butterflies. The rigorous climb to a view of unbroken virgin forest as far as I could see was cushioned by a trail that was mostly spongy and manageable.

A few miles in, I came upon an unnatural clearing. A single, enormous tree had been felled and milled into remarkably straight, hefty planks with a chainsaw. The land abuts a national park, so technically, the tree was not on protected land. But logging without a permit is illegal in the Amazon.

Morning light rising over the ridges in the lower cloud forests near San Pedro, Peru, just outside Manu National Park. Photo courtesy Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.
Morning light rising over the ridges in the lower cloud forests near San Pedro, Peru, just outside Manu National Park. Photo courtesy Jason Houston.

The wood weighed tons, lay a mile or more from the river, and the trail was narrow. It was unclear how this timber could be removed and sold.

Eleven months later along the same trail was a newly carved road to the river, wide enough for four-wheel vehicles. A small camp complete with a tarp covering a makeshift kitchen had been set up, and more old-growth trees had been felled.

The trail has been widened so that a four-wheel vehicle can access the chainsaw-milled timber for removal to the river. Photo courtesy Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.
The trail has been widened so that a four-wheel vehicle can access the chainsaw-milled timber for removal to the river. Photo courtesy Jason Houston.

Local environmentalists familiar with the trail said they were powerless to do anything about such hit-and-run logging operations. They know the deforestation, and the likely destruction of rare bird habitats, will surely accelerate this year and into the future.

“We could report this, but who would come?” one source said, declining to be named for fear of retribution. “Yes, we know all about the laws. But they are meaningless if the regional or national government can’t protect these lands close to our national parks.”

Weak institutions

Roxana Orrego, 40, is an outspoken and staunch conservationist and a newly named deputy minister of agriculture. That puts her in charge of a significant part of rural Peru’s economy.

“At the regional and national level, few understand the importance of the Amazon,” Orrego said. “The Amazon requires a lot of complexity to manage its resources. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out how to benefit from the Amazon jungle without destroying it.”

What Peruvian politicians do understand and excel at, she said, are “weak institutions.” Laws get passed but are not enforced. National and regional politicians get paid off. It’s been this way for decades.

Since 2000, two Peruvian presidents have gone to prison on corruption charges, one is under house arrest, and Kuczynski was ordered to give up his passport after he resigned ahead of certain impeachment last spring.

Orrega is hopeful that Vizcarra and his new environmental and agricultural ministers can do better.

“The weakness is in the system, not with the new ministers,” many of whom are experienced ministry leaders from an administration that hosted the 20th U.N. climate summit. “The system is blocking the way,” Orrego said.

Narco trafficking in Manu?

At Cocha Cashu, a group of Machiguenga laborers work through the day to build new showers at CCBS. The Machiguenga are an indigenous people who live in the jungle in and near Manu National Park. In the camp dining hall, they trade gossip over lunch and dinner.

Narcos have infiltrated the deepest parts of the jungle, they say, both in Manu and on the edges called buffer zones. Indigenous tribes are being forced out of the jungles. Some are enslaved to work in crude cocaine-processing labs, which have moved south from Colombia. The size and scope of the illegal activity is unknown, but they say they believe it’s growing.

A Peruvian television station later reports the story, seemingly confirming the gossip. A video clip of a small plane, presumably for smuggling, is embedded in the online story. Twice in a week, we heard the clatter of single-engine planes flying over Cocha Cashu.

Evidence of illegal logging on a hiking trail in the Pantiacolla Mountain Range outside Manu National Park. Photo courtesy Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.
Evidence of illegal logging on a hiking trail in the Pantiacolla Mountain Range outside Manu National Park. Photo courtesy Jason Houston.

Others at CCBS are noticing differences, too. U.S. biologist Silman has been going to Cashu for more than 25 years now, and he said it was the first time he’d heard such planes. Cesar Flores, a biologist and director of Cocha Cashu, confirmed that he had heard the same rumors about narco trafficking. He said he believed it was likely happening in the buffer zones, and “not inside Manu.” That reality would be devastating to the park’s international reputation. The TV station must have agreed; it removed the story from its website after two days.

Still, Flores told me he worries.

“When I visit Lima, I get a sense that yes, we have laws,” he said. “But there is no enforcement. Ten years ago, there was enforcement in the buffer zones” against illegal activity like mining and logging, with large fines imposed. “It helped,” he said. “But no longer.”

Ricardo Cabrera, 42, is a Machiguenga. He works as a boat operator for an ecotourism company based in Cuzco. He is short and stocky, with thick black hair and a soul patch. He goes by Chiky.

