Getting settled and ready for business

June 17, 2011

Peruvian Airlines plane at Iquitos airport

Peruvian Airlines plane at Iquitos airport

One of the landmarks of the Iquitos airport was the old hulk of a plane by the side of the runways. It’s now been cleared away and the inside of the airport has been transformed from sleepy well-worn beige walls to bright white ones with professional posters advertising the major ecotourism companies that promise visitors their ultimate Amazon jungle experience. The familiar van from my favorite hotel isn’t around, so I grabbed a cab to town. I enjoy my status as a non-typical visitor chatting with the driver a bit about my work, possible implications of the recent Presidential election and the changes I’ve noted in Iquitos since I first came here in 1987.

Arriving at the Hotel Marañon, a few blocks from Plaza de Armas, I was happy to find that my reservation was still good in the midst of this major tourist time. Many colleagues stay at somewhat less expensive places in the neighborhood, but I’ve become a loyal Marañon customer because it offers a good breakfast and decent size clean rooms with wireless internet access that allow me to work alone or with colleagues. I was sorry to see that Patricia, the receptionist who was always very friendly and helpful had taken another job, but I still knew the names of the other two and shared greetings of recognition with almost everyone else who worked at the front desk, housekeepers, and cook who knows how I like my eggs and made me a special tea two years ago when I was sick.  One addition to the dining room was an almost life-sized statue of a native looking woman wearing a pashaco and huayruru seed necklace and not much else.

As I began to unpack, Angel Raygada came over to begin catching up on basics of our lives and the progress and challenges of the copal research at Jenaro Herrera. I’ve been working with Angel since 2004 when we had a modest program to track the development of some resin lumps on copal trees in the Alpahuaya-Mishana reserve. It was easy to get to the site, but in less than a few months, the residents had harvested all of the lumps from three of our four “study” trees. Angel returned to that one tree month after month for over a year and attempted to quantify the lumps growth through the technique I had used with the Tembé Indians in Brazil. He wrapped a thin electrical wire around the perimeter of the lump, traced the inside of the stiff loop on graph paper, and counted the number of squares to calculate its area. It was a decent method in principle, but not precise enough to capture the subtle changes that occurred over time. We’ve come a long way since then. After spending five years observing, photographing and analyzing data from thousands of resin lumps on hundreds of study trees at Jenaro Herrera, Angel has probably developed the most nuanced understanding of this system than anyone else. I think this is what defines success as a young scientist.

Apart from directing the copal research with Angel during periodic to Peru and the rest of the year from afar, tracking the twists and turns of Angel’s life related to girlfriends, relatives, moves in and out of Iquitos, marriage and impending fatherhood has become a fundamental part of the fabric of my relationship to this project and place. He has made his share of mistakes, but he has always striven to learn from them, and maintained an indomitable sense of humor, loyalty to the project, CECAMA (the Spanish acronym for the Center) and me. I have also learned a lot about the Peruvian education system through his travails to earn the title of Ingeniero (Engineer – a professional title for students who have completed their undergraduate work and a research project). Angel finished his basic studies in agronomy at the National University of the Peruvian Amazon (UNAP) many years ago and undertook a study of the weevils that attack the Vitamin C rich camu-camu plant for his undergraduate thesis. His lack of training in experimental design and data analysis combined with sparse supervision left him floundering. He eventually presented his thesis to a committee he barely knew and failed. I have to admit that I haven’t given Angel as much support as I could have in the past year, but we have collaborated closely enough for him to prepare a thesis based on part of our copal study to have a very strong second chance of earning that extra title when he defends his thesis.

Later in the morning, Angel and I went over to the house of Yully Rojas – a more recent but now stalwart member of the CECAMA team in Peru. I had very much enjoyed working with a palm specialist named Victor Hugo in March 2009 when he helped me set up and support a group of Penn State students on a week-long spring-break field course at the Bora village of Brillo Nuevo on the Ampiyacu River. I had contracted Victor to go back there later that summer to develop this project further, but our boat bound for the Ampiyacu was held up in port because it was overweight. During this delay when we learned that the extra weight was due to a flooded lower compartment, Victor got a call from his university saying he had to submit an update on the progress of his master’s thesis study of palms in the next ten days. He said he knew a woman who he thought would be a good substitute for him. I interviewed Yully in a small restaurant by the port and immediately felt comfortable with her blend of good-natured confidence and lots of field experience with both forestry studies and local communities. Later that day, she mentioned that Victor was her husband. While Victor had recommended her without mentioning this detail, I understood he wanted me to meet and evaluate Yully’s potential without feeling obliged to hire her because of him.

