The most memorable thing about the Amazonian rain forest isn't the sights. It's the sounds.
Lying awake at night inside a mosquito net at the Tambopata Research Center in the Peruvian Amazon, you hear a symphony playing in the rain forest outside. It sounds like one of those dissonant pieces of modern music: a cacophony of birds, red howler monkeys, wild pigs, frogs, macaws and insects making bizarre clicks, snorts, croaks, chirps, wails and whistles that sound like car alarms, strange doorbell chimes and an orchestral wind section that has lost its music but is playing on anyway. Occasionally, this symphony gets punctuated by the shrill, desperate scream of a human who has just found a spider in her toilet.
This Amazon rain forest in southeastern Peru is a largely uninhabited wilderness that is home to some of the planet's most endangered wildlife, and one of the world's largest macaw clay licks - a cliff of red clay, where blue, red and gold macaws flock for a dirt breakfast every morning.
Look down in the rain forest and you might see a hunting wasp stinging a caterpillar and depositing its eggs inside. Or, look up in the verdant canopy and you see the hanging nest of Oro Pendula weaver birds.
But today it's all endangered by what Tim Killeen, a senior biologist and researcher at Conservation International, identifies as three converging forces: rising commodity prices driven by rapid growth in China, plans by leaders in South America to integrate their infrastructure and highways to create a continental economy - which will spark human migration into areas that are important for biodiversity - and climate models that predict that global warming could make the Amazon so hot and dry that within a century it could mutate from a rain forest into a savannah.
If all of these trends converge, argues Killeen, it will create a "perfect storm of environmental destruction that will degrade one of the last great tropical wilderness areas of the planet."
The danger signs abound: Sailing here up the Rio Tambopata on our riverboat, we saw gold miners using big motorized barges and mercury to dredge and sift - and destroy - riverbanks in search of gold. With global gold prices soaring, the incentives to dredge the Tambopata are enormous.
Meanwhile, the Interoceanic Highway, running from the Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Peru, appears to be heading for completion. More roads lead to more agriculture, logging, mining and oil and gas extraction, which converts more forests to cropland, which releases more greenhouse gases.
"The Peruvian government has good policies, but it doesn't have the means to enforce them, and there is huge corruption," explained Diego Shoobridge, director of ParksWatch Peru. The road from Brazil through Peru already exists, "but now they are going to pave it," he added. "Once it is paved, all kinds of vehicles will come with Andean people, and they don't know the forests."
But protests by do-gooders will not stop these forces. It requires a grand strategy.
"We need to put in place a green infrastructure - a system of parks, territories controlled by indigenous communities, land-use regulations, carbon credits for forest protection and green businesses, like eco-tourism - that will create a powerful green economic counterweight to the global economic forces driving deforestation," argued Glenn Prickett, a senior vice president at Conservation International and one of my traveling companions. (My wife is on the CI board.)
Environmentalists have to leverage the riches of the rain forest to naturally preserve the rain forest. That means creating ways for the locals to thrive off it while also protecting it. But that's hard. It is easy to clear-cut a forest for roads or an oil well. It's hard to develop shade-grown coffee or eco-tourism or a Brazil nut factory or a palm tree oil business. But without profitable eco-friendly business alternatives - to counter the eco-hostile ones - the economic predators of this rain forest will eventually have their day.
2006, New York Times News Service