Guardians of
the Forest

The rural community of Segunda y Cajas in northern Peru leads efforts to protect one of the most biodiverse areas and vital sources of water for the region.

This story, produced by InquireFirst with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education, was originally published by Historias Sin Fronteras.

HILARIO ROJAS GUERRERO shows black and white photographs of spectacled bears, tapirs and deer obtained with a camera trap, a hidden device for recording wildlife in its natural state. The thin man with strong arms and golden skin smiles with pride at the ecological findings in his mountain community.

Rojas tells how the trees and paramos in the farming community of Segunda y Cajas have been preserved despite deforestation. Perched nearly 10,000 feet above sea level in the province of Huancabamba in the northern Peru region of Piura, the small community of Segunda y Cajas stands as a guardian of nature.

Land regulation allowed the rural Peruvian community located 22 hours from Lima and close to the Ecuador border to obtain the title to its territories in 1996. That made it possible for community members to meet with authorities and environmental organizations to better understand what it means to create a protected natural area within a territory that was already theirs.

Now in his 60s and completing his term as community president, Rojas recalls when his community of about 4,000 inhabitants did not know how to protect the land from deforestation and mining. It was common for farmers to burn vegetation in the belief that it attracted the rain they needed to grow their crops.

Over time, they began to understand the importance of protecting environmentally sensitive areas. In 2014, the community assembly approved a greater commitment to care for the forests and paramos. Two years later, in 2016, they obtained State recognition for the creation of a natural protected area in their territories: the Bosques Montanos y Páramos Chicuate-Chinguelas Private Conservation Area (PCA), in honor of the two mountains located in their territory.

While the community worked on conserving its biodiverse ecosystem, Peru lost more than seven million acres of forest between 1985 and 2021, according to the latest figures from the MapBiomas project of the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information (RAISG). Much of the deforestation took place in the Amazon, but the decline of Andean forests in the northern region of the country impacts its paramos, one of the country’s most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems that feeds the jungle lowlands.

map

Forest cover, 1985.

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Forest cover, 2021.

Katty Carrillo, biologist and chief of projects in the North Andes Mosaic in Peru for the non-governmental organization Nature and Culture International, which has been conducting environmental studies of the country’s northern region for the past 15 years, points out that in Peru, private conservation can be managed by rural communities. “They are voluntary conservation areas managed with the community’s own resources. In the case of Chicuate-Chinguelas and neighboring communities, the paramos and montane forests allow the life of hundreds of species of flora and fauna, as well as the capture and distribution of water, a key resource for the existence of life in the area,” she says.

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Rojas is a park ranger along with other members of the Chicuate-Chinguelas PCA and its more than 66,000 acres. The monitoring work guarantees the existence of the community and its 34 hamlets. “By making field visits we are able to carry out control and surveillance. We walk for one or two days on the road. Here we have more than hundreds of medicinal plants. We install camera traps to identify the animals that surround the area,” he says.

But it was not always like this. Despite the apparent calm, the forests and mountains hidden in the mist were witnesses to conflict and death.

a person holding a photo of a puma

Hilario Rojas Guerrero holding a photograph taken with the camera trap in the Chicuate-Chinguelas conservation zone, in the Piura region.

Community resistance

Emperatriz Campos, a resident of Segunda y Cajas, takes a break from her work at the sewing machine to talk about her people, her land and her struggle to preserve it. She is bitter about a conflict that began in 2003 in her community surrounded by forests and mountains. As a heavy rain pounds the metal roof, she recalls that she was a mother with four small children and a concern for the future of her community.

On the outskirts of the community, there were violent incidents between the farming communities of Yanta and Segunda y Cajas and extractive companies pushing for the development of the Rio Blanco mining project.

An agreement was reached by the British-owned company Minera Majaz to mine copper and molybdenum in the border region. (The company later changed its name to Rio Blanco Copper and obtained a majority share from the Chinese conglomerate Zijin.)

The result: dozens of people injured, seven deaths, attacks on mining camps, protests, the kidnapping of 28 farmers by the police and a trial before the High Court of the United Reign for torture, physical and psychological mistreatment of the community members.

“So far there are no answers. There are no people responsible for the deaths of our colleagues,” Campos said. “They buried everything.”

Latent conflict

After years of looking for ways to mitigate environmental conflicts, members of the Segunda y Cajas Campesino Community succeeded in creating the Chicuate-Chinguelas Private Conservation Area (PCA).

But the conservation efforts were opposed by mining companies operating in the area. Days after the PCA was recognized by the Ministry of the Environment (MINAM), Rio Blanco Copper S.A. and Compañía Minera Mayari S.A.C. requested the annulment of the resolution. The reason: it overlapped the mining project and would block its development. The authorities did not agree.

