Victor Zambrano Gonzalez: On the Front in the War Against Illegal Mining

Victor Zambrano Gonzalez fights illegal mining and deforestation in his home in the Peruvian Amazon.

Gonzalez nearly single-handedly re-forested 40 hectares of land on the Tambopata River, which is now home to his medicinal plant refuge, Fundo Refugio K’erenda Homet.

 

The 360% increase in the price of gold from 2001 to 2011, according to NASA, has led to a boom of unlicensed miners in Puerto Maldonado and the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon, the most biodiverse area of the world. The Peruvian government has estimated that illegal gold mining, and the deforestation and mercury poisoning that comes with the highly destructive hydraulic mining, has devastated over 40,000 hectares of Amazonian forest in Peru.

image

image

The poor town is now dependent on the illegal mining, becoming slaves to this culture that has not only ruined even protected parts of the rainforest like the Tambopata National Reserve, but also led to human trafficking, forced labor, extinction of indigenous groups, and countless deaths. People and wildlife alike are suffering at the hands of multinational corporations with no souls and deep pockets, and it is up to conservationists like Victor Zambrano Gonzalez, president of the National Tambopata Reserve management committee and founder of private conservation area Fundo Refugio K’erenda Homet, to fight big business to preserve Pacha Mama’s culture and history that goes deeper than the roots of the biggest Capirona tree.

IMG_0317

“I am on the front of a war with illegal gold miners destroying this zone,” said Gonzalez. “Mining and logging are permanent threats to the Madre de Dios region.”

Victor Zambrano with his Prize for Conservability
Victor Zambrano with his Prize for Conservability

Victor can proudly say that his 40 hectares of government-protected land is free of illegal mining and logging, a luxury he had to work hard for. He founded the reserve, about 3.5 kilometers down the new Interoceanic Highway outside of Puerto Maldonado, in 1988. A Madre de Dios native and kin to the first Peruvians to colonize this part of the jungle from Arequipa and Cusco in the early 20th century, Victor always identified with the Indians of the region who lived as one with their land. In his youth, he spent 15 years away from his home training and teaching in the marine corps. When he returned in the ’80s, he was shocked to find the land around the Tambopata River where he now resides completely deforested due to small-scale mining that took off with the increase in gold prices in 1973.

“People told me I was crazy to try to restore it, that the land was dead now. But I feel a love for this land…I would give my life for it,” he said.

Victor pointing to the path from the Fundo to the Tambopata River
Victor pointing to the path from the Fundo to the Tambopata River

So Victor set about planting trees in the region in the hopes of returning the earth to her original splendor. With the help of a donation of 1,000 trees from an American organization, he used the disorganization of the jungle itself as inspiration. Rather than trying to make order of which trees and flowers and plants he was planting, tracking the sun like other farmers have done, he planted trees among flowers and medicinal plants with no particular order. Pachamama isn’t organized, he reasoned, why should he think that he could do better?

image image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0240
A tree Victor planted for his daughter 18 years ago

 

“I always try to break the boundaries,” he said, gesturing emphatically with his hands as he stood next to a wall covered in his framed recognitions, such as the Carlos Pince de Prado Prize for Conservation in 2014 and international recognition as an Ashoka Fellow, a social entrepreneur who provides innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change societal patterns.

Wall of recognition
Wall of recognition

Victor found that by planting trees closer together, they were able to grow faster because they would compete for sunlight. Within the first ten years, he was able to grow 1,000 trees per year. Now, his beautiful land along the brown Tambopata is home to 20,000 trees, made up of 120 different species. 60 percent are native trees and 40 percent are tropical, and similarly 60 percent are fruit trees and 40 percent are medicinal. He donates half of whatever produce his lands create, like lemons, peppers or flowers, and sells the other half locally.

Victor's son with beautiful flower arrangements
Victor’s son with beautiful flower arrangements

“The flowers are not separated from the trees. They grow in harmony with the trees. I’ve demonstrated that it is possible to regrow giving nature the opportunity to help itself,” said Victor, who included that it is his dream to fill the land with animal life, both native and farm.

The reserve is named after his daughter, one of five children, who, now 18, showed the most interest in his work. Victor recalled with clear love in his eyes how, as a girl, K’erenda Homet would accompany him on his tours around the grounds and tug his pant leg and whisper up to him if he forgot to mention something like this plant or that flower.

“She will take on the responsibility of the fundo,” said Victor, exclaiming that he wants to be able to leave this world knowing that someone is continuing the struggle to protect the land.

