Category Archives: Conservation

A Peruvian in Australia: a visa letdown, a sacred leave and a trip back home.

I didn’t get the visa. Not the Australian residence visa but the one to visit New Zealand.  We had plans to visit Mel’s friends in Auckland and also do the Milford Track in the South Island, a sort of Kiwi Inca Trail without the archaeological bits but so beautiful it actually is nicked the ‘finest walk in the world’. Had flights and accommodation booked, buses as well, etc. But the one thing we weren’t counting on was the visitor visa for me. Turns out the Kiwis are pretty thorough on their visa procedures and they do not joke around with the subject, no matter who you are. Recently they denied a Visitor Visa to Mike Tyson. Though his refusal was on very different grounds, and by that I mean worse than mine. My refusal was due to an event that took place 11 years ago: I was deported from the Netherlands.

No Milford Track this year. Maybe next time!

No Milford Track this year. Maybe next time!

It sounds bigger than what it actually was. When I say I was ‘deported’ I have the feeling it makes me sound like I am a criminal. And when you put it next to the fact that I am Peruvian, even worse. I’m pretty sure the drug smuggling association springs to the mind of common people when I say it. Now imagine what it sounds like in the mind of a visa officer in an embassy. When you consider that the event took place in The Netherlands (where some drugs are legal), well, I just deserve an Oscar for staging quite a dramatic anecdote don’t I?

I was simply a tourist with an expired visa. And I happened to be travelling on a train between The Hague and Brussels that was searched by police looking for illegal immigrants. All this in the context of massive deportations taking place in Spain (where I was living) and an ultra right-wing government in Brussels (obviously doing the same). The policemen who detained me decided that since I was coming from The Netherlands it was the Dutch business to deal with me, so I was sent back, hand-cuffed, escorted by 3 or 4 policemen and handed over; they placed me in a detainment centre for illegal immigrants.  They interviewed me, I spoke to my Consulate and was advised that nothing could be done for me. So I was deported at 21 back to Peru after 3 days detained.

At the time I thought that that was that and end of the story. Oh, how wrong I was. A deportation follows you for a long time. Sometimes I feel like I actually committed a crime.  If you are wondering why am I rambling bitterly about that episode, it’s because that is the reason why I didn’t go to NZ. I declared it and they asked for documents from the Netherlands which were impossible to get in time for our attempted travel dates, and so the whole trip fell through.

The next best thing was to go to Cairns, where we had been recently and loved it. So we changed our plans and carried on with our holiday. This time we had heaps of more time than the last time we were in Cairns (which, now that I think about it, was also a visa related trip following the pressure that involved submitting the Partner Visa application). We decided that the approach to employ our time should be more balanced with one day of doing nothing (proper relaxing according to Mel) and one day of exploring the area (proper travelling according to Pepe). The question on whether to watch the birds or not was put aside since Mel got herself a pair of binoculars (and good ones, I am a bit jealous in fact!).

We knew the rains were about to start but were not worried since checking on the weather report every day prior to the trip the results were always above 30C. We were also aware that it was low season so we didn’t expect much of a crowd there. In this last regard we were a little wrong as something unexpected was going to take place in Cairns that we hadn’t heard about: a solar eclipse. The first in ten or so years in Australia and the only total eclipse for the next years that I will be around to see one in Oz.

Solar Eclipse November 2012

Solar Eclipse November 2012

As soon as we arrived in Palm Cove we noticed businesses selling ‘eclipse postcards’, ‘eclipse t-shirts’ and ‘eclipse glasses’ plus other paraphernalia  Asking around we learnt 3 things: that Palm Cove was the best spot to watch it, that we were gonna miss it, and that anyway everything was fully booked to its top capacity. Oh well, too bad. I also learnt that the whole Cairns area would be flooded with around 50 thousand enthusiasts. A niche of tourism I hadn’t heard of, ‘eclipse-watchers’!

We focused our explorations more on the Atherton Tablelands this time as we missed that area on our short first visit and had heard wonderful things about it. We visited Davies Creek National Park and that was a great surprise. Such a beautiful walk and almost no one to spoil it! We visited Mount Lewis too looking for birds and found heaps of Birds of Paradise (Victoria Riflebird), as well as Tooth-billed Bowerbirds and Golden Bowerbirds displaying.

