A story about the complex history and uncertain future of one of the most biodiverse places in the world – and the people who have dedicated their lives to saving it.
Two Rivers Meet in the Forest
Deep in the heart of Western Amazonia, a flooded forest teems with wildlife. Alligator-like caimans hide in long grasses surrounding lagoons; wading birds hunt for fish in shallow waters; howler monkeys shriek and swing from tree branches; and river dolphins leap from the Samiria River, their reflections rippling in the water alongside them.
The Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, known as the ‘Jungle of Mirrors,’ is the second largest protected area in Peru, a tropical rainforest home to one of the most diverse arrays of plant and animal species in the world.
Here, human life is frozen in time. Roughly 95,000 indigenous people – most of whom are Cocama Indians – live in the towns and villages in and along the boundaries of the reserve. The Cocama people hunt for bush-meat, tracking pig-like peccaries or large rodents called paca. They fish from small canoes they built with wood from the trees. They live in houses with thatched roofs made from palm fronds they gathered from the forest. They bathe in the rivers. They collect forest fruits. They live as they did centuries ago, relying on the forest’s lush resources to provide them with everything they need to survive.
For the past 10 years, nearly 1,000 Earthwatch volunteers have worked alongside the Cocama to protect this delicate wilderness. At the heart of this mission is a man who has dedicated his life to the preservation of the wildlife and the people who inhabit this reserve: Dr. Richard Bodmer.
Bodmer and his partners, including the Peruvian government, have developed a tightknit, trusted partnership with the Cocama. With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, Bodmer provides these communities with information on how wildlife populations are faring to help inform their hunting strategies. By understanding which species are stable and which are in decline, the Cocama can live sustainably within the reserve. This peaceful partnership supports a united mission: protect and conserve a critical rainforest ecosystem. As a direct result of these efforts, wildlife populations that were once endangered have rebounded. The reserve is thriving.
Things were not always so peaceful, however, and the history of this region is marred with conflict.
In the late 19th century, several indigenous tribes lived along the Pacaya and Samiria Rivers, inside what is now the park reserve. In the 1940s, the Peruvian government decided to turn the flooded forest into a fishing reserve for the Ministry of Fisheries. Fishermen would collect and sell large freshwater fish, locally known as paiche, and profits would fall to the state.
Villages were moved outside the reserve, but the Cocama were allowed to continue to enter the reserve to hunt, to fish, to feed their families.
By the early 1980s, the government had changed the status of Pacaya-Samiria Reserve from fishing to wildlife conservation. It was now a full-time protected area. International funding began to flow in and the Peruvian government enacted a system of park guards to enforce strict controls that would protect the reserve. The guards were ordered to confiscate any hunting or fishing materials they discovered.
But the Cocama knew hidden entrances into the reserve, and developed strategies to evade the guards. During patrols, they hid within the forest, sinking their canoes and catch until they were out of sight. The Cocama worked to protect their food security and provide for their families, before it was too late. Their future was uncertain, their lives were at risk. Poaching was rampant and tension between locals and the government mounted.
“It was the people’s view that their grocery shop was closing. So their strategy was to take as much as you can as fast as you can. And that of course upset the park guards more because their job was to stop that, and it was getting worse.” – Dr. Richard Bodmer
The Tipping Point
It wasn’t long before conflict between the local people and park guards grew violent. Injuries were frequently reported.
“And then, there was this incident…” recalled Bodmer.
It was November of 1997. Park guards had confiscated the nets and catch of a group of local fishermen – nets that had been purchased through a loan. In retaliation, the fishermen, armed with machetes, attacked a park station, killing two young biologists and a park guard.
The event made national headlines. The situation was dire.
Following the attack on the guard station, 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, Bodmer 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 his 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.’
Bodmer 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.
“That moment in time, sure, you get discouraged. But if you listen to that, you’ll never get anywhere, right?” – Dr. Richard Bodmer
Bodmer 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, Bodmer spent years collecting data on animal populations and monitoring the health of the Reserve.
Science for Solutions
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. Bodmer didn’t hesitate. He presented data to the government that contradicted every report. He showed that not only had this approach helped to increase biodiversity, it had increased the amount of intact forest as well as wildlife populations. And, there was no conflict – park guards, scientists, and the Cocama were working together to conserve the forest and its resources.
“Back in the 1990s, the local communities hated conservationists. They were taking the food away from them. Now, they’re all conservationists, everyone’s a conservationist. It changed completely. You can’t keep people out of their traditional lands they’ve been using for food security.”
Based on Bodmer’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. He knew it would be essential to continue these long-term monitoring efforts.
And if he hadn’t been there collecting data, he 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 landmasses, and fish species flow into the Reserve. During the dry season, the water recedes, landforms 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, landmasses called 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. Not only that, it was harder to find fish. The water was so high that the fish had dispersed, meaning the Cocama needed to expend more and more energy finding food for their families.
The changes were unprecedented.
Bodmer attributes this massive shift to the effects of climate change. The greatest environmental challenge humanity has faced had arrived in force in Pacaya-Samiria.
“What we’re seeing now is a paradigm shift. Things have completely changed, in a way that has never been seen before in the history of Western involvement in the Amazon.” – Dr. Richard Bodmer
Since that time, Bodmer and his team have been working alongside the Peruvian government to develop climate change strategies – not only for Pacaya-Samiria, but for other regions in the Amazon. While the plans help to guide conservation efforts, they’re not enough. The situation is too dynamic, he said. New challenges emerge each year, rendering even the most up-to-date strategies obsolete. If it weren’t for consistent, year-round monitoring, thanks to the support of Earthwatch volunteers who join the Amazon Riverboat Exploration expedition, it would be impossible to respond to these changes at all.
“It’s important to me that volunteers know how critical their participation is to us. Without them, we couldn’t make these discoveries – we couldn’t present them at climate change conferences to say, ‘This is what’s happening in the flooded forests of the Amazon.’” – Dr. Richard Bodmer
Earthwatch Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting citizens with scientists to conduct conservation research worldwide.