YOU can protect more rainforest!

Dear Friends of the Rainforest:

There have been many exciting developments at the Santa Cruz Forest Reserve over the last year and a half, and the most recent is the opportunity to permanently protect 63 acres of rainforest – adding it to the 540 acres that we already care for.

To date, over 2000 hardwood, fruit, and medicinal-use trees have been planted in former pasture and agricultural areas and are growing rapidly. Hundreds more are ready to plant. The arboretum of fruit and timber trees is shooting upward, and the riverside support house (The Taj) is now 100% energy and water independent through the use of a filtered rainwater system and solar / battery electricity –- zero carbon footprint.

The Santa Cruz site has become a mecca for researchers and avid herpetologists, entomologists, birders and fish collectors, who confirm that the site is a biological hotspot. Recently, papers were published documenting the first Peruvian record of a species of frog (Pristimantis orphnolaemus) and caecilian (a legless amphibian) on the site, and there have been several sightings of birds that are normally absent or very rare in the region. We’ve also encountered naturally occurring Brazil nut trees, not previously known from the area.

Due to the proximity of the half-million inhabitant city of Iquitos, Peru, the remaining rainforest is being destroyed at an alarming rate. We have witnessed this as acres after acres are burned for slash-and-burn agriculture. In unprotected areas, there is high hunting pressure for bushmeat (monkeys, sloths, agoutis, and other sources of protein) as well as rampant and mostly illegal harvesting of valuable trees. In the past two years, three new sawmills have been built on the Mazan River alone, and rafts of dozens or hundreds of logs float by the reserve daily on their way to the sawmills.

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Location of Santa Cruz Field Station Relative to Iquitos

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Our reserve currently protects 540 acres, including very high quality rainforest, and our replanting of degraded areas is actively restoring rainforest.

For some time now, we’ve had our eye on an adjoining lot that would add to our river frontage on the Mazan River, and widen our forested corridor from the river to our protected lands further inland. Lot 53 is 63 acres in area, most of which is forested and about half is primary rainforest. Very recently the landowner decided to sell, backing off his plans to turn it into pasture. We put a deposit down to hold the property and the bill of sale was signed, notarized and registered on in August 2015. Now we are raising funds to complete the transaction. Including all costs, we are looking at $250 an acre for tropical rainforest! As of January 2016, over forty of the acres have been funded.

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Lot 53 location. The already protected lands are bordered in white, and our two facilities (Taj River House and the inland JT Research Station) are noted. Real, tangible land – GPS coordinates shown from Google Earth.

We are offering friends and supporters of Project Amazonas the opportunity to save an acre of Amazon rainforest for $250. Here is a chance for you, your class, your club, your business, your colleagues and friends to make a real difference and preserve a genuine piece of the rainforest.   Want to honor someone? Want to give a unique Christmas gift to someone who has “everything”? This is the time!

With a “purchase” one or more acres of land, we’ll send a certificate of “ownership”, complete with the GPS coordinates of the acre of land that was purchased. If funds over and above the purchase price come in, the owner of the adjacent Lot 54 also wants to sell – Lot 54 is smaller (~20 acres).

This is real rainforest with GPS coordinates; you can even look at it via satellite thanks to GoogleEarth and you’ll always be welcome to visit in person. US donors will also receive a receipt for US tax-deduction purposes. Title of the land will reside with Asociación Civil Proyecto Amazonas (Project Amazonas’ Peruvian legal entity, but we’ll have a plaque on site recognizing those who made the acquisition of the additional acreage possible).

We hope that you’ll join us in expanding our protected lands at Santa Cruz, with the resulting protection of tens of thousands of species of plants and animals. The reserve is a valuable resource right now, but it will soon be priceless.

Thank you for your support!

Devon Graham (President and Scientific Director, Project Amazonas) devon@projectamazonas.org

Don Dean (Board member, Project Amazonas)

don@projectamazonas.org

How to finance your acre(s) of rainforest

Option 1 – send check for $250 (or multiples thereof) made out to Project Amazonas with Santa Cruz land purchase in the subject line to:

Treasurer, Project Amazonas, 701 E Commercial Blvd, #200, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33334

Option 2 – send a wire transfer for $250 (or multiples thereof) to our bank account – please send us an email letting us know as well so we can properly credit the transfer.

Name of Account: Project Amazonas, Inc.

