Nov. 15, 2013 – Imagine a tropical rainforest that floods for three to five months each year, where villagers travel by boat to visit their neighbors. You’ll find this unusual ecosystem, adapted to and dependent upon periodic flooding, in the upper Amazon Basin in Peru. The yearly flooding, caused by spring runoff from the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains and over 100 inches of annual rainfall, results in an ecosystem with both an aquatic and a terrestrial phase.
This unique combination — coupled with an environment that is geologically and climatically stable and filled with essential plant nutrients deposited by the receding floodwaters — produces an area rich in biodiversity. In fact, the flooded forests of the Peruvian Amazon Basin have the highest species richness of all floodplain forests worldwide.
Visiting this isolated area starts with a flight to the city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru, followed by a 60-mile drive and a three-hour boat ride on the Rio Marañon and the Rio Ucayali.
Scientists from the college’s Conservation Management Institute (CMI) — Verl Emrick, Eric Wolf, Mike St. Germain, and Aaron Teets — embarked on such a journey to reach Yacumama, a field research and education station that includes 7,190 acres of flooded forests on the Rio Yarapa, a tributary of the Rio Ucayali.
Americans Lawrence Bishop and Norman Walters purchased the Yacumama property in 1992 to develop an ecotourism lodge and support a private conservation area. But the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States dealt a severe blow, as guests cancelled existing reservations and new bookings evaporated. By 2007, in the midst of a worldwide recession, the owners shifted their focus from ecotourism to conservation education and scientific research.
In 2009, Bishop and Walters initiated a limited logging operation in an attempt to fund the maintenance and upkeep of the property. “The experience brought the owners to the conclusion that they had two options to make sufficient income to maintain the property,” said Emrick, CMI project manager/ecologist. “They could conduct a large-scale logging operation, which contradicted their conservation philosophy, or pursue carbon offset financing, which would enable them to maintain forest cover and preserve the property’s diverse ecosystem.”
Yacumama’s owners sought out scientists at CMI, who had performed field and background research for three forest carbon offset projects in Belize. CMI was contracted to measure and assess the biomass, ecology, and biodiversity of 6,043 acres of the property’s flooded forest — tasks required in order to qualify for forest carbon offsets under established standards.
“The overall goal for the Yacumama Forest Carbon Project is to protect and conserve the tropical lowland flooded forest on Yacumama for long-term carbon sequestration,” Emrick explained. “In addition, the project also serves to protect, maintain, and, for some species, improve native biodiversity while supporting local community livelihoods.”
Yacumama will offer forest carbon credits through the voluntary market to individuals and corporations who wish to offset their carbon footprint. The project will meet the voluntary market’s two sets of internationally recognized standards — the Verified Carbon Standard and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance. These complementary standards ensure that carbon offsets are calculated in a scientifically rigorous and repeatable manner and that project activities do not negatively affect local communities or native biodiversity.
During three different visits to Yacumama during 2013, the CMI research team, with the assistance of local guides, collected forest structure and biomass data in multiple plots, often traveling by boat to access the more remote areas of the property. The team also assessed the native biodiversity, identifying over 200 bird species and confirming the presence of 10 primate species at Yacumama.
The CMI team and Yacumama management met with residents of the local community of Puerto Miguel to review the project and receive input as well as to discuss potential economic benefits to the community, which is a required project component under the established standards. Not only will the project enable employment opportunities at Yacumama to continue or even increase, but staff members will also receive training in a variety of fields, such as carpentry, food preparation, property patrolling, assistance with monitoring, and technical support to visiting scientists and researchers.
Time will tell what impact conservation measures such as the Yacumama Forest Carbon Project will have on the mighty Amazon River Basin.