In Part 1 of “The Jungle of Mirrors,” conflict between park guards in Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria Reserve in Western Amazonia and the local Cocama people had reached a tipping point. The Peruvian government, with funding from the U.S. and other international groups, had enforced a strategy to protect the wildlife in the Reserve at all costs. Meanwhile, the Cocama struggled to access the land and fishing grounds they depended on for their survival. Violence ensued, and the government had to take action.
Following the attack on the guard station in 1997, a new government official was brought in to manage the Reserve. Instead of pushing out the Cocama, he invited community members to help oversee the park – to protect the lakes and land, to prevent poaching, to monitor the wildlife and health of the Reserve. The strategy had evolved from protection-based conservation to community-based conservation. The success of this initiative was attributed to the perseverance and tireless efforts of local people and a group of conservationists, including Dr. Richard Bodmer.
In the 1990s, during the period of escalating conflict in Pacaya-Samiria, Richard met with a group of scientists who were conducting research in the Amazon. They sat around the table while each person presented an outline of their research or conservation plan. When it was Richard’s turn, he said, ‘I want to manage subsistence hunting.’ The whole table laughed. ‘You can’t manage subsistence hunting in the Amazon,’ they said. ‘It can’t be done.’
Richard faced similar opposition from the government. He recalled one afternoon when a member of the Peruvian authorities called him into his office and sat him down. The official explained that community-based conservation didn’t exist in Peru. It simply wouldn’t work.
Richard and his team were confident that a community-based conservation approach would work. After all, why wouldn’t local people want to protect their food resources, their land, their livelihoods? But to convince the naysayers, they needed to prove it.
Under the new strategy, Richard spent years collecting data on animal populations and monitoring the health of the Reserve.
In 2005, he reached a pivotal point. A group of journalists arrived in Pacaya-Samiria to assess the status of the Reserve. Within days, they concluded the park was in shambles. They published a series of articles in national newspapers claiming the community-based conservation approach had failed. Richard didn’t hesitate. He presented data to the government that contradicted every report. He showed – using graphs and statistics collected over years – that this approach had helped to increase biodiversity; it had increased the amount of intact forest; it had increased the wildlife populations. And, there was no conflict – park guards, biologists, and the Cocama were working together to conserve the forest and its resources.
Based on Richard’s data, the government refuted the journalists’ reports and offered their full support for the community-based effort. But the moment was a wake-up call for him. Data had saved the Reserve – scientific data that had been collected over many years. He knew it would be essential to continue these long-term monitoring efforts.
But it wasn’t easy to find the money required for this operation. Research grants typically focus on short-term projects, three years at the most. And foundations weren’t interested in long-term monitoring – the potential for impact isn’t always clear.
In 2006, Richard launched a new partnership with Earthwatch. Volunteers from around the world poured into the flooded forest, notebooks in hand, prepared to join him in battle. They observed river dolphins, tracked primates, counted macaws, surveyed caimans. They collected a massive amount of data that Richard used to influence policy decisions and to inform the Cocama about which wildlife species to hunt, and which are threatened. And if they hadn’t been there collecting data, they wouldn’t have understood the implications of what happened next…
In Pacaya-Samiria, water levels ebb and flow like waves in the sea. Each year, during the wet season, the water rises and much of the land disappears beneath it. Terrestrial species crowd onto the shrunken land masses, and fish species flow into the Reserve. During the dry season, the water recedes, land forms re-emerge, and terrestrial populations rebound.
But starting in about 2009, something changed. The waves were no longer the same size. A year of drought was followed by a year of intense flooding. The peaks were higher, the troughs lower, and the timing was unpredictable.
In a normal wet season, land masses known as levees comprise about five percent of the Reserve. But in 2012, the water reached its highest level in recorded history. The levees shrank to less than one percent of the area. Animals were restricted to smaller and smaller land patches. Tapirs, peccaries, large rodents, armadillos, giant anteaters – they had nowhere to find refuge. Competition increased, predation increased, and animals began to rapidly die off. Terrestrial mammals alone decreased by nearly 90 percent in a single year. The Cocama had lost their bushmeat. But not only that, they found it was harder to find fish. The water was so high that the fish had dispersed. They expended more and more energy finding food for their families.
The changes were unprecedented.
Richard attributes this massive shift to the likely effects of climate change. The greatest environmental challenge humanity has faced had arrived in force in Pacaya-Samiria.
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