My journey started in Leticia, Colombia, and will end two weeks later in Rio Branco, Brazil. It gives me a chance to stop in new places and revisit a few old ones as I will repeat the journey of a year ago from Puerto Maldonado to Rio Branco. The aim of this journey is to understand the Amazon from the point of view of those that live, and work in it on a daily basis. It is also to get a sense of how it is to journey through from the Andean mountains, see it build potential in the middle reaches before it enters its slow movement through Brazil. From Leticia I have gone to Puerto Nariño, Colombia, then back and onto Iquitos, Peru, by fast boat. Once there a few days were spent exploring Pacaya Samiria Park and then a flight to Lima via Pucallpa. From Lima to Puerto Maldonado via Cusco. With a few days in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, allowed me to explore Tambopata National Park. It has been vital to discover how each place defined its amazon through tours and stories; some told and others observed in the landscape.
It has been a journey of the good, the bad and the ugly but one where I have finally understood the amazon dynamics of the high and low water seasons whose rhythm defines life on this huge river scape. I am travelling during low water season which has been extended by the “El Niño”.
Both in Puerto Nariño and Pacaya Samiria I was able to see the architecture of the “walking forest” that is at least 6 months inundated. What I did not realise is that the difference in water level between the two seasons can be as much as 4 to 5 meters. This is huge. It explains why so many bridges and landing deck structures are precariously constructed on stilts, they too wait for the rains to settle into the landscape. Lakes are shrunk to gravy bowls covered in green weeds, the herons, egrets and kingfishers take advantage of the easier hunting, whilst most other species move out to the main rivers to take refuge, until the rains come. Puerto Nariño is a great example of an indigenous community merged with the mainstream in a way that the mainstream has taken on their values. The Tachawa people are barely distinguished from any other small town in the Amazon except that their values have been adopted and embraced as a sustainable development for the town that sets them apart. One that ensures their town is litter free and without motorized vehicles. They fish their lake sustainably and in many plots of land cattle is raised in a mixed pasture landscape.
This effort is in stark contrast to some of the other Amazon towns that I have visited. Iquitos, isolated in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon conjured imaginings of something special in the heart of the Amazon. The reality was rather more brutal from the river as the thick smoke from chimney stacks within the city spirals upwards and wraps itself around the white clouds forming over head. Inside the city the mass of motorbikes, three wheeled motor taxis and old trucks create an air thick with pollution and in the yellow lights all the buildings have a layer of blackish soot. The rain comes and washes the grime a little to reveal beautiful ceramics of a past age when the city was the centre of latex production for Peru. Now it’s dominated by petroleum wealth or rather its promise as many of the electrical goods in the stores are bought on credit. But it is the gateway to the parks where there is amazing biodiversity still.
I leave Iquitos and fly into Pucallpa but this offers no relief as the mass of timber merchants creates a neckless round the city. It is the timber capital of the Amazon and not a single log is traceable or verified legal so there is no way to know where the timber comes from unless it is certified FSC. But it is the journey from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado that surprises me the most. I did this same journey the year before and the forest was relatively intact. However passing over the same flight path this year and the story is very different.
There are two rivers that have been expanded so there is a moonscape instead of river banks and forest. The informal mining has really taken hold and its impact is tangible. The moonscape stretch for hectare upon hectare and creates scars on the blanket of forest that is Madre de Dios Region. The river running through is a brutal orange, as if the land has been bleeding, and now runs it’s coarse into Puerto Maldonado, bringing with it contaminated water and fish.
There has been efforts to control this informal sector by controlling the volumes of petrol bought and sold, but it has had mixed results and some report that merchants have already set up petrol stations further out of the town. It is the protected area that seems to be slowing the pace of change and shows little impact of the mining or agriculture. A visit to lake Sandoval (in the buffer zone), the most popular tourist destination in the area, shows there are still many animals taking refuge. Eco-tourism offers an alternative to the mining but perhaps not at the scale needed. The solution is not going to be easy, especially as this is an area vulnerable to climate events.
Karen Lawrence, WWF-UK
(Living Amazon Initiative Science Monitoring Support)
Colombia, Peru and Brazil, October, 2015