The acknowledgement of the Chicuate-Chinguelas PCA was key to calming the waters. However, according to the latest social conflict report from the Ombudsman’s Office, there is continued opposition to the Río Blanco project “due to the environmental impact it could have on the vulnerable ecosystems of the paramos and montane forests, which require adequate levels of protection.” In December 2023 there was a march against the mining project and the situation has been classified as a latent conflict.

a woman

Emperatriz Campos, community member of Segunda y Cajas and vice president of the Network of Paramos and Forests of Northern Peru.

a home with a painted protest

Facade of a house in the area that rejects the Río Blanco mining project.

A diverse ecosystem

It is a day of cleaning and maintenance in the interpretation center and office in the village of Shapaya in Segunda y Cajas. This is a space for the dissemination of knowledge gathered from long walks through the forest. There is a replica of the spectacled bear and detailed paintings of the howler monkey, the Andean cock-of-the-rock and the Chorro Blanco waterfall.

Campos and other community members have been managing the center since 2019. She is aware of the great effort made by her community and she fears the conflict will escalate again.

“In the mountain range in Chicuate-Chinguelas, important rivers are born. It is not only about Huancabamba, it is about a whole set of unions between the waters and if it is exploited [by mining activity] it could be contaminated. What we, as farmers, do is protect life and water,” says Campos, who is also vice president of the Network of Paramos and Forests of Northern Peru, an organization that brings together diverse farming communities to share interests and discuss common issues.

The forests and paramos that dominate the landscape ensure important water resources for the area, as well as nourishing the greenery that covers the mountains near the border with Ecuador. Odalys Suárez, geographer and researcher of mountain ecosystems in Chicuate-Chinguelas, explains that “the paramos capture rainwater, filter it, and release it slowly so that there is water throughout the year. In other words, they act as regulators of water resources. They are also very important because they are located in Piura, a dry region, and because of the context of climate change.”

In the last few months, there has been an increase in heat waves and intense and frequent rains as a result of climate change, enhanced by the El Niño phenomenon, according to information from the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP).

Still, the biodiverse ecosystems thrive, with environmental specialists noting hundreds of species of flora and fauna species. Among the species recorded in the area are the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and the red howler monkey (Alouatta seniculus). The region is also home to the Andean tapir (Tapirus pinchaque), which is classified as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and critically endangered according to the Red Book of the Endangered Wildlife of Peru of the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR).

a wooded tropical valley

View of the montane forest in the Carmen de la Frontera district, Huancabamba province, Piura region.

a waterfall in a rainforest

The Chorro Blanco waterfall is a vital spot that is an attraction for the few tourists that visit the area.

The future of the border

The creation of private conservation areas is filling the gaps in the face of limitations of existing proposals in Peru, specialists say. “Due to the will of the communities to conserve and the interest that this concern is maintained over time, several areas are granted in perpetuity. This provides additional protection because it means that subsequent generations will continue with the work and the same conservation policies,” says Deyvis Huamán Mendoza, director of management of the National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State (SERNANP), an entity attached to the Ministry of the Environment.

Other conservation areas are being created by regional governments in the northern zone of the country. But these areas are not the only ones under discussion. Since 2019, the proposal to create an Andean Connectivity Corridor between Peru and Ecuador has gained momentum based on the connection between their ecosystems.

The creation of a conservation area can bring hope to communities, but the path does not end there. “There is a panorama where private and state-level conservation areas have been created and recognized, but once this has been achieved, what else do you do? How do you maintain a balance between nature, productive activities and the people who live in this area?” asks environmental specialist Carrillo.

Field trip with community members from Segunda y Cajas and representatives of environmental organizations to evaluate the status of the forests and paramos of the Chicuate-Chinguelas conservation zone. Photo by David García

A day in the hamlet of Shapaya in Segunda y Cajas.

An uncertain path

Back in Segunda y Cajas, the rain is beginning to ease. For Hilario Rojas Guerrero, the challenge to ensure the sustainability of the Chicuate-Chinguelas PCA continues and, like his neighbors, he is now looking for alternatives beyond agriculture and cattle ranching. Tourism is emerging as one of the options to take advantage of the beauty of the region’s waterfalls, hiking areas and forests. But the path is uncertain.

It is already lunchtime at the end of the work day in the field. Hilario Peña Huamaní stops for a moment. He takes his tools off his shoulder and exclaims: “Living here means having many resources because of the biodiversity and the water. It allows the planting of potatoes, peas, corn and wheat, and the subsistence of animals.” In the distance, bulls tied to a yoke and guided by a community member in a dark poncho are crossing the town’s main road. The effort to take care of their territories and guarantee access to water advances with the Chicuate-Chinguelas PCA.

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