Why Disney is fighting deforestation in Peru

Why Disney is fighting deforestation in Peru

CC license by Peter aka anemoneprojectors/Flickr

Segundo Guevara’s wooden cabin sits near the top of the lush mountain, surrounded by massive trees, sweet mist and -- of course -- coffee plantations, which emit a familiar sweet scent that seems exotic here on these steep hills.

Guevara moved to this pristine patch of Peruvian Amazon rainforest, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest (Bosque de Proteccion de Alto Mayo, alternately abbreviated as BPAM or AMPF), from the neighboring region of Cajamarca. What he didn't know was that he was moving into a protected area, and that the unsustainable farming methods he was using -- burning and clearing the forest to plant crops -- were destroying a critically important ecosystem.

The world needs these dense tropical forests to absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, which is one of many reasons environmental NGO Conservation International (CI) launched a REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) project here nearly five years ago.

Last year, the Alto Mayo REDD+ project was validated under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) as well as the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard (CCB).

Before the project's validation, Disney, in a landmark move, donated $3.5 million to CI's work in Alto Mayo, contributing significantly to what the project has been able to achieve thus far.

The arc of deforestation

The story of the Alto Mayo REDD+ project began around 2008 and involves 419 farmers and their families as much as it does CI and Disney. At the time, Disney was looking to offset the environmental impact of their resorts by preserving a forest or ecosystem and had reached out to CI for suggestions. CI presented them with two nations containing endangered rainforest that needed saving: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru. Disney decided to start with Alto Mayo in Peru.

“In recent years, the protected areas had been violated,” says Luis Espinel, director of CI in Peru.

It had been violated by people such as Guevara moving into the region, chopping down trees and planting coffee plants. CI estimates that since Alto Mayo's creation in 1987, 3,000 families have moved into the 182,000 hectares of forest.

At first the Peruvian government, preoccupied with successive economic crises and security challenges, failed to enforce the law of a protected area, allowing shifting cultivation and logging activities to penetrate the buffer zone.

People were settled on the land by the time the government attempted to respond. In an effort not to make matters difficult for the settlers, the state permitted that they remain in the protected area so long as they practice sustainable agroecology, which applies ecology to agricultural systems, and sign Conservation Agreements (CAs), an accord with land owners that defines a concrete conservation outcome.

"The idea was to give them instruments to continue farming, but without violating the Forest of Alto Mayo,” says engineer Maximo Arcos, who advises the project.

Agree and maintain

As part of the CA, Arcos says, each farmer was offered a technical package containing instructions for planting. The package discouraged using herbicides and included training on how to sow coffee in a way that’s compatible with the growth of native trees. The CA benefited the local people as much as it did the ecosystem. Their unsustainable farming practices had been depleting the soil, which forced farmers to relocate and cut down trees constantly in order to reach healthy soil.

Espinel also pointed out that because the farmers practiced sustainable agriculture, they avoided the devastating disease known as coffee rust that decimated 20 percent of Peru's total coffee production one year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Guevara and other farmers were able to improve production and avoid pests thanks to CI's REDD project. Along with the agricultural training the project provided, CI offered the local populations medical equipment, educational materials and jobs patrolling the forests. In return, the locals promised to participate in reforestation and not cut down the forest anymore.

Carbon truth

While VCS verified the carbon impacts, CCB also measures the project's effects on communities as well as on the local plant and animal life. The standard confirmed the local life had improved with the REDD project and the CAs. This means 420 species of birds and 50 species of mammals, including the yellow-tailed woolly monkey found only in the Peruvian Andes, benefitted.

So far, the project has generated 3 million tons of emissions reductions, the equivalent of taking 500,000 cars off the roads for one year, according to Espinel. Disney's contribution resulted in a 400,000-ton reduction of carbon emissions, helping to shrink the giant companies' ecological footprint.

Disney's cruise and resorts generate a significant amount of emissions, which is why it is becoming involved in projects that mitigate GHG emissions. Working with CI to curb high deforestation rates is a key front in combating climate change. Deforestation generates more emissions than the transportation sector, especially when linked to the livestock sector in South America.

Disney has agreed, as part of its environmental commitments, to another grant of $3.5 million to CI's work in Alto Mayo. Disney is also considering showing films about Alto Mayo on their cruise ships.

Caring for the green and water

What else can be done for this wonderful place? At nearly 5 p.m., before the forest is hidden in fog, a person can see to the ends of the forest. But dozens of families still unknowingly destroy the forest by felling trees to grow coffee. Alto Mayo has a variety of orchids species, as well, that are put in jeopardy by poor land-use practices.

CI is aware of this and has partnered with SERNANP (National Service of Protected Natural Areas by the State, or Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado) to improve management of the forest. They now have 26 rangers patrolling the area opposed to the 10 they had before CI's project.

Patrolling the forest is essential. On the way to Guevara's farm, for instance, trees are down and logs stacked together waiting to be burned. Conservation rangers, in addition to more and more residents signing CAs, could help mitigate this deforestation.

It may not be the perfect setting (the ideal situation would have been for Alto Mayo to have been protected since its founding), but at least today Alto Mayo has achieved some system of conservation and has regained some of what has been lost over the years. The future looks far more promising than it did a few years ago. And as Espinel points out, the forest is useful as well as beautiful.

"It supplies water to many communities living in the vicinity," he says.

The Alto Mayo ecosystem supplies the 200,000 people living in this vicinity with clean water that they use in their homes as well as to water their crops. The area is replenished with rainwater that runs over trees and through the grooves of lush hills to fill the entire ecosystem. Cutting down the trees deprives the forest, and perhaps those who live around it, of a full life.

Dispel the mist

Trees also create a home for those 420 bird species and 50 mammal types as well as amphibians, reptiles and insects. As in many of Disney's well-known films, man and animal should care for the Earth responsibly.

As for Guevara, the changes still seem exciting and he is eager to discuss how his way of life and farming techniques have been transformed.

The fog suddenly lifts around Guevara's farm, allowing the sun to shine through. Below, the chopped logs still lie on the ground, but here you can breathe the smell of coffee and perhaps the smell of hope. 

This story is reprinted with permission by Ecosystem MarketplaceThis article was adapted into English by Kelli Barrett and edited by Steve Zwick.

Image credit: CC license by Peter aka anemoneprojectors/Flickr