On the 4th of February, 2012, the government of Loreto declared Maijuna a regional conservation area in Peru. The area protects 970,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest, an area bigger than the state of Rhode Island. How did a group of Field Museum scientists play a critical role?
Nueva Vida, one of the four Maijuna communities bordering the new protected area. A. del Campo
In July of 2009, Field Museum scientists were invited to the fourth annual Maijuna congress, a yearly meeting of the four Maijuna communities. The Maijuna, once a large indigenous group in northern Peru, now number only 200 adults.
The Field Museum attends the Maijuna congress in Sucusari in 2009. A. del Campo
Over the course of three days, we heard not only Maijuna songs and stories, but also reports of a looming threat: a proposed road that would bisect the lands where the Maijuna live, fish, hunt, and gather.
The road would bisect the heart of the conservation area, the rare high terraces, and crucial cultural areas for the Maijuna. J. Markel
We talked about our inventory program, and how we can pull together museum science and traditional knowledge to make a case for the biological and cultural importance of the area. Together, these shared stories and experiences were the catalyst for the rapid inventory four months later. Never before have we assembled an inventory so quickly.
The rapid inventory team. A del Campo
In September of 2009, the advance team went into the field to cut trails and establish the two campsites. We did not use helicopters; instead we traveled to the Maijuna lands in boats along the Napo River, transferred gear and people to a flotilla of dugout canoes (peque-peques) to travel up the Yanayacu River, and then carried equipment on foot along more than 18 kilometers of trail.
Navigating the shallow upper reaches of the Yanayacu River in dugout canoes. A. del Campo.
In October 2009, the team began its inventory of the headwaters of the Napo and Algodón rivers, tributaries of the large Amazon and Putumayo rivers, and ancestral lands of the Maijuna. We found a vast wilderness that harbors a full sample of the enormous diversity typical of western Amazonia.
Ichthyologists found a handful of fish species new to science. A. del Campo
In two weeks in the field we recorded 800 species of plants, 132 of fish, 364 of birds, 32 of large mammals, and 108 of frogs, snakes, and lizards. Perhaps our most unexpected find were a series of high terraces in the heart of the area.
High terraces in orange, the yellow line is the Peru-Colombia border. J. Markel.
Not only are they unlike any formation we’ve seen in other parts of Loreto, but they are chock-full of new plant species, as well as supporting healthy populations of a recently discovered bird species (a Herpsilochmus see image below).
The new Herpsilochmus. Princeton University Press
Our work in the field is always deeply collaborative. We worked closely with Michael Gilmore of George Mason University, an ethnobiologist who has spent more than a decade working with the Maijuna. In Iquitos, we worked with our colleagues in PROCREL, the relatively new regional conservation program, IIAP, the local research institute, and Nature and Culture International, a conservation organization.
Conservation really does take a village. A. del Campo
After leaving the field, we spent a week writing up our results, generating recommendations, and evaluating threats and opportunities. More than 80 people attended the presentation of our results. We were fortunate that Yvan Vásquez, regional president, arrived to hear one of our strongest recommendations: to rethink the proposed road that would bisect the area and open this intact forest to colonization and thousands of hectares of planned palm oil plantations and biofuel development.
After the presentation, President Vásquez spoke beautifully about the importance of reconciling the urban perspective with that of forest-dwellers, or “la perspectiva de los bosquecinos,” and stated that the most critical measures of the feasibility of this road project should be the quality of life of local residents and the road’s environmental impact. He did not oppose the road outright, but suggested considering alternatives e.g., a train rather than a road, or an alternative route.
President Vásquez reflects on the importance of diversity. J. Markel.
The Maijuna, in their own language, stated simply that they did not want the road. The Maijuna then translated their message into Spanish, "Queremos proteger. No queremos la carreterra. Eso es todo." (We want to protect. We don’t want the road. That’s all).
The Maijuna’s way of life depends on the health of the nearby rivers and forests.
We published the Maijuna rapid inventory report in July 2010. The presentation of the results was emotional and the Maijuna were in buoyant spirits.
Leaders from each of the four Maijuna communities with their inventory books. A. del Campo
Sebastian Ochoa (far right) is a co-editor of the rapid inventory report. He helped craft our conservation recommendations and translated the executive summary into Maijuna (Máíj+qui).
Adrian Bravo talks about mammals with Liberato and other Maijuna. A. del Campo.
Now, in 2012, the regional government has declared a new regional conservation area, less than three years after our first conversations with the Maijuna. This historic moment reflects a concentrated team effort of many organizations and individuals. The Field Museum’s rapid inventory team is thrilled for our Maijuna colleagues and friends, and proud that a combination of museum science and traditional knowledge served as the foundation for making a conservation decision that makes sense for local residents and local biodiversity.