National Geographic : 2013 Apr
114 national geographic • april 2013 up the Huacapistea River. Boyish in his oversize khaki fatigues, Calle, 47, has jurisdiction over much of the Purús Complex. “Arsenio has done a remarkable job removing loggers from the park,” Fagan says. “But there is still strong de mand for illegal mahogany.” Fagan’s organization created a Peruvian sister group called ProPurús to help the park service and indigenous federa tions protect the forests. One initiative involves organizing community “vigilance committees” to patrol around the edge of the national park and keep intruders out. ProPurús field director José Borgo Vásquez, a crafty 60yearold vet eran of conservation struggles throughout the Peruvian Amazon, is also aboard one of our motorpowered dugouts. “ The loggers are stealing from you and get ting away with it,” Borgo tells a gathering at our first stop, the Ashéninka village of Dulce Gloria. “Why? Because you are doing nothing to stop them.” Borgo believes that conservation efforts will succeed only if local communities take an active role in the defense of their native lands. Two major obstacles, he says, are poverty and lack of education, which make the lure of cash so seductive and the need to protect the forest so difficult for many villagers to understand. A third obstacle is distance, which gives timber poachers an overwhelming advantage. The Ama zon rain forest is so vast and its farflung river valleys so remote that it is impossible to patrol everywhere effectively. The absence of authority on the ground has given rise to a sense among loggers that the forest is theirs for the taking. A local informant tells us that a logger named Rubén Campos is using an illegal track farther upriver to drag mahogany logs over the divide to an adjacent watershed. (Efforts to reach Campos for comment were unsuccessful.) Such a move would allow him to float any illgotten timber down to the Ucayali River and on to sawmills in Pucallpa, the regional capital, without the Ashéninka on the Huacapistea even knowing what he’s taking. The next day, in a downpour, local guides lead us deep into the forest in search of the il licit operation. We pass a giant mahogany tree, an X etched in its bark, apparently slated for cutting. Anchored by sprawling buttress roots, the great trunk rockets into the canopy, where its branches drip with orchids and bromeliads. A gash in the forest leads into the rainsoaked jungle and vanishes in a blur of electric green. We soon find the culprit—a John Deere skidder with outsize tires parked in a shed made from rusted sheets of corrugated metal. We press on, passing a dozen massive mahogany and Spanish cedar trunks awaiting removal by the skidder. Calle measures their diameter—about five feet each. He says the trees are hundreds of years old. We reach a clearing dominated by a shaggy thatched shelter. It’s guarded by a lone watchman, a specter of a man named Emilio, rousted from his hammock by our approach. “A man needs to work,” he says defensively. “If there’s no other work, what can one do?” It’s a question that vexes Calle as well. This logging operation is clearly be yond the bounds of legality; no one is authorized to cut this forest. But the camp itself is beyond Calle’s legal reach. Given the torrential downpour, it would be too difficult to follow the skidder path across the rain swollen creek and into the reserve, so we turn back. Calle will alert authorities once he gets back to Pucallpa, but no one is likely to have the stom ach for charging or prosecuting anyone. Without hard evidence from inside the reserve, it would be a tough case to pursue. Loggers are apt to be well connected to power brokers in Pucallpa. Honest “Welcome to the land without law,” Chota says, with a sweep of the arm. “The only law is the law of the gun.” Scott Wallace reported on Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park in January. Alex Webb photographed our August 2012 story about East London.