Traveling in a dugout canoe in the forested backwaters of the mighty Marañón River, a tributary of the Amazon, behind a 10-year old boy–half my weight–ranks as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Trusting this tyke was itself a small act of release on my part from the trappings and safety of modern life (or at least, a larger wooden boat fitted with an outboard motor). I had to trust completely in the ten year old’s skills as he cheerfully maneuvered the skiff with his hand-hewn wooden paddle, ever slightly slower, so as to make me feel safer. As we wobbled along, I felt myself closer than ever to this wild, forested landscape, only one ungainly tip away from baptism in the murky waters..
My first-hand experience of harvesting fish using small nets in the Amazon was also unique, because it was done by special permission, allocated only to local indigenous communities, inside a state-designated ecological reserve: the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. This reserve has gained worldwide significance because of how its management (1) balances resource use (hunting/fishing) by local communities with resource protection, and (2) leverages the involvement of historically associated, local, and indigenous communities in the protection of wild resources.
The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is the largest protected area in Peru spanning over 2,000 km2 of tropical Amazonian rainforest. The reserve is a unique “flooded forest” that has some of the greatest diversity of animals and plants found anywhere on Earth. It’s located around the two major rivers– Ucayali and Marañón which spring from in the Andes mountains and join to form the Amazon proper. The huge floodplains of these rivers have produced the low-lying flooded forests of the reserve.
The Peruvian government cordoned off this area as a fisheries reserve in the 1940s. By setting up specific boundaries around sensitive spawning and wild habitat, they intended to protect populations of unique Amazonian freshwater fish, such as the massive paiche, pink river dolphins , and Amazon manatees. The purpose of the state-sponsored fisheries reserve was to secure proceeds from the sale of such fish in Iquitos down river, the sole Amazonian town in the state of Loreto. In doing so however, the government forcibly displaced many communities of indigenous people with historical associations to this place, and settlements inside the reserve.
These communities, mostly of Cocama-Cocamilla Indian descent, still live as they did centuries ago: They fish and hunt, collect forest fruits, and have small slash and burn gardens. They travel in small dugout canoes and live in thatched roofed houses made from trees and palm fronds from the nearby forest. Now they are dispersed in areas adjacent to the reserve along riverfront communities.
I was visiting one such community, across the Marañón river from the reserve, simply called “nueve de octubre” in honor of a historical date related to the establishment of native people’s land claim laws in their area. The families who lived here had special rights to hunt and fish inside the reserve. They also did service through a rotating guard position, responsible for protecting a specific area of the reserve from unlawful poaching.
Fish thrived in the pristine aquatic habitat of the reserve’s forested inlets and channels, away from the main stem of the wide Marañón River whose formidable flows and currents were plied by big transport and passenger ships. The family I was staying with (in their thatched house on stilts) liked to catch unique varieties of fish that they could find in the watery nooks of the reserve.
Wilson (the ten year old dugout canoe skipper), his sister Marie, and their parents, took some basic fishing and cooking equipment on board a 25 foot open wooden boat fitted with outboard motor. We all climbed in from the steep, slippery mud embankment for a little outing across the river. The wooden boat chugged across the swift moving currents of the wide Marañón, towing their dugout canoe in the back. It bobbed and scampered across the big crests.
The dominance of nature
As we entered the quieter waters of an inlet of the Marañón, I noticed the difference in the color of the water. The darker water here is infused by tannins from the leaf litter when it flows out of the forest floor. Entering this inlet feels like entering a sanctuary where nature is dominant, a fact that noticeably makes you feel like just another small, soft mammal, vulnerable to the forces of bigger hunters.
Indeed my entire stay here was marked by feeling humbled by nature. The jungle, just in the back of the nueve de octubre community seemed to me a hostile and scary place even as it was utterly magnificent. The small feet of children—for whom this backyard wilderness was all they had ever known—gaily traipsed through the mud and created small paths into the jungle. But to me, the jungle’s dense and vigorous plant life threatened to close in and be alive with lurking, unknown reptiles and insects.
Background on the management of the reserve
There are no human settlements within the core area of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve because it is preserved intact for animals to be able to safely reproduce and roam. The reserve has an interesting history of management. The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture, under the Direccion Forestal y de Fauna (now INRENA) is the major governmental institution responsible for management (Plan Maestro de la Reservea Nacional Pacaya Samiria 2000). They have involved the Cocama-Cocamilla origin families as part of the management of the reserve, as guards and area supervisors. It wasn’t always a friendly relationship. Several years ago, the reserve was under a particularly harsh guard system from the outside, which although big on force, did not engender feelings of trust from local people. In spite of guards, limited resources and manpower meant that poaching could take place throughout the many hidden quiet backwater fringes of this flooded forest ecosystem.
Tension escalated as local people’s felt their historical access to the fishing and hunting areas in the reserve boundaries were questioned by guards. Local people who would work these areas in small canoes as they traveled through the watery forestscape, would often be indistinguishable from poachers. The park guards would be threatening and had the authority to confiscate any products, fishing nets, supplies and even the canoes. They, however, did not have the power to make arrests of poachers—they had to call in the Peruvian National Police.
In 1997 an incident flared up with deadly consequences. A group of local fishermen had their nets—bought with borrowed money at great personal expense—confiscated by the guards. This confiscation caused grievances and local people mounted a retaliation that grew deadly. The local men attacked the park guard station, armed with machetes. In the ensuing confrontation two young biologists and one park guard were murdered. The news made national headlines.
After this attack, a new manager was brought in to run the reserve. With support from different organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, ProNaturalez, and The Nature Conservancy which had models of management involving local communities, the manager set up new protocols. Local communities were assigned them responsibility for managing particular sections of the reserve. The local people were allowed to use the reserve for fishing and hunting under approved management plans while ensuring that poachers activities are curtailed.
After the park administration made these changes, local peoples’ attitudes are noted to have changed. Local communities see the long-term benefits of the Reserve for them and their futures. Under the strict and ‘exclusionary’ style approach of the previous guards at the reserve, local people felt that they exercised little control over the resources in their immediate environment with which they had a long, shared history. They feared that the park administration would implement ever-stricter regulations and shut them out. This encouraged people to focus on short term gains as a result of which local communities had supported or abetted poaching activities. Now that they see their communities’ significance and value tied together with the reserve and its future.
The local people are now helping to conserve this reserve, their backyard, with an understanding of its significance to Peru and even the international realm. Visitors to the area come from far-flung corners of the globe. The local population generally does not hold negative views of the reserve administration, despite historical conflict. The success of management changes are related to the Cocama-Cocamilla culture and its characteristic of adaptability to changes.
Even in this era of wildlife trafficking, the communities sense of ownership in management of the reserve has reduced incentive for poaching because people feel they are protecting their areas from external poachers. Animal censuses conducted by researchers indicate general increases in animal densities after the period of strict control when local communities were shut out of the park’s administration. Animal densities have made gains during the period when the local community were incorporated in reserve management.