I should be doing a final check for references on the blog post I’ve had sitting as a draft for the last fortnight: an article on one of the ecosystems here in Peru that’s really caught my aquatic-scientist attention. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story that I think is far more important. The story of Andres.
This is Andres. He is 27 years old and lives in the tiny village of Tres de Mayo, where he and his 7 siblings were born and raised. Andres is the last member of his family to live in the village. The others have moved to the nearby small city of Tingo Maria, or to the bigger cities up in the sierra, where his family originally came from.
No one is originally from Tres de Mayo if you trace their family histories back. The village nestles into the eastern Andes where they rise out of the steaming flat plains of the Amazon, rainforest clinging to the steep wet slopes. Too steep for the Andean people to farm or for Amazonian tribes to hunt in, the rainforests of the region were apparently uninhabited before modernity came, clearing the forest to make way for coffee, cacao, cotton and plantains, drawing settlers to the new city of Tingo Maria and the surrounding area.
As more people came and industries expanded the forest fell, making way for small family fields and large plantations alike. A small but spectacular patch of the remaining primary forest was protected in 1965 through the creation of Peru’s second-ever protected natural area: Tingo Maria National Park. I don’t know which came first – the park or the village – but the two are now inter-woven, with the village perched on the very edge of the park and the path to reach it following a pretty stream that meanders back and forth across the border.
There’s no road to Tres de Mayo, just this trail through the forest. No electricity to power their homes, the tiny shop or the little school. It’s a 45 minute walk to the road, just beyond the National Park control point entry, and the community works hard to maintain near self-sufficiency, tending small fields on the steep slopes and a little livestock on the floodplain. I saw cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and turkeys when we passed through the village, as well as little plots of maize, coffee, plantain, cotton and kitchen herbs.
Some of those plots belong to Andres, who spends his weekdays working the land and walking to the road to trade in Tingo Maria, carrying everything he needs on his back. On weekends, though, he wanders down to the control point where he volunteers as a Community Ranger and guide for visitors who want to explore the park and learn a little more about it. What began as a way to keep company with the rangers and earn some extra money through tips has become something bigger as Andres learns about conservation and environmental management from the Rangers and graduate volunteers and in turn teaches them about the intimate rhythms of the forests and its creatures.
He is an excellent guide. Although he has no scientific training, Andres knows the plants and animals of the park better than the biologists who work there, and can tell you where to find the famous Cock of the Rock in the evenings and show you where the bats roost in little limestone crevices. He knows how to pick up the spiky caterpillars without being stung and takes great delight in showing off the creatures and flowers that can be found along the trails. As he leads tourists down the trails he learns more about the value of protecting the forest and gains pride in his knowledge of its secrets. A competitor for the same resources, he has become the forest’s protector and spokesperson, and educator on its value and beauty.
As he teaches us on our visit, we share in return, lending binoculars and cameras to see the forest in new details and providing a quick lesson in water-bugs in a perfect half-hour of over-turning stones and sifting through leaf-litter below a waterfall: the stonefly and damselfly larvae that mean the water is of high quality; the maggots munching on decomposing leaves, returning nutrients to the ecosystem; the way water-pennies cling tight to the rocks with all the little legs you can only see when you turn them upside down in the palm of your hand…
What he teaches us, plus what he learns from his visitors and the other workers and volunteers in the park, he then shares with his village in the images taken with the little Park camera he carries and in the new things he points out to the children. Slowly, organically, the understanding of the whole village grows and attitudes change to protect the environment and defend the National Park thanks to Andres. A quiet man with a disarming smile, he’s no scientist, no politician, no activist, no journalist, but he is helping to change the world in a very real way.
Andres and others like him I have met on my travels give me hope or the future in a troubling world: amazing people working with the most limited resources to fight for the forest, for the water, for the wildlife. Beacons of hope lighting the way for change, for a more balanced and sustainable way of living. In the Andes, the Amazon or back home in Australia they inspire me and help me to keep shining my own little light out against the darkness.
My world is better for having known all of them, for having met Andres and asking him to show me his forest. Flickrs of hope in the lighthouse of the soul.