Solutions storytelling in the face of Amazon destruction

Solutions storytelling in the face of Amazon destruction

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This article was first published in The Ecologist.

New documentary, Second Chances, shows how even the most unlikely people can become environmental defenders.

A new short film follows the journey of Juvenal Huari Castilla who travelled to the Amazon to log the rainforest. It’s a personal story of growth and transformation.

This three-minute mini-doc shows that, despite the challenges, it is possible to reverse the damaging impact that people are having on the planet.

The film was named a finalist in the Conservation Optimism Film Festival last week, as part of their 2019 summit to share ideas and solutions for more empowering conservation.

Root causes

The short film is set in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Peruvian Amazon and one of the world’s most important protected areas. It’s a biodiversity hotspot and home to uncontacted indigenous people, yet the destruction of the rainforest through illegal logging is widespread and uncontrolled.

Juvenal tells his story while sitting in a lush tropical forest, an area he’d once been hired to destroy. Despite having been logged to create farmland, scientists have proven that today the biodiversity value of the forest has, in some areas, reached 87 percent of what you would expect to find in primary forest.

Thanks to long-term protection and natural regeneration, biodiversity has bounced back and nature has been given a second chance to thrive.

For the past twelve years, Juvenal has been working with researchers from the Crees Foundation to conserve this forest and its wild creatures. Through his reconnection with nature, the film suggests people are hardwired to love the natural world, even though they are responsible for its destruction.

By subtly drawing attention to the root causes of destructive practices in Manu, namely the lack of alternative job opportunities, it challenges simple definitions of what’s good or bad, right or wrong. Given the right circumstances – a second chance – we all have the capacity to care for our natural world. In fact, the film suggests, we all innately do.

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We interviewed filmmaker, Eilidh Munro, to discover what inspired her to create the documentary:

Q: What’s it like to work in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth?

As a wildlife or conservation filmmaker I don’t think there is a more incredible place to work. Every day brings new opportunities to experience the natural world, whether that’s waking up to the booms and crashes of a tropical thunderstorm, walking underneath a troop of monkeys or spotting the sci-fi-esque victim of the cordyceps fungus.

It’s also an incredibly challenging place to work and live, with a daily battle to keep lenses dry and mould-free. However, despite being the most biodiverse place in the world, the rainforest certainly doesn’t give away its secrets easily. You need patience, resilience – and a bit of good luck doesn’t go amiss!

Q: What are the threats facing this region of the Amazon?

Manu is home to a number of indigenous communities and endemic wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. However, this area is increasingly being opened up to the outside world, with a lack of control methods being put in place to limit the impacts that people are having on this globally important area.

Slash and burn agriculture, illegal logging, gold mining and cocaine trafficking are existing industries in Madre de Dios – and the emergence of new roads which connect this rainforest region to cities, such as Cusco and Puerto Maldonado, are quickly increasing the pressure on natural resources, ecology and indigenous cultures.

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Q: What motivated you to create a film that highlights a positive story?

The forest this short is filmed in, the Crees Reserve, was once cleared for agriculture – a story which is being repeated across the Amazon at an alarming rate.

The fact that 87 percent of all biodiversity has returned to this place is such an incredibly hopeful case study and shows that there is potential for other damaged rainforests to recover, given the chance.

In a time when it can be easy to feel defeated by environmental issues, this is something I don’t think the majority of people realise is possible.

It’s also very easy to demonise the people who are directly involved with deforestation: loggers, hunters, miners… However, the majority of people working on the ground in these industries are most likely escaping poverty elsewhere.

Juvenal’s story is personal to his own experience and testament to his openness to different world views, however it also inspired me to challenge people’s preconceptions of what makes a ‘Conservationist’, and to show how increased opportunities can change a person’s – and the environment’s – fate.

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Q: What role do films have in making an impact to help conservation?

Stories have the power to speak to people on an emotional level – and that is what inspires change, not logic or information, so I think film has an incredibly powerful role to play in conservation.

There are huge opportunities for researchers and filmmakers to collaborate to better communicate the threats and opportunities surrounding climate change and environmental issues.

Arguably, the majority of these films are talking to a similar audience who are, on the whole, already engaged with these issues. Perhaps, to achieve greater impact, more could be done to communicate with hard-to-reach, cynical audiences who have a different world view to the one broadly targeted.

