Sunrise after the mist

A ray of hope in the tropical Andes

The mist clears in the Amazon after sunrise and the Andes are visible far in the horizon.  A group of visitors to an Amazon community walk alongside the river observing the fabulous fauna: parrots, river otters, monkeys and pink dolphins.  The community provides a plentiful breakfast of fruit like papaya, wild cocoa, nuts passion fruit, cocona. Amazed, the visitors asked the community about the origin of this wealth and beauty.  Don Pedro, the most knowledgeable member of the community, explained that the source of life was the river that emerged from the Andes far away in the horizon.   

The visitors could not understand how the arid Andes could give birth to the jungle.  Reading their questioning minds, Pedro explained that not all areas in the Andes are the same; there is one area where the Amazon clouds clash with the mountains, which is permanently foggy. "That is where my Awajun brothers live,"  Pedro continued, "as well as many other people, as it is a area with many riches. I have a young nephew there called Adam. When I was his age I lived there too, there were animals and more wealth than here, but when they opened the highway many people arrived and invaded our lands, the forests disappeared and that is why I came here. 

"My relatives who stayed there have suffered a lot; they lost their forest, animals, fruit, fish and even their customers. The situation was so serious that we have even suffered here, as some years the river was so shallow that we could not even use the canoes.

"As I am inquisitive and missed my family, I returned there last year and that is when I met my nephew Adam. Of course I explained how everything had changed, but it was not all bad; even though all had seemed lost, I found hope. My Awajun brothers were recovering their land and the forests, the children of the settlers who had arrived to deforest were not only reforesting but taking care of the forests that protect the headwaters, the children were learning ancient customs and the importance of the forest and even the Mayors were concerned about the problem; In fact, I even felt like staying there.

"I could not understand what was happening, so I asked my brothers; one of them told me to ask Adam.  Adam? I asked in amazement – he is just a young boy, he knows nothing.  You are mistaken, said my uncle, the oldest member of the family; we used to think that too, but unlike many others, he values our culture and takes full advantage of the knowledge of outsiders.  He and other youths are making these changes that are not only pleasing to you but are making us all happy.  With growing uncertainty, I asked myself what could have happened to make this wise old man say something like that?  Although still small, the changes were evident and I could not have doubts about my family, much less my uncle, but….. a young boy?  Then my uncle reminded me that many young people in our history have brought our dying word back to life, starting with “Etsa”, the spirit of the forest, the model that they have followed."

"So as not to continue the discussion, I went out for a walk through the community, observing how they were reforesting the farms and sowing coffee; I even saw one young girl teaching her father to fertilize some infertile land.  In the distance, a young man called out to me – Uncle Pedro, he said. It was my nephew Adam.  That is how I met this boy who reminded me of my father, sure of himself and talkative.  We struck up a conversation immediately, as though we had always known each other. Adam asked me what my land was like before and I did not hesitate to tell him all about my childhood and my youth, the river, the forest and the mountains, but also how the highway appeared and why I decided to leave. Then I asked him what he was doing to recover what had been lost.  Adam went straight to the point, telling me that not only this community but others had reflected on the problem and sought help to achieve their dream of recovering and preserving their land and the forests.  Practical Action was the institution that took notice, he said; thanks to them and the funds provided by the Zurich foundation, these improvements began. There are several stories; he told me how teachers were now teaching these new customs, led by a distant cousin of his, Pancho Tanques."

Pancho Tanques is a teacher and the official responsible for bilingual education in the San Martín department of Peru’s Amazon Region.  He has just finished reviewing a document, and he says: “It’s been a long piece of work, but a productive one.  14 of us teachers ended up helping to write this document.  It is the first text on environmental education for children, written in our language and in Spanish.”  He takes a sheet of paper out of his desk, and shows it to us: “Look, this is a copy of the Ministry’s approval of this text in Spanish for its official use in elementary schools, and now we have corrected the Awajun version.”  He adds: “The version in Awajun has also been approved, and although we are behind schedule, the important thing is that we now have good documents, made by ourselves.  Now we need the training for the rest of the teachers, and we need to print the texts and get them distributed to the school children”.

