For Alfredo Rojas, the history of the remote villages along the Ampiyacu River is one of enslavement. Growing up here, Rojas listened to his parents tell stories of the rubber barons who beat and killed the Indians who failed to meet their latex quota. Rojas worked as a child, doing household chores for a family in a nearby town, and, as a teen, collected rubber latex or hauled timber for a local landholder or patron named Sánchez.
Later, outsiders came up the Ampiyacu River, providing villagers with tools and food in exchange for timber, or advancing them shotgun ammunition, nets, and salt in exchange for fish and game. By the time the outfitters had deducted those advances from the local’s pay, there wasn’t much left. Within a few decades, there wasn’t much left in the forest either.
The valuable mahogany and cedar were gone, the lakes no longer harbored ten-foot-long paiche fish, and the wildlife disappeared, frightened further into the forest by the sound of chainsaws.
“People came here to destroy,” Rojas says.
But no longer. The green wooden building where he stands, watching the rain, commands a sweeping view of the river. Anyone traveling further upstream must now stop and register. This is one of three control posts guarding key entrances to the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area, one of the newest protected areas in the sprawling, still heavily forested region of Loreto in northeastern Peru.
“Were happy,” says Rojas. “We don’t have outsiders coming in any more. We don’t have patrones.”
The conservation area is an ambitious experiment in which the regional government has partnered with four indigenous groups—the Huitoto, Bora, Yagua and Ocaina—to share the task of managing forests, game, and fishing.
The arrangement is still in its early stages, but if it works, it could signal a new way of managing natural resources in an area where park rangers are scarce and travel expensive.
“The regional conservation areas are important to safeguard the places on which people depended for their subsistence,” says Cristián González, director of the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area and the neighboring Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area. “One of our accomplishments has been to begin better control and monitoring. From the time the area was created, the communities have been concerned about outsiders coming in, because they were the ones who were benefitting most from the resources here.”
For indigenous communities along the Ampiyacu and Apayacu Rivers, establishment of a conservation area has brought trade-offs. Although outsiders no longer have unchecked access to their forests, the communities must comply with limits on hunting and fishing. And if they want to sell timber, they need to draw up management plans.
Joel Rojas of the Loreto Regional Fisheries Department explains regulations to community fisheries monitors in the Huitoto community of Pucaurquillo Peru. Photo by Barbara Fraser
But fish and game animal populations are recovering, and Rojas and members of other communities along the Ampiyacu River say the new constraints are a reasonable price to pay for keeping their forests intact.
Stemming decades of environmental depredation
The people of the Ampiyacu are heirs to several generations of upheaval and violence. Most are the children or grandchildren of men and women who were uprooted from the Colombian border by rubber producers during a border skirmish in the 1930s. These enslaved people were forcibly moved to the Ampiyacu, displacing the Yagua people who were living there.
The resettled villagers told their children and grandchildren of the rubber barons’ cruelty—of men who were killed when they failed to meet their rubber quota or women whose breasts were sliced off for anything the overseer might deem an infraction.
Nevertheless, when they arrived in the Ampiyacu, most continued working for their overlords or patrones. Over time, the patrones branched out from rubber into other activities, including logging, fishing, and hunting.
When hard times hit the economy, many patrones moved away. But the vacuum was quickly filled by outsiders who motored up the river with huge freezers to net hundreds of kilos of fish, or who paid local men to hunt wild game that they would sell upriver in Iquitos, the regional capital.
Using a system known as habilitación, these outsiders hired community members to hunt or fish, advancing them food, fuel, ammunition and salt for week-long hunting or fishing trips, then deducting those advances from their pay. The system left hunters or fishermen with virtually no pay for products that would fetch high prices in the commercial market in Iquitos.
Loggers used the same system, providing food, chainsaws, and fuel, but paying just a few dollars a day for laborers to cut valuable hardwood trees and haul them to the riverbank.
The commercial-scale hunting took a heavy toll on the area’s wildlife, says René Vásquez, 36, an Ocaina from the community of Nueva Esperanza on the Ampiyacu River. Merchants hired local men to hunt, hauling away more than 200 kilos of peccary, deer, and paca meat at a time. That, combined with the noise of loggers’ chainsaws, frightened away the game on which families depended for sustenance.
“You could still find animals, but you had to go farther and farther away to hunt,” he recalls.
