The Peruvian Amazon

A trek into bio-diverse Manu rainforest

By Larry Kraft
Photos by Larry Kraft

The Krafts had a memorable time in the incredible Manu rainforest, seeing all kinds of exotic animals and plants and building a bio-garden. They also had a sobering lesson about the effects of heavy logging and mining on the area.

This is Larry Kraft’s fourth, and final, article about the family’s environmentally focused trip around Peru and Latin America. Read about the Krafts, and their visits to Arequipa and Lake Titicaca and its floating islands.

We spent close to a week in the Manu rainforest of southeastern Peru. As we discussed in a post about Arequipa, the Andes Mountains act as a weather barrier, stopping rain from reaching the dry western coast of Peru. This means a lot of rain falls on the eastern side of the Andes, creating the source for one of the major rivers of the world, the Amazon. It also helps to create an incredibly lush and bio-diverse rainforest.

Manu is part of this rainforest, and the river we traveled on flows into the Amazon. Manu is the largest tropical rainforest reserve on earth, protecting a staggering amount of biodiversity. One of the reasons there is so much diversity is that Manu are contains three highly distinct ecosystems:

  • The Puna, a high-altitude, tundra-like area characterized by pale yellow ichu grass, isolated blue lakes and llamas;
  • The cloud forest, inhabited by the brilliant red cock-of-the-rock, spectacled bears and tree ferns;
  • The lowland rainforest, home to the giant black caiman, giant river otter, 13 species of primates and over 1000 species of birds (10% of the world’s total).

We traveled to Manu with a UK-based organization called CREES. CREES works to protect the rainforest by fully involving local people and creating the right incentives so local communities view preserving the rainforest as vital to their own prosperity. They bring tourists and volunteers to the area, conduct scientific research, and work with local communities.

On the scientific side, CREES is working to measure the value of recovered, or secondary, forests. CREES is studying species diversity and abundance in different types of secondary forests, including both forests that have been selectively logged and forests that have regrown after being completely cut down for farming or cattle pasture. They’re finding that secondary forests can have a surprising amount of diversity and abundance, up to 90% of what they see in primary forests (rainforests that have never been cut down). This is both a call to governments to protect recovered forests, and a hopeful sign to the world that damaged areas can recover.

A Natural Wonder

Manu was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Manu’s scale is impressive; The cloud forest part of Manu seems to go on endlessly as you descend towards the lower elevation rainforest, and then rainforest stretches as far as the eye can see. In our short time there, we saw fascinating birds such as the prehistoric-looking hoatzin (which has two stomachs) and the oropendula, a bird that builds a new teardrop-shaped nest each year, dangling from the same tree. We also saw 5 species of monkeys, a capybara, the world’s largest rodent, and even fresh jaguar and puma footprints.


Stunning nature notwithstanding, perhaps the most memorable thing we did was to meet Reynaldo, a local Peruvian and CREES leader. We helped him and a team of volunteers build a bio-garden for a local family. CREES has already built 60 bio-gardens, and is constructing more.

Bio-gardens are a simple, but effective concept. They are small areas next to a family’s house where fruits and vegetables are grown. To be most productive, they are at least partially covered, to protect plants from excess sun and rain. They enable families to grow their own food instead of purchasing it from stores that truck it in over the long, winding road from Cusco (it’s a pretty brutal 10-12 hour trip). This not only saves expense, as the food is costly, but it also saves the fossil fuel that the trucks use. They provide families a healthier diet, with better access to fruits and vegetables. And they offer an additional source of income, since families can sell leftover produce, giving them less of a reason to cut down rainforest for income-producing activities.

These bio-gardens were Reynaldo’s brainchild. He is an inspirational figure, with twinkling eyes, boundless energy, and infectious optimism. His house is a model for the community, as well as his own laboratory, for new things to try. He is farming fruits and vegetables in his own bio-garden, tree saplings for re-forestation efforts, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs (a delicacy in Peru), and even fish in a system of lagoons made by hand.