Bank Address: Bank of America, 4901 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL, 33308

Account #: 3604081289, Routing #: 063100277, SWIFT: BOFAUS3N

Option 3 – Send $250 (or multiples thereof) via PayPal to donate@projectamazonas.org – add a note to specify that the funds are for Santa Cruz land purchase.

A few recent photos of fauna and flora

In the scale of the vast Amazon basin, the area of the reserve at Santa Cruz is a virtual pinhead. Yet, due to the encroaching development and pressures from the poaching of bushmeat and illegal logging, it has become a safe haven, a veritable hot spot of biodiversity. In January 2015, a rare frog, previously seen only in primary forest in Ecuador was found for the first time in Perú on the Santa Cruz site. Discovered by Marisa Ai Ishimatsu, on previously developed land, and fetched by our multi-talented Emerson Torres, the difficult work of identifying and verifying the species, Pristimantis orphnolaemus, was the result of world-class herpetologists including Dick Bartlett and Kenny Wray. Kenny and his family are spending ten months on the site, as he continues post-doctoral research.

Pristimantis orphnolaemus, first sighting in the country of Perú.

Pristimantis orphnolaemus, first sighting in the country of Perú

Here are some more photos taken by volunteers in the last couple of months.  Wherever possible, the reptiles and amphibians have be ID’d by world-class guru of herpetology, Dick Bartlett.

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Rather large larvae of an unidentified ground beetle

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One of the many phases of the velvety swamp snake, Liophis typhlus, They can be orange, gray, tan, olive-gree, leaf green, or other hues.

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Bufo margaritifer, crested forest toad, immature

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Bufo margaritifer, crested forest toad

PATDick7

Young Imantodes cenchoa, blunt-headed tree snake

PATDick6

Dipsas sp., possibly the rarely seen Dipsas pavonina, a snail eating snake.

PATDick5

Plica plica, common tree runner

PATDick4

Anolis (probably nitens (forest anole) but possbily bombiceps (blue-lipped anole))

PATHeliconiaInsect

Beautifully camouflaged beetle on heliconia flower.

PATMothBrownProbiscus

Leaf mimic soaking up minerals from drop of sweat.

PATPhyllomedusa

Giant monkey frog, Phyllomedusa bicolor. These things can get really big.

PATPlanarian

Land planarian

PATScorpionNight

Scorpions are among the most successful species on Earth. Here, the smaller they are, the more they hurt.

PATSkinkEggs

Skink eggs?

PATMoths PATPl01 PATSpider PATSpiderEggs

Ever Closer to the Ultimate Sustainable Guesthouse

A lot has happened since the last post, way too long ago; hundreds of trees have been planted, scores of volunteers, researchers and eco-tourists have passed through, and, for the second year, the fifth and sixth graders from the community school spent the night at the camp enjoying a program of games and environmental education.  More on those experiences later.  This brief post highlights some of the recent progress to bring the site to complete self sustainability. 

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Situated on the Mazan River, there is never a lack of water.  The Mazan is classified as a “whitewater” river, one carrying significant suspended particles.  The three predominant classes of Amazon Basin rivers are whitewater, blackwater and clearwater:  blackwater is high in tannins and appears black;  clearwater is nutrient poor and is clear.  Whitewater?  It’s brown.  Despite the muddy appearance, clothes washed in the water are as clean as anywhere else.  Yet, some folks reel at the color, so we’ve installed a massive rainwater collection system with a capacity of 5000 liters (1300 gallons).  The elevated tanks provide more than enough pressure for the kitchen, shower and bathroom, and a 12 Volt pump taps the reserve if necessary.

WaterFilter

Muddy river water on top and potable water below.

WaterTanks

More than a thousand gallons of rainwater, and rarely a need for a pump.

For secure potable water, it’s passed through a ceramic filter that can handle even the muddiest river.

The first solar panels were installed almost two years ago, and now we have a system of six 100-Watt panels charging six batteries to provide 24/7 lighting and 110 and 220V electric service.

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12 Volt LED’s connected directly to the storage batteries provide the most efficient bright light. The pull-chain doll is made of native plant fibers, seeds and natural dyes.

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Electric control center: solar panel controller, inverter and batteries.

