Monthly Archives: April 2011

Peru’s North-Eastern Route: Alto Mayo

Alto Mayo is one of my favourite places to birdwatch. The cloudforest has spectacular views from a road that twists and turns through it, the Fernando Belaunde Terry highway, finished  during the late 70’s to finally reach the jungle of Northern Peru. The place where I was going was the campsite of one of the many fronts of workers who I’m sure must have suffered to build a road over these mountains. In fact the camp’s name, Venceremos (“We will win”), gives an idea of the epic struggle it must have been, but also offers a perception of the purpose nature serves around here: to extract, defeat and tame.

Fernando Belaunde Terry highway

My friend Marco Leon works in the area studying orchids but also his NGO, INIBICO, recently received a fund to create an interpretation center right at Venceremos, so now the campsite is no longer abandoned. I have worked with Marco in the past and this time I went there to do some birding and give him the lists of what birds I found to add some value to his project.

Interpretation center at Venceremos

I was at Venceremos one year ago and I must say that the work they have done there has produced an amazing change in the aspect of the campsite! Now it looks like a place to visit, with a building where the proper interpretation center will be, with explanations and photographs of the Alto Mayo Protected Area. On the building next door the park guards live and they have their kitchen, toilet facilities and rooms. I’m happy for this means that protection will be enabled though this is too positive for an area that faces extremely difficult conditions to manage.

Alto Mayo extends over cloudforest, a delicate and relatively small habitat, yet a very rich and biodiverse one; in fact the most biodiverse habitat in relation to its size in Peru. This diversity has attracted people from far places such as Cajamarca and Chiclayo, cities where opportunities are less and poverty abounds. They come here and claim a piece of land as theirs.  With no law enforcement from the authorities (many times authorities themselves are involved in “land trafficking”),  they start practicing the Andean way of agriculture: slash and burn, a technique that makes no sense in such poor soils as those of cloudforest. The steep hills are ideal for coffee. We are losing our forests to give coffee to a world already too hyperactive. That and cows, and what once was a beautiful forest full of ferns, moss, epyphites and bromeliads is now grazing green grass for cows. Of course, on the way to deforestation all the wood is taken care of and the hunger of the world for cedar will soon realize there’s no more of it.

It’s hard to be positive when one looks at the reality of things for the local people. I haven’t even listed all of the problems of the Alto Mayo. But we try to do something. I think the simple fact that truckdrivers see me looking for birds on the side of the road can at least raise the question of ‘what the hell is that gringo doing by the side of the road?’, and maybe the spontaneous answer will come too ‘oh, he’s watching birds and nature….maybe then I won’t throw my thrash out the window’. If all drivers would think that, because the amounts of thrash I saw on the side of the road are a shame. Even the bus companies throw their rubbish from the meals they give their passengers off the window!

But Alto Mayo remains beautiful and biodiverse nevermind all the trouble closing in around it. I dedicated my second day there to walk the side of the road until the afternoon and saw amazing birds: my first ever Blackburnian Warbler, a tiny bird that migrates from North America. Also a female Royal Sunangel, a hummingbird endemic of Peru.

Flame-faced Tanager

Cinnamon Flycatcher

In the afternoon we drove to the other side of the high pass to a village named Buenos Aires. There Marco works with Doroteo Valle, a man with a passion for orchids who is growing hybrids on his greenhouse. The pressure for orchids is great here and is common to see locals picking them up on the side of the road to

sell them to drivers passing by for ridiculously low prices.  That’s how Mr. Kovach got a flower of Phragmipedium kovachii, he bought it illegally for a few soles and took it (illegally) to the US where he quickly published the new species description getting ahead of a team of Peruvians who were doing just the same. He even put his name on the scientific name of the flower (kovachii). And though Mr. Kovac is in jail now, most people don’t run that luck and they get away with it.  The orchids of Alto Mayo are beautiful and abundant but some of them are extremely rare, like Phragmipedium kovachii which only grows in Alto Mayo. We must be able to reproduce it so that it doesn’t have to be extracted from its natural places and that’s what Marco wants too. Not only he works with Doroteo but with many other locals who have their green houses next to the road giving them assistance in how to reproduce the orchids so they don’t have to go and extract more from the wild.

Phragmipedium kovachii

Doroteo

Next day is long with some birding in the morning and a lot of driving to return to Tarapoto. On the way we visit a huge plantation of Stevia, a plant that replaces sugar, especially recommended for diabetics ‘cause it doesn’t contain any glucose.

 

 

There are good things happening out there, we just need to find them.

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Filed under Alternative tourism, Birdwatching, Conservation, Immigration, North of Peru, Peru, Travel, Travel Stories, Travel Writing, Trekking

Peru’s North-East route: Ojos de Agua

While I was in Alto Mayo I met Hugo. When he found out that I was interested on birdwatching he suggested I should go to Ojos de Agua, a dry-forest area of conservation located only one hour by car South of Tarapoto. I was definitely interested since dry forest offers a whole different set of birds and is a disappearing habitat due to human pressure for farming lands. Hugo happened to be the ex-director of an asociation of ‘campesinos’ (small farmers) who decided to actually create a conservation area. I asked him all the details of who to contact there and started planning the trip.

