Will Nicholls recently traveled to Peru to study indigenous economic initiatives, eco-tourism projects in particular.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Along with Black Caiman, Sandoval Lake has 10-foot-long Paichi, the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world. Needless to say I enjoyed the shower in the lodge rather than going swimming. I did watch the swimmers with camera in hand…just in case.

Three types of monkeys are around the lake, the Brown Capuchin, Titi and Squirrel monkeys. It was a delight to watch them leap from tree to tree in search of food.

On my way out the next morning I was pleasantly surprised to see a Slate-coloured Hawk. A Laughing Falcon came our way but I heard no laughter. Of course there were the herons, woodpeckers, vultures and most colourful and loud were the Red-bellied Macaws. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to see the many varieties of owls they had in the surrounding area before it was time to go back to Puerto Maldonado to drop off some tourists, one of whom was a little upset with me. The night before at the meal he was heard to say, “I think this is egg salad but you can never tell in these places,” in a condescending manner. I then leaned over and said I heard it was turtle. The fork stopped in mid-air. I then told him that it was chicken. Later on the trail out he was sitting along with a friend and I asked him if he saw the jaguar come that way. I got a nasty look and a laugh from his buddy. Thank god some one had a sense of humour. Relax, you’re on vacation and things will be different. If people want things to be the same as back home then they should just stay there. Myself, I prefer an adventure filled with new experiences.

Little did I know I was due for yet another one. My next stop was the Heath River Wildlife Center after picking up two more people flying in. When you are in Developing countries you can expect a lot of waiting. The plane was late but I passed the time with the guides and managers of the many camps and lodges in the area. I got to try the pescado frito, or deep fried fish, at one of those places they warn tourists not to eat at. It was fantastic and I didn’t suffer any ill effects (like the constant running to the washroom). By this time I had a new guide by the name of Jocelyn. Come afternoon we decided not to wait for the plane anymore as it had been delayed all morning. This time I was going on a four-hour boat ride into the deep jungle. We are talking pretty pristine jungle here. Along the way there are few permanent camps. This was and still is frontier territory and is now protected. I remember stopping along the way and seeing the Canadian flag on some billboard. Apparently Canada helped to protect this rich and diverse environment.

On the main river, the Madre de Dios, the hours pass by rapidly. We reach the Peru/Bolivian border and check in at both border outposts. The paperwork is handled efficiently and finally we are ready to head up Heath River to the Heath River Wildlife Center. One small problem, the sun is going down and darkness creeps in quickly. I’m wondering how this is going to go as the guide has told me that the channel changes everyday and she is already signaling our driver on where to go. Jocelyn is still pointing out herons and the odd Speckled or White Caiman. While these caiman are not as big as the black variety there seems to be more of them, a lot more of them. The reason why I mention this is that we have had to get into the water to help push the boat off of a sandbar once or twice already.

Both guide and driver were up to the task. Jocelyn pulled out a 12-volt car battery and hooked up a huge searchlight to it. She would signal where to go and then shine the light on the shore. The glowing red eyes signaled the caiman were everywhere. We could see them sliding into the water. I think it was just about the time I was thinking, “Please lord, no more sandbars,” when the boat lurched to a halt. Faster then I could think, “No!” the driver was into the water, pushing the boat and gunning the 50 horsepower motor for all it was worth. The boat would go free and he would leap back into the boat as soon as he felt that bottom start to slide. He would do it a few more times that night. Each time he was in the caiman’s watery feeding trough for no more than 5 to 15 seconds. Nevertheless, I was impressed with this man. It was not just his bravery; it was his matter-of-factness of doing his job. The stars came out and I started to laugh. Jocelyn asked me why I was laughing. I told her it was for pure enjoyment of this adventure. Traveling through the jungle watching the stars glow above and the red of the caiman’s eyes below me was exhilarating.

I would see a few Capybaras feeding on the shore. These things are the hugest rodents in the world and taste like steak, so I’m told. Unfortunately I didn’t get to try any but was told these pigsized creatures were the caimans’ favorite food. We arrived late at night to a waiting staff. I was the only guest and treated like royalty. In the wildlife centre they had the most beautiful bungalows.

The next morning it was up the river again to a huge floating blind further up the river where we could observe a macaw clay lick, one of the largest in the world. At first we saw a few parrots, but then the macaws started arriving. People are still wondering why the macaws gather at clay licks. Some say it is to socialize while others think it may be to neutralize poisons in unripe fruit. The sound and colour as Red-and-green macaws position themselves on the clay lick alone is worth the trip.

While in the blind we heard the cough of a jaguar in the forest. This would be the closest I would come to seeing one.

The Ese’Eja Sonene people own and staff the lodge, and work as guides to show visitors important parts of traditional forest life. The lodge was donated to the local indigenous community by a Peruvian non-profit group, Peru Verde. I would visit one of their communities. It was a harsh lesson in reality. The people had agreed not to hunt as their ancestors had so there would be animals for tourists like me to see. The lodge itself is supposed to bring in much-needed money to this community but will do so only in about five years.

In the meantime most clothing they have is ragged. Their drinking water is contaminated, but they do not have funds to change that. A relief shipment of vitamins helped their hair return to its natural black – their hair had recently sported a yellowish tinge that indicated malnutrition and vitamin deficiency. They are low on vitamins and other medical supplies in their cramped one room clinic.

One young girl’s only toy was a corroded D cell battery. She was chewing on it. I tried to take it away knowing how dangerous it was. I wasn’t successful as she had nothing else. Still I was greeted with smiles of welcome just as it was always done in Cree communities in the past and present. I felt then it might be a good thing if we as Cree could help these people out. If you have some old t-shirts, pants, dresses of all ages please donate them. If you can spare some pencils, crayon, paper and money for books in Spanish for their open – and unfinished – one-room school, it would help greatly. And if you have some old toys, they would be better than a corroded D cell battery. Old pots and pans would also be welcome. These people truly have next to nothing and won’t until the Heath Wildlife Center’s renovations are paid off. Most of all these are things that Crees and other people in this part of the world throw away every day. That and some money to send the stuff to them as well as buy books is all I am asking. I will need some help organizing this in each community and if you are interested in helping out give me a call at (514) 272-3077 and ask for Will.

Then we, like many other Canadians can make a difference. When I saw the community I realized the real power of a community based eco-tourism venture. It had the power to change lives for the better without upsetting the balance of nature.

Of course you can always help out by traveling to the area to see the Amazon jungle yourself. Contact information on Inka Natura Travel at their website: www.inkatravel.com

Beesum communications, and The Nation magazine would like to thank the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for their support in making this project a reality. Without them, this story would not have been possible.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the next Nation in two weeks time, where we’ll feature another eco tourism venture.