The Rainforest Alliance recently took freelance journalist, Richard Lofthouse to Peru to meet various partners working towards sustainability initiatives. Here on the UK Frog Blog is the first of a two-part guest blog, where Richard talks about the importance of eco-lodges in one of the most bio-diverse places on earth…
I recently returned from two trips in one. First, Rainforest Alliance took me to the Amazonian rainforest in southeast Peru, and then to the classic Inca trail and Machu Picchu, Latin America’s most popular tourist destination.
I was in the company of a dozen other tour operator chief executives from all over the world. One of them, Praful Albuquerque, had flown all the way from Melbourne Australia, which made my journey via Miami to Lima to Cusco to Puerto Maldonado look timid by comparison. All the way out, as the air miles stacked up, I was conflicted about the nature of so much fossil-fuelled travel for a supposedly eco-initiative. I thought to myself: ‘Isn’t this one more western indulgence masquerading as a helping hand to the environment?’
Gradually, the tensions abated and I began to enjoy the trip on its own terms. Bright and early on Day 2, we settled into the two hour-long flight from coastal Lima to the Amazon. Coffee-refreshed, I dived into my travel guide and read about Peru’s mega-bio-diverse status (with 1,000 of the world’s 9,700 flowers, for example), and about the fact that Lima is technically in a desert, Machu Picchu is in the Andes – it’s own climate and altitude – and then, finally, one arrives at the magnificent jungle, in which smoking is strictly prohibited and the dusty titti monkey runs wild. Looking out of the window I saw immense, almost cartoonishly enormous mountain peaks covered in sparkly white snow and tiny trails pretending to be roads, linking precarious settlements at least 50 miles removed from each other. Then, on the far side of Cusco, brown turned to green and the cabin temperature registered an increase in temperature and humidity as the aircraft came down to land. Read about it. See it. Brilliant.
We were told that it was 32 degrees hot outside with high humidity, so I stripped off my sweater and prepared to disembark, as if arriving on the moon. I was a bit nervous because I had been warned about the biting insects. This was the Amazon after all, not some pale imitation!
This being Puerto Maldonado, a frontier settlement, the airport only receives a couple of flights a day, so there were metal steps down on to the tarmac rather than a tunnel into a terminus. It’s always a big moment when you step outside and sniff the air in a new continent. The last time I had done this, it had been in Muscat, Oman on a trip to the Gulf. I’d been treated to a ferocious blast of desert air, as memorable as it was sandy.
This time, I smelt warm, damp bonfire and saw the sun through a coppery haze, even though it was mid-morning and there was no cloud. Then, the screeching call of a brace of parrots high overhead, racing colourfully to their destination. Still at the top of the steps by the aircraft fuselage, I was distracted by something on the horizon. I did a double take. Maybe I was mistaken, or it was an industrial accident, a one-off; an oddity. But no, there it was: a sky-high plume of smoke, not even that far off. Then I realised that the air smelt sweetly of bonfire, all the time, everywhere, because the forest was burning. This aroused very nostalgic memories of being on a farm as a kid in southern England, where the stubble was burned in September to return fertilizer to the earth ahead of the next sowing of seeds. Perhaps this was the same, I thought. Maybe it’s normal for this sort of thing to be going on in the pristine jungle where smoking is strictly forbidden. Mental note to self: don’t make snap judgements about agricultural practices in foreign lands.
But my other unguarded thought, more of an instinct than a thought, was that this business of saving the forest is really urgent, like you’d better believe it. Like now. Not tomorrow, not next year; not when the world can get its act together on a comprehensive carbon trading initiative, but here in the messy today, where conservation gets tangled up in poverty and the two have to be tackled together. A UN report released on October 20th claims that ecosystems such as freshwater, coral reefs and forests account for between 47 and 89 per cent of what the UN calls “the GDP of the poor,” meaning the source of livelihood for the rural and forest dwelling poor.
And that’s where the eco-lodge comes in, because at a very small relative environmental price – motorised canoes here, the odd jungle trail there, some roads and of course some airmiles – the modern eco-lodge aligns the self-interest of native forest dwellers and new settlers with the preservation of the forest.
Of course it’s ironic, or even mildly obscene, to be a westerner, here to gawp at monkeys through state of the art binoculars, the air a-whirr with camera shutters and all the paraphernalia of affluence. But we were treated to such heart-warming narratives of human self-improvement and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds that by the end I had totally fallen for Peru. Not to gawp at what’s left, only to fly away, but that we align expenditure with the great goal of preserving as much of the forest as possible, not in a hopelessly sterile, idealistically pure sort of way but grounded in the best long term and sustainable interests of the people who live there. And yes, it was a mind-blowing trip, and yes, I saw a dusty titty monkey!
In part two of Richard’s guest blog find out what he thought about staying at eco-lodges, what he was doing on a walkway 30 metres above the ground and just how many species of ants have been discovered in the Amazon.