Q: How have you been establishing a career as an independent filmmaker?

After building up my filming and photography portfolio whilst working in marketing, I started working as Digital Content Creator in the Peruvian Amazon for the Crees Foundation, based in the Manu Biosphere Reserve.

During this time, I made a short documentary for Crees about spider monkey feeding behaviour that’s rarely caught on camera.

I later applied for funding through the Scientific Exploration Society to return to Manu to create an independent documentary about a road which is being built through the Reserve.

This gave me the opportunity to create a 25 minute film, Voices on the Road, after running a successful crowdfunder campaign that was generously match funded through IUCN NL. The documentary will be released very soon and I can’t wait to see how audiences respond to it.


About this Author

Bethan John is a freelance multimedia journalist specialising in biodiversity conservation and social justice.

Why is an indigenous community destroying paradise?

Why is an indigenous community destroying paradise?

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This article was first published in The Ecologist.

A controversial new road is tearing through the most biodiverse place in Peru’s Amazon rainforest, bringing conflict and destruction. For one indigenous group, desperate for change, it also brings hope.

A new road will reach the native community of Diamante this summer. It is a day that the indigenous Yine people have been praying for.

The national government’s long awaited approval of this road marks the end of a three year battle between the community and environmentalists.

Surrounded by thick jungle, Diamante sits between two protected areas: Amarakaeri Communal Reserve and Manu National Park, the world’s top biodiversity hotspot. To reach the community, bulldozers are carving a way between these two reserves, opening the rainforest up to further illegal logging.

Deforestation and trafficking

The road is predicted to cause over 40,000 hectares of deforestation: an area equivalent to the combined size of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

It will threaten the survival of indigenous people living in isolation and endangered wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.

The road will also bring an increase in cocaine trafficking, deepening the humanitarian abuses that are already rife throughout the Madre de Dios region.

So, why have Manu’s communities been campaigning for the road so fearlessly?

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Edgar Morales Gomez, the district mayor, said: “The road will bring water, communication, internet – so many things. Only with the road can we change our life.” He added:

“We cannot in another way because, in the end, we live forgotten by the state.”

The community feel that their basic human rights are not being met: access to a good education, well-equipped medical centres, and clean running water.

Miryam Lupaca Medina, a primary school teacher from Diamante, explained: “In primary I taught two children who have already left their studies. They only live with their grandparents and they can’t cover all their needs. So they have finished studying in order to go and look for money.”

On 15 November 2018, the community of Diamante celebrated the approval of their new road. In the middle of the jungle, bulldozers were decorated with balloons, Latin pop music blared from speakers, and drinks were handed around.

The crowd listened attentively to a rousing speech made by Luis Otsuka Salazar, the former regional governor: “Here I see this poverty that disgusts me, that outrageous me.

“Other countries – of the Americans, the Japanese, the English, of all of the Europeans – how do they live? And how do our children live? Because you cannot knock down a tree here? You can’t open this road here?” He added:

“Fight for your children to have a quality of life, to live with dignity and pride to be Peruvian.”

The bulldozers moved in. The Amazonian trees fell.

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This controversial extension of Manu Road is part of its steady advancement through the Biosphere Reserve since the 1950s.

Poor farmers from the Andes were encouraged to populate Manu; these ‘colonists’ were offered cheap land by the state to exploit the Amazon’s untapped natural resources. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Manu Biosphere Reserve should be protected. In reality, illegal logging is rampant and uncontrolled.

Once the trees are logged, the land is burnt and a monoculture of banana crops are grown, with the heavy use of pesticides. The soils are nutrient-poor and before long crops fail and the barren plot is abandoned. A new area must be logged and the agricultural frontier progresses deeper into untouched jungle.

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Encouraged to become farmers, indigenous communities were promised that they too would prosper from agriculture as the road advanced. This has failed to happen.

Mateo Augusto Mavite, leader of the native community of Shipetiari, who have had road access for over three years, said:

“Farming still isn’t commercial. We have to have a market.”

Despite this, the community of Diamante – an hour’s boat ride downriver – still believe the promises made by charismatic politicians.

Gloria Palma Mormontoi, community leader of Diamante, said: “When it arrives we will be able to leave with our produce. It’s going to create economic movement – with a little of that we can sustain a family.”

