People and Planet: Reconciling Conservation Goals with the Needs of Communities

Leaders of two different conservation initiatives in the Las Piedras hanging out with two of the younger members of the Lucerna community
Leaders of two different conservation initiatives in the Las Piedras hanging out with two of the younger members of the Lucerna community (Photo Credit: Casey Kelahan)

“Environmental problems are really social problems anyway. They begin with people as the cause and end with people as the victims.”  – Edmund Hillary

Casey: From the moment that we first sat down to decide on what we would discuss in our blog post, Luke and I knew immediately that we wanted to focus on Lucerna, the community immediately adjacent to ArcAmazon’s Las Piedras Amazon Center. For me, this was driven by a fascination with the dynamic between Lucerna and ArcAmazon, and how their relationship acts as a microcosm of the global challenges of conservation on the frontier. For Luke, well, I’ll let him tell you!

Luke: All of these environmental issues that organizations like ArcAmazon are tackling, at the end of the day, are about people— the people who live there that are affected by all of these things. It’s the community that is impacting the local forest, and on a larger scale, the world. Someone is chopping down these trees and someone is trying to protect them. I want to show both of these stories. 

Map from Wild Forests and Fauna showing the ArcAmazon concession and its proximity to the Lucerna community.
Map from Wild Forests and Fauna showing the ArcAmazon concession and its proximity to the Lucerna community.

Through a mix of prior knowledge and research, we started piecing together the history of Lucerna, and this is a snapshot of what we found:

  • It was first settled during the rubber boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s that swept the jungles of Peru (and the larger Amazon region).
  • For a long time after the decline of the rubber industry, it was left abandoned, until….
  • Less than ten years ago, the land was claimed by the current leader of the community, Mr. Romulo. 
  • Today, the community of Lucerna is economically based largely on agriculture (specifically the growth of cacao— chocolate, people!!) and logging. 
Cacao fruit of varying stages of maturity. Photo credit to pimentona.
Cacao fruit of varying stages of maturity. Photo credit to pimentona.

Casey: As you can see, there are several factors that complicate the involvement of the local community in sustainability and conservation initiatives. In the end, this just demonstrates the complexity of the the issue of conservation on a broader scale. It isn’t just as simple as ‘logging is bad, saving trees is good.’ People depend on these natural resources to survive. Conservation initiatives then run into this issue of balancing a relationship with local communities with their need to enforce the boundaries of whatever land they’re protecting. 

Luke: Right! It’s like the parable of the man who steals bread to feed his family, the bread is a means of survival. We don’t really know the full perspective of the people who are living there. And from the standpoint of our project, our objective is to go there and turn the cameras on and try to get that perspective. We live in this world where everyone wants to label things. Black and white, good and bad, but that’s not reality. There are so many factors that go into these things that nothing is really black and white. There are shades of grey (cue reference to that terrible book).  

Essentially, learning about and discussing Lucerna and the community’s role in local conservation initiatives raised a lot of questions! Luckily, we were able to talk as a class with Luis Garcia, one of ArcAmazon’s board members (check him out under the ‘who we are’ page of ArcAmazon here), and he shed some light on the subject. When asked what initiatives had been developed to work more extensively with the community, he discussed plans for a long term community engagement plan as well as workshops on a variety of topics relating to conservation and sustainability, emphasizing the fact that ArcAmazon wants their work with Lucerna to facilitate an equal exchange in knowledge. He further highlighted the potential for our work as a class to help strengthen the connection between Lucerna and ArcAmazon.   

ArcAmazon volunteers and workers from the Madre de Dios region come together to build infrastructure on the concession. (Photo credit: ArcAmazon)
ArcAmazon volunteers and workers from the Madre de Dios region come together to build infrastructure on ArcAmazon’s concession. (Photo credit: ArcAmazon)

Casey: It’s very interesting, because while the immediate goals of ArcAmazon as an organization and Lucerna as a community don’t always overlap, in the end they are looking to achieve the same thing, which is to sustain life. So while there are certain conflicts of interest, this idea of people vs. the land is also somewhat of a false dichotomy. If ArcAmazon can do what it is proposing, which is create this relationship of knowledge exchange that results in a more sustainable Las Piedras community, it could act as a model for other conservation initiatives and work towards breaking down this harmful idea of inherently adversarial relationships with communities. 

Luke: The idea that these two groups have the same end goal but have a conflict in perspective is really fascinating to me. I think it’s the kind of narrative that can be hard to tell because we’re used to the good guy versus bad guy story. But real stories have conflicts that are more complicated than I’m right and you’re wrong. We should be giving voice to all of those perspectives, and playing a part in bridging that conflict gap.

Our journey in exploring these issues is far from over, and we look forward to sharing what we learn with you. Check back this January as we continue to update you on our progress!

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