A giant otter in Cashu Lake at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Photo by Jason Houston
In early May 2018, I called Mongabay special project editor Erik Hoffner with a vague idea. I would be spending six weeks in Peru between May 25 and July 5. Most of it would be in the Amazon, save for a week in Lima at the outset. I wanted to write a story that somehow captured the majesty of the Peruvian Amazon and what’s at stake as climate change and assaults such as mining, timbering and extraction put large swaths of the rainforest at risk. I’d be working with environmental photographer Jason Houston.
“I don’t exactly know what I’ll come up with, but I think we have a shot at something unique and interesting.” Erik was familiar with Jason’s extraordinary photography. He said, in essence, go for it.
And an excerpt: Eavesdropping on nature from above is an unparalleled thrill. Even more thrilling is understanding the interconnectedness of the forest below, and everything in it; the mutual support and subtle language of various species that keep the forest thriving. Every living thing has a role to play, and it all adds up to provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and cloud production that the developed world depends on, whether we know it or not.
The story turns on a simple premise: A new Peruvian president took power in Lima in April 2018 after the fourth consecutive president had been felled by corruption and scandal. Each promised to protect the Amazon, seeing sweeping environmental laws passed. Yet with only sporadic enforcement in limited areas, Peru has some of Latin America’s highest rates of deforestation. Much is at stake for biodiversity and the health of the planet. That’s the story Jason and I sought to tell in both my words and his powerful photos. Special thanks to Mongabay editor Genevieve Belmaker for her careful editing and layout.
This gigantic mahogany is Cocha Cashu is a rich target for illegal timbering. That’s me in the background. Photo by Jason Houston
Interviewing Luis Murillo, Colombia’s minister of the environment, at the headquarters of National Geographic. Photo by Enrique Ortiz, Andes Amazon Fund
On Sept. 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., I had the unique opportunity to interview one of the leaders of environmental protection in Latin America — Luis Murillo, the minister of the environment and sustainable development in the cabinet of President Juan Santos. Murillo was in DC that day for a ceremony sponsored by National Geographic honoring Santos for his aggressive action in doubling the amount of protected areas in his biodiverse country — from coral reefs to high-mountain rain forests — since taking office in 2010. My interview with Murillo preceded the event and was an exclusive for Mongabay. The story link is here.
In the weeks prior to my DC sojourn, I spent hours immersed in studying Colombian environmental politics, Santos’ environmental record, his controversial peace accord with the FARC that ended a 50-year civil war and earned him the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, and as much as I could about Murillo. Haley Weibel, a communications specialist with the Andes Amazon Fund in DC, was instrumental in providing key material for me to read. My good friend Enrique Ortiz, program director with the fund, provided critical insight about Santos, Murillo and the myriad challenges to their environmental legacy.
My time with Murillo was limited, so we wasted no time jumping into deep end of the issues I wanted to discuss. He was a pleasure to talk with. He spoke with great candor and insight, and never ducked when I asked him pointed questions. He knows what’s at stake in setting aside so much land in Colombia — land that just below the surface is rich with fossil fuels and precious metals. He made it clear that he believes his developing country has a moral obligation to not plunder these critical ecosystems for short-term economic gain. But he stressed that the world’s wealthiest nations should feel compelled to support Colombia financially so that it can actually protect and preserve all the land Santos has set aside for future generations. Extraction industrialists will only sit on the sidelines for so long. Deforestation in Colombia since the end of the civil war is already escalating. My interview with Murillo gets into such thorny issues and more. My thanks to Mongabay founder Rhett Butler for assigning me the story.