Dr. Paul Salaman is the CEO of Rainforest Trust, a conservation organization that establishes nature reserves to protect biodiversity. Dr. Salaman spoke with Duncan Gromko at DCBureau to discuss Rainforest Trust’s new project to protect six million acres in the Peruvian Amazon.
What is the mission of Rainforest Trust?
Our mission is to buy and protect critical areas to save endangered species. To date, Rainforest Trust has protected over seven million acres in 18 countries across Latin America, primarily in the Andean region. Our approach is to help our in-country partners protect through land acquisition and the establishment of national parks, to avoid the extinction of species. We have always aimed to get as much funding on the ground as possible.
What does protection mean?
Protection has to be very solid. In the case of land purchases, we work with organizations in countries like Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, and Bolivia, where most land is held privately. We try to work with those land owners and, where it’s not possible, we secure those properties so that they’re not developed. That forms a nature reserve that is then incorporated into the national protected area system. We follow up with up with our partners and we help them out with long-term revenue stream generation, such as eco-tourism or other activities, to support the reserve in the future.
So setting up a protected area doesn’t mean that the land is off-limits for use?
It’s not an off-bounds area. Activities such as tourism and select, sustainable harvesting of materials are allowed. However, there is no hunting or deforestation. There are important boundaries not to be crossed, but communities can still use the land as they were.
Once the park is established, how do you monitor that the standards are complied with?
Monitoring is primarily remote, through remote sensing. Google Earth has been very helpful in providing updated images to track deforestation and making sure it doesn’t occur in nature reserves. All of our protected areas have management plans, and so of course they assess where the potential threats are coming from and how to address those threats. Monitoring is diverse and it depends on the strength of the in-country partners. So we pick very carefully who we work with.
Tell me about the new jaguar habitat campaign in Peru.
Peru is a very important country for habitat protection and endangered species. It has the second or third highest biodiversity on earth. The east of the country is some of the most intact wilderness areas of Latin America, particularly the Amazon. So we work with our in-country partner there, CEDIA, on government recommendations to assist in getting the documentation they require to approve a park through legislation. This area is at tremendous risk because it lies in the path of a major transit oceanic highway that Brazil is pushing forward. So we have a narrow window of opportunity to lock up some six million acres of the last wilderness areas before timber people get there.
Why would a road have such a big impact on rainforests?
The road itself has a small impact, but it will become the artery of resource extraction. All of Eastern Peru would be up for grabs. There would be a wave of colonization.
How will people who live on the land be affected? Will the protected area restrict their economic activity and ability to generate income?
Part of this area is controlled by uncontacted tribes – no one is going to upset their situation. Another part of it is flooded white sand forest, a unique habitat that is now unprotected. The rest of the area, over 1.5 million acres, is held by communities. We help the community in titling those lands so they have absolute dominion over the land, like their house. They can clear the land if they want to. We work with the communities to help them optimize the management of their land without destroying it. We look at things like sustainable harvesting of fruits, fisheries, and other resources. We help them with management plans and capacity building and training. The majority of the $3 million [required for the project] is in training, capacity building, and looking at sustainable development.
This project will cost $3 million to protect 6 million acres, while costs for previous projects costs were around $100/acre. Why are costs so low for this project?
Typically, we spend on land purchase where there are only last fragments of natural habitat remaining, so we buy a unique ecosystem found nowhere else and the only option is to buy it from the owners. In the Peruvian Amazon, you need to look at a much larger scale, so we use a different model in that case. And that’s through the establishment of protected areas, which is cheaper than land purchases.
How amenable is the Peruvian government to this proposal?
The present government is very amenable to protected areas establishment. Next year, in December 2014, Peru is hosting an international forum on climate change. They want to show what they are doing to protect habitat.
Does the NY Times article detailing corruption in the Peruvian timber industry make you nervous about working in Peru?
The article was very specific about where corruption was taking place, primarily in non-protected areas. The corruption does not take place as much in protected areas.
In the United States, we’ve converted a large portion of natural habitat for agriculture and other resource extraction, which has been a big part of the country’s economic success. Why should Peru and other developing tropical countries follow a different model?
When the first protected area was established in the U.S., Yellowstone, they confronted much of the same problems that are occurring in the Amazon today. They had to send in the U.S. Army to protect Yellowstone against gold miners. Now no one doubts the value of the protected area system in the U.S. We do recognize that every country has the right to development and to move forward with extractive activities. What we want to do is to identify the most important areas for biodiversity and protect them while we can. We think those two activities can be done in harmony. We can’t just say, “No. No development, no roads, no extraction, no nothing.” We need to be strategic in what we do.
Would the Peruvian government be as willing as the U.S. to send in the army to stand by protected areas?
These communities are very strongly in favor of protecting their environment. We would think they’re just interested in exploiting, but they’re not. They need income and money, but they realize the value in doing it in a sustainable way and having resources for the future.
Globally, demand for food and other resources is growing, which will only increase pressure on land. Will creating a protected area in one part of the rainforest just move pressure for resources to somewhere else – creating “leakage?”
It depends on the situation. When we buy land from people, they haven’t used it to go buy other land elsewhere and cleared more forest elsewhere. They’ve used the money to buy a taxi or develop an already cleared area, or use it to move to the city. These projects give communities a sense of ownership of the land. They have more pride and responsibility when they see what they own.
Do you have any concluding thoughts?
…There’s nothing more tangible than taking acres of land that is going to be developed and putting it into a park and having it protected. Supporting indigenous communities and investing in great in-country organizations is a model that we have stuck with despite changes in environmental trends.