director, had asked me to help document the supply and demand of forest products in indigenous
villages along a remote stretch of the Purús River,
on the outskirts of the park. Selling sustainably
harvested forest products in markets like the one I
visited in Pucallpa, he hoped, could provide a necessary – albeit modest – boost to local incomes.
Fagan had arranged for me to take a trip
along the Purús River to catalogue the supply of
such products. From Pucallpa, I flew to Puerto
Esperanza, a frontier town of around 4,000
inhabitants accessible only by air from Peru, or by
water from Brazil. From there, we boarded a long,
slender panga-style boat with a small outboard
engine and took off downriver.
Our weeklong trip took us to a dozen villages
– often simple clusters of thatched huts in grassy
clearings – many of which had been contacted by
modern civilization only a few decades before. To
me, the thick mantle of riverside rainforest looked
wild and unbroken, but our guides occasionally
pointed out places where loggers had illegally cut
a mahogany or tropical cedar – reminders that
competition for resources is keen here.
Each village we visited had a specialty. In San
non-timber forest products for the Upper Amazon
Conservancy, a small but ambitious conservation
organization with staff in both the U.S. and Peru.
The group’s mission is to help protect the Alto-
Purús, Peru’s largest, most remote national park
and one of the most biologically and culturally
diverse places on the planet.
The park and its surroundings – so wild that
tribes still uncontacted by modern civilization
wander its rainforest – has increasingly been
invaded by rogue loggers, poachers, and drug
traffickers. Some of the park’s indigenous villages
– thrust into the twenty-first century whether
they liked it or not – now seek viable alternative
sources of commerce and income.
Options are limited. Valuable tree species
like mahogany are harvested, often illegally, but
regeneration in the tropics is little understood
and hard to control, so the trees rarely grow back
as desired. And large-scale, sustainable timber
harvesting of the kind we’re familiar with across
much of North America is cost-prohibitive: the
region is simply too remote. For the same reason,
tourism has yet to take hold here.
Chris Fagan, the group’s New England-born
Above: A curandero, or medicine man, harvests a handful
of leaves used to cure stomach ailments. Below: A
vendor at a market Pucallpa, an Amazon city of more
than 200,000 people in Peru, displays a variety of non-
timber forest products.