A Glimpse of Paradise

December 4, 2015

by Emma Knott.

Recently,  Jill Shankleman and Emma Knott,  Althelia’s Environmental and Social Governance ‘Dynamic Duo’,  flew 6300miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Peru with the mission to check in on the environmental and social aspects of Althelia’s investment with CIMA in Cordillera Azul,  Peru.  Below are some of the more illuminating extracts from Emma’s mud-spattered field notebook…

…The excitement had grown over the previous weeks as we were planning the agenda, reading up on the project, and trying to work out the magic balance of packing enough insect repellent to stay bite-free whilst keeping within the airline’s carry-on liquid limits – I have since discovered that this feat is impossible! - and then before we knew it, we were off!

Day 1,  Monday,  was spent in CIMA’s head office in Lima with Patty,  the Executive Director,  and her dedicated team. We had a full CIMA and Cordillera Azul 101,  and then made the short hop up to Tarapoto,  380 miles north and inland from Lima,  to see for ourselves the inspirational and important work this project is doing.

One lesson quickly learnt on these trips is early morning means really early morning!  And Tuesday, it turned out, was one of those mornings - up at 4.30am, ready to leave the hotel at 5am and stumble blindly into the waiting 4-by-4 where CIMA’s Project Director Ruben Paiten was ready and waiting to show us the sights and sounds of the Peruvian Amazon. I won’t pretend to have done anything but fall straight back to sleep as soon as we got into the mud-spattered Toyota pick-up, but once we turned off the main road and began to wind our way into the foothills of the buffer zone surrounding the park I was soon wide awake and mesmerised by the spectacular views flashing past the window.

After a quick stop in a small town to buy some essentials – wellington boots, snacks and extra bug spray – we drove as far as the road would take us, to a small farming village called Alto Jorge Chavez, where we would leave the vehicles and continue on foot, with our bags following behind on a mule. We were going to visit the most accessible guard post within Cordillera Azul National Park, which still involved a 7-hour hike from the nearest village.

When we left the vehicles and took in our surroundings, we saw we were on the side of a rolling hill with wooden houses and fields all around us, and across the valley a similar hill, with remnants of forest, but clearly showing the extent of deforestation with much of the hillside cleared for pasture or bare earth ready for planting. The view was still beautiful, but the patches of forest hinted at what this area would have looked like in the not too distant past, before the drivers of deforestation encroached.

We began our hike, climbing through small coffee plantations and areas recently cleared of secondary growth forest (the communities here practice rotational agriculture since the soils are not able to support continuous productive use) and eventually into the rainforest proper. The Cordillera Azul National Park (literally “Blue Mountains National Park”) covers 1.3 million hectares of forest, and is an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot. It protects several key watersheds that are essential for the surrounding agricultural land, upon which over 250,000 people and their livelihoods depend. It also contains a wonderful entanglement of roots, branches and leaves of all shapes and sizes, beautiful beetles and frogs crawling through the leaf litter, along with plenty of biting insects braving the noxious clouds of Deet surrounding us. And mud, a lot of sticky, slippery, and occasionally surprisingly deep mud. But I was hooked! The rainforest really is a rich, awe-inspiring ecosystem, and a small voice in the back of my mind was whispering excitedly that a jaguar could be out there watching us right now and we would never know!

By the time we made it to the guard post, we were pretty exhausted and covered in plenty of the aforementioned mud, and I thought that it certainly put my daily London Underground commute into perspective. We spent a fascinating afternoon hearing from the park guards about their daily lives and the challenges they face living and working in such a remote place. They came for a range of backgrounds, including an ex-logger who had shifted from resenting the creation of the park and attempting to sabotage CIMA and SERNANP’s work (SERNANP is Peru’s National Protected Areas’ Authority and a close partner with CIMA in protecting Cordillera Azul National Park) to becoming a key member of the park guard team, using his knowledge of the forest and logging experience to reduce encroachment by illegal loggers and protect the landscape for future generations.

As dusk was fast approaching, we gathered cameras and torches, reapplied our insect repellent and stepped once more into our rubber boots – we were going over to a viewpoint for sunset. Up a short steep hill, along a track through the tall, thin multitude of tree trunks and then onto a wooden platform suspended out from the hill top on posts and the sight quite took my breath away. Trees, trees, and yet more trees as far as the eye could see, covering the mountains, ridges and valleys alike in an endless green carpet, holding the promise of so much diversity and life. The closer I looked the more I could see – a butterfly flittering just above the canopy nearby, an unidentified bird gliding from one tree to the next or a 2cm long soldier ant proudly guarding his fellow workers. It also became clear where Cordillera Azul’s name came from, as the more distant slopes appeared tinged with a deep, rich cobalt blue. This truly is a glimpse of a biologist’s paradise!

After stumbling back to camp, torches helping us to keep to the path and avoid tripping over roots, falling into holes and stepping on a beautiful (at least in my eyes) black-headed calico snake, we had a quick dinner and fell into bed (well, sleeping bag!).

The next morning dawned much as the previous day had ended – back at the viewpoint to watch the sunrise (even more spectacular than the sunset since the it faces east). As the horizon became tinged with orange and our eyes began to distinguish the vista more clearly, the path of the river, hidden the previous evening by the trees, was revealed as a line of mist and cloud hanging in the valleys, snaking through the landscape. And with the arrival of the sun, the blue tones hinted at the day before appeared in full giving the landscape an almost prehistoric quality. More than ever before was it clear to me how important these ancient forests are, how closely they are linked to our climate and weather, and how far removed my London life is from this wild and beautiful panorama.

The next few days were spent travelling from community to community, meeting the dedicated and passionate staff of CIMA and the people they are working with. We learnt how CIMA help communities to, among many other things, map the environmental and livelihood uses of their lands (a process called Environmental Economic Zoning), and develop Quality of Life plans, a vision of what communities are aiming to achieve over the next decade and the steps they need to follow meet these objectives, for example improving infrastructure (school buildings, sanitation, etc.) and diversifying livelihood options through agroforestry. Throughout the visit it was clear to see CIMA’s ethos of conservation, respecting and valuing communities and helping them to become more resilient to the effects of climate change pervaded through all their programmes and was embodied by all their staff. All-in-all we are confident in the social and environmental strengths of this project and value the essential work CIMA is undertaking in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Althelia Funds