New protected area is bigger than Chicago, NYC, LA, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Mexico City combined
The Earth’s not doing so hot (or rather, it’s too hot, and that’s a problem). Devastating hurricanes, raging wildfires, rising seas, and record-breaking temperatures can all be tied to climate change. One of the best ways to counteract these problems, say scientists, is to keep our planet’s forests intact. And today, decades of collaboration between scientists and governments have culminated in the designation of a giant new national park in the Peruvian Amazon.
The new Yaguas National Park is over two million acres, about the size of Yosemite National Park in the US. (Or, if you’re more indoorsy, bigger than Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo, and Mexico City put together.)
“This is extremely good news— we need to buffer the planet from climate change, and protecting the rainforest is the easiest way to do that,” says Corine Vriesendorp, a conservation ecologist at The Field Museum who led the scientific efforts in protecting the region. “We want to recognize and celebrate Peru for their remarkable leadership in creating this outstanding national park.”
Yaguas (YAHG-wahs) is a remote region of northeastern Peru, near the Colombian border. It’s part of a vast expanse of forest along the Putumayo River, a tributary of the Amazon.
“Yaguas is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth,” says Vriesendorp. “In a single tributary, you find two-thirds of the freshwater fish species in Peru. There are thousands of species of plants and hundreds of species of birds and mammals.” Creatures in the region include jaguars, giant anteaters, tapirs, and freshwater dolphins and stingrays.
In addition to its abundant wildlife, Yaguas is home to rich cultural diversity, as well as a darker past. Around the turn of the 20th century, the region was the site of a genocide. Yaguas’s indigenous residents were forced to collect rubber from the forest under highly abusive conditions, where they faced murder, mutilation, and systemic rape. This genocide led to a high concentration of different cultures in the area. “Today, Yaguas is an amazing story of cultural resilience—local residents are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who survived the horrors of the rubber boom,” explains Vriesendorp. “Securing this space is critical for the 1,100 Bora, Mürui, Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, and Yagua people who live nearby. The region faces pressure from illegal logging and gold mining—direct threats to people’s well-being and livelihoods.”
Vriesendorp and her team have been working in the Yaguas region for nearly two decades. “I first visited Yaguas in 2003, in my first year at The Field Museum—and then we did a more extensive inventory in 2010. We’ve been working with local residents and partners for fourteen years on supporting this park, and it has been a priority for local people for much longer," says Vriesendrop.
The Field Museum scientists, joined by an international team of biologists, social scientists, and guides, documented the plant and animal life in the area and talked with local people about how they use the landscape and envision its future. After reporting on the region’s biodiversity and cultural needs, the team of scientists worked with the Peruvian government to explain the extraordinary features of the landscape and its inhabitants, and why the area merited designation as a national park. This information led the Peruvian government to designate the landscape as a Zona Reservada, a provisional designation, soon after the inventory in 2011. The final designation as a National Park will help ensure that the region is protected and properly managed for the long term. This protection is critical for the quality of life of local indigenous peoples and for the safeguarding of countless species of plants and animals, says Vriesendorp. It is also crucial for the health of the planet and the fight against climate change.
The Amazon rainforest affects the water cycle and rain patterns across the globe—when trees release water during the photosynthesis process, that water forms clouds that eventually produce rain. When forests are destroyed, there’s less water in the atmosphere, leading to droughts. “The forest in Yaguas can affect rainfall as far away as areas in the western United States, including places critical for food production,” says Vriesendorp.
“It’s obvious to scientists how interconnected our world is. If you break up 100,000 acres of forest in a place like Yaguas or even 10,000 acres, it affects the rain cycle across the planet. The health of the Amazon rainforest is related to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it’s related to the wildfires in California,” explains Vriesendorp. “Plus,” she adds, “the designation of the park doesn’t just conserve natural resources, it shines a light on this place and its indigenous residents and their way of life.”
The Field Museum partnered with numerous indigenous federations, government agencies, conservation groups, and other partners on this effort, including Instituto del Bien Común (IBC), Proyecto Especial Binacional Desarrollo Integral de la Cuenca del Río Putumayo (PEDICP), Federación de Comunidades Nativas Fronterizas del Putumayo (FECONAFROPU), Federación de Comunidades Indígenas del Bajo Putumayo (FECOIBAP), Universidad Nacional de la Amazonia Peruana (UNAP), Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (MUSM), Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado (SERNANP), el Ministerio del Ambiente (MINAM) and key individuals. Much of the Field Museum’s work in Yaguas was funded by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.