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How Field Museum Scientists Protected a Swathe of the Amazon

For decades, museum staff has studied a megadiverse stretch of forest in Peru’s northeast. Now, it’s a designated national park.

Yaguas National Park in Loreto, Peru   Photo: Courtesy of the Field Museum

In Peru’s northeast, there’s a swathe of 2 million acres where, if viewed from a helicopter, one can see only trees in every direction. They stretch all the way to the horizon, unobstructed by roads or buildings. In this part of the Amazon, in the country’s Loreto region, there are 3,000 species of plant, 500 species of bird, and 550 species of fish — more than two-thirds of Peru’s known fish. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

The area is also home to roughly 1,000 indigenous people who live along the headwaters of an Amazon River tributary, and say the land is sacred. This part of Peru, the Yagua people say, is one of the places where the mythical anaconda Sachamama, or “Mother of the Earth,” gives life to the flora and fauna that the people depend on. For more than two decades, the area’s 13 indigenous communities have aspired to protect the forest, petitioning the government prohibit developing the land.

Last year, their efforts paid off. In January of 2018, the Peruvian government designated the area Yaguas National Park, a level of protection that prohibits hunting, fishing, logging, and mining on the land. The change is thanks in part to a number of conservation organizations and scientists, including a team from Chicago’s Field Museum.

The designation of an area that supports megadiversity — and one that’s championed by the people who live there — “is what conservation success looks like,” says Corine Vriesendorp, a Field Museum senior conservation ecologist and director of the Andes-Amazon Program.

But it was no quick victory: The Field Museum’s role in the designation has been 20 years in the making. Staff at the museum first formed a team to support conservation in the Amazon 20 years ago. Since then, the Field has built a reputation for its work in South America, and today hosts 100,000 specimens of Peruvian plants at its South Loop headquarters. It’s collection one of the world’s best, and also spans a number of Peruvian museums. Ten full-time scientists at the Field work exclusively on preserving the Amazon.

When the Field’s group formed in 1995, Peru’s National Park Service had just begun mapping out tracts of land in the country that they thought should be protected, each marked with an amorphous blob where an ecosystem was rich for study.

“When our team came along and saw that blob map, it was sort of like the table was set for us,” says Nigel Pitman, a senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum. “We could talk to the Park Service and say, ‘Which of these areas do you guys want to figure out this year?’ ”

Vriesendorp oversaw the museum’s first inventory of the area in 2003. In just a few days, she and a team of scientists set out to learn everything they could about what grows, flies, and swims in that part of Loreto. Among her teammates was Pitman, who helped led a group of geologists, botanists, ichthyologists, ornithologists, and mammologists through the region. Meanwhile, another team spoke with locals, collecting information on the area’s natural history, threats like illegal logging or mining, and the cultural importance of the ecosystem.

When Vriesendorp’s team returned to Chicago, they’d amassed samples and descriptions of plants and animals that were entirely new to science.

For years, the team documented their findings in a series of reports, detailing the ecosystem’s critical importance to biodiversity in the Amazon. Should the Peruvian government allow development in the area, they learned, countless unidentified birds, fish and mammals could be lost to science.

Heads of the Peruvian forestry department brought the Field team’s reports to government officials and asked for protection. But it wasn’t enough, and they were turned down.

So the Field team kept going. They began looking at peatlands scattered throughout the forest, which contain massive amounts of carbon. The team identified just how much of the greenhouse gas the bogs would keep out of the atmosphere should the government protect the area.

Their angle? Preserving the peatlands could help Peru meet its responsibility under the Paris Climate Accord. This, paired with an impending visit from Pope Francis, a strong advocate for climate action, gave them the push they needed. On January 11, 2018, the Peruvian government designated Yaguas National Park.

When the team at the Field Museum heard the news, they cheered in their offices. And while Yaguas was a hard-earned win, it represents just one of the team’s successes in the Amazon. Of the 30 areas where Field scientists have collected data in Peru, 17 are now protected. A map in the museum’s Conservation Hall displays their footprint.

Natural history museums are uniquely positioned to do this sort of work, Vriesendorp says. Their staffs have the research skills to uncover important species to a region’s ecology, but unlike professors in a university setting, they aren’t obligated to publish their findings in a scientific journal.

“The Field has shown that natural history museums have a tremendous role to play in conservation, but we’re one of the only ones that have developed a robust conservation program,” Vriesendrop says. “There’s a huge opportunity for more natural history museums to do the same.”

The team continues to do rapid inventories in South America. This year, they’ll head back to Peru and Colombia to conduct similar surveys in different parts of the Amazon.

“We’re still in the age of discovery,” Pitman says. “We haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s not about the fact that we discovered new species, it’s about the fact that we’ve been doing this for 250 years and we still live on a poorly known planet.”

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