Conserving the Amazon: A Letter from Jeff Woodman, ACA’s New Executive Director

March 21, 2013

With the recent transition of executive directors, this is a good opportunity to restate our mission and the strategies we employ to achieve our objectives. Our mission is to conserve the biodiversity of the Amazon. The Amazon covers an enormous area encompassing diverse habitats. This is a bold mission for a small organization like ours. How can we actually achieve conservation success?

First, let’s set the context. We work in southeastern Peru and northwestern Bolivia on the eastern slope of the Andes, arguably the most biologically diverse region on the planet. Our neighbors include indigenous communities in voluntary isolation, Bolivia’s majestic Madidi National Park, and Manu National Park – the crown jewel of Peru’s national park system. While this region contains a staggering array of biological diversity, it also faces extreme threats. The rapid increase in illegal gold mining combined with the completion of the Interoceanic Highway has wrought enormous change in a remarkably short time frame. These developments have brought a measure of economic improvement to the region, but they have also triggered environmental destruction on a breathtaking scale. Pristine forest has been turned to wasteland and mercury is being dumped into rivers in ever-increasing quantities. At the same time, Bolivia’s highlands face growing development pressures and risks from climate change.

Conserving biodiversity in the face of these threats requires a multi-pronged set of strategies. First, we work diligently to establish protected areas. In the past two years, we have finalized the establishment of conservation concessions covering 47,000 acres, and have another 340,000 acres nearing completion. We’re currently developing an ambitious plan to protect nearly 2,000,000 acres over the next few years. Once established, these areas still have to be managed and monitored, but their susceptibility to threats is reduced substantially.

Second, we work closely with communities throughout the region developing alternative methods for earning a living without using destructive practices. In the lowlands, we’re promoting sustainable Brazil nut harvesting, planting fruit trees and cacao, developing small-scale fish ponds, and fostering ecotourism. In the highlands we’re reforesting degraded lands with sustainable wood that local communities can use for building and heating their homes, and working to develop protein-rich products like tarwi (a native high-protein seed) as a sustainable food source.

Third, we use scientific analysis to underpin our strategies and solutions. We’ve measured the mercury content in numerous fish species to educate the public on health hazards. We’ve studied the impact of unmanaged livestock on cloud forest regeneration. We’ve meticulously mapped out hundreds of Brazil nut trees and other keystone species to create management plans to protect these resources and the surrounding forests. We’re testing biochar (charcoal made from fast-growing bamboo) as a natural alternative to fertilizers to improve soil fertility and thereby increase productivity for local farmers.

Our three biological stations in Peru, strategically located in the cloud forest, mid-elevation, and the Amazonian lowlands, are a key platform for achieving conservation. These stations enable us to engage local communities over a sustained timeframe and to concentrate scientific research on issues ranging from describing new species to developing a replicable biodiversity monitoring program to analyzing the effects of climate change. They also are centers where researchers, local and international students, tourists, and members of the community can collaborate and exchange ideas.

Finally, we address the threats themselves. We’re advocating for offshore-inland pipeline construction, a roadless construction technique to reduce deforestation. We’re fighting illegal logging and mining through improved governance by providing decision-makers with better information and participating in regional-level planning. We’re increasing local capacity for land management, supporting local and regional government institutions, and providing leadership to regional efforts to respond to forest fires and create conservation finance mechanisms.

All of our efforts are designed to be scaled up, so even though we’re working in a specific geography in Peru and Bolivia, our vision is to create models that can be replicated throughout the Amazon basin. This work is complex and difficult but deeply rewarding. We could not achieve our successes without your support. Thank you all for your interest and your generosity in enabling us to conserve the Amazon. 

 (Text by Jeff Woodman; photo of Jeff by Ronald Catpo; waterfall photo by Gabby Salazar)