He also introduced me to a friend of his, Roxana, who like Adam had received training as a technical leader and promoter.  There are about 15 of them, one from each community.

Miss. Roxana Taki told us: “At first only a few of us believed; some people said it’s not worth planting trees because they take too long to grow; others said they’re having us on; but now that we have planted them and our trees are growing, everyone wants to have them.  In my group we decided to help them and we have given them some trees.  They are going to join the group for the second agricultural campaign”.

In these simple, frank terms, Roxana expressed what is happening as a result of the project. Then Adam wanted to introduce me to his best friend, so he took me to 2 de mayo, a nearby community.  To my surprise, this young man was not a native but the son of a settler.  His name was Deymer and this is his story:
“I’m a promoter,” he said.  “A promoter is a person who has been selected by his community to learn with the project and to teach everyone in the community about his experience.  I have been to Moyobamba, and I’ve learnt a lot of things, for example I’ve learnt about climate change and how important the forest is in defending us from an excess of rain and from drought.  I also visited the communities of our Awajun brothers – they still have a lot of forest land”.  Deyner looked up towards the top of the hill and told us: “Look up there, our hill still has forest, and that is what is protecting us”.   He immediately took us up to the forest.  Deyner continued: “Thanks to the project, I organised my community and we have decided to conserve this forest.  It’s about 60 hectares, but that’s all that is left – the rest is cultivated land.  In this forest we have our last sources of water, and we have a lot of trees.  The project has taught us the value of the plants and animals, too.  For example, we’ve got a lot of different types of wood here: shapana, cedar, mashona, mashonaste, and many types of moena . . .”  He was enumerating the different types of trees we encountered on the way, when he suddenly stopped and looked up: at the top of one of the trees, the green of the leaves was interrupted by splashes of bright orange colour.  It was a group of orchids in full bloom.  

Deyner then set off walking again, and looking down at the ground, he said: “We must be careful, this is a natural nursery, the seeds fall and form shoots; now they are nearly ready to take them to the reforestation: that’s what we learnt in the training module about nurseries”.  After this, Deyner took us up to the top of the hill.  Although it was such a difficult path, the beauty of the Amazon cloud forest kept us in good spirits.  In the distance a tree stood out from the rest: a truly majestic tree.  “That’s a mahogany”, said Deyner, “I harvest seeds from this tree and sell them.  I learnt that from the project, too”.

Finally, my nephew took me to the municipal offices, where to my surprise we were greeted by the Mayor himself,  who funnily enough was also called … Pedro.  Pedro Frías is not only a good person and an honourable education professional, but this year he has become the Mayor of Alonso de Alvarado Roque.  He is determined to carry out an administration with a difference. Last year (when he was a candidate), he took part in an internship trip to the area of Chinchipe, where Practical Action had already been working for several years.  There he saw the work being done, and decided that in his period as mayor he would do something similar. Pedro tells us: “This year we have earmarked 6000 soles for reforestation, but next year it will be twice as much, and we’ve got a bigger team of professionals to help the communities in their farms”.  The mayor’s declarations bear out the fact that the municipalities are increasing their support to small-scale producers.

Thus I was convinced that more than 700 families had triggered the change, which would be a long and difficult process, as deforestation can take only a few minutes, whereas reforestation can take years.  It was difficult for them to do so on their own, but with the help of Zurich and Practical Action, my brothers are doing it gradually.  Adam bid me farewell, saying that he would see the results when he is old and that the next generations will be able to feel as happy as I was when I was a child.  Meanwhile, we must look after what is left and show everyone the beauty of our world.

This article first appeared in the annual report of Practical Action's Forest Project in San Martin, Peru, 2012

Tropical forests

Practical Action seeks to improve the livelihoods of poor people in tropical forest ecosystems through the development and use of agroforestry technologies, conservation and sustainable management of natural resources.

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