Few words can describe the emotional impact of coming across a clear cut field in the middle of a dense, lush, green jungle. Astonishment, bewilderment, and intense sadness were just some of the things we felt as we crossed the stream at the edge of Hoja Nueva’s property and the formerly forested hills came into view. Row upon row of neatly planted, yellow-green corn stalks jutted from the landscape, reflecting the brutal rays of the Amazon sun back into our eyes. It was so different from the soft green and blue light that filters through the thick forest canopy that we’d become so accustomed to. Beneath our feet, the grey dust of the soil and the charred skeletons of 400-year-old trees crunched and snapped.
It was difficult to see these once noble giants of the forest felled and dry – and for what purpose? To plant the same species of the same crop over and over again. These crops will then produce for only a few years, depleting the soil of essential nutrients in the process and leaving it barren and open to the harsh sun so that no new life can sprout up.
This graveyard of old growth is not how things should be, nor how they have to be. Agriculture is a necessary part of Peru’s economy – and for agriculture, you need land. However, there are more sustainable methods that can be used to decrease forest loss and the degradation of the soil. The innovative women of Hoja Nueva (“New Leaf”) were kind enough to show me and the other members of the forest protection team around the section of their land they have set aside to experiment with agroforestry. Agroforestry, for those of our readers who don’t know, is a type of farming that aims to mimic the natural growth in a forest with plants that bear crops. Mel, a co-founder and co-director of Hoja Nueva, has cleared part of this plot so that a partial canopy is still intact. There, they grow a variety of plants such as potatoes, coca, yucca, cacao, and more. Most of the plants thrive in a system that so closely resembles the forest – and the best part is that that the end goal is to create a self-sustaining, food-producing system. Mel says that it is just a matter of convincing local farmers – those that clear forests out for the purpose of planting one crop – that this method will not only work better and produce more, but will also be better for both Peruvians and the fertility and future of their land.
When it gets dark in the jungle, it gets truly dark. The lights turned off at night and we were left lying on our bunks surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable darkness. The sounds of the jungle took over and we could only speculate about what kinds of creatures might be lurking and prowling about just a short distance from the platform where we slept.
Some nights, we did get to see a variety of jungle inhabitants on night hikes with ARCAmazon’s forest ranger, Harry. While out, we got to see some pretty interesting creatures: spiders the size of our hands, all kinds of frogs, Goliath crickets, sleeping butterflies, birds nestled into the ground, and little lizards hanging on branches. We also got to see an active tarantula colony – an eerie yet fascinating sight. Perhaps the most amazing sight on a night hike was when Harry caught a dwarf caiman, which is similar to a crocodile. We got to feel the rough, armored skin on his back before returning him to his swampy home.
In the end, we still got to return to the safety of our platform each night. It was comforting to know we were drifting off to sleep in a place that is still wild and untamed, maintaining a unique type of beauty that is enchanting and full of undiscovered mysteries.
Our multi-day forest patrol expedition was our most valuable insight to the difficult reality that is forest protection in the Amazon frontier. We traveled by boat down river to the south road, a crude logging road that runs along the border of ARCAmazon’s concession, deep into the rainforest. There we joined Harry in his duties, scouting the area for any signs of logging, hunting, or other illegal activities and plotting them on a GPS. Near the road we witnessed 7 hectare deforested area, which was illegally invaded and claimed from Hoja Nueva. Due to archaic laws in Peru, this is a frequent occurrence in the rainforest; untouched jungle can be stolen by virtually anyone who clears it and puts it to use. In this case, corn was planted for the sole purpose of quickly claiming the land, which would later be used for cacao before the soil is degraded and it becomes abandoned after a few years.
A small handful of brave individuals like Harry frequently put their lives at risk to oversee and protect areas of conservation; always outnumbered by those with conflicting interests. We learned from camping in the jungle and hiking 20 kilometers back to the Las Piedras Amazon Center (LPAC) that this is far from an easy task. ARCAmazon’s concession is a massive expanse of thick primary rainforest, full of the most deadly plants and animals in the world. On our long day-trek through the bush, we encountered a deadly tree viper, hundreds of jaguar and puma tracks, and we were stung by a very painful toxic plant. To hike the entire perimeter of the concession would take 6 days of camping and grueling trekking; a practical impossibility. Harry had only achieved this once, and it was one of his worse jungle experiences. Anyone would be lucky to escape a trek like that with their life and limbs.
On our expedition we experienced a whole new level of exhaustion, discomfort, and hatred for ants and insects. The job of a forest ranger in the Amazon is extremely difficult, and we only scratched the surface.