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Designing an infrastructure that runs with no toll on the environment is easier than providing a consistent and sustainable source of food.  While there is no lack of land to farm, “slash and burn” wastes the soil quickly and the forest will never return to its proper balance.  About 70 percent of the 540 acres on the site is primary rainforest, and of the remainder, 20 percent has been set aside for reforestation.  About two hundred fruit trees, as well as sugar, bananas, plantains, coffee, yucca, watermelon and passion fruit vines have been planted in the remaining land.  This said, not all of the plantings are success stories.  There is a constant battle with leaf cutter ants; the buggers can remove an entire tree in one night.  We also learned a painful lesson when we misjudged the high water mark and were hit with a 50-year flood, losing many trees and most of the coffee.  We’ve since moved to higher ground.

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Star fruit – started from seed four years ago. Although it’s an import, it does well in the soil.

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We’re not quite sure what this bowling ball sized fruit is. The trees are leftovers from a prior owner.  It is unique and delicious!

 

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Anona (Rollinia mucosa) is an Amazon gem, taste of vanilla custard, that will never be experienced elsewhere.

 

The two guardian families who live on the property net enough fish from the river for daily protein needs, this, supplemented by a dozen or so chickens or ducks from time to time. In the long term, chickens underfoot may be a stretch for some guests, but for the time being, I’m delighted to have them snapping up spiders and the grasshoppers that munch on the young seedlings.

We have come very far in a short time in providing a modicum of comfort in the rainforest at minimal or no cost to the environment.  There is much more to do!

 

 

School Overnight Field Trip in the SC Forest

During the second Hands-on Amazon course for teachers, eighteen youngsters from the Santa Cruz elementary school enjoyed a field trip and overnight at the forest preserve.  The culmination of months of coordination between Project Amazonas and the community of Santa Cruz, the experience was intended to foster the children’s team-building skills, self-confidence and a respect for the forest and environment.

It might seem strange that Amazon children would revel at the chance to spend the night in the forest, but these children had never had an opportunity to bond with their classmates outside of school and this was a chance to be together.  Although a few families live within walking distance of the school, most arrive every day by canoe, which can be an hour-long commute unless the family has access to a peque-peque (the same canoe with a motor, pronounced “pecky pecky.”)

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A late July Sunday at noon, volunteers Nina, Edis and Isabelle Levent stopped at the village on their way back to the station to pick up the youngsters with our transport boat, the Yucandero.   We were extremely disappointed when it arrived at camp without children.  The American teachers had spent the evening planning a program of lessons, games, challenges and fun for the children, and the mother lode of food and sports equipment was ready to go.  The Levents reported that the children were all waiting at the river with their little overnight knapsacks and “jumping out of their skins.”  But the principal and lead teacher, who live two hours away in Iquitos were not there and the community would not release the children without them.

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Disappointed yet hopeful, we sent the boat back in two hours to learn that the principal and teachers had been stuck in Iquitos waiting for a boat to Tumicurillo, the small port on the Amazon that serves as the gateway to the town of Mazan and onward up the Mazan River to Santa Cruz.  Principal Jimmy Valera, teachers and parent chaperones hopped on board with great excitement.

After the boat ride to the landing and a half-hour hike from the river to the main field station, the Peruvian teachers sorted out the various sleeping accommodations in the tambos (open-air huts).  The American teachers started their thoughtful plan of tried-and-true activities.  The first task involved getting the children to arrange themselves in a line chronologically in ascending order of birthdays without verbal communication.  A great ice-breaker for American children accustomed to “organized” social games, it fell flat.  Explaining the directions was just the beginning: only Andrea Mercado, an ESL teacher, was a native speaker of both English and Spanish; the only other bi-lingualism belonged to Devon Graham (the real tropical biologist) and yours truly, and our Spanish can be described as fluent while interesting in terms of pronunciation and linguistic validity.  Luckily the colloquial speech does not strain toward literary excellence and comprehension is more important than grammatical purity.

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Things picked up with a hula-hoop challenge and finally broke loose when a rope for tug-o-war was tossed out.  Immediately, spontaneous games broke out with volleyball and soccer going until dark.  An exquisite meal was prepared by a local cook, whose talent could make stone soup not only tasty but tender; tablecloth of fresh banana leaves.  The principal and local teachers led the children to their evening ablutions, girls sharing the showers and boys washing at pond’s end.   The boys and girls jumped on the air mattresses, told stories, giggled themselves to sleep and a chorus of frogs and birds bridged the gap to sunrise.

