By Peter Kreitler
Palisades News Contributor
Photos by Peter and Katy Kreitler
“The Ancient Mariner looked out on the vast body of water that stretched forever before him and exclaimed: “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Mariner’s plight came to mind in early January when my wife, Katy, and I flew to Peru (the “land of abundance”) and spent seven days aboard the riverboat Amazon Star, an exhilarating but sobering experience as we witnessed first-hand the environmental wonders— and man-made degradation—in the upper Amazon River.
Our 700-mile river journey with 24 fellow Brown University travelers began in Iquitos, a fast-growing regional center (population about 800,000) and the largest city in the world with no access by road, only by air or water. Our primary destination was the 5,000-square-mile Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, home to 495 bird species (we saw and identified 140 species), 965 plant species, 59 reptile species, and hundreds of fish species, including the feared piranha.
Our exhibition leader, Juan Tejada, was born and raised in a small village near the Ucayali River, one of the 1,100 tributaries that feed the mighty Amazon. He was accompanied by Brown Professor Caroline Karp and local indigenous naturalists Segunda Mesia and Usiel Vasquez.
We literally did not see another tourist the entire trip (apparently only about 3,000 people a year visit this part of the Ama- zon). Yet quickly we witnessed the reality of human hubris and complacency when floating islands of plastic washed against the hull of the Amazon Star as she left her berth. And, sadly, plastic debris could be found in the most remote creeks and lakes wherever we went. Recycling is slowly entering the consciousness of the communities—fishermen, for example, collect the bottles for their fishing nets—but greater environmental education is necessary to help preserve this 4,300-mile freshwater ecosystem so essential to the health of the planet. The pristine environment that we explored and envied is being compromised in other ways, by oil pipelines and mining roads that cut deep into the mountains and rainforests, to such an extent that although the water that emanates from the Andes is some of the purest in the world, by the time it reaches Iquitos it is not potable, and those who drink it are prone to parasitic diseases. “Water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” The hand of man touches every corner of planet earth.
Aboard the Amazon Star, our floating home for a week, we were briefed daily by our naturalists and Professor Karp. She described Peru as a mega-diverse society with all the challenges facing a developing nation, and noted how the pressures on its natural resources (oil, lumber, copper, gold, silver and fish) from developed nations, plus the need to dam rivers for hydroelectric power, is dramatically changing the lives of indigenous people.
Global warming was evident as villages, often built on stilts, have had to be moved back from the eroding banks of the rivers, and makeshift access to the rivers is common.
Flooding occurs naturally, but now as much as 90 percent of the state of Loreto is under water during the rainy season. That means trash, chemicals and waste ends up in the river. The Pacaya-Samiria reserve, 2.5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, is an indicator habitat for the future of our earth.
Our ecological footprint was small, and the 4-stroke engines which powered our launches enabled us to traverse various creeks, lakes and tributaries and to see the pink river dolphins, a rare experience. Quiet was the order of the day as we listened to the sounds of the jungle. The birds were everywhere and at one point we sat under a large tree that contained 50 nests of russet-backed oropendolas and watched the parents bring food to their young. One evening, flashlights illuminated Segundo as he captured a caiman with his bare hands and Usiel held snakes and minute frogs for us to see. The stars overhead, uncompromised by any light, were magical.
Access to small 10-to-15 family villages was most special. Our naturalists were locals and knew the dialects, so that as we passed by villages, we could stop and visit with the children, who were polite and curious. Katy recorded them on her phone and played it back, gaining their rapt attention. We shared the school supplies we were asked to bring (no trinkets, gum and candy allowed), and were delighted to be in the presence of such well-mannered young people. Yet there was no escaping the fact that everywhere we went, the greatest need was fresh, clean water.
The Amazon rainforests, which produce 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, have been called the lungs of the planet, and now I understand why the river system, the largest in the world, is called the veins of the planet. An estimated 500 billion cubic feet of fresh water enter the Atlantic daily, enough to provide water for the City of New York for nine years. The discharge is 10 times that of the Mississippi.
The many rivers of the Amazon Basin are a vital transportation highway, but of equal significance is the abundance of fish and the protein they provide the people. We ate fish at lunch and dinner every day, including the tasty piranha which we had caught earlier in the morning.
Returning to the Amazon Star each day, only once compromised by rain, never by mosquitos, we would share in a locally grown vegetable medley, river catfish and piranha after cocktail hour (try the Inca Cola made from chamomile) and the “best” Peruvian band called the Chunky Monkeys, comprising eight of the crew members. The sun would set, the clouds would attract every camera on the boat, and we would sleep as the Amazon Star moved farther up the river, to be awakened at 6 a.m.to begin a new day.
There is hope in the hearts and minds of the likes of Juan, Usiel and Segundo of International Expeditions. Their passion for the place and the people they love is evident. They point to the fact that river manatees, howler monkeys and Arapaima Gigas, the prized Amazonian fish that can exceed 300 pounds, are protected by law. The cadre of rangers grows exponentially as community volunteers sign up to assist in the protection of the places, creatures and plants they love. Water projects are beginning to be funded so that the villagers will have access to clean water. Upwards of 75 percent of the country has been leased to extractive multinational corporations from around the world.
The passion of the indigenous people to preserve their lifestyle intensifies daily, and the whole of Mother Earth is the beneficiary.
Our world is threatened by the disappearing Amazon. The Great Barrier Reef is being compromised, the Cradle of Civilization in Africa is losing species, the Galápagos Islands feel the impact of tourism, and the grand glaciers of the mountains of the world are evidence of climate change and global warming. The Amazon awaits a similar fate unless the global community recognizes its significance to all of humanity.