As he was describing some of this to us, he made an off-hand remark that was particularly meaningful. The translation is something like “you work with what you have.” He appears to live this concept to the fullest and tries to waste nothing. Leftover soda bottles are used as flotation devices for his fish netting. Even the toilet in his home is leveraged in an interesting way. As feces decomposes and creates methane, he taps into this as cooking fuel.

Challenges for Manu

If the world is to effectively tackle climate change, we are going to need Manu and places like it to be protected and expanded. Rainforest trees are a huge storehouse of carbon, and their leaves are constantly converting carbon dioxide into the oxygen we breathe. 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest alone. It seems that the two main activities causing rainforest destruction in Peru are logging and mining.

As we arrived in Peru, we heard about and saw a video of horrific rainforest destruction in the Madre di Dios area, close to Manu, from illegal gold mining. In this video, you can see a huge brown swath of destroyed land in a sea of green rainforest. Not only are the trees gone, but the large amounts of mercury used by the illegal miners leach into the groundwater, as well as accumulating in the bodies of fish, a big source of sustenance for local communities. In speaking with some conservation officials, we learned that illegal mining wasn’t a problem in the area until about 5 years ago, when the celebrated Interoceanic highway was completed. This highway is intended to boost trade between Peru and Brazil, and via Brazilian ports, Asia. But it is turning into an environmentalist’s nightmare. Small spur roads from the highway increase deforestation, and the road has made it much easier to extract gold from the rainforest.

Logging is an ever-present issue. There is a demand for wood to build houses and furniture, as a fuel, and as an export product. Rainforest hardwoods are highly valued for their beauty and the high prices they can fetch in the market. But these hardwood trees can take centuries to grow. Again, better access to the rainforest, while good for the economies of some of the local communities, also makes it easier for loggers to access precious old growth trees.

CREES has a great answer for logging challenges, as well. They have an agriforestry initiative that involves planting an area with three kinds of trees — banana trees, softwoods, and hardwoods. The banana trees provide fruit every year, the softwoods can be harvested every 20 years or so, and the hardwoods every 60 years. This kind of tree farm provides immediate income and food with bananas, and long-term income with the soft- and hardwood trees. It also encourages a family to take a long-term view and think about passing the tree farms down to their children.

And CREES is not the only organization. There are many others, such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), who are doing great things working with local people in the Madre de Dios region.

A call to the government of Peru

Illegal mining and logging are very difficult issues, as there are substantial sums of money involved. It’s easy to say there should be no mining and logging, but that’s probably unrealistic. There are ways of doing these activities that are less impactful to the rainforest. The problem with illegal activities, however, is that they often attract other crime and crowd out other activities.

But there is hope. One of the things we’ve learned during our first three months of travel is that there are a lot of amazing people in the world focused on preserving the environment and creating sustainable business models.

It is my belief that these people don’t need the government to do everything, but they do need a little help. If the Peruvian government can make it a bit more difficult and a bit more costly for illegal activities to occur, these amazing people and their creativity can take over. People like Reynaldo and the folks at CREES are figuring out how to make it more financially prosperous to preserve rather than cut down the rainforest.

If the government can stamp out some corruption, add a few patrols, and work with stakeholders to find ways to support limited amounts of logging and mining in a more environmentally safe fashion, over time the amount of illegal activity will dwindle. Given the importance of this rainforest to biodiversity and as a carbon store, not only is this important for Peru, but it is likely the key to long term efforts to combat global climate change.

The Krafts have now finished the Peruvian leg of their trip. If you want to hear more about their adventures, you can follow them on their family blog, and also their kids’ blog. They also write for The Wilderness Classroom, a non-profit site followed by 85,000 schoolchildren, and they’re on twitter, too!

About the Krafts

Larry Kraft has worked for more than 20 years in high-tech companies; most recently, he was Senior Vice President at Minnetonka-based Digi International. Lauri Kraft has managed PR for a technology company and performed full-time in musical theatre; lately, she has been writing a children’s book. Jamie, 8, and Jason, 6, attend Peter Hobart Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both will return to Peter Hobart after their year of travel.

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