We emptied the contents of a heavy duffle bag of things I had brought to support her project work onto her kitchen table. This included bags and packs of buckles, snap hooks, collar pieces, stretch chord, earring stems, Sharpie pens, a compass and two used back packs – so many things that are hard or impossible to find with decent quality in Peru. She then brought out the most recent batch of woven chambira guitar straps made by artisans at Brillo Nuevo. Most were simply beautiful and reflected the growing confidence and skill that a handful of women have developed in the past year. I could now identify the maker of most items by some signature design element, color or weaving pattern – sometimes by their unique character, sometimes by a flaw that Yully had tried to have them correct several times.

The hardest part of this process for her has been bringing a craft back to a woman who has worked hard on it and asking her to do it over because it wasn’t good enough. We have gone past the point, though, where we can afford to buy things just to make an artisan feel good and give them some quick cash. I know from my stock of unsold items that the people who look at our things don’t them if the quality isn’t good just because they want to help us. Yully has had to contend with several artisans who quit the project because they said we were being too demanding, but then came back. Others have just said how much they appreciate getting this tough feedback because it has continually pushed them to improve their skill.

Angel, Yully and I went out to lunch to discuss our upcoming meeting with the Peruvian government Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) to discuss the long-delayed renewal of our “convenio” (formal agreement) with them that allows us to work at their Jenaro Herrera research station and get permits to collect and export samples of plants and leaves. Most endeavors have to contend with some amount of obligatory bureaucratic procedures, but trying to figure out and comply with the financial, legal, and political aspects of doing ecological work in Peru is getting harder and harder. There are understandable good reasons for a tropical country to want to protect its biopatrimony, but regulations to prevent biopiracy have become so strict in countries like Brazil, that even nationals have to wait many months to do some basic biology in the field and foreigners have just given up trying. Peru now seems to be heading in the same direction. While governments say they support sustainable development, they are cutting the budgets of the few institutions charged with actually doing this. This leads to institutions like IIAP in Peru to push even harder on foreign collaborators to make up the difference.

We ate as much as we could of the huge servings of rice, noodles, chicken and vegetables at this neighborhood Chifa (Peruvian Chinese food restaurant), but equipped with plastic bags of our left-overs we needed to wait for another half-hour before an afternoon deluge subsided enough for us to quick-step through puddles and hug the walls inside the discontinuous coverage of roof overhangs back to Yully’s place. I then filled my empty bag of gear with an equally full load of clothes to bring back to my hotel. Keeping my tall rubber boots, hammock, mosquito net, fleece blanket, and a full complement of worn khakis, long-sleeve cotton shirts, socks and underwear in Peru has allowed me to devote most of my inbound luggage to field gear and homeward bound space to handicrafts. In spite of dousing my clothing bag with some cinnamon, I still needed to cart the whole lot off to a laundromat to remove the funky aroma of a year’s storage in a dark and somewhat humid place. My favorite one is right next to a café and gringo bar called the Yellow Rose of Texas where one sees patrons eating hamburgers and French fries speaking English, French and German. I’ve stopped there a few times in past years when I was really homesick, but being served by Peruvian women wearing cowboy hats kind of wierds me out.

Back at my hotel, we did another intense three laptop session spread out over my little work table and bed. Yully worked on our report of activities for last year, Angel did some prep work for his thesis defense on Friday, and I caught up on emails for an hour before breaking to take my first shower after 48 hours of non-stop travel and 3 hours of sleep. The Maranon bathrooms are very clean, but there is a learning curve to having a satisfying shower since the hot water faucet only yields a drizzle when completely opened and this needs to be balanced with just the right amount of cold. I appreciate these little comforts in the city because I readily accept that going to the field will mean weeks of either bathing in the river or tossing endless bowls of cold water from rainwater collecting barrels to get soap off my body.

Our final meeting of the evening was with Italo, the very capable colleague of Paul Fine – a biologist at the Univ. of California at Berkeley who has become one of the world’s taxonomic specialists in the South American species of Burseraceae trees. I met Paul eight years ago when he was finishing his field work on these plants at a forest site near Iquitos, and he has been helpful ever since. We had a very frank discussion with Italo about the challenges of complying with Peru’s laws regarding collection and export that are evolving faster than the plants and insects could ever hope to in nature. As seems to be true in many situations in developing countries (perhaps all countries to some extent), the difference between getting such permits with minor headaches, major headaches or not getting them at all seems to be more related to one’s relationships with the government people than the merits of the proposal. I will state up front that I have never bribed, attempted to bribe or been blatantly asked to pay a bribe in Peru, but the frustration of trying to fill out demanding but ambiguously worded forms is a regular stress. I once missed two international flights in a row because I tried to comply with a regulation to show my completed forms to a government agent at the airport who showed up late.

These talks left me with a lot to think about. Foremost in my mind was our meeting on Thursday with the interim director of the Jenaro Herrera research station. Yully and I knew they were asking us for more money to keep working there. We were scared by an email from the IIAP lawyer that we thought was also demanding us to pay this new fee retroactively back to early 2009. If this held true, we would have to shut down our research in several months due to lack of funds.


For more information about the programs of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, visit

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