The community of Shintuya are still struggling to make a living through farming, even a 50-year-old road connection. Miguel Visse said:

“There is almost a permanent market, but we sell to intermediaries, which is difficult.”

Often refusing to pay a fair price, intermediaries control the market and make it unprofitable. Miguel added: “Because the price is low sometimes we are forced to work with timber, with extracting trees.”

Forced to continue logging to make a living, Shintuya are still waiting for the better life promised through road connection.

Victoria Corisepa said: “The road has been here 50 years and we have not seen a good benefit. In fact, we are losing our customs so the community is trying to rescue our culture, our identity, our respect.”

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People in Diamante still fear losing their culture and territory, despite being pro-road. Eduardo Pancho Pizarro said: “People from Diamante don’t know how to benefit. But colonist people – woooh! – they really know how to.”

Due to their desperate economic situation the community are already selling timber and logging rights to colonists at an unsustainably low price.

The road has failed to improve the livelihoods and living standards of indigenous communities in Manu because empowering local people has never been its true intention. Corisepa said:

“The road is not for the benefit of communities. It’s for the benefit of big business.”

During Otsuka’s speech, it became clear why he wanted the road: “The other day I was talking to Petroperú and [they said …] this is where the main concentration of gas is passing.”

In Peruvian law, it is illegal to build a road to explore for oil or gas. This road has a long history of skirting the thin line of legality and Otsuka is shrouded in controversy.

Before being elected as governor, Otsuka was president of the Mining Federation of Madre de Dios (Fedemin). In the Madre de Dios region, 90 percent of the gold mining is illegal and is a hotbed of modern day slavery, especially the trafficking of women and girls into sex work. The final destination of the new road is the epicentre of illegal gold mining.

Although the full extension of this road has yet to be approved, campaigners are confident. Morales said: “It’ll be easier because there’s no-one preventing it. What has prevented us here is Manu National Park and Amarakaeri Communal Reserve; we are breaking the heart. That is why it has been a lot of trouble. Down there, it’s not the same.”

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The road has penetrated the heart of Manu and now its advancement appears unstoppable. Not only does it threaten the region’s natural and cultural heritage, it also brings an increase in drug trafficking.

Many colonists who settled in Manu, initially to log and farm, later turn to coca as an alternative cash crop due to a lack of economic options. Although in general decline nationwide, coca production in the Madre de Dios region has increased by 52 percent.

In Diamante, people fear that they will get caught up in drug trafficking. Waldir Gomez Zorrillo said: “They could make us accomplices. The army, when they catch you, they catch you innocently because they think you’re working.” He added:

“They blame us. It’s us who pay.”

Despite this, Diamante is willing to overlook all the threats posed by the road; they are desperate for change and believe there is no other way to improve their lives.

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For decades, indigenous communities in Manu have been promised a road and over generations it has become a deeply entrenched symbol of hope.

Researcher Eduardo Salazar Moreira said: “There has been a lot of time for these ideas and these aspirations to change, to evolve. They go deep inside the minds of people. They are totally legitimate necessities and expectations.” He added: 

“The issue comes when people hope that the road will bring them all this.”

Under the guise of empowerment, indigenous people’s desperation has been used by corrupt politicians who profit from the black market economy.

Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos, director of human rights organisation Asociación Huarayo, said: “We have a state that doesn’t worry about the employment of people. They play with people’s natural desire; they sell us roads, but they don’t sell us development. How are we going to use this tool – the road – to improve the family economically, to improve the education of our children?”

The Peruvian government has green-lighted the construction of numerous new roads across this Amazon region, declaring them to be“a national priority”.

The most major of these roads is predicted to cause 680,000 hectares of deforestation in primary rainforest – an area the size of the country of Samoa.

Based on the experiences of people in Manu, the roads will bring environmental and cultural devastation, with little to no improvement in livelihoods or living standards. Guadalupe asked:

“Development for what? For who? This is the question we are constantly asking ourselves.

“We are going to witness families destroyed. Natural resources destroyed. The world destroyed. This will not just have a local impact, this is going to have an impact in other parts of the planet. That is our concern.”


