Can Tourists Save a Peruvian Rain Forest?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 8, 2004
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.

Research Activities

ATI opened in August 2003. The center is surrounded by a national park, national reserve, and several private reserves operated by Inkaterra. The facility itself is located on an 840-acre (340-hectare) mixed parcel of old growth and previously cleared rain forest.

Lodging and laboratory facilities cater to researchers. An interpretive center, medicinal plant garden, children's garden, canopy walkway, and nature trails, meanwhile, cater to both tourists and researchers.

Mustalish, of ACEER, says the mix of pristine rain forest with land degraded by logging and agricultural use makes ATI unique. "It gives us an opportunity of providing an education and research opportunity for people to study applied science as opposed to just basic science," he said.

For example, Mustalish says researchers can address questions about ecosystem recovery, identify sustainable harvesting techniques for plants with medicinal value, and work with local farmers to determine how to improve crop yields without cutting more forest.

As plans for the paved road—known as the Transoceanica—take shape, ACEER is creating a series of computer models that demonstrate potential impacts of the project based on varying levels of conservation.

Mustalish says ACEER will also leverage its expertise to create an alternate economic development model. It will be based on lower-impact practices like ecotourism, sustainable agriculture, and creative forest-based markets.

Shoobridge, however, believes the road project will only make it easier for laborers to migrate to Puerto Maldonado and cut down and export the rain forest's timber.

"Logging corporations will have more access," Shoobridge said. " [They] will take out the wood, impoverishing the ecosystem. After this, the logging roads into the forest will be used by colonists and squatters who will slash and burn the remaining forest."

Tourist Road?

But Mustalish has a more optimistic outlook. He hopes that ATI and the new Transoceanica road will help make Puerto Maldonado and its surrounding rain forest more accessible to tourists. ACEER would ultimately like to see the region become a must-visit destination for the thousands of tourists who currently descend on Cusco and the famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

To encourage visits by both researchers and tourists, ACEER is constructing a canopy walkway in the cloud forest between the Andes mountains and the Amazon Basin. Partners in the project include the Washington, D.C.-based Amazon Conservation Association and the National Geographic Society.

ACEER expects to complete the cloud forest canopy walkway sometime next year. The project will complement a new walkway that's currently being installed at ATI and will offer tourists an uncommon way to experience the riot of forest life—including nearly a thousand bird species—where the landscape transitions from mountains to jungle.

"When that happens, there could be a lot more visitors," Mustalish said.

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