Vásquez was a leader of the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu (Federación de Comunidades Nativas del Ampiyacu, FECONA) in the early 2000s, when the organization began talking with staff from the non-profit Institute of the Common (Instituto del Bien Común, IBC) about ways to stem the plundering of the communities’ forests.
FECONA initially wanted to ask the government to establish a “communal reserve,” a category for protected areas managed by indigenous communities, but the national government was unlikely to create a new protected area in the Loreto region, according to Ana Rosa Saenz, who heads the IBC’s Iquitos office.
Instead, the organization took a different tack, working with the local communities to map their forests, fields, rivers, and lakes. This in-depth mapping included the way the indigenous people used their land—where different families hunted, where they grew their crops, and where they found the palm used to thatch roofs. They even drew on the map an area where they found a patch of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine.
Based on that information, FECONA and the IBC proposed a protected area that would be established and managed by Loreto’s regional government. It took around ten years and a turnover of officials in the regional government, but in 2010, authorities officially created the 434,129-hectare Ampiyacu Apayacu Regional Conservation Area.
A decade in the making, the conservation area forms an arc over the headwaters of the Apayacu, Ampiyacu, Yaguasyacu and Zamún Rivers, which drain southward into the Amazon watershed.
The area protects water supplies, as well as the habitat of fish that migrate along the rivers, and other forest resources on which the Bora, Huitoto, Yagua, and Ocaina communities south of the area depend.
It is also part of a broader plan to create a “mosaic” of regional and national protected areas that would extend to the Brazilian border in Loreto, connecting with existing parks and reserves that sweep south between the two countries. It would also connect with Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, creating a massive protected area system.
The heart of the area in Loreto would be a national park, identified by indigenous villagers as the place where the sachamama—the spirit that protects the forest’s animals—resides. That area is traditionally off limits for hunting, making it ideal for a national park, the protected-area category with the most stringent access restrictions, according to Saenz.
The other areas would be regional conservation areas where villagers could hunt, fish, and gather palm fronds and other forest products, according to the terms of management plans designed jointly with regional officials. Those plans would specify the amount of fish or game that can be taken, granting villagers shared responsibility for monitoring lakes and forests.
Slow journey to conservation
Some steps are already being taken in that direction.
On a muggy morning in early October, Joel Rojas (not related to Alfredo) stood in the middle of the spacious, palm-thatched maloca, or community building, in the Huitoto village of Pucaurquillo. As a drummer pounded two hollow logs to summon his neighbors to a meeting, Rojas, a fisheries inspector for the regional government of Loreto, organized a stack of ID badges for the community’s newly minted fishing monitors.
Arriving in ones and twos, several dozen men and women, some with children in tow, settled on low board benches.
Electricity has not reached this part of the Amazon, so someone cranked up a generator nearby, allowing Rojas to flip through PowerPoint slides reviewing the rules for fishing in the lakes that provide sustenance for the communities.
“Hold up your hands,” he tells the monitors, and there is a ripple of laughter when they realize he is half-jokingly looking for missing fingers.
“Fishing with explosives or barbasco is prohibited,” he reminds the group. Barbasco is a poison from a plant root; traditionally used for fishing, it can harm the entire ecosystem, killing or endangering other wildlife. Similarly, dynamite is environmentally destructive, but fishers use it to stun fish so they can be scooped up easily,
The communities around the new protected areas have agreed to limit their fishing equipment to hooks and nets with openings large enough to let juvenile fish escape, abandoning the use of dynamite or poisons—both barbasco and agricultural chemicals like theodane.
Rojas reminds his listeners that the moratorium on paiche or arapaima (Arapaima gigas)—a freshwater giant that was nearly fished into oblivion here—began in October. He quizzes them on the minimum sizes for paiche and half a dozen other commonly fished species.
Then comes the ceremony. One by one, the men and women file up to receive the badges certifying that the government considers them official monitors, with the power to confiscate fish from any outsiders caught trolling in their lakes. The lakes are currently set aside for fishing by community members only.
The concept of community monitors is both old and new. The Huitoto traditionally engaged in rituals to determine the amount of fish they could catch, according to Mauricio Rubio, 59, a former president of FECONA. But economic pressures later led to overfishing for outsiders, as a way of earning cash.
