Like clockwork, at 5.50am every day, the rainforest wakes up. At first, the bird song is a murmur, a whispering chatter of chirps and tweets, like gossiping nuns at chapel.
Beneath the soft haze of mosquito netting, I lie there among them: a silent intruder, listening. By 6am the forest is alive. Frenzied noise fills the air – unseen creatures squawk and whoop like drunken brawlers. A distant rumble becomes a crescendo, as the primeval roars of howler monkeys vibrate across the treetops. A day in Latin America has begun.
Holding deadly creatures
Let’s imagine that today I’m in Chocó Rainforest of westernmost Colombia; a biodiversity hotspot that supports one of the highest concentrations of endemic birds, amphibians and orchids in the world. In the palm of my hand is the tiny, two-inch Golden Poison Frog; an Endangered species that has enough poison drenched on its skin to kill 10 people.
Only three years ago, this area that I’m standing in was a battle zone – between the guerrilla army, paramilitary and the government – being the hotbed of coca cultivation to produce cocaine. The conflict left 50,000 local people living as internal refugees and resulted in 50 children starving to death within one month.
Peace at a price
Now, as the people here welcome relative peace, outside companies are descending on the region in search of timber and gold.Gold mining is polluting their rivers with toxic mercury and siltation; this has a catastrophic effect on fish populations that local people here depend upon to feed their families and make a living.This is the problem that conservationists from Fundación ProAves must face as they try to protect the region for its people and wildlife.
Threats to a lost world
Or maybe I’m in southern Ecuador, in the upper Amazon rainforest meeting the Shuar indigenous people, who were made famous in adventure literature because of Western fascination with their former practice of shrinking human heads.Sheer walls of jungle rise-up on either side of our motorised canoe, as we chug down the Nangaritza River on the way back from the weekly indigenous market. High above, the rock-face abruptly flattens into a table-top mountain and occasionally the thick forest-cover gives way to cascading waterfalls. It feels like we’ve discovered a lost world.
Today though, the Shaur people told me that they’re mourning the erosion of their nature and culture as the expansion of the region’s only road is bringing greater deforestation and colonisation. This is just one problem that conservationists from Naturaleza y Cultura Internacional must face as they implement innovative conservation initiatives across southern Ecuador.
The story repeats itself
Take any one of the 13 different conservation programmes, run by World Land Trust partners, that I visited throughout Central and South America and there’s one underlying theme; environmental destruction is having a devastating impact on some of the poorest and most marginalised people on the planet.
Finding solutions to this problem is what WLT’s partners do. They’re taking practical steps to create social and economic systems that put the protection of the environment first, while empowering poor communities.
People & planet in harmony
The wild mountains of Sierra Gorda, Central Mexico, was my first stop on the adventure and initial insight into how conservationists are creating sustainable communities. I’d always imagined protected areas were vast wildernesses, empty of people. Instead, like most, the one million acre Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve is home 100,000 people, scattered across 685 isolated villages.
Most people here are poor farmers, living on less than £4 a week, and are dependent on using the land for their livelihoods. Despite this, they’ve collectively said no to unregulated development in their back gardens and have instead joined a grassroots movement to protect their forests.
This movement was created by conservationists from Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, who are successfully creating economic alternatives for the community that work in harmony with the environment, such as ecotourism, reforestation, soil restoration, ecological livestock management and other profitable micro-enterprises.
Alone, payments for environmental services (the protection of biodiversity, water and carbon) now creates an annual income of around US$1.1 million for local forest owners, meaning conservation is now a better business than cattle ranching or agriculture. A conservation economy is steadily growing in the Sierra Gorda; this is just one example of what can and is being achieved across Latin America.
What I learnt
The experience of volunteering with World Land Trust partners has been my wake-up call. Many people talk of saving the natural world for the next generation – for our children or grandchildren. Through my journey, I’ve realised that we have to protect it for the people living on this planet today – we have to save it now. That’s how devastating the destruction is, that’s how catastrophic an impact it has on the lives’ of poor communities. If we care about these people, living today, we don’t have the luxury of time.
What haunts me is an inescapable notion that we don’t care about the protection of nature – not for the wildlife, for our children, or for the world’s poorest people. Otherwise the destruction would stop, surely? When you know about the level of devastation and its impact, it’s easy to slip into a sense of hopelessness and despair. To give up.To decide that our behaviour is simply too entrenched and the momentum behind the drivers of nature’s destruction simply too great.
Luckily, I met the inspirational people who are taking action to create social, economic and environmental change within their communities. They’re normal people – like you and me – who have often stood alone, with little support or funding, in the face of corruption. They’ve shown me, not only can it be done, but that change is happening right now.