Plant Hunting in the Amazon

Written by Joe Modzelewski, SEB Undergraduate Ambassador

I had the privilege this past June to work with Fauna Forever in Peru, primarily concentrating in the field of ethnobotany and medicinal plants. Fauna Forever was founded , and is currently headed, by Dr. Chris Kirby. For the past twenty years, Fauna Forever, based out of the fast-growing town of Puerto Maldonado, has worked within the Madre de Dios region of Peru striving to promote rainforest conservation through research of animals and plants all the while fostering outreach projects with the diverse communities who call the rainforest their home.

Under the supervision and counsel of Juan-Carlos Huayllapuma Cruz, I visited and worked in and among various settings in the Madre de Dios region. The first community we visited was at Las Piedras, known as Boca Pariamanu. The community at Boca Pariamanu is only accessible by boat along the Rio Madre de Dios and is a mixed heritage population of both indigenous Amahuacan and colonial Spanish.

The Boca Pariamanu community, in conjunction with Fauna Forever, has some initiatives currently in the works to preserve their native Amahuacan language, to engage in ecotourism, and to promote conservation practices as they relate to their primary source of income which is agriculture and the harvesting of rice, plantains, and yuca.

I worked with the community healer Alberto to learn about the various medicinal plants which he and the community use in their daily lives to mend and heal all sorts of ailments, to aid in the creation and building of a community medicinal garden, and to gather ethnographic data which will be eventually compiled to formulate a proper plan of action that to be implemented for the introduction of ecotourism in the community. For example, one of the concerns for the community is whether or not to allow ayahuasca tourism once they open themselves to visitors. Although potentially very lucrative, ayahuasca tourism presents its own pitfalls and dangers in regard to harvesting sustainability and notions of cultural and ritual continuity.

The second community setting we visited was the Malatesta family farm located just outside of Puerto Maldonado. The Malatesta family farm is an agroforestry project which implements organic and sustainable growing practices. Just like the Boca Pariamanu community, the Malatesta family is interested in opening up their farm to ecotourism and so, Juan-Carlos and I investigated the farm to determine how it could become more conducive to potential visitors. As well, we investigated and identified various medicinal plant species around their property, geocaching points of interests. One mini-project we started was to create signs to label the multitude of medicinal plants which visitors would pass by as they walked the trail around the farm land.

The third setting we visited was the Colpas Tambopata Lodge, which is currently serving as the Fauna Forever research station, located in the Tambopata National Reserve. This is where the majority of the other Fauna Forever interns were stationed, as they worked within the fields of mammal studies, ornithology, and herpetology. Based out of the research centre, Juan-Carlos and I made various vegetation plots to aid in the determination of the age forest based off of measurements of tree circumferences. We also noted and explored the surrounding forest in regard to the various medicinal plants which could be found.

Across these diverse settings, Fauna Forever allowed me some incredible opportunities to explore the field of ethnobotany and gain invaluable hands-on experience with a whole variety of individuals who are passionate about their rainforest and the living communities who share it.

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