Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cold Front Sweeps Across Peru

Written on 24 August 2011
I’m writing from Tarapoto, a city in central Peru. I’m here with a geologist, two anthropologists, and two geographers. We are supposed to be working with the inventory team as they come out of the field, and pulling together the recommendations for the conservation and management of this region. Instead we’ve been waiting anxiously for them for three days.

The team is stuck in Puerto Galilea, an indigenous community on the Santiago River.  A friaje, or cold front, swept through the country three days ago, producing big clouds that are now hanging over northern Peru. These clouds are low enough, and immobile enough, that they have grounded the helicopter.

Two of us were supposed to be there with the team. Dick Smith, an anthropologist from the Instituto del Bien Común (, and I got into a small plane on Sunday afternoon. Our flight was already terrifically delayed, but we thought we could fly from Tarapoto to Puerto Galilea, and we thought we could avoid the storm system.  We were wrong on both counts. 

Leaving Tarapoto and heading towards the mountains.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

We traveled with SAETA, one of the few companies that flies small planes into the Santiago drainage. Joining us on the flight were Mamerto Maicua and Luis Piyaba of CORPI (Coordinadora Regional de Pueblos Indígenas Región San Lorenzo), one of the two regional indigenous organizations near the Kampankis mountains. We left Tarapoto with decent visibility and crossed over the Cordillera Escalera.

We flew over the spectacular Cordillera Escelera, a place just
begging to be explored. Perhaps a future rapid inventory.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

Soon we were deep in the clouds. After about twenty minutes the rain started. All four us hoped that we would soon break free from the storm, and were expecting that any minute we’d emerge on the other side of the rain and the clouds. Instead, the rain intensified. The turbulence got worse. And after some seemingly eternal moments, we turned around. 

Mamerto Maicua looks out the window with apprehension.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

All of us were grateful to be back on the ground, and we spent the night in Yurimaguas, a sweet little town on the Huallaga River. The following day, Mamerto left for San Lorenzo, on the Maráñon River. Luis stayed in Yurimaguas. And Dick and I rode two hours back to Tarapoto. We crossed over the Cordillera Escalera again, this time in a car following a seemingly never-ending series of curves. The taxis pride themselves on speed. We prided ourselves on not getting sick during the trip. 

Crossing the Cordillera Escalera, this time by car.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

And now we’ve been in Tarapoto for two days. We are stuck in a loop: get up, check weather maps, call Debby and Tyana in Puerto Galilea, get hopes up, squint up at the sky and convince ourselves the clouds are moving, call Puerto Galilea again, and after a few more iterations, realize dejectedly that the helicopter cannot fly today and resign ourselves to one more day of the same process.

In the meanwhile, the inventory team has been incredibly productive during their unexpectedly long layover in Puerto Galilea. They met with the Awajún and Wampis to share their findings. They engaged everyone in the community in a discussion of their vision for the area in the long term. And together with the community, they spent hours thinking through the threats to the region, the strengths of the local people, and how to best use the strengths to address the threats. 

Here in Tarapoto, we are anxious to see the scientists, hear their stories, and move forward on writing the report. Spurred on by the team’s reports about their productive meetings with the community, we’ve made a series of new maps of the region’s geology. As we think about the Huancabamba deflection, the rise of the Andes, and the large paleolake known as Lago Pevas that is now the upper Amazon basin, we are—for a moment at least—pleasantly distracted. 

Then we look out the window and think that perhaps, just perhaps, today will be the day the clouds clear and the team flies over the mountains to us. For now, we wait. 

Update: The team has landed safely in Tarapoto (during an earthquake). 
After three days of waiting in Puerto Galilea, the team finally reaches Tarapoto.
An earthquake struck as they were landing, and people ran out of the airport into
the streets for safety. The team figured people were just really excited to see them.
Photo: A. del Campo
Post by Corine Vriesendorp, Conservation Ecologist

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