As the boat heads off back down the Alto Madre de Dios river, Andy and I climb up the steep slope and into the rainforest, stopping every now and then so I can photograph some of the ancient trees beside the path, their huge buttress roots flaring out like fins. Then, an ominous rumbling in the distance.
Within minutes, the light starts to fade and soon, despite the fact that it’s 9.30am, it feels as if we’re experiencing the last vestiges of dusk. Andy and I look at each other – we know what’s on its way.
A few drops at first, clattering on the dry leaves. As they become more frequent, the sound is joined by a distant roar. Here it comes.
A grey veil moves rapidly towards us through the trees, a misty sheet of water. Then, it hits us and we’re instantly drenched. At first, we try to find some sort of shelter, huddling among some of the buttress roots I’d been trying to photograph just moments earlier, but then Andy voices my own thoughts – this is no passing shower.
We gather up our gear and head back towards camp. The rain hammers down. Lightning periodically lights up the gloom; thunder cracks, rumbles, rolls, sometimes so close that I flinch involuntarily.
The trail is now a series of ankle- then calf-deep ponds connected by fast-flowing streams. The actual streams, previously languorous, limpid waterways filled with schools of darting fish, are now swollen, coffee-coloured torrents that snatch at our legs as we inch our way across.
Andy greets each with a fresh expletive… until the last one. Here he’s silent as we both stand and contemplate the rushing, raging, leaping line of water that separates us from the opposite bank – and our destination. A thought flashes into my head, unbidden: ‘I could die here.’
SEEING THE FOREST
An hour or so later, we stumble into camp, saturated, muddy, exhausted. We had both agreed that crossing that final stream/river was too dangerous and had been forced to backtrack and loop around, upstream, to where that single torrent was three smaller tributary torrents, each of which we could cross more safely.
‘Camp’ is the Manu Learning Centre (MLC), six large, open, thatched wooden buildings located in the grounds of an abandoned hacienda on the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios river in southeastern Peru. The centre is run by CREES (Conservation, Research & Education towards Environmental Sustainability), which owns the surrounding 643 hectares, which themselves form part of the cultural zone of the UNESCO Manu Biosphere Reserve.
CREES is the brainchild of Londoner Quinn Meyer. It all started with a ‘gap year’ in Peru. ‘I was in London, working, when a friend and I were invited out to Latin America to see the real world before “real work” and the nine to five,’ he explains. ‘So we went out and I ended up going to Manu to volunteer, supposedly to work with indigenous communities on a tourism project and to help rescue and work with turtles. But there were no indigenous people (only immigrant settlers) and no turtles. In short, the original idea was pure marketing from the guys in Cusco.’
After four months, they had built a lodge infrastructure and cut an extensive trail network. A regular stream of tourists was coming through and they were working with the Field Museum in Chicago on biodiversity surveys. ‘I spent that time interacting with the local people and seeing how they saw the forest,’ he says. ‘I got a real sense of the poverty cycle and the fact that there wasn’t anything that was really going to change in the region.’
On his return to the UK, he couldn’t stop thinking about his experiences. ‘And that’s how CREES really came about,’ he says. ‘There was this amazingly beautiful place that I had fallen in love with. I had also met my wife while I was out there, so it suddenly became: “Okay, I think this is one of those times when we have to throw our cares to the wind and jump in and really go and convert a passion into a practical thing.”’
Quinn quit his job and raised some cash to go back and support the project, but while he was away, everything changed, and the focus turned to setting up a standard tourism business. ‘So I’d returned with money in my pocket and they turned around and said “Quinn, go home.” I called my father and he told me to “get back out there and do it”, so I got back on the bus and went and looked for some property. The neighbouring property just happened to be for sale, so I bought that.’
That was in 2002. What followed was ‘three months of running into loggers with shotguns, trying to get people off the land, make them understand where the limitations and boundaries were,’ Quinn recounts. ‘And then very slowly trying to work out where to set up shop.’
Quinn’s plan was to combine conservation research with community work – the long-term goal was to change local attitudes, so that rather than feeling the pressure to exploit their environment, the local communities would realise its importance as a long-term resource, vital to their prosperity.
‘We set up a non-profit association in 2003 and the first thing we did was go out and start talking to universities,’ he says. ‘Goal number one was to understand the resource, so we began doing all of the baseline stuff, in the process trying to get other people involved – university students and professors. Then we started getting people from the local municipality telling us what their plans were and trying to figure out what was going to happen in the region.’