About this Author 

Bethan John is a freelance multimedia journalist and team member of a film expedition that journeyed to Manu at the end of 2018. They are producing a documentary to give a voice to indigenous communities, which will launch this summer. Follow the story as it unfolds:
Twitter @voicesontheroad
Instagram @voicesontheroadfilm
Facebook @voicesontheroadfilm

Film expedition: Voices on the Road

Film expedition: Voices on the Road

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Our all-female team are about to embark on a film expedition to the remote Peruvian Amazon, unearthing stories on an illegal road that’s bringing conflict, destruction… and hope.

The road is creating a path of destruction to the world’s top biodiversity hotspot, Manu National Park, threatening the survival of uncontacted indigenous tribes and a wealth of wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. It will increase illegal activities in the area: logging, hunting, drug and human trafficking.

But it is local people who are building the road with their own hands. They feel disenfranchised and that their basic needs are not being met by the Peruvian government – access to education, medical care, sanitation, job opportunities and markets.

The road is a promise of a better life, but will the hopes and aspirations it inspires ever become reality – and at what cost?

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What’s the aim of the expedition

Through extensive interviews with a range of stakeholders across Manu, we will unearth and document the views, experiences and aspirations of diverse people living throughout the region as expressed in their own voice.

These interviews will form the narrative of a documentary film, titled Voices on the Road, which will be used as an educational tool to foster dialogue and understanding so that solutions for Manu’s sustainable future can begin to emerge.

Historically, conservationists have taken a single minded approach when communicating about construction, particularly in protected areas. But the truth is, we don’t have a clear insight into this road’s potential impact; the level of biodiversity loss and the threat to the region’s cultural heritage, or the potential for job creation and improved living standards.

The road will be built, the question is: can there be any positive outcomes?

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Why is the film needed

Through a compelling documentary, we will bring these issues to a worldwide audience for the first time. The aim: to show that conservation research and action in remote corners of the world are relevant and engaging issues that impact us as a global society.

Beyond this, the film expedition must have a lasting legacy by fostering local stakeholder collaboration and problem-solving so that in the long-term an environmental management plan for the road can be created.

Currently, there is a stalemate: pro-road campaigners (namely the regional government and many within off-road communities) are antagonistic towards anti-road spokespeople and have been silencing opposing views. There is also very little known about the experience of on-road communities who are disillusioned as road connection has not brought the promised economical and educational benefits. Documenting and sharing these perspectives to foster dialogue and understanding is extremely difficult to accomplish, yet this is the only way we can move forward in creating a sustainable future for Manu.

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About the expedition team

All team members have worked together in Manu Biosphere Reserve for several years, giving us crucial contacts with local scientific researchers, sustainable development experts and community members. We are a multidisciplinary team – journalist Bethan John, filmmaker Eilidh Munro, and scientist Jennifer Serrano Rojas – and we have extensive fieldwork experience working in remote tropical locations. We are committed to uniting compelling visual storytelling with scientific research and local knowledge for meaningful on-the-ground action.

Despite our experience, this is the most ambitious project we have embarked on to date; with constant cultural awareness and sensitivity, we must unearth authentic stories about a hugely polarising issue in the region, tapping into a myriad of economic, social and cultural matters. We must then produce a compelling documentary that is relevant both locally and internationally to engage people in conservation action.

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Photo gallery: Wildlife & lands of Latin America
Immerse yourself in the intoxicating nature and culture of Latin America, from the snow-capped Andean peaks to the steaming tropical forests

These photos were taken by Bethan John of Wildlands Creative while on a reporting expedition, working alongside conservationists in the field as a multimedia journalist.

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What do you need for your first microadventure?
This article was first published by We Are Cardiff.

In 2013, every day was an adventure. I’d packed in my full time job and headed off on my own to the wildlands of Latin America.

I was on a mission to discover why some people are prepared to stand up and take action to protect our natural world. Well, at least that’s what I was telling people I was doing…

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Trekking in Mexico’s melting pot

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Publication: Summer travel catalogue, Páramo directional clothing
Explore the wilds of the Sierra Gorda mountains, a one million acre Biosphere Reserve protected thanks to Páramo’s chosen charity, the World Land Trust

Grinning up at us from beneath his cowboy hat, ranger Leonel Espino is kneeling in the path’s sticky earth, pointing out the clear imprint of a big cat’s paw. A puma, he tells us, and its fresh – this top predator was roaming our forest trail as little as 24 hours ago.
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