Another such struggle is making sure the Interoceanic Highway is built with the environment in mind. The project, that is meant to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Brazil and Peru, has been talked about since the 1960’s. The Brazilian and Peruvian governments finally reached an agreement to begin the highway that would cross the Andes and the Amazon in 2004, citing a potential 1.5 percent increase in GDP per year that the highway would create. The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) backed the highway due to its desire to improve communication and reduce poverty in South America, seeing nature as a barrier to the unification of the Latin countries. Victor and other conservationists at first promoted the highway, thrilled with the prospect of being connected more easily to Puno and Cusco (MAP). He and others whose lives revolve around conservation and development thought, idealistically, that the forest around the highway would surely become government-protected land, and that the project would be done in line with the Law of National System of Public Inversion, which dictates the cost-benefit analysis of any public works project after conducting a comprehensive study of the methods, execution and potential consequences.

Victor lamented that then Peruvian President Toledo more or less ignored the regulations when he embarked on the project. The $84 million budget, that was created in 2004 for the highway that started in Brazil, was spent in its entirety within 100 kilometers of cleared forest. The new budget for the project is estimated to be around $1.6 billion, backed by CAF, the Latin American bank for development created in 1970.

“They started the project without a full study and calculation of the effects, despite the warnings of conservationists and scientists,” said Victor.

Now, as it is clear that there is a serious lack of enforcement in the Madre de Dios region, Victor worries that the Interoceanic Highway will only make it easier for illegal miners to transfer their booty and lead to untouched land more easily accessed for plunder.

Victor claims that he is a farmer at heart, and says that we need to ask the land for help when it comes to the conservation of natural resources.

Walking around Victor’s land full of natural resources, it is not hard to see why he fights so hard to protect the forest. As he glided past the plants, tapping big leaves like blankets or pulling weeds out of the ground, he explained that he sees the plants as his children. He began pointing out different plants, fruits, trees, barks and roots and describing which heals what ailment and how to take the medicine. There’s santa maria for inflammation of bug bites, limoncillo for stomach aches, caña caña for general pain, para para for male stamina, pan de arbol sap for broken bones, cilantro to help pregnant women dilate while in labor, uña de gato trees (of which he has 4,000) for immediate relief of inflamed prostate, duerme duerme which shrinks when you touch it and helps children sleep. We passed a tree with slashes in the bark, and I asked if someone had been measuring the height of their children. He shook his head and informed me that this is the Sangre de Grado tree and its sap is used as antibacterial cream on fresh wounds. The list goes on and on. Victor even collected leaves of ishanga, marañon, cocona, limoncillo and guyaba for me when he noticed me rubbing my sore throat and instructed me to make a tea and drink it three times. I did as I was told and was healed the next day.

Group of leaves Victor collected for my tea
Group of leaves Victor collected for my tea
sagre de grado tree
sagre de grado tree

image

image

image

image

victor shaking down some lemons
victor shaking down some lemons

We passed by the sacred ayahuasca tree, and Victor spoke gravely about its use as a medicine. If you are not sick, however, the plant, when prepared properly by a shaman and administered during a mystic ceremony, will clean the organism of negative charges. It also cleans out your digestive system of all bad bacteria, but leaves the good. Ayahuasca, Victor says, aligns the neurons in the brain that become disorganized due to traumatic events.

Victor with the Ayahuasca tree
Victor with the Ayahuasca tree

“During the Ayahuasca ceremony, you are forced to face your fears, and after you have no fear.”

Victor has partaken in the ceremony five times in his life, most recently when his Shaman friend alerted him to the negative forces around him. He feared for his life due to the enemies he’s made of the dangerous illegal miners, and said the ceremony helped him survive.

He will continue to do his part, taking care of his expanse of forest and fighting for Pacha Mama’s rights, finding the beauty in the land where so many others are only seeing economic potential.

“Everything carries the mark of our hands,” he said.

 

*Please note that all quotes are translations.

Below are some photos of the reserve that also hosts people who want to help tend to the grounds or just stay and enjoy the beauty of the jungle. Make bookings here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

Mother of God

Awesome tour of the Madre de Dios region in Peru, Lake Sandoval and the Tambopata National Reserve.

Hiking and canoeing through the reserve to spectate the gorgeous nature and wildlife.

