Earlier this year, on January 12th, the Peruvian government announced the designation of South America's newest national park. It is tucked away in the furthest north west corner of the country known as the Loreto region, just along the Columbian border where the mighty Amazon river meanders its way from Brazil. The Putumayo river, a large tributary of the Amazon serves as the main water source, creating a large, interconnected river basin where the water moves so slowly it can be difficult to discern what is truly a river. The closest town of any size is Iquitos, sometimes known as the capitol of Peruvian Amazon, that serves as the main port of trade between the area and the rest of the country. However, even from there, the park is still days journey away by any traditional mode of transportation. It is here, on a patch of land measured at over 860,000 hectares, that now sits Yaguas National Park, so named both after one of the rivers and one of the indigenous communities it protects.
Although the Amazon rain forest stretches over around 60% of the country, Yaguas National Park is unique in its unrivaled biological diversity and relatively unspoiled nature. Its designation as a national park is the culmination of decades of effort from local indigenous communities, as well as national and international conservation groups including the Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (SERNANP), Peru's national agency for the protection of natural areas.
This new national park is not only home to multiple endangered and rarely seen species, like the giant river otter, but its dense biodiversity is such that is rarely seen in the natural world. In fish alone there are thought to be over 500 distinct species within the borders of the park, one of the richest sites in the world with regards to diversity in fish and representing over 60% of species present in Peru. This is in addition to the projected numbers of 160 distinct species of mammals, 500 species of birds, 110 species of amphibians, and 100 species of reptiles thought to be present. Not to mention around 3,500 species of plants in this one park alone. For ecologists and conservationists, Yaguas National Park is a treasure trove. In the river one might see freshwater pink river dolphins and manatees. In the air it may be harpy eagles or hoatzins. Everywhere, the fast growing nature of the rain forest is such that one might forget about the influence of man. That, it until running into evidence of illegal mining or logging operations.
Multiple environmental watch groups, SERNANP included, have in recent years used the area now known as Yaguas National Park as site for biological and geological research in the hopes to prove the immeasurable value of the park and the need for its continued and increased protection. Not only have they documented no small amount of the varied species in the area but also identified its other point of great importance, its essential role as a carbon sink. As global concerns about carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels grow, untouched forests such as this which store atmospheric carbon become increasingly valuable and in need of preservation.
Additionally, the site of the new park is home to upwards of 1,000 indigenous people who rely upon the land to maintain their way of life. Leaders of local indigenous communities, from the Bora, Mürui, Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, and Yagua peoples, were instrumental in the successful designation of the park and are often the fiercest proponents of conservation. These communities, due to their remote location, rely upon subsistence hunting. It is also to be considered that the communities now present in the area are the remnants of much larger populations of indigenous peoples whose numbers were decimated as part of the rubber boom. Entire communities have already been indelibly shaped by the exploitation of their natural resources.
Furthermore, additional damage to the ecosystem in which they live has the potential to dangerously affect population levels of animals considered essential to their diet. In this way, environmental conservation meets economic benefits for the national government. By maintaining the ability of local communities to be self sufficient, it is estimated that the Peruvian government will benefit to the tune of over US$7,000,000.
Unfortunately the Amazonian rain forest, particularly that of Peru, has been under increased threat by illegal logging and mining efforts. Those areas of the Amazon, like this one, that were spared from the rubber boom now must worry about deforestation and illegal mining efforts, some searching for gold and others searching for the plentiful oil deposits present in the region. In fact, expeditions facilitating the formation of the park were at times met by violence from mining groups aware that they were operating in the area illegally.
Logging and mining efforts not only scar the land with their heavy machinery and clear cutting but also leave poisonous chemicals in their wake. Mercury, in particular, is used heavily in the gold refining process, regardless of the significant health risk to the miners themselves. In high enough quantities it can cause irreversible brain and damage to internal organs. This mercury inevitably makes its way into the river, therefore the water supply, and from there has the potential to poison the entire forest. As it flows downstream the problem continues and has the potential to produce irreversible symptoms of the neurological toxin in animals and people miles away. The placement of Yaguas National Park in a river basin means that any change to the water supply will be felt throughout.
The fact that this stretch of jungle is still relatively untouched presented a rare opportunity for conservationists to protect it from further damage, an opportunity that will only become less common and more essential as the world continues to see the effects of climate change. By preserving the park as a protected area, this stretch of jungle at least is made safe. The benefits of designating the area specifically as a national park are two fold. It places stronger legal protections on the land and it diverts funding for increased physical protection.
