Residents form ecotourism corridor in Peru


On a bluff overlooking the Tambopata River, Beatriz Yabar Álvarez raised nine children in the simple, tree-fringed family homestead where she has lived for more than six decades. “We came looking for a place to live and farm, because there was no other work around here,” Yabar says, swatting at mosquitoes swarming above puddles left by a tropical rainstorm.

A daughter died at age 2, but the others grew up, marking the years by the rise and fall of the muddy brown river winding past the farm. The family raised pigs, cattle, chickens and fruit, and the children walked an hour to school along a narrow trail that was eventually turned into a track wide enough for bicycles, and finally into a dirt road.

One by one, the children left home to study, launch careers and start families of their own. All except the youngest, Percy Balarezo, who preferred the dense, damp darkness of the tropical forest to a classroom. “When I’m in the woods, I don’t want to leave,” he says.

He worked in a shipyard in Japan for a time in the 1990s, but returned for a visit and decided to stay. Back in the forest he’d loved as a boy, he mapped trails, taking six months to clear two loops that wind up a hillside past vine-draped trees and a lake. He called the place “Paradise.”

“I had the idea that other people might like this, too,” Balarezo says of “El Parayso,” a 16-hectare (40-acre) tract of the family’s land, which now includes cabins, trails, fruit trees and a clump of palms where a troop of monkeys spends the night. Other neighbors along the road—most of them, as in his case, children of original settlers—worried about encroaching urban sprawl from Puerto Maldonado, the fast-growing capital of the Madre de Dios region in southeastern Peru.

Seeing economic opportunity along with the threat, they formed the Association of Agroecotourism Operators of Lower Tambopata. Last year, the local government recognized the 11-kilometer (6.8-mile) stretch of road along the Tambopata River, just outside the city, as the area’s first ecotourism corridor.

In a region rich in biological diversity but plagued by unplanned growth, geography and a committed group of people have combined to make the Isuyama Lower Tambopata Tourism Corridor both a buffer zone and a novel business enterprise, according to tourism operator Kurt Holle.

“Most are residents who are committed to the forest,” says Holle, founder and owner of Rainforest Expeditions, which operates three lodges up the Tambopata River and is counseling the small-scale entrepreneurs along the corridor. “They have coinciding interests, and they’re the same type of person, [with a conservation vision].”

Beginning on the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado, the corridor follows the Tambopata River—a natural barrier to sprawl—and abuts the Tambopata Natural Reserve, a biodiversity hotspot that is a popular destination for both tourists and scientists.

Madre de Dios has long been a magnet for well-heeled visitors seeking a tropical wilderness experience without too many discomforts. Operators of upscale jungle lodges whisk tourists straight from the airport and send them upriver in motorboats. Most visitors never set foot in Puerto Maldonado.

Balarezo and his neighbors see the corridor as a place where tourists with less money and time—or people doing business in Puerto Maldonado for a few days—can replace the endless rumble of mototaxis with the buzz of cicadas.

In this remote corner of Peru, which is now the country’s fastest-growing region, the group is swimming against the tide. Wildcat miners are flocking to the area in a Klondike-style gold rush, and satellite photos show deforestation increasing around the mining camps and along the newly paved Interoceanic Highway from the Brazilian border to the Pacific coast. (See “Scramble for gold scars Madre de Dios region”—EcoAméricas, Feb. ’08.)

The highway has brought promise and peril. Easier access increases pressure on the environment, but also makes the rainforest experience available to tourists who don’t have the money or time for a visit to an upscale jungle lodge.

From the center of town, a 10-minute ride in a three-wheeled mototaxi takes visitors to Villa Hermosa, at the beginning of the corridor, where Manuel Rubio offers hearty regional fare, such as smoked pork and mashed plantains, along with a spring-fed swimming pool.

Some of his neighbors offer lodging, others lead nature tours and one has started a native plant garden. At the end of the road is a wildlife refuge where volunteers can help care for injured animals. There’s even a jungle commune, where visitors can wake up and wind down with morning and evening yoga classes and sample ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic potion used by native shamans throughout the Amazon. “This is a group of people who have a dream,” says Rocío Martínez, a young biologist who is helping with planning and marketing of the corridor. “Almost all of them are from here or have roots here.”

One whose roots run deep is Víctor Zambrano, whose parents were among the region’s first homesteaders. Returning from a military career after his parents died, Zambrano found that squatters had turned the land into a farm cooperative. After running them off, “I looked at the landscape sadly and challenged myself to turn this area into forest again,” he says.

Zambrano experimented, planting native trees commonly found in second-growth Amazonian forest. Twenty-five years and some 19,000 seedlings later, it is difficult to believe the Refugio K’erenda Homet—a melding of words from the Harakmbut and Ese’eja languages that means “brilliant dawn”—was once cow pasture. Nowadays, hikers may see peccaries, anacondas or black caimans. And within meters of his house, Zambrano points out plants for treating a cough, rheumatism or menstrual cramps.

Last September, Peru’s Environment Ministry declared part of Zambrano’s land and plots belonging to three other landowners the first private conservation areas in Madre de Dios. Recognized for their biological diversity, such areas are designated for periods of 10 years or more.