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

 

We visited Mosman Gorge and its beautiful walk around the forest. It was interesting to witness that the indigenous village just before the gorge entry looks just like a village could look in the Peruvian rainforest. In general, the indigenous presence in the Cairns area is more abundant than in Melbourne, where is passes pretty much unnoticed. I am very interested in the aborigines and so seeing their villages, culture and life in a non- tourist fashion is quite enlightening. Sadly I have come to learn about their problems with alcohol abuse and how their bodies are not able to cope with it as they do not have the enzyme that processes alcohol, leading to a strong addiction to it and a quick decay of their bodies. Similar thing happens with other drugs. I have been able to witness this on homeless people hallucinating on the public transport and men drinking their fill on their own at lunchtime in pubs while playing the slots. And while of course that is not the whole of the population, it is a percentage that worries non-aboriginalAustralians too. This situation has often times reminded me of how is it in Peru, where alcohol is much-abused in indigenous communities yet this doesn’t seem to be a significant issue for the government or the rest of the population. And this leads me to think how in the History of conquests, alcohol has played a role in helping to submit the local natives to the new rulers. I guess it plays the same role today with the youth that abuses it, turning them to obedient goats. I think the one thing I would change about my youth would be precisely that, to not abuse alcohol and know that that wouldn’t make me uncool but quite the opposite.

Mosman Gorge Aboriginal Community

Mosman Gorge Aboriginal Community

Mosman Gorge

Mosman Gorge

Mosman Gorge

Mosman Gorge

 

Peru was present in the trip to Cairns in a strange fashion. We met a German…should I call him  hippie to illustrate to you; a nice fella. Anyway, he was selling coconuts on his wheel barrel in Palm Cove. He looked completely out of place there, yet that may be the reason why he was so appealing to me. He told me straight away, without me asking, ‘I have a Peruvian poncho with bright colours to attract the customers’ as he chewed something. I asked ‘is that coca leaves you are chewing?’. The man nodded. I bought a coconut from him and he chipped some coca leaves in for a bargain price. Mel had never had a coconut the way I have only had them, so we sat by the ocean, and in an typical Indiana Jones moment, I opened the coconut with my Swiss army knife after sucking all the juice out of it and ate the white sweet meat.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Coca leaves, here is a little bit of the speech I used to tell my travellers when I was a Tour Leader: Coca leaves are not to be confused with Cacao beans. Both sound similar when pronounced in Spanish. The latter are used to produce chocolate and cocoa. The first is (tragically) infamous for being used to produce cocaine. Yet what is unknown of this leaf, native of Peru and Bolivia, is that in natural shape, chewed or ground or in tea, is quite healthy and in fact a super-food as some call it. Some of its many properties are to be a great energy booster, to take away appetite (this is particular useful when you leave in the mountains and have to work far from home in the field), to help adapt to high-altitude conditions, helps protect teeth and gives you all your daily requirements of Vitamins A, B, B12, C, E, Minerals (Zinc, Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium)  and others  in just 2 grounded teaspoons or the equivalent of chewed leaves. In Peru and Bolivia it is considered sacred by the indigenous people and in fact it is a huge part of their culture. Why then, you may wonder, it is forbidden? Well, you may ask that to the geniuses who insist in waging their ‘war on drugs’ and spend billions of dollars on it, when the true fact is that that huge effort is just a scratch on the arm of the drug industry that uses Coca leaves that they buy from poor farmers to produce cocaine. Had all those millions be spent on improving the conditions in which those farmers live and you would have no one to supply the drug-dealers with their prime matter. Or you would have it easier to locate who is supplying it. Makes sense?

How do they make the drug then? By isolating the cocaine (an alkaloid from coca just like caffeine is an alkaloid from coffee) when mixing the leaves with kerosene, and later solidifying that mix with Clorhidric Acid, Sulphuric Acid, Benzine and at least 10 other super toxic chemicals. That’s what makes it harmful and addictive, not the pure natural cocaine. No one has died of overdose from chewing coca leaves (not that you wanna try chewing them to death to prove me wrong, that would miss the point).

