When you hear the term “Amazon rainforest,” Brazil probably comes to mind. After all, it does hold the largest portion of Amazon forest in the world. After Brazil, the second largest portion of Amazon forest is located in Peru, and much of it is unmonitored, unprotected and completely at the mercy of anyone who wants to take its resources. In other words, the forest and its trees and animals are frighteningly “fair game” for loggers and poachers.
The primary forest of the Tapiche Jungle Reserve is located in the northern Peruvian Amazon, near the tri-border of Brazil and Colombia, in the department of Loreto, one of the poorest regions of Peru. Managing a conservation project in this region is challenging due to deeply entrenched eco-hostile politics, economy and culture. Logging is a colossal industry with tremendous financial and political clout, and the demands of the exotic animal trade place excessive strain on wildlife populations that already struggle with habitat destruction.
Visitors to the Tapiche Reserve are therefore vital to the conservation of the region by directly helping us to maintain the property and provide eco-conscious work for the local people. The physical presence of visitors on the trails and water shows locals that we are actively monitoring and caring for the property. The financial contribution enables us to offer the locals fair wages for conservation work as alternatives to logging and poaching.
Both the exotic animal trade and the illegal logging trade are booming business sectors that became deeply entrenched in the local psyche and economy years ago. Yet, like all businesses, they are driven by demand. And who is doing the demanding? Tourists, clients, customers, buyers...basically all of us. You can help change the landscape of the market simply by making conscious decisions about what you spend your money on, regardless of whether you're buying experiences, food, souvenirs or furniture. Click a link to read about a conservation topic in more detail:
Overview of Regional Issues
The region around the Tapiche Reserve abounds with eco-hostile practices, including cutting trees down in order to harvest their fruit or honey (see details at The Acai Project - Sustainable Jungle Fruit Harvest), stringing massive fishing nets across the entire width of a river and harvesting all the fish without throwing any young ones back, using dynamite to literally blast fish out of the water, and dousing lagoons with fishing toxins (often agricultural pesticides) that asphyxiate the fish and cause them to float to the surface, presumably without affecting too much of the body flesh. The poacher harvests everything from a lagoon in one large haul and effectively kills the lagoon, leaving it barren. Fish often do not return to the lagoon for generations, forcing locals to search for other places to fish. The runoff from these toxins has been observed to poison water birds and river dolphins, with the baby dolphins being particularly susceptible to death from poisoning. These practices run rampant because of lack of supervision and discipline, governmental or otherwise.
Adding to the pressure on the reserve is the fact that we have a high concentration of animals on the property that, though previously plentiful outside of the reserve even a couple generations ago, are now concentrated almost exclusively inside our borders due to habitat destruction and over-hunting elsewhere. We have many species deemed “VU - vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, which means they are at very high risk of extinction due to low or rapidly declining population. The list includes woolly monkey (Lagothrix poepiggii), Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), red bald uakari monkey (Cacajao calvus), six-tubercled Amazon River turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata), yellow-spotted Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis), black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) and paiche fish (Arapaima gigas). Every one of these species is a favorite hunting target for the local people.
Once in a while, the trespasser is a man who simply wants food for his family. Since all of the surrounding areas have already been over-hunted, he is forced to come to the reserve despite knowing that he should not. We offer these men jobs at the lodge, and Requelmer on our Tapiche team is one of them. Most often, though, the men who trespass on our property are older men who don't have the energy or will for logging, can't find or don't want jobs elsewhere, and oftentimes the cash they seek goes to feed a drinking or gambling addiction. These men harvest animals in large quantities because they are looking for the highest profit at the market. For example, an adult endangered woolly monkey from the reserve could sell for 10 PEN at the market, equivalent to approx USD $3, so the best way to guarantee a big payout is in quantity. Poachers often work in groups of 3-4 and try to hunt as many animals as they can, using salt to preserve their kill along the way. Splitting the profit between them, each person makes what they perceive to be a good profit, which is then quickly spent on drinks, gambling, or female companionship. We offer these men jobs at the lodge, too, but they generally do not accept. Sadly there is no social support structure or work program for this demographic.
How is it, then, that local people can have such eco-hostile attitudes and practices, because, wait a minute, aren't they native to the Amazon? The answer is that the majority of today's residents along the rivers do not have native indigenous blood, instead descending from a mix of Brazilians who came to work during the rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century and Peruvians who came (and continue to come) to the jungle from other parts of Peru looking for work. If they do have some part of indigenous heritage, they generally do not practice their traditional culture and language, and we have even seen a form of racism against the minority people of indigenous blood. Settlers do not have the same appreciation and care for the jungle as a tribe of native indigenous jungle people would. The daily life of today's local river population is focused on survival, by whatever means possible.
Exotic Animal Trade
At the Tapiche Reserve we do not keep any jungle animals as pets, in cages, on leashes or strings, so there will never be sad animal eyes staring out at you from behind a barrier. Besides subsistence fishing, we do not catch or capture any animals for any reason. Sadly we are the only jungle lodge that we know of in Iquitos with this policy.
While this does mean that you won't get a photo of yourself holding a snake or a sloth, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you're not contributing to the illegal exotic animal trade. The dark truth about tourism in Iquitos is that if you're touching or holding an animal, you're contributing to the destruction of the rainforest.
