This summer, Protected Area Conservation Intern Sara Velander worked with Rainforest Trust partner CEDIA to assist with community projects in Peru. Sara’s reflections on her experiences are below.
Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Sara and I am an undergraduate student at College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, ME) majoring in human ecology with a concentration in socio-ecological resilience and climate policy. This summer I interned for Rainforest Trust as their protected area conservation intern, where I assisted their long-standing partner, the Center for the Development of the Indigenous Amazon (CEDIA), with community projects in the Loreto district of the Peruvian Amazon. My overall objective of this field assignment in Peru was to learn about how organizations, like CEDIA, collaborate with local communities in the conservation of natural areas and to recognize the environmental, social and economic benefits of securing land rights for communities, which CEDIA has been doing since its inception in 1982.
CEDIA is a Peruvian organization that works with communities to create protected areas through a strategy called participative conservation. In Amazonian Peru, indigenous and farming communities often do not have ownership to their land, making them more vulnerable to exploitation by illegal loggers and development projects. It is therefore essential for them to obtain legal land titles to fight land grabbing and deforestation of their land. CEDIA works directly with these communities to achieve land autonomy by helping them with social organization, capacity-building and natural resource management. Once CEDIA creates partnerships with indigenous and/or farmer communities, they collaborate to create communal protected areas to promote sustainability of the natural resources that these communities depend on for survival. By adopting this concept of participative conservation and working with people first to involve them in conservation, CEDIA protects natural areas and supports the forest-dependent livelihoods of farming and indigenous communities.
My internship adventures in the Peruvian Amazon started with a three-day community leaders’ congress in Nueva Esperanza, a small riverside community on River Tapiche, which is an eight-hour boat ride south of Iquitos. This was my first trip into the field with the general aim of learning about some of CEDIA´s social organization projects in communities located in the Tapiche basin. I was also part of the logistical team for the congress, meaning I arrived three days early to help prepare food, accommodations and a venue for the 35 or so farming and indigenous community leaders attending the congress. Arriving early also meant I had the chance to get to know the people of Nueva Esperanza and get acquainted with life in the rainforest.
During the congress, I had the opportunity to observe the formation of an inter-basin federation between 21 communities along the rivers Tapiche and Blanco. This inter-basin federation will enable community leaders to voice their communities’ concerns and ideas in local and regional government bodies with the aim of increasing community development and strengthening the social infrastructure in the buffer zone of Sierra del Divisor National Park and Matsés Community Reserve. In just three days, community leaders selected a name for the federation, a board of directors, a logo and a co-written constitution, all of which was done in a very democratic manner.
I was truly inspired as I witnessed the 35 community leaders working together in reaching a communal vision of having their voices heard beyond these two remotely located Amazon Rivers and to take control of their communities’ futures.
A lot of my time in Peru was also spent in Lima, at CEDIA’s office in the La Perla district. While there, I had the opportunity to practice my communication skills through translations of articles on CEDIA’s webpage, writing blogs, editing photos and synthesizing my notes from the field. I also befriended the administrative staff working at the Lima office and am forever grateful for their kindness. Not only did they take me out to lunch every day and help me with my minimal Spanish skills, but they also trained me in becoming a true Lima native, which means making the 30-minute commute solo in a crowded mini van and knowing where the best chifas (Chinese-Peruvian food) and cevicherias are located. During my three weeks in Lima, I learned about the immense amount of work that takes place behind-the-scenes of CEDIA’s numerous conservation and community projects and how dedicated the administrative staff is to CEDIA’s mission.
My second and final trip into the field was accompanying Alberto Romero Ramon, the president of CEDIA, for two communal meetings in two different communities on the Rivers Tapiche and Aleman. Along with motorist Argelio and two other CEDIA volunteers, we assisted Alberto in forming an assembly for a new board of directors of the community Tres Hermanos, as well as a communal meeting in another community called Cuatro Hermanos. Besides assisting Alberto at his meetings with community leaders and authorities, I was also on my own assignment to learn more about some of the natural resource management activities that communities engage in, particularly those supported by CEDIA.
Throughout our five days in the field, I toured farms in Galicia (one of the three villages in Tres Hermanos), as well as the farms and gardens of a community member in Monte Sinai (one of the four villages in Cuatro Hermanos). Their small-scale farms are characterized by the temporary slash-and-burn of small, isolated forest plots and multiple cropping practices which increases nutrients in the soil, facilitates plant growth, and makes crops more disease-resistant. The integration of shifting cultivation and agro-ecological strategies is crucial for the sustainability of the community’s natural resources as well as the continued economic and social support of the farmers’ livelihoods.
Although our trip was short in each community, the people we met in Galicia, Monte Sinai and Alfa y Omega were incredibly kind and generous– they prepared freshly-caught river fish for breakfast and lunch every day, showed us around their communities and shared mythological stories about the rainforest.
These experiences in Lima, Iquitos and the communities along the river Tapiche taught me many things about the important role that institutions, governments, local land-managers and community organizations have in protecting and managing natural resources. CEDIA’s and Rainforest Trust’s joint mission in promoting the communal management of natural protected areas ensures that the key needs and desires of the local land managers are respected and prioritized by organizations that have more political and financial power but not the necessary knowledge about the land– unlike the many indigenous and farmer communities that have inhabited these areas for generations.
Through this internship, I learned that to preserve the biodiverse rainforests in this area of the Amazon, community collaboration is necessary to provide community members with the power to manage their natural resources sustainably without feeling infringed upon. This is a major part of conservation that many conservation organizations often don’t recognize: to conserve nature one needs effective, organized management of natural resources which revolves around a strong, supportive social infrastructure provided by communities in the buffer zone of protected areas. CEDIA and Rainforest Trust are some of the few organizations that achieve this type of nature conservation through their facilitated inclusion of local landowners in conservation projects in addition to their dedication in protecting the bio- and cultural diversity of the Amazon.
All in all, I will never forget my 11 weeks interning for Rainforest Trust and CEDIA, as this internship was not just another building block, but a key foundation in my future professional and academic career. I hope to one day return to these brave lands of Peru and continue working with communities in protecting what I consider to be both the most beautiful and vital ecosystem for this planet.
Header photo: Sara with members of the community congress. Photo courtesy of Sara Velander.