 

image

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ellen, Robin and I told ourselves that it was a good day to go further into the jungle on a tour of Lake Sandoval, despite the torrential downpour. Better a cool, rainy day than a hot, sunny one. Besides, we reasoned, the trees would surely create a canopy over our heads and block most of the rain. Nevertheless, by the time we made it down the Madre de Dios river, which joins with the Tambopata River and also runs all the way to Cuzco, I was very grateful to the tour agency for supplying me with rubber rain boots. For an hour and a half, our guide, Dagger, a Manu National Park native, led us through the muddy trail of the Tambopata National Reserve to get to Maloka Lodge. In front of me was a blanket of green trees and a thick, brown path, with the occasional scatter of bright color. A blue butterfly here, a red parrot’s beak flower there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

thank goodness for these galoshes
thank goodness for these galoshes

You could hear life all around you, the sounds of crickets and cicadas and bird calls filling your peripherals, yet everything seemed quite still. A rustling palm frond made us all look up. It took a while for me to spot it, but I saw a monkey! A real, live, wild monkey. It was a squirrel monkey, I was told, and it looked a mixture between a human and cat. Soon I was watching for more moving leaves and branches, for more monkeys, climbing the palm trees to get to the dates at the top. Some of them had little baby monkeys on their backs. It was freaking adorable. Dagger hurried to guide my steps and catch me when I stumbled as I clumsily tried to follow them off the trail and snap pictures, not looking where I was stepping. I stopped short of walking through a spider web, thank god. We continued our walk in the sucking mud, steadily getting more and more wet even as the rain let up. Our guide spoke in a quiet voice and was able to identify every animal sound, smell, track and dropping.

Finally, we arrived at a dock, a row of wide canoes bobbing gently under the canopy of jungle, and we climbed aboard one and made our way through the swamp and trees. The scene before me called to mind pictures I had seen of riverboat cruises in New Orleans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Eventually, the narrow canal opened up to a vast body of water, Lake Sandoval. It felt like the rain stopped just for us, like the universe wanted us to take in the wide expanse of the lake without precipitation. Tall white palm trees stood like sentries around the perimeter, guarding the jungle beyond. Ours was the only boat on the still, metallic water, rich silt skimming the surface. We were gliding peacefully in a concert arena for the sounds of the jungle. Birds whistled and cawed and squawked, some even sounded like pigs. Water clunked along the side of the boat, cicadas hissed, bees buzzed, squirrel monkeys made whistling sounds and howler monkeys made throaty sounds that made it seem like the jungle’s stomach was rumbling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mine was rumbling, too, and I was relieved when we docked the boat and walked to the lodge for lunch. The meal that awaited us on a nicely dressed table in the elegant hut of a dining room was a sort of rice and chicken tamale cooked in banana leaves. It was delicious, and I ate too much.

Maloka Lodge
Maloka Lodge

After lunch and a nap, we set off again to the lake to watch the sun set and wait for black cayman, people-eating rainforest alligators. We rode around looking at the trees, using Dagger’s binoculars to spot howler monkeys or herons soaring through the air. We watched as yet more monkeys began rustling the branches and leaves. There was a horde of maybe 50 squirrel monkeys, soaring from one branch to another, making their way to a resting place to sleep for the night.

image

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At dusk, a cayman appeared next to our boat while we were looking out at the water. It just floated there and soon a few more popped up in the distance, coming from nowhere and doing mostly nothing. Bats were flying around our head in the limited gray light, adding to the start of jungle nightlife. Dagger took out a high-powered flashlight and instructed me to scan the lake slowly with it, looking out for flashes of red eyes belonging to a cayman on the dark water. Whenever we spotted one, we slowly rowed over to get a look at the carnivorous predator, floating there staring at us, and occasionally making moves to get behind our boat and take us by surprise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When it was time for dinner, we docked our boat as another group was beginning their search of the caymans. While we walked back from the boat, Dagger spoke in that quiet, monotone voice of his, rattling off a list of the jungle pharmacy’s roots and barks and medicinal plants used for ailments from asthma to Parkinson’s to ring worm. I marveled at the knowledge growing up in Manu, the conserved biosphere on the Madre de Dios river, had bestowed upon him. What did I know about my land? Maybe that’s why I can’t stay in one place for too long; my ties aren’t strong enough. I am not a part of the land I came from and it isn’t a part of me, at least not in the way that Dagger and his land are one. I realized that he probably spoke so softly because he was used to respecting the quiet wildlife in the jungle. Yet he always made himself heard, drawing our attention magnetically to where he was pointing, spotting parrots or snakes or monkeys, a tree or a plant with some significance.

After a dinner of chicken, rice and potatoes, Dagger told us that we’d be meeting back at the dining room at 4:30. “In the morning?” I asked, uncomprehending. He nodded his assent. I nearly laughed in his face. “So, what, are we going to watch a sunrise or something?” I asked, remembering the time I had to wake up that early to climb the Masada in Israel and watch the sun rise. He told me that we’d be going to a place called the Clay Lick to watch the macaws feed. Birds? Is he serious? I had already seen my monkeys and alligators, and I’m supposed to be excited about getting up at some ungodly hour to watch birds lick clay out of a tree from a distance? Looking at the New Zealanders’ eager faces, I shut my mouth and resigned myself to my fate, making sure to ask if there would be coffee that early in the morning. There would be. Fine.