Another famous product made from Coca leaves, perhaps more even so than cocaine, is Coca-Cola. COCA-Cola, uses the leaves in its recipe in a synthetic formula that eliminates the cocaine alkaloid from it, hence they do not get in trouble. Because what is forbidden in fact is the cocaine alkaloid, not the leaves themselves. And according to American law, you can’t sell a product named after an ingredient that does not have that ingredient. So Coca-Cola uses coca leaves and they get them from Peru.

Coca K'intu, the sacred shape in which the leaves are 'offered' to the apus or mountain gods.

Coca K’intu, the sacred shape in which the leaves are ‘offered’ to the apus or mountain gods.

So why can’t the rest of the world use such a nutritious and healthy natural product? Once again, logic fails to help. Luckily, you can find so-called hippies like that German mate who, in true coca fashion, just handed me a bunch of coca leaves as native Peruvians do when they greet each other (they exchange coca leaves instead of shaking hands). Those leaves were most helpful when we woke up early to go watch birds. I chewed them, Mel instead loves the tea.

That lucky encounter awoke a thirst for the sacred Incan leaf that lead me to find that our favourite breakfast spot, Vivo (Spanish for ‘alive’), had Pisco liquor and, more importantly, Peruvian Pisco, as well as Coca Leaf liquor. So Vivo became our favourite dinner place too!

The trip was great and we really made the best of our stay. We returned to Melbourne fresh, rested and tanned- that’s important, especially for a gringo like me who looks pale as a radish in Peru. Here I actually am a brown-skinned in comparison.

Once back we started planning our next big adventure: the return to my home country! We plan to visit Peru in 2013 and bring my mother in law to travel with us and meet my family. Hopefully that trip won’t bring any complications. You would think ‘but you are going back to your OWN country, you couldn’t have ANY complications’. I in fact need a visa to leave and return to Australia until I get my residence assessed.

Or maybe by 2013 the world will have already started changing in a way I dream of, and people won’t need visas anymore. Maybe Australia would be the first country to welcome such measures. After all, isn’t Australia a country that has moved ahead after being founded by convicts? If, speaking metaphorically, our past is not to be forgotten, let it at least be forgiven so that we can all move on.

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Filed under Alternative tourism, Australia, Birdwatching, Conservation, Cultural Differences, Cultural Immersion, Immigration, Living Abroad, Travel, Travel Stories, Travel Writing, Trekking

A Peruvian in Australia: Concert For The Kimberley

Last Friday I had the chance to go and attend a free concert at Flinders Square, the public heart and the Melbourne-equivalent to a Latin American ‘Plaza de Armas’ (Main Square). The concert was organised by The Wilderness Society and had the goal of attracting attention and support to the cause of opposing the construction of a gas plant in the Kimberley.

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The Kimberley region is usually described as one of the last wild places on Earth. Certainly it is one of the last in Australia. It might seem hard to believe that such a huge island-continent lacks wild places of any kind. But the truth is that though there is still plenty of bush and desert, the forests of Australia are truly endangered. And forests are the hot spots of biodiversity.

Certainly Australia has a low population compared to landmass, and most of the people are concentrated on the East coast, in cities such as Sydney (5 million), Melbourne (4 million) and Brisbane (2 million). And while it is true that the white people have only been here for slightly over 200 years, during that time the Australian landscape has changed significantly. Several species have been introduced and become pests (rabbits, cane toads, foxes) and many other native species have disappeared  including 23 species of birds and 27 of mammals. The Kimberley region though, has never had an species gone.

The landscape has seen its forests greatly reduced and though the national park system is good and there are many protected areas (16% of native forests or 23 million hectares are protected), many others have lost connectivity. For species that’s like having a large river of urban/agricultural areas around and not being able to ‘swim’ across, so they are locked in until they are not able to reproduce with any other than their own relatives and from that point on it’s all downhill for that population.

Most importantly, Australia’s main source of income as a nation is mining. And mining is particularly popular in those little populated places that Australia is so famous for. One of those places is the Kimberley.

