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  • Writer's pictureChris Kirkby

Lifeworks: Improving the Ecotourism Potential of a Local Community (by James Mailer, volunteer)

23 July 2010

Picture time

Fauna Forever and Lifeworks, an organisation which provides opportunities for teenagers from around the world to volunteer abroad, teamed up in July with two main aims: to help young students experience the beauty and at times harsh reality of life in the Amazon and also, to help one particular local community on the Tambopata River, Baltimore, rebuild the ceiling of their school/community centre, and renew a rundown bird observation hide managed by one of the community families, the Ramirez’s, to observe parrots and macaws that visit daily a clay-lick located on the banks of the El Gato Stream – an attractive activity for visiting ecotourists and birdwatchers. Ecotourism can provide a good income for anyone living in easily accessible parts of the Amazon rainforest if developed with the right set of guidelines and ethical approach such that it becomes a sustainable economic activity for a community. This is also great news for the local environment because a job (or an entire family’s living in the case of the Ramirez's) in ecotourism will have far less of an impact on the environment than a job in say gold-mining, logging, or bushmeat hunting. Using land for ecotourism also helps promote a healthy forest, as ecotourists are unlikely to be impressed with a very impacted forest devoid of wildlife, and thus foments forest protection.

With these goals in mind, Lifeworks met Fauna Forever (FF) in Puerto Maldonaldo (PEM); home to the FF team, capital of the Madre de Dios region of Peru, and just a short 30-minute flight from the city of Cusco. Dave and James, the FF representatives in PEM, welcomed Lifeworks coordinators Dan, Hilary and Willem, with their group of 18 students from the USA, to this small jungle town. The students were aged between 13 and 17 years old.

The journey began with a whistle-stop tour of PEM including a supermarket stop, forest fruit ice-creams, and a spot of sightseeing, the most poignant being the Billinghurst Bridge that is currently being constructed over the mighty Madre de Dios River. The bridge is the final piece of the new Interoceanic Highway connecting the east coast of Brazil with the west coast of Peru, which will provide an opportunity for Brazil to export more goods to China. The traffic expected when this bridge is completed will create a wave of activity along the entire stretch of the highway with projections indicating that over a 30 year period 30 miles (50 kilometres) of rainforest will be destroyed (for farming) each side of the highway, as large portions of the route cuts through pristine forest.

The El Gato Waterfall

The group then set off from the Tambopata River port on a boat to the Baltimore Community. After a breathtaking 4-hour journey upriver we all arrived at the El Gato guest house, pleasantly situated near a small waterfall at the confluence of the El Gato Stream and Tambopata River. The entire community is comprised of only 22 inhabitants, although the group was located at the home of the Ramirez family (5 members). This was a long way from home for the students, without any luxuries such as hot water, windows, electricity or modern toilets. It was impressive to see how well most of them adopted their new environment with intrigue, while slowly submersing their mindset into ‘the wild’.

The most amazing part of the trip for many of the students was ‘the night walk’. Each evening the group filed slowly through the darkness behind Dave or one of the research coordinators, with their flashlights swooping in all directions, encountering an array of creatures including an amazon tree boa, a tree runner (a type of lizard), a southern tamandua, whiptail-scorpion spiders, caiman, dung beetles, owls, stick insects, bullet ants, leaf cutter ants, scorpions, tarantulas and much more. Holding a blunt-headed tree snake was a highlight, especially for those who had not wanted to see a snake at all during their time in the jungle.

Bathing in the river was a regular activity

During the two full days at the community, the students worked hard to ensure that the bird-hide was well constructed and that the ceiling of the school was completed too. The group split into two which encouraged some friendly rivalry, mainly among the FF coordinators. Everyone did extremely well on both projects as they alternated day to day, especially considering the hot, humid, and sometimes mosquito-ridden conditions! The difficulties all washed away very quickly with a swim in the El Gato Waterfall at the end of each day, a perfect reward for everyone after much hard work. While washing and relaxation were the priorities of our daily swims, mud fights made staying clean difficult. When you can’t beat them though, you simply have to join in!

On the fourth day, the group woke before dawn and said a sad farewell to delicious home-cooked meals by Mama Teresa (the mother of the household), the sound of the waterfall, the star-drenched nights, the fruit trees, and our friend the Trumpeter bird (one of the family pets)! Off we travelled to Explorer’s Inn ( which is situated downriver at the confluence of the La Torre and Tambopata Rivers. The trip was a fresh three-hour ride through the new day’s tranquil sunbeams breaking through the trees. Explorers Inn was built in 1975 and was the first ecolodge built within the Tambopata region. The students enjoyed the improved comfort and were able to relax after working at Baltimore. After an interesting butterfly talk by FF’s insect team coordinator, Ashley Anne Colewick, there was a long walk to Lake Cocococha, paddling around on two catamaran-style boats and getting up close and personal with some hefty black caiman and family of giant otters which provided a fun-filled afternoon for all. The day finished off with a final night walk lead by FF’s herpetofauna team coordinator, Brian Crnobrna, and his ‘mad herper’ volunteer, Madison Wise, who both pointed out a couple of very pretty tree frogs clinging to the leaves of a treelet.

The next day, after another early rise and a visit to the local clay-lick to see the local red-and-green macaws, the group headed back to Puerto Maldonado to catch their flight to Cusco. There was just one final surprise waiting on the river bank. Some people live years in the rainforest without seeing a big cat, but the group was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Puma on their final boat ride to town. Some of us, however, were fast asleep and sat up too late to see it!

It had been a jam-packed few days full of adventure, excitement and learning. Perhaps it will help to inspire some of the students to continue on, to learn more about the areas that interested them on the trip such as photography, anthropology, science or ecology. The curiosity and desire to learn about the rainforest shown by the students was the real beauty of this trip and was a pleasure to witness for all of us at Fauna Forever. Time will tell how much the journey influenced the students and if they will perhaps choose to follow an ecological and sustainable path in line with our very own here in the Amazon, but we think one thing is for sure, that the hard work they put in to help the local community, coupled with long walks and boat rides in the depths of the mighty Amazon rainforest, will stay with them forever.

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