Having grown up in the rainforest just outside Manu, Chiky has a deep love and respect for these wild, spectacular places. Little escapes his attention: a tapir sneaking out of the understory for an early-morning drink from the river; leaves that turn a watery red when you rub them together and are used to dye clothing; scorpions hiding in bark crevices after dark.

He is at home wandering the trails of Cocha Cashu and has also heard the rumors of narcos and violence. He knows better than anyone what’s at stake, particularly for his people who live in and rely on the jungles of the vast Peruvian Amazon.

“For me, the rainforest means freedom,” he said. “Everything you need is here.”

But as he navigates the many rivers from Manu National Park to Madre de Dios, he confronts the Mad Max landscape of Peru’s ongoing gold rush: widespread deforestation, jungle soil turned into desert sand, and huge amounts of mercury dumped into rivers, poisoning fish.

All of it is in plain sight, and intensifying even as gold prices moderate. And it all takes place in a jurisdiction that labels it illegal.

“Every president says he is going to protect the rainforest,” Chiky said. “But none of them ever do it. There are many different people that need to be protected. [The elected leaders] should do what they say.”

Because biodiversity matters

At 4:30 a.m., in Los Amigos Biological Station (ACCA in Spanish) east of Manu, I hiked with a small group to a triangular tower 50 meters (165 feet) high. We climbed a metal ladder wet with dew in the darkness to a viewing platform some 15 meters (50 feet) above the forest canopy. We watched as the eastern sky turned crimson on the horizon with navy-blue clouds above. The jungle started to wake on first light — the liquid screech of the oropendola; the low roar of howler monkeys. Macaws, soaring in pairs — red, green and blue — swooped in and perched as if on cue.

Carla Mere, former director of research at Los Amigos Biological Station. “There are more people like me,” she said hopefully. Photo courtesy Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.
Carla Mere, former coordinator of research at Los Amigos Biological Station. “There are more people like me,” she said hopefully. Photo courtesy Jason Houston.

Eavesdropping on nature from above is an unparalleled thrill. Even more thrilling is understanding the interconnectedness of the forest below, and everything in it; the mutual support and subtle language of various species that keep the forest thriving. Every living thing has a role to play, and it all adds up to provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and cloud production that the developed world depends on, whether we know it or not.

Carla Mere, 29, is a Peruvian biologist and ACCA’s former coordinator of research. She said her family in Lima didn’t really know what she did in the jungle, nor did they understand why. Her mother simply told her: “You didn’t get it from me; it must be in your blood.”

Before she left ACCA at the end of June to pursue her doctorate, Mere lived for 18 months in a spare, dorm-like setting with cold showers, limited electricity after dark, and slow internet. In exchange, she oversaw research on such topics as the dung beetle and how it devours and spreads animal feces.

“Biodiversity matters, and we as human beings share this planet with other living things that have the same right to live,” she said of her choice to live in the jungle. “I value human life, of course. But without nature, we cannot survive.”

Illegal and unregulated gold mining in the La Pampa area near Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Photo courtesy Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.
Illegal and unregulated gold mining in the La Pampa area near Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Photo courtesy Jason Houston/Upper Amazon Conservancy.

Mere said she understood the political baggage that Peru’s politicians refuse to unpack, whether in the halls of power in Lima or the regional governments. Alongside corruption and weakly enforced laws, too many elected leaders are not educated enough about the environmental splendors in their own country, Mere said.

“We have this beautiful place like Madre de Dios,” she said, “but not many Peruvians value it or understand why it needs to be preserved.”

Madre de Dios is critical to the people of Peru and beyond. It’s a major source of fresh water in a country where the majority of the population lives in desert-like settings. When managed sustainably, it can produce bountiful foods and products to provide a living for thousands of people for years to come. And it provides ecosystem services the world cannot do without.

Mere has the optimism of youth on her side, though. It’s based on her abiding belief that a new generation of Peruvians is coming of age and will want to know what lies across the Andes in the wet and misty Amazon so they can experience and save it.

“I am hopeful because I believe there are more people like me who could live happily in a place like this,” she said of ACCA. “Without this biological station [spanning more than 200,000 hectares, or 500,000 acres], this wilderness would be destroyed. I am hopeful things can change. I know there are young people in the cities trying to change the minds of the older generation. And when it’s their turn to lead, they won’t forget the rainforests.”

Justin Catanoso is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a regular contributor to Mongabay. Jason Houston is a photographer focused on the intersection of social and environmental issues based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow Catanoso on Twitter @jcatanoso and Houston on Instagram @jasonbhouston.

**Editor’s Note: Minor adjustments were made in the article to reflect necessary translation adjustments to the interview with Roxana Orrego.

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