After breakfast, there was time for coloring and puzzles before heading back to the river.  There, Dr. Graham gave the children a primer on how to plant a tree: add abono (compost) for nutrition, build a perimeter of cut vegetation on the drip line, but not too close as to encourage insect predation, particularly leaf cutter ants, then water copiously.  The children each proudly and dutifully planted a 3-year-old grafted citrus seedling and were invited to name their tree and to write the name on a plant tag.  So eager to please, at Devon’s suggestion: “for example, if you want to name your tree ‘Jose’, write it on the tag.”  So a dozen trees were named “Jose.”  The letters have since been weathered from the tags, but the trees had all survived their critical months as of December 2013.

SCSchoolBoys

The children readied to depart with their hula hoops and soccer balls, then rushed back to the river house at the announcement of free toothbrushes and toothpaste (donated by Frances O’Flaherty of Ohio and her dentist friends).

Before boarding, the Peruvian teacher reminded the children: “Who’s first?” – “mujercitas!” – young ladies, the boys responded.  Granted, although perhaps antiquated and chauvinistic by current norms, it was a heartwarming display of civility and respect among youngsters, and that is indeed worth preserving.

If our goal is living in peace with ourselves and with the planet, there is so much to be shared.   To start, we could learn from the wealth of traditional plant-based medicine from tropical forests.  And we might help the locals learn that plastic doesn’t decompose.

In retrospect, the children’s experience is not very different from that of my home school community in New Jersey, where we bring our seventh grade class on a similar overnight excursion for the same purpose.  Except for a few differences.   The kids there aren’t burdened with electronic gadgets that shorten the attention span, nor have they ever experienced snow, in essence, the differences exist only in the stuff they have and where they are, not in the heart or spirit.  Children are children wherever and whatever.

The next school visit is planned during the Hands-on Amazon course for teachers from July 23-30, 2014.

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One of a dozen seedlings named “Jose.”

Don Dean

February 2014

A couple of Amazon Folk Legends

Some Amazon Folk Legends

as represented in Nauta, Loreto Perú

(Click on the pictures to read the Spanish text)

Las Amazonas (The Amazons)

A group of warlike women visited by Fransicso de Orellana when he discovered [sic] the Amazon.  They say that these women were as tall as any man and that sporadically once a year they mated with men of neighboring tribes.  If the child was a male, he was returned to the father to be sacrificed.  It was the custom of women to amputate the right breast to facilitate the precision of firing an arrow from a bow.

AmazonasWoman

The Ayaymama

Tells of two children who were abandoned in the jungle by their stepmother and father pretending to go on an excursion.  The lost children were transformed into little birds, and one night during a full moon, they flew to the roof of their house and let out their song: Ayaymama… ayaymama… Our mother has died and abandoned us.

Ayamama

El Bufeo Colorado (The Pink Dolphin)

The pink dolphin of the Amazon that can transform itself into a “gringo” (white) appealing to young women.  This vision would appear at fiestas to choose a girl to love and visit at night.  If not discovered in time, he steals the girl and brings her to the bottom of the river never to return again.

Bufeo

The Chullachaqui

The small devilish goblin can morph into the form of any person or animal to capture a new victim and lose it in the forest.   If you get lost in the jungle and casually encounter a dear being, you have to be cautious and look at its left foot, which has the form of a goat’s hoof or a human foot turned backwards.

Chulla

A few more pictures from the wall at Nauta

NautaYacuruna

NautaRanaMula

  NautaPeccary

TREE planting update: September 2013

Seventy percent of the approximately six hundred acres in the Project Amazonas Santa Cruz Forest Preserve is old growth rainforest with an extraordinary plant and animal diversity that draws world-class researchers, hobbyists, eco-tourists and volunteers.  The goals of the TREE team include a Hippocratic preservation of the primary forest (do no harm) and developing the former agricultural land to promote sustainable food production and accelerate its return to a natural state by prudent introduction of legacy plant species.   In addition, portions of this former “slash and burn” area are dedicated to establishing an arboretum of useful plant species, notably fruits, high-value timber trees and medicinal plants.

