Working with local communities in Peru’s Amazonian gold mining area

It is a scorching July morning in the lower part of Peru’s Madre de Dios river. Armed with tablets, printed questionnaires, and pens, a local guide, social science students Lara von Hildebrand and Amy Young, and I board the Chavaropana, the Giant Otter Conservation Project boat. 

We travel from our beach campsite to the small community of San Juan where we are about to interview Lucio, the community’s Assistant President.

This is a new experience for me. I have spent months in the field, studying different animals of various sizes, inhabiting environments as diverse as Israel’s Negev desert and coastal Alaska. For the first time, the main subjects of a study I am involved in are people.

As the leader of a project focused on giant otter ecology and conservation, why should I worry about local communities? In several areas of the Amazon, human activities such as fishing, deforestation, dam building, and gold mining pose a significant threat to these large aquatic carnivores. 

We believe that the specific otter populations we study are also subject to such threats, especially habitat destruction and contamination.

Conservation scientists are increasingly realizing that solely focusing on animals may not be enough to understand their ecological needs and secure their protection. It is also necessary to understand the motivations of local inhabitants and their complex relationship with their environment. This is especially relevant for an area with intensive human activities such as Peru’s lower Madre de Dios gold mining zone.

We sit on a porch, where Lucio’s ten dogs are lazily hanging out. Temperatures are already too high for any major physical activities. Lara asks a number of general questions. Lucio begins to talk about his concerns over the environmental damage caused by gold mining and his vision for a better future, achieved through more sustainable practices. 

Lucio also mentions the major needs that his community has. A recurring issue in the mining zone is the lack availability of fresh water. Some interviewees also point to the lack of education on environmental issues and on ways to conduct more sustainable mining. 

Lucio, who has lived in this area most of his life, recognizes most of the local animals in pictures we show him. He feels that many have declined in number over the past few years. He points to his community’s activities as major drivers of these declines.

We thank Lucio for his time and move on to the next interview, this time with a store keeper. Most stores and businesses in this community depend on miners. Indeed, gold mining is a significant part of this province’s economy.

The Giant Otter Conservation Project’s first efforts to understand the environmental perception and educational needs of local communities in the mining zone are off to a promising start. In July 2018, we visited five communities within the mining zone and completed 33 interviews, attempting to examine the local demographic composition and the state of knowledge about nearby aquatic environments and animals.

Several of our interview subjects expressed a lack of environmental knowledge and education and a concern for their surrounding lakes and rivers. These views, however, are not undisputed. Some believe their activities have minimal environmental impact.

We feel that the work with local communities is an important complement to the extensive information we are collecting on giant otters, their surrounding aquatic ecosystems, and their conservation needs. We therefore plan to expand this aspect of the Giant Otter Conservation Project in 2019.