As I was leaving Tarapoto it started raining, which seemed a bit strange since it hadn’t for the past 3 weeks. I gave little attention to the rain knowing that the dry-forest is affected by a ‘rain-shadow’ effect, making rains go discharge on more eastern areas. Little I knew…Pablo Escudero, the current director of the association, and other members, greeted me at their office on the main square of a village named Pucacaca (‘Red Mud’ in Quechua language). “You brought the rains Pepe!” they exclaimed.

Pucacaca’s main square when we were ready to leave the first time. That motorcycla is the ‘furgoneta’ I mention forward.

I explained how I got in touch with them and my interest in visiting their area. They were all very kind and told me their fascinating story of how they went from ‘campesinos’ to conservationists: as rains were becoming rarer in that part of the Huallaga River valley, they thought it had to do with the accelerated pace of the deforestation in the, mainly due to corn plantations. Knowing that, I preferred to think of the rains I arrived with as a good omen. The area also has a demand to produce coal and dry forest trees are excellent for that. It’s fairly common to see the long chimneys of coal burning plants in th elittle town along the main road. They formed a society and started talking to people in their village searching for support. But people they wouldn’t understand that standing forest is important for rains. Still they went on trying to look for support to their idea of protecting a 2500 hectare forest. At one point a local timber mafia guy sent them to court alleging they were liars and just wanted to cut the forest for themselves (when that was actually that guy’s interest). The trial took 2 years during which they spent great amounts of money from their own pockets. But help would come. People of the Embassy of Finland (known in Peru for their support to nature conservation) offered them help. Other NGO’s offered technical and legal  assistance. Soon after they won the trial, a fund and their project was approved.

And so, in 2007 Bosque del Futuro-Ojos de Agua was officially the first Conservation Concession of San Martin region in North-East Peru. One listens to them tell their story and can’t help but believe them, not only cause truth is heard on their voice but because they seem (and later I realized they truly are) committed to conservation.

We decided to kill some time until the rains left and I offered to show them a presentation of a power point that me and a friend presented last year during a workshop in another village as an introduction to birdwatching with the purpose of training local guides. They called all available members of the society and we went on with that. Lunch passed and the rains stopped so we prepared everything to go to the starting point of our walk. From there we would walk for 2 hours until a cabin they had recently finished in the heart of the forest they protect. To get to the starting point we would take a ‘furgoneta’, a motorcycle with a small load box on the back. The road was very muddy and wet and the engine got soaked and turned off. We had to walk back and send to motorcycle to the mechanic and wait. After a second try with equal results we decided it was too late to leave that day. We would wait and meet at 3am that night at the office to go and do the walk without the heat and humidity of the day and to get to the cabin on time to do some birding, if the weather allowed it. I was given a room at one of the society member houses and hoped the weather was good the next day.

We were lucky, rain was light and motorcycle worked fine this time. The path was difficult because it was very muddy and with each step mud would stick to the rubber boots making each foot weigh 3 times more after a few minutes. There were 5 of us and some of them were carrying stuff to the cabin to set it up: a gas tank, a stove, and food. People here carry things with a band they call ‘pretina’ which they place on their forehead (where the weight sits), but the actual object is carried on the back where the ‘pretina’ ties it up, that way they can have free arms while they walk. I was amazed to see the man carrying the gas tank (35 kilos) on his forehead in such a miserable path. I have tried that method before and honestly I felt my head was about to break in 2. But we managed to get to the cabin at dawn. It was a beautiful spot.

Great Owl butterfly, check out the snake face on the lower right part of the wing.

After breakfast we went walking around the forest recording birds and whatever showed up. Along the way, giant snails were everywhere. They showed me a species of fern (Platycerium andinum) very rare that has only been recorded here and somewhere in Bolivia. Also trees such as Quinilla (Manilkara bidentada), a Giant Columnar Cacti (Cereus peruvianus), Shucshungo (Eugenia limbosa), Manchinga (Brosimun alicastrum) are all endangered and well present in the area, not to mention that they are very important and valuable trees for their wood (Quinilla) and nutritional possibilities (Manchinga. For more information on Manchinga check www.mayanutinstitute.org).

Rare fern ‘Platycerium andinum’ anly found in these dry forests of Peru and Bolivia.

Shucshungo Tree

Quinilla

We saw the creek that gives name to this area, Ojos de Agua, a large rock platform where the running water of the rainy season has eroded “eyes of water” on it. Frogs are abundant and a study by expert Rainer Schulte showed that at least 3 species are rare and need conservation here. Birds were not showing themselves much because of the weather but a few interesting species were heard or spotted: Gray-headed Kite, White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, Planalto Hermit, among others.

Ojos de Agua

After returning to the cabin for lunch and some rest the plan was to bird the afternoon but the rains got stronger and didn’t stop until the next morning. At this point the creek was filled with running water and the whole forest was draining it. This forest, due to the hard, red clay soil, does not drain so much rain and so it floods. The path we walked on to get to the cabin was a river at portions upon return, sometimes with water up to our waists. But I was happy I met these people, true conservationists, people who have an ideal and work very hard cause they are convinced of something and they don’t mind not getting paid for it, though obviously they would prefer if that was the case. Hopefully one day they will reach that goal.

TO VISIT THIS WONDERFUL AREA CONTACT WILLIAM RODRIGUEZ (IN SPANISH IF POSSIBLE) AT abofoa@gmail.com

With my guide William and the path after the rains.

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