Private conservation in Peru

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Christel Scheske isn’t too positive about the state of nature conservation efforts. However, there is a light that shines through the canopy.

We’re screwed. That was my conclusion after turning my back on an academic career in social psychology (incidentally, I can trace that career choice directly back to an excellent Introduction to Psychology course at UCU… without doubt, I’m not the only one). I realized that what I really wanted to do was environmental conservation, and before I knew it, I had found my way into the field, armed to the teeth with naiveté.

It turns out, trying to save the planet can easily lead you to give up on humanity altogether. Countless reports and journal articles provide unquestionable proof that we, as a species, took a very wrong turn somewhere in our evolutionary history. Conservation conferences are packed with frazzled researchers and activists trying to get people to care about humanity’s impending doom – on offer is a veritable buffet of cataclysms: climate change, mass extinction of species, ocean acidification and so on. The international community has set ambitious goals to curb biodiversity loss by, for instance, placing 17% of global terrestrial and freshwater areas under protection by 2020, and 10% of all marine and coastal areas. These and other goals are contained in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Sadly, this year’s interim report, Global Biodiversity Outlook 4, shows that although there has been some progress so far, we are not doing near enough to curb the rapid disappearance of species.

Had I landed myself in the most depressing of all disciplines? My source of hope, I was to discover, lies not in the conference halls, but in the details; in the grassroots heroics of individuals and communities that I never even knew existed.

Just as my newfound pessimism peaked, I moved to Peru. Up until then, I had thought that conservation lay in the hands of governments and international NGOs like the WWF, and to a large part it does, with a particular focus on the creation of national protected areas; the holy grail of conservation. But in Lima, I began working with an initiative called “Conservamos por Naturaleza” from the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, a long-standing and respected Peruvian conservation NGO. The target of Conservamos is a group often forgotten by the international conservation community: ordinary citizens running privately protected areas. How does that work? As private land owners, people can have their lands officially declared Private Conservation Areas, or, if they want to conserve a piece of land that is state-owned, they can apply for a concession.

In Peru, over 260,000 hectares are currently being conserved on private land, with the ecosystems under protection ranging from coastal dry forests to Andean highlands and lowland rainforests. The private owners of these protected areas are equally diverse, and include native communities, wealthy citizens from Lima, local families and others. Some bought land specifically for conservation, others are farmers or livestock owners and decided to change their practices, some inherited land from their parents and made a promise to protect it. Some are driven by a romantic dream of protecting pristine nature, others have more pragmatic reasons, for instance when their community’s water supply disappeared when surrounding forests were chopped down to create pastures. This heterogeneity makes it on the one hand difficult to find policy solutions that suit them all, on the other hand, it shows that environmental conservation can be approached from a multitude of angles – and still achieve results.

What they have in common is a powerful ability to face challenges on their own, because unfortunately, the Peruvian government provides them with few incentives.  Peru is not alone in this: privately conserved areas are largely ignored, and are currently not even counted as part of the 17% protected area goal for 2020. Conservamos por Naturaleza supports these initiatives, and our first and foremost goal is to give them something that most have never received before: recognition.

I learned just how strong a motivator simple recognition can be when I met Leyda Rimarachín, who manages the Bosque Berlín private conservation area in the Amazonas Region of Peru. Together with her family, Leyda protects around 170 hectares of cloud forest in a remote corner in the north-west of the country – a legacy of her father, who years ago went against the trend and left the forest standing rather than converting it to pasture. Now this forest is the source of water for three surrounding communities. The forest is the kind of place you’d think no longer exists in this world: filled with hidden waterfalls, boulders covered in moss, towering trees hung with orchids and lichen. It is home to colorful birds and rare monkeys, but unlike in its cousin, the lowland rainforest, the air at this altitude is cool and the vicious biting and stinging insects are notably absent.

When we first visited Leyda at Bosque Berlín, she seemed unable to believe that all we wanted was to support her. I remember her quizzical expression as we sat in her family’s house made from stones and adobe, accompanied by the squeaking of the fifty or so guinea pigs they keep for eating, her mother and sister busy preparing ‘humitas’ with corn grown on their fields and the cheese they made that morning. She tells us now that there were many moments when she was ready to give up, because she felt like she was alone in her efforts.

That was two years ago. Since then, we have helped her in every way we can: raising funds for her projects, sending her volunteers, and helping her add more land to her protected area. But most importantly, we showed her that she was not alone, both by connecting her to other private conservation area managers, and telling her story to the wider public through videos, magazine articles, and social media. Since then, she has received a national award for her work, raised over USD 10,000 to protect a group of endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkeys, and is launching an environmental education project in three surrounding communities. On the side, she’s conducting research on two different monkey species, helps lead a new, regional network of private conservation areas, and continues to clamber up and down the steep inclines of her protected area in search of rare wildlife.

There are others like Leyda. We search for them all across Peru, and when we find them, what begins is a mutual exchange of something that is just as endangered as the ecosystems we try to protect: hope. Hope for them by feeling like they are part of a greater community of like-minded people, and hope for us in seeing that despite the constant barrage of dire news, some people don’t give up.

So yes, we are probably screwed. But as long as there are people like Leyda, we can’t throw in the towel just yet.