What We Do

Seeing—and Saving—the Forest for the Trees

Conserving Habitat

For many, the Amazon conjures up images of vast untouched jungle brimming with wildlife and people only appearing as passersby. But cruising up the Napo, an Amazon tributary, the regular occurrence of small villages with stilted houses and concrete schoolhouses serves as a reminder that people are actually very much a part of this landscape.

In fact, indigenous groups have been calling the Amazon home for thousands of years. In our high-powered boat, we are speeding towards one such group, the Maijuna. A few years ago the Maijuna approached the Applied Plant Ecology division of San Diego Zoo Global seeking help in palm conservation and resource management. The project is just one cog in their efforts to preserve their culture and the environment on which it depends.

Pictures and Preserve

After a few hours on the Napo we turn east onto a smaller river, the Yanayacu, home to two Maijuna villages. When we arrive at the house where we’ll be setting up in Nueva Vida, we are greeted by a few village leaders and a swarm of excited children.

After setting up, we start to catch up with some people, it’s not long before we bring out photos from previous visits to the villages. Some of the pictures are from the Regional Conservation Area (RCA) signing from February 2012. Maijuna from all four villages and several NGO’s (including San Diego Zoo Global) gathered to celebrate the regional government approving the Maijuna RCA—a feat the Maijuna initiated and had worked hard to see come to fruition. I see many happy familiar faces in the photos and it must have been a great relief to have some guarantee to preservation of their ancestral lands.

Managing Diversity

Yet the Maijuna know that their work is not done. With or without the conservation area, the Maijuna know they need to manage their natural resources sustainably.

The rich biodiversity of the interior, where their ancestors traditionally lived, speaks to the conservation value of their traditional livelihoods. But for decades, the floodplains of the Maijuna lands have been open to exploitation by outsiders – rubber tappers, loggers, and resource extracting neighbors – resulting in the degradation of natural resources, language and culture.

Thus the Maijuna took the important step of asserting sovereignty over their natural resources and banned logging on their lands and started to prevent outsiders from entering their river basins to extract other resources. But they also needed some technical support to sustainably manage their own extraction. Here is where San Diego Zoo Global biologists can help.

Applause for Palms

Palms have long been recognized as particularly useful plants and important natural resources, especially in the tropics where many palms occur. The Maijuna use several palms for a variety of uses, but it is aguaje palm that has a thriving regional market and thus is most at risk for overexploitation. During this trip to the Maijuna villages, our team will be working to devise a forestry experiment with the goal of speeding up recovery of aguaje palm swamps previously degraded due to over-exploitation.

It is just one part of a extensive project that has already seen success in training villagers to climb fruiting palms (which can reach up to 90 feet tall) and be able to harvest their fruit year after year. Previously, the only method available to reach the fruit was to cut down the female palms bearing them. We also plan on setting up a nursery to propagate aguaje seedlings so people can add the palms to their swidden-fallow fields and agroforestry systems, as well as reforest areas that have experienced a lot of cutting in the past.

It’s not always easy work; aguaje stands are swampy places filled with biting insects. But they also tend to be filled with wildlife. People aren’t the only ones who seek aguaje fruit, as animals from colorful parrots to stout tapirs consume the vitamin-rich fruit. Knowing that helping the Maijuna maintain healthy aguaje stands means helping wildlife as well makes it easier to laugh when I suddenly sink to my thighs in mud as I trudge through the palm swamps.

But what really makes it worthwhile is all the smiling faces that surround me as we sit in the stilted house in Nueva Vida. People are very much a part of the Amazon, and finding ways for them to maintain cultural ties to the land and sustainably use the wealth of resources around them in reserves and throughout the basin is one of the great conservation challenges this incredibly biodiverse place faces.

Christa Horn, Research Coordinator, Applied Plant Ecology.