The research programme at the MLC is coordinated by fellow deluge-endurer, Andy Whitworth, a lanky, laconic British biologist with various reptiles tattooed on his arms. Andy ensures that the long-term projects that have been set up at the MLC are running smoothly and that the data are being collected properly, while also working to bring more outside researchers to the MLC.
Andy is also currently undertaking research for a PhD investigating the conservation and biodiversity value of regenerating tropical forest. ‘We’re in a good position to do that because we’re right next to a national park – an area of good protection – but we’re also in an area that has experienced great anthropogenic disturbance,’ he explains.
The area in and around the MLC has previously been logged, but at the back of the reserve there’s an extensive area of primary forest. ‘That gives us an ideal opportunity to compare those forest types,’ Andy says.
Andy’s particularly interested in determining what’s living in the regenerating forest, and how that compares with the adjacent primary forest. ‘The majority of the world’s tropical forests are secondary forest – they’re regenerating; only a very small proportion are primary and pristine,’ he explains. ‘For a few years now, researchers have been saying that there’s no substitute for primary forest, which is all well and good, but if the majority of what we have now is secondary, then that’s what we have to work with.
‘A lot of the protection legislation from governments and national parks doesn’t help secondary areas,’ he continues. ‘It means that those areas really struggle to develop any protection and we can never really seem to get them to recover properly. That’s really the point of this – that these secondary areas really need protection from the current pressures, the current logging, and having a chance to bring those species back and maintain them.’
Andy is focusing on four key vertebrate groups – birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles – as well as butterflies. Several of these groups contain species that are considered to be good indicators of the health of the forest, and also of hunting pressure. So far, he has recorded 465 species of bird, 68 amphibians, including seven species that may be new to science, 69 reptiles, 38 medium–large mammals and 280 butterflies.
The results have turned up a few surprises, particularly among the larger mammals and birds. ‘We’re finding an unusually high number of jaguars using the reserve,’ Andy explains. ‘In the first year, we were only picking up nine different jaguars. In the second year, we’ve seen at least three or four new individuals. So altogether, we’ve seen at least 12 individuals in the last couple of years.’
He has also been surprised by the number of giant armadillos they’ve seen. ‘It’s listed as vulnerable and generally associated with primary forest, but we’ve been seeing loads of them in the regenerating areas,’ he says.
More importantly, however, the results suggest that in terms of biodiversity, the so-called degraded forest is almost as rich in fauna as the neighbouring primary forest. By undertaking a long-term monitoring programme, they will also be able to see how this changes and develops over time.
Andy is assisted in his data collection by an ever-changing team of volunteers, who are coordinated by the MLC’s Australian manager, Jasmine Row. ‘We have all sorts of volunteers – people who are looking for field experience, so a lot of university graduates, but also those in the midst of career changes,’ she tells me. ‘The volunteer programme is imperative for the functioning of the foundation; if we didn’t have any volunteers here, then it wouldn’t function at all.’
The volunteers come out and work for anything between two weeks and six months. ‘Most come out for two to four weeks,’ Jasmine says.
In addition to working on the research projects, the volunteers also assist Matt Holmes, the MLC’s assistant manager. As well as dealing with general administration, Matt helps to run what has become the ‘GROW’ project – a community-outreach programme (sponsored by Innocent Drinks) that entails a mixture of agro-forestry and what they call bio-gardens.
‘The project was set up to enhance and improve the health and wealth of the local communities,’ Matt explains. ‘When Quinn set this place up, he wanted to help the lives of the local people as well.
‘The bio-gardens allow people to grow fresh vegetables and therefore gain some of the essential nutrients they may be missing in their diet,’ he continues. ‘So they save money on buying vegetables and now some of them are selling the excess, so they get an income as well.’
After the CREES team has established a bio-garden, they provide on-going support. ‘We have monthly meetings with the beneficiaries where we give a presentation about some aspect of keeping the bio-gardens healthy,’ Matt says. ‘The meetings also give the beneficiaries a chance to talk to Reynaldo – the project manager – about any problems that they’re having, and to get more seeds.’
When the project was first set up, there were several community days, where people could see the bio-garden at the MLC, while Reynaldo explained how it worked. The idea caught on quickly. ‘We have an association with MINSA, the local governing body for the health service. They come to our community meetings as well,’ Matt says. ‘We went to them and asked who the poorest families were, and they got the initial bio-gardens.’
Now Reynaldo chooses who gets the gardens. ‘He’s not the most objective person,’ Matt says with a smile. ‘It’s usually whoever pesters him the most. I would like to make it a bit more objective.’