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Just before this writing, I spent the better part of two months at the field site on the Mazan River, witnessing a disturbing increase in timber traffic, legal and otherwise.  Several new saw mills have appeared and there is a significant increase in the traffic of log rafts heading downriver.  One of the new mills now produces finished lumber in a way making it almost impossible to track the source and rein in the illegal logging trade.  Before this summer, it had never occurred to me to talk to the men and families passing days or weeks on the logs under little plastic tents on their way to the mills.  Battery powered radios help alleviate the boredom.

LogRaft1.

There is about a minute of contact time to chat with them as they pass the field site.  The average journey is five to seven days, a half day to go; days without stimulation, they relish the conversation.   I ask what type of logs: tornillo.   Cool.  I’ve got forty in bags ready to replenish the sanctuary.  Tornillo (Cedrelinga cateniformis) is a bit stubborn to start, needing an assist to get out of its seed pod, and often flounders in the field and forest.

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It has been just over three years since planting began in earnest: over a thousand seeds and trees to date.  Although there have been many casualties (notably, entire trees and crates of seedlings carved up and carried into subterranean nests by Atta spp., leafcutter ants), the good news is that the survivors look terrific – explosive new growth, and several of the fruits have their first flowers.

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Already among the mature fruits on the site that provide seasonal crops are charichuelo, cacao, macambo, guaba, caimito, guayaba, Brazilian guayaba, sinamillo, unguharhui, aguaje, chambira, cidra, pifuayo, uvilla, and pandisho (breadfruit).  Several of the new fruits planted from seed recently produced their first flowers or fruit: carambola (star fruit), Brazilian guayaba, cashew and anona are among those that will begin fruiting within the year.  In the wings are a significant number of young plants: camu camu, huito, guayabana, mango dulce, palta (avocado), copoazú, sapote, lucma, poma rosa, umarí and various citrus, (including trees adopted by the local school children – look for an upcoming blog on the Heritage Teachers’ Course); on the trellis are vines of the passion fruits tumbo, maracuyá, granadilla, as well as the nutritious sacha inchi.

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Plantings of trees valuable for both wood and medicine increased their ranks, among them, andiroba, azucar huayo and marupa.  A half-dozen marupa, (Simarouba marupa) were acquired on the Nauta highway last year in a near wild-goose chase visiting government “nurseries.”  Marupa has a host of documented medicinal properties, including effective treatment of viral infections, intestinal parasites and malaria.  The young trees have a very attractive habit; unfortunately, the appeal of one tree escaped the machete of an overzealous local guardian while “tidying up.”SeedStarts

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The future canopy trees of huimba / lupuna (Ceiba samauma) and Brazil nut now exceed three meters and are reaching for the sky, while pino chuncho and cedro (Spanish cedar, Cedrela odorata) line the paths on the old property lines.  Another CITES-protected species, caoba (mahagony, Swietenia macrophylla) has taken well to the site and is growing rapidly.  This summer, we had a high-germination rate of shihuahuaco (ironwood, Dipteryx micrantha) with 150 seedlings ready for planting in a couple of months.

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An extraordinary specimen was brought from the Madre Selva field site, about four hours down the Amazon on the Rio Oroso.  Devon Graham and colleagues had found a rare conifer in the Retrophyllum genus and retrieved a pair of young plants to increase its survival chances. They are doing nicely; hopefully they are a boy and a girl!

CacaoRetrophyllum sp.

Since there is so much land to re-populate, two sections along the river were set aside to intersperse legacy trees with food production with significant plantings of yucca, sugar cane, pineapples and coffee.

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A third project was begun this summer – a future butterfly / hummingbird riverfront sitting garden on a knoll on the upriver property line, the path and perimeter to be lined with spiral gingers, and medicinal, ornamental and interesting plants drawn from the primary forest.  Target date: summer of 2015.

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As of August 2013, we now have a continuing volunteer presence at the site (in addition to the local guardians) to care for the seeds and tender seedlings until they become established.  This has enabled us to move the seed starting operation from Iquitos to Santa Cruz; the reduction in transportation costs and logistics will make it much more efficient.

Butterflies are specialized for distinct species of plants..

