Dispatch, Peru 2: Pangs of green guilt on the Amazon

MBPERUTravel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran is spending two weeks in Peru. Her trip includes an Amazon River cruise and a visit to Machu Picchu. Baran’s second dispatch follows.

While in the Amazon, you suddenly notice everything that pertains to the environment.

The naturalist guides are so careful with every little thing they touch, returning a millipede to the tree where they found it, or taking care not to injure a tiny tree frog when capturing it for show and tell (and obviously then returning it to the wild).

Gliding along a big, brown river -- with nothing for hundreds of miles but green, flourishing vegetation and soaring birds -- makes you feel very humbled and protective of this massive expanse of nature.

It’s no wonder I became paranoid about our footprint, more so than anywhere else I’ve ever been. How harmful to the surrounding environment is all this toxic Deet in our mosquito-repellent? Where are all the empty water bottles going? What about all the energy needed to run our comfortable air-conditioned rooms?

PERU-treefrog2Isn’t there something wrong with coming to the Amazon this way, on a big ship that produces who-knows-how-much waste?

Not necessarily, according to our naturalist guide, George Davila.

Davila grew up in Santa Rosa, a 22-family village just north of Iquitos on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. He studied at the National University of the Peruvian Amazon and has been working on the Amazon as a naturalist guide for 15 years.

"I think it’s balance," said Davila. "We would be in a very serious situation if we were going [to the same place] everyday."

La Amatista, the 28-passenger ship International Expeditions charters from Iquitos-based Jungle Expeditions, sails out each week. Each day, the ship and the skiffs explore new areas of the Amazon Basin, so those areas only see a group of about 20-something visitors once a week.

Davila estimates that between Jungle Expeditions and the two other major tourism companies with ships on the Peruvian Amazon — Aqua Expeditions and Amazon Horizons — only about 3,000 tourists per year come to this part of the world.

Even with that small number, precautions are taken. In response to my concerns, Davila said all the water bottles are taken back to Iquitos, the capital of the Loreto region, and recycled.

The sewage is taken back to Iquitos and transferred to a sewage treatment facility. The garbage is separated into biodegradable and non-biodegradable trash, and much of the biodegradable food waste is given to the villages along the river to use as animal feed.

The ship and the skiffs run on diesel, so there’s not much getting around that waste. The mosquito repellent is pretty toxic, but fortunately there are only 3,000 of us mosquito-phobic tourists coming through here a year,PERU-anaconda and some of us may opt to use organic repellent.

Truth be told, we haven’t seen a single other tourist in the hundreds of miles we’ve traveled along the Amazon River and its tributaries. Where else in the world can you say that?

"Each cruise company has a policy in terms of how to balance with the ecosystem," said Davila, adding that the Peruvian Amazon is still far from the situation the Galapagos Islands faces.

So, yes, maybe I became a bit paranoid that tourists were going to come en masse and destroy the Peruvian Amazon. That’s part of the effectiveness of eco-tourism and the awareness it raises. Or that’s the hope, at least.

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