for National Geographic News
Some of the largest tracts of pristine rain forest left in the world are found in the state of Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru. The region's timber draws truckloads of migrant workers who come to cut its prized mahogany, an expensive hardwood in high demand overseas.
But one environmental education and research organization hopes to use tourism to help keep the rain forest there intact.
The group is the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), based in West Chester, Pennsylvania. ACEER is working to channel the tourists who currently flock to Peru's renowned Andes and Inca sites to Puerto Maldonado, the largest city in Madre de Dios.
The nonprofit sees signs that the picturesque city is slowly turning into a launching point for jungle tours up one of several Amazon River tributaries that flow through the region.
ACEER's quest is not without its challenges. One is a controversial road project involving several South American countries that aims to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The highway is expected to run through Puerto Maldonado soon and promises to increase development in the region.
"We still have the opportunity to direct the development in a way that gives both economic improvement [and] maintains the ecosystems that are there," said Roger Mustalish, ACEER's president.
ACEER recently opened a research and education facility on the Madre de Dios River east of Puerto Maldonado and adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve.
The National Geographic Society is helping fund the facility, which ACEER operates in partnership with the Peruvian ecotourism company Inkaterra. The facility, called ACEER-Tambopata at Inkaterra (ATI), is open to tourists and scientists from around the world.
ACEER supports activities that guide the management and sustainable use of tropical forests. Mustalish hopes these goals will help local people find ways to make a living "without having to cut the forest down."
Diego Shoobridge, the director of the Peruvian division of the Durham, North Carolina-based conservation organization ParksWatch, said ATI should have a positive impact on the Puerto Maldonado region.
"If conservationists get serious in convincing the population, politicians, and authorities that more sustainable activities bring better benefits, they will really make a big difference," he said.
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