If you or someone you know wants to do something exotic and valuable for the future of the rainforest, consider a stint as guest gardener!  Also, if you have knowledge of rainforest plants, consider joining the TREE team.  Contact Don at

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don@projectamazonas.org

Teachers Connect to the Amazon and Bring the Experience Home

Project Amazonas’ inaugural teacher institute, Hands-on Amazon for Educators, was held in Iquitos, Perú and at the Santa Cruz field site on the Mazan River in July 2012.  The enthusiastic teachers from five states hooked up in the Upper Amazon to embrace the opportunity to bring the rainforest and its people back home to their science, social studies and English classrooms.  Course leaders were tropical biologist Devon Graham, Ph.D. and science teacher Don Dean.

Miscellaneous jungle meat, here, mostly yellow-footed turtle parts

Houses showing water line

The experience began and ended in Iquitos, Perú, a fascinating place: founded by Jesuits in 1750, the most inland port in the world with access to the sea (3600 km from the Atlantic); the largest city unreachable by road; shaped by the rise and fall a rubber boon.  The rapidly-growing city reveals its unusual history in a mix of modern conveniences and deeply-rooted jungle folklore and culture.  Iquitos lies on the flood plain of the Itaya River near its junction with the Amazon.  The remnants of the rubber boon at the turn of the 20th Century are evident along the Melecón: former houses of rubber magnates and social clubs on the riverside boulevard, many with their 100-year old porcelain tiles still intact.  Juxtaposed is the sprawling district of Belen, where more than a hundred thousand people live hand-to-mouth.

In a morning visit to the Belen Market, the group was introduced to this strange juxtaposition of rich and poor, rainforest foods and tradition, cheap imported fabric and plastic.  A walk through the sprawling alleys is an assault on the senses.  In 2009, a survey of the market (Paredes and Mejía) counted 89 types of fruits, 56 types of fish, and 60 types of “bush meat” from animals (including turtle parts, armadillo, woodpecker, monkey, peccary, tapir and sloth) extracted from the neighboring forests.  Add to this a huge variety of medical plants, concoctions and a healthy dose of superstition.  The consumption of bush meat, as well as an increasing tourist desire for souvenirs (blowguns adorned with scarlet macaw feathers, monkey skulls, etc.) has taken a significant toll on the wildlife.  The teachers descended the short distance to the flood plain where families live alongside the squalor, plastic waste and riverlets of fecal-contaminated gray water – adults and children playing soccer and volleyball (very popular and played quite skillfully), little ones running and playing.  Surprisingly, one does not notice a degradation of health despite the unsanitary conditions.  In the dry season from May to October, the alluvial fields support beans, squash, watermelon, rice, cucumber, local maize and other crops.  Some of the houses are built on logs that rise with the water, but most are plugged into the mud, and life in the rainy season is a daily matter of laying out planks and moving possessions and sleeping quarters higher and higher, like a swimming dog trying to rid itself of fleas.

Home remedies and folklore.

Before leaving the city for the field station, the teachers visited Pilpantuwasi, an animal sanctuary and butterfly “farm”, and well as the manatee rehabilitation center of IIAP (Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana), two champions of research and preservation.  Expat Austrian Gudrun Sperer spent seven years researching neotropical butterflies and parleyed her passion into a large reserve and education center, meticulously cultivating the specialized plants needed for each species of butterfly.  At IIAP, the gorgeous plump animals take water lettuce from the hand.

The trip to the wild begins at the small port of Bellavista on the Nanay River where it meets the main branch of the Amazon.  The Nanay is a blackwater river, low in nutrient and high in tannin, while the Amazon is a whitewater river, muddy brown in appearance due to suspended sediment.  The commercial ports are closer to town; Bellavista serves more for personal transport and day trips, and is a great place to grab some fresh grilled fish.  Fresh, as in caught within the hour.  It’s a 40-minute speedboat trip down the Amazon to an isthmus that leads to another small port on the Mazan River.  Upon arrival, the group is descended upon by a dozen or so “porteros” – men and boys clamoring to haul your stuff to their motocarros, motorcycles with a cab seating three and basic multi-purpose transport vehicle.  On the bank are all types of miscellaneous people and things to be transported one way or the other, heaps of bananas and plantains, a reluctant, squealing pig.  A ten-minute motocarro ride along a narrow scenic road brings the group to the Mazan River, where, after stocking up on water and last minute provisions (which might include adult beverages), they board the boat for the field station, another 40 minutes up the Mazan River. 