The area protected by Yaguas National Park is densely wooded and free of roads. The only viable ways in and out of the park are through the river. A key aspect to the Yaguas National park preservation effort is in the placement of a ranger station at the main point of entry, the Yaguas river. Although indigenous communities will be able to travel freely both by land and by waterways, individuals and groups interested in bringing large scale operations and equipment into the protected area have little choice but to travel by water. In addition to placing strengthened legal protections on the area, the transition of the Yaguas Reserved Zone to Yaguas National Park increases priority and funding for SERNANP to physically provide protection. Just by placing this increased protection at these key locations in the park, the amount of illegal logging and mining is expected to be significantly reduced.
Beyond the victory the designation of a new national park presents for conservationists Yaguas National Park presents a victory for cultural preservationists as well. Peru has been coming under fire recently for failures to protect sites of cultural significance. Just this February, the famous UNESCO registered Nazca lines were dealt irreparable damage by a commercial truck driver who diverged from the nearby highway, scarring the land in the name of a shortcut. With plans now moving forward to allow highways to further penetrate the Peruvian Amazon, preservation concerns regarding current indigenous tribes and their sacred sites have only risen higher. Because of the extreme biodiversity present in the region of Loreto surrounding the Yaguas and Putamayo tributaries of the Amazon river, the land protected by the newly formed Yaguas National park, it has long been considered a sacred space by local tribes, known to many as “sachamama”. By setting aside the park for preservation the Peruvian government protects these sacred sites from further legal and illegal exploitation of their natural resources.
Elsewhere in the Peruvian Amazon, Canadian oil and gas company Pacific Exploration and Production has also recently decided to abandon legal prospecting efforts in Sierra del Divisor National Park. As with Yaguas National Park, the area is faced with concerns regarding the effect of large scale oil drilling efforts on local indigenous populations “uncontacted” and separated from modern society due to their extreme remote location.
Sierra del Divisor National Park, itself, was only established in November of 2015 on a staggeringly large (approximately 1.3 million hectares) swath of land along the Peruvian-Brazilian border which places it within multiple Peruvian provinces, including Loreto. The land that was to be affected by these oil drilling efforts stretches over nearly half of the national park and over areas protected specifically to shield indigenous inhabitants residing in isolation.
This move, to abandon this plot of land that is known as Lot 135, is in the wake of efforts by the Organización Regional de los Pueblos Indigenas del Oriente (ORPIO) in 2017 to sue the government agencies responsible for granting the concession to the Canadian company. This is on the grounds that the indigenous peoples residing within the park have a constitutionally protected right to continued isolation, as well as conservation of the land in its natural state, in order to preserve their way of life. It has been argued that even newly proposed plans to expand the peruvian highway system puts this right to isolation at risk. In recent years there have been multiple large scale efforts by indigenous communities in the region of Loreto to impress upon the national government the need for further natural preservation, including a promise to block future efforts of oil extraction. Upon the revelation that prospecting groups operating within the land in question have observed, on multiple occasions, evidence of indigenous peoples, such as missing food, and brief glimpses of “naked” individuals there have been multiple campaigns in the last few years urging the Canadian company to leave Lot 135.
Although the company has plans to officially leave the lot as of March 13th, purportedly due to financial concerns, ORPIO retains its lawsuit in the hope to get the land reevaluated and placed under more comprehensive legal protection. This would prevent the land being used in the future from being used for the exploitation of its natural resources.
These increased environmental protection efforts in South America comes in sharp contrast to efforts to roll back protections on national parks and monuments in the United States under the administration of President Trump. Specifically, those intended to shrink national monuments in order to remove restrictions on mineral and oil companies leasing protected land. Promises made early on in his presidency prompted famous resistance movements on the part of park rangers and environmental activists, as well as the resignation of multiple National Park System advisers. In hand with the United States' decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord these these actions show the priorities of what is arguably the strongest power in the western hemisphere. It has been made clear that the United States is choosing the rather short sighted value of the business opportunities associated with the exploitation of natural resources over the long term value of environmental preservation.
Yaguas National Park is a reminder that elsewhere in the world there are governments, independent organizations, and diverse communities dedicated to the preservation of our natural resources and dedicated to fighting the very real effects of global climate change.
Image source: Flickr