Woodside Co. wants to build an immense gas platform (it would be the world’s 2nd largest gas hub) in the ocean, in an area that is known to be a very important migratory route for whales. Not only that, the ocean in front of the Kimberley seems to be the largest Humpback Whale nursery on Earth. There are also coral reefs, 5 species of turtles, endangered Dugongs (Australian Manatees) and pristine forests. The land of the Kimberley keeps the largest dinosaur footprint in the world and other dino prints. More importantly, this land is home to aboriginal people who consider it sacred. These people, nor the people of Broome, have been asked if they agree to the construction of such platform.

At the concert, we were able to see and hear them via videocall. They invited people to come over and see for themselves what beauty is to be at risk. For the past 2 years these people have been involved in protesting, blocking roads and organising ways to show their disapproval. More than 70% of Broome´s population opposes the gas plant.

Albert Wiggan, a local from Broome who came to sing and speak.

And what´s more unreasonable is, why build it there in the ocean when today there are cleaner ways of doing so, without causing the disruption and damage a platform would? It was made clear that this protest was not against progress but searched to find the cleanest, more ecologically sound way to extract the gas. And that´s what´s being fought.

Personally, I find it funny that more developed countries like Australia have the exact same problems as Peru does. I wouldn´t have thought so. This means it is not a problem of developed or undeveloped countries. It’s not a mentality or a president’s issue. This is a transnational issue.

Logo for the concert and campaign

This scenario (transnational wanting to build multi-million project on a fragile ecosystem that also holds cultural value for people) is been heard of so many times. So my question is, if I am able to predict these issues, why can’t the multi-million companies with their experts and resources? Are they too archaic and conservative to understand that ecological policies and care is needed urgently and they, with their power and lobbies, are subject to it too? Are they too distracted from the real world because of their money and lifestyle? Is it pure stubbornness?

I´d like to think the best of them but they make it really hard for themselves. It is time that these people start acting with the responsibility it is expected from them. The good news is that people have power to stop these huge projects. That is probably the main thing that I take from this. The world has become more compassionate and aware. To deny or ignore it is plain stubborn and useless. The likely outcome of the gas project in the Kimberley is that it won´t happen. Surely they will keep trying but people will keep fighting. Why? Because it makes more sense to protest than to stare.

The Kimberley must remain untouched. For the sake of ALL of its inhabitants. You can watch live clips of the concert and listen to the speeches here:

http://www.concertforthekimberley.com.au

As for the concert itself, it was great! I discovered John Butler Trio, whom so many have reccomended me to hear. A very powerful message and a gifted musician who has fun with his band while playing. Claire Bowditch was there too and her melodic tunes were a pleasant surprise. They were joined by an estimated 10 thousand of us, many young people (it was a free concert after all). But the message was given, the connection was made. I got me a shirt so that the message keeps spreading. I hope the outcome favors the Kimberley.

For more information read:

www.wilderness.org.au/campaigns/kimberley/the-kimberley-worth-fighting-for

Happy crowd

John Butler

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Filed under Australia, Birdwatching, Conservation, Cultural Immersion, Indie Music, Living Abroad, Music, Travel Stories, Travel Writing

A Peruvian in Australia: visas, holidays and life happening.

The last  two months have been pretty full-on. No wonder my last 2 post have been about music gigs. I have had little time to get my head around anything. If anything, all I wanted was to get my head out of anything. Floating, relaxed where it can forget itself for a minute or two. Maybe I should have come to write the blog when I was looking for such moments.

July saw Mel and I finalising all the gathering of documents for our Partner Visa. After all the certifying, the photocopying, the sending, signing, waiting, we managed a bulk the size of a folder filled with about 3 kilos of documents that basically demonstrate (we can only hope) that we have a genuine relationship, that we love each other and that we REALLY want to be together.

I have to say, after having it ready and looking at it, wondering if it actually is a good effort, you realise that it has been a huge effort. All the afternoons after work filling forms, all the money spent in sending letters, all the effort chasing and bothering friends and family explaining to them that you need a statement that says that they believe your relationship is true…

And it is all worth it. The sense of accomplishement is great. Though we have not achieved anything in the legal sense really. Now we need to wait for the Department Of Immigration to contact us and let us know the outcome. But personally I feel as if we just took a huge step in our relationship.  It´s like we just told the whole world “Hey! we are serious about this, make no mistake”. And that is empowering as a couple I guess.