The evidence of pervasive logging, legal or otherwise is obvious: lumber mills spewing sawdust into the river, plastic tents and families atop log rafts floating downstream.  Legacy trees are felled to supply the needs of Iquitos as well as for export as raw timber for building material, furniture, pulp or veneer.  The teacher keep a watchful eye for pink dolphins and river otters.  Along the river, families tap the land with slash and burn subsistence farming and live in “tumbos” constructed of palms and other local materials.  Despite the appearance of civilization, less than a kilometer behind their homesteads lies the primary rainforest.   Another twenty minutes to the field site.

Always willing to take one for the group, Devon demonstrates how ants protect their nests.

The 600+-acre tract is owned and managed by Project Amazonas and bounds another large area of untouched rainforest.  The site is frequented by rainforest enthusiasts of all types: herpetologists, tropical fish collectors, bird watchers and researchers.  Joining the teachers on the course at the field station were two medical students from England and a post-graduate sociology collegiate from Tulane University.    Toward the end of the four-day visit, Dr. Marty Condon of Cornell College, whose team was researching interactions between insects and wild cucumber flowers set up shop at the field station.  Food at the field station was prepared by Iquitos’ own Danillo, master chef.

At the field station, the group explored the rainforest on guided walks led by Dr. Devon Graham.  Devon is accustomed to probing nests of social insects, tarantula holes, grabbing snakes, whatever – his knowledge of the rainforest is long and deep, so he’s not afraid to make a point for the purpose of education or entertainment.  None of the bites have been life threatening, so far, although the area is known for its venomous bushmasters.   Devon has a profound knowledge of plant families, although he would say that his expertise lies in birds and fish.  Although the area has among the highest diversity of plants and animals in the world, the best viewing comes with a little patience and stealth rather than noisily trudging through the forest, machete in hand.  Rest for a while near the clusters of heliconia in bloom and the hummingbirds and other friends return.  Nighttime hikes are the most productive.

A blue and gold macaw startles Sherry.

Butterflies are specialized for niche plants.

In keeping with the spirit of the mission of Project Amazonas to preserve and protect the rainforest and its people, the course participants eagerly planted seedlings of high-quality woods and fruit trees: kapok (Ceiba spp.), marupa (Simarouba amara), wild Amazon grape (Pourouma cecropiaefolia) and passion fruit among many others.  Coconut palm and coffee were also planted; although not native, they are mainstays of the tropics and part of another initiative to make the area completely self-sufficient.

When teachers and children meet, foreign cultures don’t matter, there is no language barrier; all boundaries dissolve.  In addition to exploring the jungle flora and fauna, the time spent with youngsters was precious. Our visit to the school in Santa Cruz happened on Peru’s Independence Day and the children were dressed for the festivities.   The teachers from the institute (who just showed up without invitation) were welcomed by the mayor and town elders, who offered the traditional masato toast (fermented yuca, an acquired taste, or not!).  The village of about 100 families sports a school for kindergarten through high school for students, whose daily commute can be up to an hour by boat, no public transport available.  Despite the Spartan furnishings, the similarities between their classrooms and their American counterparts are stunning: posters on the environment and systems of the human body, alphabets illustrated with animal pictures, classroom rules.

Village school – not so different

While waiting for our return boat at the school, Donnamarie Polak, a fifth grade teacher from Ohio, urged the children to bring her one of their school books.  The children were spellbound listening to the gringa read to them.  Although the pronunciation was unique, they hung on every word.

No language barrier: Santa Cruz family enjoys a picture puzzle with British medical student Eleanor and Donnamarie.

Sherry, the lone English teacher and who had been coerced by her science teacher colleague to join the trip, inspired everyone in evening sessions of “Jungle Haiku.”  After the course, most of the teachers took advantage of the travel opportunity and headed to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, just two of the many, many gems in Perú.

So, the experience left the teachers richer and excited to bring to bring the lessons home.  The rainforest is under attack, shrinking in size and diversity at an alarming rate.  Now is the time to apply the lessons in our classrooms.  It’s not certain will benefit more: the teachers, the local children or the investment at home in the diversity and future stewardship of the rainforest and its people.

The next teacher institute is scheduled for July 17-24, 2013.  The course carries four semester undergraduate or graduate credits.  If you’ve got a sense of adventure or know someone who wants to bring the rainforest and its culture to the classroom, please visit

  http://ptonline.org/hol/amazon/         or contact     don@projectamazonas.org