Published: October 11, 2021

How can we protect enough biodiversity to sustain life on Earth?

Ecologist Corine Vriesendorp has seen what actually works from 20 years of conservation action in the Amazon.

To sustain life on Earth, countries around the world have committed to protect 30% of the planet’s land area by 2030. Scientists and policymakers are asking: How do we achieve this ambitious goal? And how do we do it in a way that respects the way people in these places live? 

The Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center has been searching for answers to these questions on rapid inventories in the Amazon rainforest for the last 25 years. Conservation ecologist Corine Vriesendorp and her team think the state of Loreto, Peru—where conservation coverage has quadrupled in the last 20 years—can serve as a model for protecting land sustainably in the 21st century. We sat down with Corine to ask about what has led to conservation success in Loreto.

Why Loreto? What’s special about this part of the Amazon?

Loreto is within the most biodiverse corner of the Amazon basin, which is the most biodiverse place on the planet. Loreto is almost a third of Peru, not reachable by road, and a place where, largely, everyone who lives there is intimately connected to the forest, lakes, and rivers for their well-being. I can't think of too many people who live in Loreto who don't depend fundamentally every day on its natural resources.

People are very close to this biodiversity. You see this repeated across the world: cultural diversity and biological diversity are linked. I don't pretend to know how one begets the other, but we know that it's not a relationship that's unidirectional. We know that people are shaping that biodiversity and biodiversity is shaping them. So in Loreto, you're talking about close to 25 different Indigenous groups, different languages, traditions, people that have historically interacted with one another and also shaped one another’s practices. And that's a really rich part of this: we have had an opportunity to work with such a broad diversity of Indigenous groups.

Your team has been working in Loreto for the last 20 years. What has been the biggest surprise in that time?

That we’ve worked there at all! I started at the Field Museum in February 2003 and in April, I was in the field doing a rapid inventory in Loreto along the Yavari River. It was filled with fauna, just extraordinary, including uakari monkeys—their faces are naked and bright red. I have heard local people call them the “English monkey” or the “Dutch monkey” because it looks like a sunburned tourist. Gorgeous, and just huge, huge groups of them. We saw tons of wildlife. I remember thinking, “This place is a conservation paradise.”

We left the field and then went to present our results in the city of Iquitos in Loreto. After the presentation, there were heated discussions with loggers who wanted to be in that same place extracting timber. There was a ton of disagreement about how you should protect that area and it just felt like nobody was coordinated. And then the regional president at that time said, “Not one meter squared more for conservation. No.” And I thought, “Well, this was amazing, but clearly, we're not going to be spending more time here.” And then crazily enough, all these years later…I'm still in a canoe in Loreto. We’ve done 14 rapid inventories there and 13 new protected areas have been declared.

Loreto is within the most biodiverse corner of the Amazon basin, which is the most biodiverse place on the planet….People are very close to this biodiversity. You see this repeated across the world: cultural diversity and biological diversity are linked.

Corine Vriesendorp

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How did conservation become possible when it seemed impossible?

One reason is that Peruvians had done this amazing country-wide conservation planning exercise in the early ’90s that became law, called the Plan Director. They asked Peruvian and international scientists to weigh in on the area most important for conservation in Peru, and they created this bubble map of conservation focus areas, places that should at least be evaluated. There were 38 bubbles, 11 of which were already protected. The other 27, that’s where the Field Museum and others went and did rapid inventories. Having that level of comprehensive, country-wide planning—you're not saying, “Let's go battle by battle and look at one place at a time”—you are saying, “We are responding to an expert-level priority map.” It laid the foundation.

The second thing was Peru’s really generous and open-minded way of thinking about conservation. It was not fortress conservation, not “Here is a place we need to fence, lock up, set aside.” It was about doing conservation in a way that makes sense for Peruvian people and Peruvian biodiversity. For example, there are many different kinds of designations: not just national parks and sanctuaries, but national reserves, communal reserves, protected forests, and then regional conservation areas. Most of those areas were about direct use by people. When it became clear in the late 2000s that the regional government could manage its own regional areas and establish conservation areas that made sense for its voters, the people who lived in Loreto, that was huge. It has led to the declaration of four regional conservation areas since 2009.

Also, in the Field’s inventories, there was real power in having the combination of biological and social science evaluating what’s important about that place. To be able to say, “This is who lives there. These are their aspirations. This is how they think about and use this landscape.” If we had done just one or the other, those inventories would not have been useful—not at the pace at which we saw them be useful. Having everything together in one report, to be able to say, “Here's the snapshot of everything you need to know as a decision maker.”

What advice do you have for conservationists who want to get similar results?

You have to see the inventories as something that you're constructing together with people, step by step. You’re building agreements and saying, “This is what we are committed to, and this is what we expect from you. Here's what we're looking to do. Are you in?” You end up building a big coalition of folks where everyone knows that the information is created by everyone and for everyone. We build knowledge together and we’re very focused on being open and transparent. 

Moreover, it's not about just doing an inventory and handing over the information. It's actually about taking those next steps: What are the obstacles to creating this conservation area? How do we work on them together? How do we use the information and put it into a technical report or create a task force that can take this on? And it's about aligning those local aspirations with regional priorities, national priorities. That's when decision makers can say, “Yes, this makes sense to me. Green light.” And obviously, they gain political capital. Their job is to make decisions for the good of their country. Nobody wants to inherit a social-environmental conflict; they want to inherit a roadmap for making the right decisions, ones that will make their constituents’ lives better. 

From moment one, what we're trying to do is build a real community that believes, “Our report is going to reflect what local people are really good at, the way those people are organized and how they use this landscape, as well as what's special about this landscape biologically and geologically.” And that's how we build from the ground up. These, to me, are essential ingredients: You have to build the inventory from that broader perspective of bringing all this information together and carrying it all the way to the place where it allows a decision maker to make a decision. And you have to start with that perspective from the beginning. When you do that, you have a chance of going from on-the-ground social, biological, and geological science to new conservation areas that make sense for local people in the most diverse place in the world.