So at 4:20, I got up and dressed quickly in the dark; the lodge had turned off the power at around 9 last night and I’m sure wouldn’t turn it on until later that afternoon. Frugal Peruvians. We drank shitty black instant coffee in the dining hall, also in the dark, and set off back to our boat onto the lake. It was worth waking up to see the change the early morning light makes on the water and the trees. So far I had seen the lake at midday, at sunset and at night. Now I was seeing it in the light of dawn, gray and still, almost as if the lake were covered in dew, the sun slowly rising behind the palms, turning the sky pink and the water to honey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the familiar muddy trail back into the national park and then down a small side trail to find the macaws. It was light by then, and we stood at a distance of 75 meters or so away from a dead palm tree with around 20 red-bellied macaws latched on, picking apart the bark to get at the minerals inside the heart of the tree. We watched for about ten minutes. I was over it in about thirty seconds, leaning against a tree and going through my camera to delete poorly taken photographs until Dagger, thankfully, told us we could go. I was too tired to feel cranky that I had been woken up for this, too tired to hate the carpenter bee with a personal vendetta against me, buzzing circles around my head like a halo on the boat ride back across Lake Sandoval to the lodge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
thrilling stuff

After breakfast and some time to rest, we trekked back out for our last excursion of the day, to look at the giant, sturdy Capirona Trees, which Dagger referred to as “Save a Tree,” due to their threat of extinction by illegal loggers who covet the thick, durable wood for profit. The bark of the tree has also served natives as an anti-fungal and wound-healer. It seems that whenever the jungle produces an ailment, it also produces a cure.

So, back on the boat and onto Lake Sandoval.

image

We docked the boat across the lake at the beginning of a trail and set to walking, the rubber boots more of a hindrance on this sunny, hot day, threatening to give my calves a heat rash. We took a three hour loop through the hiking trail, Dagger dubiously pointing out things along the way, like walking trees that grow new legs that look like teepees to move on the rainforest floor, or a termite hill that size of a bush, or a hole that he coaxed a tarantula out of, making bile rise in my throat due to my illogical arachnophobia.

image
sick walking tree
image
gross

At one point the air was filled with a sweet smell, and Dagger identified it as the smell of dates and looked up to search for dining monkeys. He whistled a low whistle, once, twice, three times, and soon monkeys, capuchin and squirrel, were jumping from branch to low branch right over our heads. We stood in awe. I giggled like a maniac at the proximity to these amazing creatures who looked and moved so much like us. I watched, amused, as one capuchin monkey, and then a few more, slammed coconuts against trees to get to the juice inside, and I wondered if humans only knew how to get inside fruit by watching monkeys and other animals do it first.

We passed a few of the gargantuan Capirona trees, each one seeming bigger and more twisted than the last. When we reached one that was particulary large, we stuck around and listened to Dagger tell us that hunters pay tribute to these trees that he called the King of the Forest before a hunt, and that people would bury their loved ones under them, or else use them for shelter. I could see why. I stood in its monstrous shadow, pressing my palm flat against the straight, smooth bark of the tree. This particular tree had been alive for 420 years, Dagger said. I took it as a good omen and began to climb its sturdy trunk, imagining a world where I could build a house around the tree and live in it and under it and with it. I asked why the bark was so smooth, and Dagger replied in his hushed tones that it sheds its bark once or twice a year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While we were walking back to the boat, distracted by this plant or that butterfly, Dagger suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, listened, and then took off at nearly a run, urging us to follow quickly. We reached the spot where we had docked our boat, and he motioned for us to be quiet and look in the direction he was pointing. About three river otters were feeding and playing right near us. We observed them quietly, amazed at our good timing; they only fed about once a day. Dagger told us that he heard the sound of a baby otter cry and knew that they were feeding, and that this was our chance to spot them. I could see my look of childish glee reflected on Ellen and Robin’s faces, which only doubled when the otters came right up to our boat to check us out and huff air loudly at us. They swam away from us playfully, one diving under the water just as another broke the surface.

image

It was a beautiful way to end our tour, and I slept peacefully on the motorboat down the Madre de Dios river back to the Tambopata.

 

A quick talley of animals seen in just 2 days: squirrel monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, tayra, giant otter, tarantula, parrots, macaws, snake, black caymans, herons, 100 species of butterflies, dragonflies, so many flies, so many insects, lizards, frogs, toads, fire ants, termites, bats….I think that’s everything.

Go to Lake Sandoval!

PS- I loved this gift from my mom and little sister! Kept my electronics nice and dry, and looped around my wrist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

by Rebecca Bellan