July saw us going to the Peruvian National Day festivity, which is celebrated on the 28th. The party took place at the Public Centre of Tullamarine and was organised by one of the Peruvian Clubs of Melbourne. I learnt there that there are 3 in total and they all organised festivities but this was the one I heard of. We got there early (or everyone else got there on Peruvian time, however you want to look at it) and the day was getting rainy, so few outdoor activies could be enjoyed. That was OK with me. I was there for the food and eat I did! Ceviche, Lomo Saltado, Causa Rellena, Tamalitos, Flan, Alfajores, Cusqueña beer and Inka Cola were all tried and approved.

Ceviche, Cusquena, Inka Cola…

But the food was just the beginning of the celebration as then came typical dances performed. Music bands would play too but we had to leave soon after the dances. We were very happy to have attended. We made a couple of new friends in Cristian and his wife. Now I go on Tuesdays to play football with him and others. It was refreshing to see other Peruvians, know a little of their stories, see them (also) with their local partners, with their Aussie-Peruvian kids playing around. Mel said she had never seen such pretty kids altogether.

The “marinera” dance.

Andean dance

August has been pretty chilled. we are still doing paperwork as the visa is a constant thing. The pace is less hectic though. We decided it was time for a little bit of sunshine and we started planning a holiday to Cairns. It will be my first Australian holiday proper, as my trips before have been pretty quick and Mel was working during them. This one will be exclusively for leisure.

I can’t wait to check out the birds in that area. They are very different from those in Victoria as Cairns is located on the Eastern base of the Cape York peninsula, and holds a more humid, sunny weather with Tropical  Forests known as the Temperate Rainforest. This means a high concentration of wildlife, with over 400 bird species in the area, among them the Cassowaries (an Ostrich-like Australian relative), kangaroos, and the saltwater crocodiles that Steve Irwin made famous.

It is the only spot in Australia to see Birds of Paradise, there are 4 here with 46 in neighboring Papua-New Guinea (PNG). Doing some research on the subject I came on several videos of David Attenborough, including one where he states that birding in the Daintree River area (where we are going) can be even better than in the Amazon. So expectations are high and you can expect to read more about that on my next post.

Speaking of Sir David Attenborough, Mel got us tickets to go and see him a couple of weeks ago when he came to Melbourne for a series of interviews with audience. The first nice thing about it, besides the obvious excitement of going to see one of the heroes of my childhood, was the Regent Theatre. New to me, the Regent is located in the heart of Melbourne city and dates back from 1929, having survided many inclemencies and a few attempts to bring it down.

The Regent´s foyer

But the Regent is just a building. Attenborough, at 86, and actually older than the theater. And should not be surprising that he is still going. After Australia he was going to Mozambique to do research presumably. The man speaks as if he had not been asked that same question before, responding with that beautiful calm with which old people speak their wisdom. And we would be fools if we weren’t listening.

The clarity wich which he remember events that took place 65 years ago, when he went to PNG looking for Birds of Paradise for the first time to shoot the first ever show on those and other strange looking creatures. You must realise that this man has seen  TV program-making change from black and white 35mm to colour HD and 3D and whatnot! He even admits that shooting such shows on B/W back then was a bit silly. But that is actually how one of the biggest icons (perhaps the biggest) of nature documenting started. And who knows how long Sir David will be around us. As long as he is still doing his passion work, I’m sure he will be with us for a good while.

Attenborough being interviewed

Personally, I felt so moved to listen to him that all I wanted to do when I left the theater was grab the first plane to the nearest jungle and hug a tree. A little more realistically though, I renewed my ties with my passion for nature and made me realise that with work, trust, luck and smart moves one will get where one wants.

Speaking of getting there, after the visa submission life has become much more interesting and pleasant. As if I had now ‘permission’ to be. Might just be the pressure release that was on my relationship and myself since I got to Australia. Mel and I were reminiscing recently and realised how quickly we’ve changed, grown, and how crazy we were to do some of the things we did!

The result is that I am enjoying myself more, and I go by more relaxed in general. Soon I will have been a year in Australia! I dunno what will I continue writing about then!

Se acabo la fiesta!

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Filed under Australia, Birdwatching, Conservation, Food, Immigration, Living Abroad, Travel, Travel Stories, Travel Writing

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