I can hear them start to pass us just before they zoom by, Jason’s laugh echoing as he whips his head around, his face lighting up in exhilaration. I clutch the vest of my moto-taxi driver, unaccustomed to the speed as we race through the streets of Puerto Maldonado. We weave in and out amongst Tuk-tuks and other motos, the sounds of a growing city reverberating around us.
Officially recognized and proudly touted by locals as Perú’s “capital of biodiversity,” Puerto Maldonado has become a city of contradictions. Recent mining and logging booms have caused rapid deforestation in the region, while contributing to the ever-increasing development and growth of the city. While there are numerous conservation and sustainable development projects based in and around Puerto Maldonado, the city has also been experiencing the increasingly devastating environmental impacts of mining, logging, and other practices. One of many is the prevalence of mercury within the food and water of the region– 78% of adults living in Puerto Maldonado were found to have levels of mercury in their hair above the global safety standard.
Our current destination, the headquarters of ARCAmazon, sits amongst this juxtaposed ‘development’ of the city and the rich biodiversity of the region. Formerly known (and still recognized by many locals) as “Tarantula Lodge,” the building sits nestled amidst a reforested plot of land close to the entrance of the city. Its distance from the road gives it a quiet appearance, but inside it is buzzing with activity. Volunteers and staff from across the globe gather here to prepare for trips into the field, where they participate research studies of the of flora and fauna found in the Las Piedras Watershed.
Jason and I arrive at the gate, paying our moto taxi drivers as we make conversation about jungle adventures. Their engines roar to life and then fade as we walk up the earthen pathway towards the house, the sounds of soft voices and laughter coming from the porch. I think back to the afternoon two days prior in which I entered the headquarters for the first time. Hefting my bags through the doorway, I was immediately met with a flurry of activity. In one corner, two volunteers were bent over a laptop, deep in discussion about bio-char and its possible applications in permaculture projects; meanwhile, several other people were preparing a meal in the kitchen, the house’s two adopted cats (Gringo and Henry) lingering around their feet. By the sofa, a ranger who had just recently returned from the field was passionately regaling volunteers (in gruesome detail) with the story of the process of removing the palm spines that had been embedded in his hand. Finally, rounding out the melody of conservation in action were the sounds of rapidly spoken Puerto Maldonado-style Spanish drifting into the room from where ArcAmazon’s executive director David Johnston was making a business call.
This variety of activities and discussions taking place illustrate not only of the energy found within ARCAmazon’s base of operations, but also of the diversity of strengths, philosophies, and interests within the staff of the organization and its affiliates. ARCAmazon is fuelled and maintained with a strong and unwavering passion for the jungle, the enthusiasm of its primary staff creating an atmosphere of strong purpose and drive.
Those who have done it will tell you that working in Puerto does, of course, present its challenges: culturally, environmentally, economically, and technologically. However, there is also much hope for both ARCAmazon and the future of the region. Pride in the local ecosystems can be found throughout the city—in its murals, its schools, and its locals. (In fact, if you start a conversation with the man behind the counter at Gustitos– a favorite local restaurant– you may find yourself discussing the potential for a better, more environmentally conscious world.) Furthermore, many young people in Puerto are eager to work to enact positive change in the community and the larger region of Madre de Dios. A strong example of this can be seen in Innova Madre de Dios, a collective of students and young professionals working for environmental and social change both within the local community and on a national level, whom Wild Forests and Fauna have been fortunate to sponsor and work with for the past several years.
Recent developments considered, many would view Puerto Maldonado as an uphill battle, environmentally speaking. However, while there may be much work ahead, there is a strong, diverse, and growing group within Puerto Maldonado and the surrounding region ready and willing to take on the challenges of conservation on the forest frontier.