There are now 59 bio-gardens up and running, including six institutional gardens, three which are helping to provide fresh produce for more than 300 children at the local school. One of the gardens produced more than 300 cucumbers from a single harvest, and over the past year, direct sales from the bio-gardens have increased by 86 per cent, rising from US$17 to US$49 a year.
‘Many of the women are now in the co-op,’ Quinn says. ‘So, they’ve begun to form a community. They get together once a month, they chat and their personal success stories help to strengthen that community.’ This has led to the creation of two community-based businesses making jewellery and clothing, run by women who manage bio-gardens.
PLANTING FOR THE FUTURE
Matt is also helping to establish a series of one-hectare agro-forestry plots for the locals – they’ve just finished setting up their 17th. ‘First, they sign a contract that says they’re going to maintain the plot,’ he explains. The beneficiary is also responsible for clearing the plot – felling any trees, clearing away any other vegetation and then burning it on the plot in order to fertilise the soil. But CREES doesn’t own the plots – the land still belongs to the locals.
Matt, Reynaldo and the volunteers then measure out the plot – which is generally an area of land that has been abandoned after being cultivated in the past – and help to plant the trees, which are all provided by CREES. The plots are essentially banana plantations with trees for timber interspersed among the banana plants – soft woods that can be harvested after 15 years and hardwoods that can be harvested after 40 years. Where possible, threatened species are used.
‘The whole point of having these plots is that they can get a consistent annual income from the same one-hectare plot of land,’ Matt says. ‘So they’re not going into the forest and clear-felling, and moving on and clear-felling again – the slash-and-burn culture that prevails around here. The idea is that they’ll maintain that one-hectare piece of land and eventually it’ll run through their family.’
The beneficiaries can also gain an income through carbon offsetting, via a scheme set up with the helpf of the Environmental Change Institute at University of Oxford. ‘The carbon that’s offset from growing the trees – the carbon they take out of the atmosphere – is sold as carbon credits on the CREES tours,’ Matt explains. ‘We go in every six months and measure the trees, and after the measurements have been verified over five years, all of the money goes directly into the beneficiaries’ bank accounts.’
THE LONG VIEW
In all, some 30,000 trees have been planted, sucking up more than 53 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But perhaps more importantly, the CREES team has gained the trust of the local community, while at the same time helping to build a sense of cohesion and pride within that community. ‘These little incremental things… they aren’t life changing, but they begin to allow you the space needed to educate people and that’s the final remit of CREES,’ Quinn says.
‘For conservation to work, we need to put people back into the equation, not as the enemy but as a motivated resource,’ he elaborates. ‘Indigenous people have long been touted as the stewards of standing forest, but what about the immigrant populations who, for years, have degraded the landscape? Where are they in the equation? These people are there, too. I think that this is now the future of rainforest conservation – getting everyone involved.
‘Eventually, they become players, because they feel that they have a vested interest,’ he continues. ‘And I think the only way to do this is by going through this very slow system of teaching them about the forest, about agro-forestry and so on. It starts a conversation about a more bio-aware world from those who understand it best.
‘The rainforest is an incredibly valuable resource, but these local people just miss out on all of that,’ he concludes. ‘So CREES was formed to challenge that and to break that down. The joke is that “crees” means “do you believe?” in Spanish. It reminds you that it’s only possible if you believe.’
FALLING IN LOVE
Recently, CREES opened itself up as a tourism venture, with the aim of bringing in some additional funds to support the conservation and community work. ‘But we must be sustainable about it,’ Quinn says. ‘We just want people to fall in love with the forest as much as we have.’
But the heart of CREES’ work, is about creating a partnership between research and community involvement. ‘What we need is this neighbourhood collaboration, building a bio-garden, teaching women about planting,’ Quinn says. ‘You don’t get it right the first year – it takes a while to get it going. You have to be there and have the patience for it to grow. So I think that’s the story of CREES right there.’
When to go
Weather in the Peruvian Amazon is generally warm and humid all year round, although there’s a wetter season, which runs from December to May, and a drier season, which runs from July to November. Travel during the drier part of the year is easier, but it can also be busier.
British Airways fies to Lima via Madrid from London Heathrow. Tickets start at around £574 return. CREES offers tours that include a visit to the Manu Learning Centre, with prices starting at US$1,926 per person. There are also numerous options for those wishing to volunteer at the centre, with durations ranging from two to 12 weeks, as well as a six-month internship programme.