“It’s better organized than it was before,” Rubio says. “Now we realize that we have to care for our resources first, and then think about selling them for income.”
That has not always been the case. In March 2011, just a few months after the conservation area was established, Cristián González, traveled up the Ampiyacu River and ran across a motorboat with a load of illegal timber. As director of the protected area under the regional government, González felt he had to act.
“It surprised me,” he recalls. Although he knew that illegal logging had been a problem in the area, “the idea was that with the conservation area, it would be minimized.”
His office organized a raid with police and forestry officials netting more than 10 rafts of lashed-together logs ready to be floated down the river, including valuable hardwoods such as cedar and shihuahuaco, a slow-growing hardwood tree valued for construction, parquet floors, and railroad ties.
Next, González established community-based monitoring committees, but there was a backlash from indigenous villagers. Some filed a formal complaint requesting that the government fire him, because the new system meant they could no longer cut and sell timber freely. He bears no grudge, though, and maintains a cordial relationship with the communities.
“The idea was to show that it was illegal, so we could start working with the communities,” he said. “Little by little, we have gained their trust.”
The change has not been easy for the communities, either. Although habilitación-style fishing, hunting, and logging never paid well, it was one way of earning cash, which is difficult to secure in remote river communities so far from markets.
That style of work also harks back to the days of the rubber boom, when rubber tappers resettled Rubio’s parents and other indigenous people along the Colombia-Peru border during the skirmish between the two countries. Some families remained loyal to their patrones and were reluctant to shake off the old ways of working.
Attitudes are changing, even as rough patches remain. Some villagers say the monitors in neighboring communities forbid them to fish in lakes they have used in the past, a complaint that could reflect either misunderstandings or old rivalries between villages.
Optimism, despite political uncertainty
At a meeting attended by leaders of most of the villages in early October, the president of the Bora community of Pucaurquillo protested restrictions on logging, which he said was one of the few ways families can get quick cash to pay school fees or cover health emergencies.
He and other community leaders say families must earn more than a subsistence income from their land. They talk about the possibility of growing coffee, cacao, or raising chickens. Starting such projects, however, requires both a cash investment and technical assistance.
And some villagers, including Rubio, still wish they could have established a communal reserve instead of a regional conservation area. A communal reserve would give the indigenous communities stronger territorial rights, with management by a joint committee of community members and park officials, he says.
Although the government’s representative, González, works closely with the communities, Rubio fears the regional government could change the way it manages the areas.
Still, Rojas and his neighbors in Nuevo Porvenir are forging ahead with the new system, drafting plans for a community-managed timber operation. Several other communities are following suit.
Communities can also design management plans for using resources inside the conservation area, González said, though for now most are taking advantage of the resources in their own territories, where game and fish appear to be recovering. He plans to involve the communities in a more systematic monitoring program to gather data about the impact of the management plans on the forest and wildlife.
But some obstacles remain. A new regional president elected in October has publicly expressed opposition to regional conservation areas and his intention to promote timber concessions and oil palm plantations.
FECONA is seeking government approval of its proposal to expand the communities’ land titles to include a forested area between their current territories and the conservation area. Genoveva Freitas, who coordinates the IBC’s work with the communities, is optimistic about the approval, but the request remains in limbo.
The new regional government may also be unwilling to increase funding to safeguard existing areas. Because regional conservation areas have no regular park guards, González depends on community members to report problems such as poaching or illegal logging. But there are large expanses of the area where villagers rarely go.
Meanwhile, some worry about drug trafficking in the area. Pirates have raided several riverboats, killing an off-duty police officer in one attack. There are also rumors of drug running closer to the Ampiyacu, with government officials and community members recalling the coca field they saw inside what is now the conservation area.
But Freitas and González say those difficulties underscore the importance of involving local communities, responding to their needs, and trying different methods of managing resources to protect the conservation area.
If it works, it could provide a road map for other communities seeking ways to conserve their forests.
On a rainy afternoon, Mirna Churay, 35, sits in the open kitchen area of her parents’ house with several other women, weaving baskets and bags of palm fiber to sell to the tourists who stop at the village occasionally. Churay worries that the new regional officials may want to change the rules, but says the communities will continue on the course they have set.
“No government is going to tell us what to do with our land,” she says. “We’re always going to fight for our lands. More than anything, we are doing it for our children.”