By Milagros Salazar
Half-shouting over the roar of the old truck we are riding in, Peruvian farmer Pablo Escudero points to a green wall that rises up in the distance and says, “That’s our ‘rain caller’, the place we have fought so hard to create, which will be our legacy to our children.”
A short distance later, a sign on the road reads: “Ojos de Agua Forest of the Future”.
Escudero, 50, takes us into the heart of this 2,400-hectare preserve of dry forest in the south of the northern Peruvian region of San Martín, in the province of Picota, nestled into one of the tributaries of the mighty Huallaga River.
He is the president of the Ojos de Agua Forest of the Future Association, created in April 2006 by a group of local farmers who decided to place priority on protecting the forest, instead of continuing to clear the land to plant crops.
The association, which now has 16 members, was the first to obtain a concession for private communal forest preservation in San Martín. Its struggle, which began in 2003, has been praised by non-governmental organisations and applauded by other local farmers, many of whom were initially sceptical about this initiative.
Forest conservation has been a responsibility of the state in Peru for the last 50 years, but in 2000, the Forestry and Wildlife Law established that civil society can also participate in this endeavour.
In several regions of the country, people have gradually organised to take advantage of this stipulation, as in the case of the farmers in Picota.
While Peru loses 150,000 hectares of forest every year due to deforestation of the Amazon, there are currently almost 994,000 hectares protected under various instruments, an area larger than Lake Titicaca in southeastern Peru, the largest freshwater lake in South America.
“When we first came here, we found chainsaws and ‘mafias’ who wanted to stop us, and filed a complaint against us,” recounted Escudero, who between 2007 and 2009 faced charges filed at the district attorney’s office in the municipality of Pucacaca, where the forest is located.
With the support of the non-governmental Peruvian Environmental Law Society (SPDA), Escudero and the other leaders of the association were cleared of the charges and were able to continue their conservation efforts. In May 2010 the association finally obtained a conservation concession over the land, valid for 40 years.
Five of the country’s 25 regional governments have the authority to grant forest concessions. San Martín was the first to exercise this right, and opted for conservation projects, instead of logging activities.
“These farmers are working to protect the headwaters of the river basin,” biologist Miguel Tang of the Association of Amazonians for the Amazon (AMPA) told Tierramérica. “They are an admirable group of people who have devoted their time to this effort and have foregone the opportunity to clear the forest to make more room to grow crops in order to preserve it. I believe this is the first case of this kind in the country.”
The farmers have also planted coconut trees on Falingahua island, one hour away from Ojos de Agua by truck. It used to take them nearly four hours to walk there.
“We have tried to protect the forest in many ways: through inscription in the public land registry, placing boundary markers, forming teams to act as caretakers, and talking with the people to get them to understand that without forests we will have no water, which means there can be no life,” Escudero explained.
In groups of three, they walk through the forest every day, keeping watch. So far they have placed 200 boundary markers, weighing 100 kilograms, to mark the borders of the forest and prevent the entry of loggers or companies that plant corn in the surrounding area.
The forest faces numerous threats. When the association members began their work, they found 60 hectares of deforested land, which were recovered naturally.
The Spanish term “ojo de agua” means a small natural pool of springwater. The forest was named Ojos de Agua because of the presence of a number of these pools in the upper reaches of the forest, located within an area where water supplies are becoming ever scarcer.
“When the big red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) roar, the forest shakes, but when they start to howl it’s because there’s rain coming,” Escudero commented. The forest is also home to brightly coloured frogs, a great many insects, and a wide variety of trees. “This is a place with many riches, but it needs to be researched,” he added.
Preliminary research undertaken to formulate a master plan for the region found that the species growing in Ojos de Agua include the bulletwood tree (Manilkara bidentata), which is endemic to dry forests, and the breadnut tree (Brosimum alicastrum), whose seeds or “nuts” contain high levels of protein.
Arnaldo Paredes, 46, accompanied Tierramérica on a tour of the forest and pointed out tracks left by animals, such as those of an Amazonian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) at the foot of a bulletwood tree.
The association is now building a guest house for researchers and visitors and an auditorium.
“But we haven’t been alone,” stressed Escudero. Since 2009 they have been receiving funding from the embassy of Finland and support from the local authorities, as well as technical assistance from the SPDA and AMPA.
One thing they have done alone is to decide how to spend the funds they receive. Instead of buying a new vehicle with the more than 28,000 dollars given to them by the Finnish embassy in 2010, the opted for a used truck that cost just 5,000 dollars.
With the money left over, they were able to invest in boundary markers, mobile phones – which are essential for instant communication while guarding the forest – and a computer to draft and save projects.