Zambrano made his a reserve in perpetuity and deeded the land to daughter Kerenda, 14, the only one of his five children, he says, who feels as close to the land as her father. “It’s the legacy I’m leaving for the next generation,” says Zambrano. “Everything you see around you bears my mark.”

Tourists, students and volunteers from a dozen countries—even a British ambassador—have spent time at K’erenda Homet, and Zambrano sees growing potential for tourism, especially with the visitors who flock to riverside beaches during the summer.

To him, the Interoceanic Highway is a mixed blessing.

“It was a long-time desire,” he says of the improved road, which for decades was a carpet of dust in summer and a near-impassable morass during the rainy season. “We were always isolated, and we always wanted to have that road. Living here was like being in another country. The sad thing is that it brings people who are destructive.”

Critics said from the start that impact-mitigation efforts for the road were insufficient. (See “Ready or not, Peru to become crossroads”—EcoAméricas, May ’06).

“It should have been accompanied by a development plan for people living along the route,” Zambrano says.

The assistance provided by Rainforest Expeditions and Martínez is part of a belated mitigation plan launched by Odebrecht and Conirsa, the highway construction companies, along with Conservation International and ProNaturaleza, a Peruvian environmental organization, to boost conservation and sustainable local development along the highway.

Rubio says he especially appreciates advice on improving customer service and business management. “By forming an association, we can accomplish more than we could do on our own,” he says.

Pierina Zlater also believes in the power of collective effort, but her idea goes beyond tourism. Raised in a Russian-Brazilian immigrant family that settled in Madre de Dios, she moved to Lima, but still felt the tug of her rainforest roots. “After I left, the jungle always called to me,” says Zlater, who returned to her family’s land after a divorce and built a maloca—the open, thatch-roofed, raised dwelling typical of many Amazonian indigenous groups—where she lived until she could build a cabin.

Like Balarezo, Zlater thought others would share the call, and she set out to make it happen. The result is Kapievi, which Zlater calls an “ecovillage” and describes as “an ecological condo,” but which has the feel of a 60s-style commune transported from Haight-Ashbury to the jungle, its orchids giving “flower power” an exotic twist.

Four families live at Kapievi, and there are cabins for guests, who can start the day with a yoga class in the maloca, followed by breakfast of cereal, cheese, fresh fruit and yogurt. One of Zlater’s daughters, Katharina Peñaloza, manages the lodging and leads yoga classes, while the other, Andrea Toledo, organizes nature tours.

Zlater has bought a larger tract of land up the mountain, where she has offered courses in permaculture, or sustainable land use. She hopes the smallholders along the road will eventually be able to create one large private conservation area, taking advantage of the benefits of tourism while guarding against the potential problems of inevitable growth.

She is encouraged by the amount of pasture that has already returned to jungle, providing animal habitat. “That’s our dreaming—a paradise,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s a dream or a reality that’s already happening.”

At the far end of the corridor, Magali Salinas is connected to her neighbors by more than the road—her son is married to Zlater’s older daughter. Salinas’ land is dotted with screened and fenced enclosures holding an odd assortment of residents—a peccary injured by a hunter, a deer with a broken leg, two macaws with broken wings, several black capuchin monkeys, including a tiny one just a few months old.

She says hunters often kill female animals for food, keeping their young as pets until they tire of them or the animals become too big to handle. Those creatures and injured animals end up at her Amazon Shelter refuge.

“I’m neither a veterinarian nor a biologist. I’m an eternal lover of animals,” says Salinas, who worked at an animal rescue center in Lima before moving to Puerto Maldonado.

To defray the considerable cost of food and veterinary care, she takes in guests, as well as volunteers who want to help with animal care and learn about wildlife. Her goal is to rehabilitate and release as many of her charges as possible, though she knows some will not survive in the wild. In February, two veterinarians taught at the shelter, providing students rare hands-on experience—and the animals a thorough checkup.

Salinas’ animal refuge is at the end of the corridor, but the principle of rural community tourism reaches farther upriver to Baltimore, a tiny riverside community that allegedly takes its name from the destination stamped on crates of latex shipped to the United States during the rubber-boom years.

Bordering the Tambopata Reserve, Baltimore offers visitors a hybrid experience—community activities such as fishing, thatching a roof, gathering medicinal plants or harvesting local fruits, combined with typical jungle-lodge offerings, including an early-morning visit to a parrot clay lick or an after-dark hike to spot the glowing eyes of nocturnal prowlers.

As in the case of the tourism corridor, Baltimore’s promise lies as much in its people as its place. “It’s an authentic experience—everything they offer is based on what they know how to do,” says Martínez, who helps Baltimore’s residents with marketing. “They have entrepreneurial blood. When they receive tourists, they reinvest the money [to improve facilities]. They have a vision of the future.”

- Barbara Fraser

Percy Balarezo
El Parayso
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(51 982) 717-840
Kurt Holle
Owner and founder
Rainforest Expeditions
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 993-512-258
Website: www.perú,
Rocío Martínez
Isur Tambopata Reserve, buffer zone project
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(51 982) 616-151
Víctor and Eduardo Ramírez
El Gato
Baltimore, Peru
Tel: +(51 982) 742-101
Manuel Rubio
Villa Hermosa
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(51 82) 79-2572
Víctor Zambrano
Refugio K’erenda Homet
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(51 982) 737-397
Pierina Zlater
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(511) 999-216-771