While some places may hide behind the guise of "rescuing" the animals they're holding in captivity, the reality is that these animals were harvested from the jungle and sold on the illegal black market. Rather than being rehabilitated and released, they are kept to turn a profit. Locals see that money can be made from capturing animals and exhibiting them in captivity, and they also learn that foreigners will pay to "volunteer" at these so-called rescue centers. A baby animal is usually only captured after his or her mother has been killed. The babies then endure high stress and often experience low quality of life in captivity. All of this is part of the unspoken price the jungle pays to satisfy the demands of its tourists.
The other large contributor to the illegal animal trade is the demand for exotic jungle meats and souvenirs made from animal parts. Bush meat for tourism is truly a curiosity rather than sustenance for physical survival. Tourists often just want to say they've eaten caiman or paiche as a bragging right, and both of these animals are endangered. While a restaurant may claim that their meat comes from a farm, the lack of regulation and law enforcement in Iquitos combined with rampant corruption make it impossible to eat this meat with a clear conscience.
Many visitors also buy souvenirs made from the skins, teeth, scales or feathers of animals, usually endangered species, or they want to try traditional "medicines" featuring blood, toucan beaks, or other extracts from the animal. Paiche scales, macaw feathers, and various animal skins are featured at trinket stands in Iquitos. Buying these products encourages locals to harvest these animals as they please. There is no "humane" source or factory for these animal parts in Iquitos, and what you see at souvenir shops came from living, breathing beings in the jungle.
As a tourist, you can do your part to stop this destructive cycle by eating and shopping smart. Please don't eat caiman, paiche, turtle, tortoise, monkey, or other exotic "bushmeat." Reject handicrafts and souvenirs that incorporate animal parts, and tell the vendor why. Yes, those macaw feathers are pretty, but someone shot the macaw to get them. That is how business goes in Iquitos. The market is driven by demand, and educated, responsible tourists can make a difference.
(We can recommend the ACOBIA-DWAzoo Manatee Rescue Center on km 4.5 of the Iquitos-Nauta highway as the only animal attraction in Iquitos that keeps to release schedules for their animals. They do sincere rescues and rehabilitations and operate educational and community outreach programs. You can read reviews for them on tripadvisor.com)
Illegal Logging Trade
The illegal logging trade may seem like a vague and distant problem to a lot of people, but the end products wind up right in their hands, homes and daily life as popular consumer products manufactured by international corporations.
Up until 2016, our region was declared by the local government to be a Zona de Produccion Primaria (ZPP), or "primary production zone." The rainforest was legally declared an economic resource free for the taking. Every Peruvian was allowed to cut 80 trees per year just by showing their ID card at a processing facility. There were no guidelines for cutting trees, no sustainability measures, and no supervision. Luckily, this law was revoked in 2016, but the haphazard logging practices continue.
It begins when an habilitador (roughly translated as "facilitator") makes a contract with the locals living on the riverside. He knows that the locals don't have the resources to carry out independent logging operations, so he offers to supply them with a chainsaw, a boat with motor, gasoline, and maybe some rice. The locals then go to work for months at a time in the jungle cutting trees however the choose, with no management or supervision involved. Because they must supplement their meager food ration by hunting and fishing, the areas that are logged are also stripped of animals. Sometimes entire families, like the one floating downstream through the Reserve in the photo above, go along for the job.
At the end of a season of back-breaking hard labor in stark living conditions, the loggers lash their logs together into giant rafts and float for days downstream to Requena, the logging hub. The habilitador quotes them a miniscule buying price far below market value for the wood they've brought, cheating them of value by taking false measurements of the wood or deducting value for cracks or natural bends in the logs. He then subtracts the cost of the chainsaw, boat with motor, gasoline, and all supplies used for the job, oftentimes leaving the loggers in debt. The loggers must cut even more wood the next season to pay the debt and thus perpetuate the downward spiral. There is no question that this system exploits the local people and decimates the forest. The story has been repeated to us innumerable times by locals who have worked within this industry and often are still living in the cycle of debt.
The story of the wood continues with a rather "miraculous" process of certification and legalization in the Requena office. Wood that was taken without any regulatory supervision or thought for ecological guidelines are granted certification papers and stamps. By the time the wood reaches Iquitos, it has all the "official" papers necessary for international corporations like Ikea to make their purchase with the outward appearance of having satisfied the requirements for an eco-certified product. This laundering system has been active and healthy for many years and is known to all who buy wood product from our region.
The Reserve is an island of conservation amidst a rampage of logging and hunting. In addition to preserving the land itself, we give the locals alternatives to poaching and working in the logging industry. While it's clear that the existing system is not easy to change, consumer awareness can make a difference.
In 2012 the Environmental Investigation Agency published an article entitled The Laundering Machine. It documents US companies importing large quantities of illegal wood from our region of Loreto with ample evidence of the illegal activity between 2008-2011, yet the system described in the report thrives still today.
In 2014, Scientific Reports published the article Logging Concessions Enable Illegal Logging Crisis in the Peruvian Amazon, which focuses on how the legal systems within Peru are not just failing but in fact being exploited to make illegal activity possible.
If you know of other resources or have ideas about how to instill positive change, please Contact Us.
Banner photo: logging family floating their log raft to Requena on the Tapiche River
© 2013 Deborah Chen