Madre de Dios

In the southwestern Amazon, a constellation of efforts helps safeguard one of the world's last great stands of tropical forest

Alberto Ynuma Fernandez, Apu (chief) of the Boca Pariamanu Native Community, is standing on the edge of the tawny Pariamanu River, inspecting the muck of an abandoned gold mine, when the throttle of an engine startles his surveillance crew. He turns and locks eyes with three men huddled together inside a rough-hewn wooden boat. “Miners,” he whispers.

The miners started coming this way in 2015, searching for pockets of gold in the hard-to-reach Madre de Dios region of Peru. Now their illegal mines plague the edges of rivers here, which flow onward into the vast Amazon. Left in their wake (when the riches dry up) are stark mud deserts and toxic ponds laced with the mercury used to extract the gold.

“Look,” Ynuma mutters, pointing to the murky pool beneath his mud-caked boots. “They’re contaminating our fish. And the thing is, we still have to eat them.”

A man with a helmet examines a tree

QUID PRO QUO Alberto Ynuma Fernandez, leader of the Boca Pariamanu community, harvests Brazil nuts in a local forest. Protecting and thoughtfully cultivating their lands is central to the community’s way of life.

A miner reaches for a radio. Ynuma, sensing a potential conflict, decides to head back to his village. It’s a familiar scene for the shrewd leader. He travels up and down the Pariamanu every three months as part of a six-person monitoring team, protecting more than 11,000 acres of Indigenous territory of prickly monkey brush and cumaru trees. On their most recent trip, a six-hour jaunt upriver, they counted 77 illegal mines, which they reported to local authorities. At stake is not only the forest they live in but also their economic livelihood.

The main commodity in Boca Pariamanu is Brazil nuts. They’re found in the coconut-sized seed pods that dangle from immense castaña trees, which can grow to more than 100 feet tall over the course of a millennium. These ancient trees require cross-pollination, don’t grow in plantations, and depend on wildlife to consume and disperse their seeds. So to see nearly 2,000 of them yielding fruit, as this community has for the past decade, “is a good indicator that you have a healthy forest,” explains Edith Condori, a forest specialist at WWF-Peru who has joined Fernandez on this trip. “This tells you that the work you’re doing with the Brazil nuts isn’t negatively impacting the ecosystem built around them, and yet you’re able to maintain a way of life.”

By contrast, illegal mining has put a new stress on the forest, worrying those whose lives depend on it. “All of the families here are beneficiaries of these trees,” says Nadia Medalit Pacaya Grifa, a Boca Pariamanu resident and vice president of AFIMAD, an Indigenous-run association that provides economic assistance to 11 Native communities. “Every year, without fail, they give us their fruit, so we feel privileged and fortunate to have them here in our forest.”

Jane del Castillo and Nadia Pacaya tend cacao seedlings.

Kathia Panceano cuts open a Brazil nut.

Pacaya takes AFIMAD president Emily Urquia Sebastian down the narrow, dusty trails that lead away from Boca Pariamanu’s main village. They hurdle ficus trees and duck beneath wayward lianas. All the while, the hum of cicadas hangs in the sticky air. Each woman has a thatched basket strapped to her back and a nut-grabbing prong called a payana in her hand, ready to inspect the latest harvest.

The two women—part of AFIMAD’s all-female leadership team—come from different generations and Indigenous backgrounds: The younger, sterner Pacaya is Amahuaca; the elder, cheerier Urquia is Yine. “What we have in common,” Urquia explains, sifting through the forest floor for seed pods, “is the Brazil nut.”

Driving Deforestation: Impacts of Peru’s Interoceanic Highway

MAAP with data from the
Peruvian Environment Ministry (Geobosques)

 Protected Areas

 Other Forested Areas

 Interoceanic Highway


 Indigenous Territories

The Interoceanic Highway winds for more than 1,600 miles across South America, connecting Pacific Ocean ports in Peru to the Atlantic in Brazil—and cutting directly through the heart of the Amazon, including the incredibly biodiverse forests of Madre de Dios.

From 2011—when the area’s section of road was completed—to 2023, Madre de Dios lost nearly 600,000 acres of forest, according to analysis from MAAP (Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project). Constructed to facilitate trade and travel, the highway drove an influx of people to once-isolated areas of tropical forest and accelerated the illegal conversion of forestland to agriculture, gold mining pits, and unsanctioned towns.

This explosion of illicit development spurs habitat loss, restricts wildlife movement, and threatens Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also depletes the Amazon’s natural carbon storage ability as well as the forest’s ability to filter pollutants from the atmosphere. In the Brazilian Amazon alone, nearly 95% of deforestation takes place within 3.4 miles of a road or about half a mile from a river. The Interoceanic Highway is just one of thousands of such examples around the world.

That’s why WWF is working both in the Amazon and globally with government partners, engineering associations, financial institutions, local communities, and more to build sustainability into the early stages of infrastructure development. Projects must meet human needs while protecting habitats and the critical ecosystem services they provide.

Pacaya later leads Urquia past plantations of cacao and huicungo palm, newer forest-friendly crops that help fill the income gap outside of the Brazil nut season, which runs from January to April. AFIMAD, which also makes Brazil nut oils, hopes to replicate its management chain with new forest products while growing its export market in the US and Mexico.

WWF offers technical support to help AFIMAD build regenerative economies—those that restore and preserve rather than exploit and destroy habitat—in the Indigenous territories of its members, assuring these communities can improve their livelihoods while protecting their ancestral lands.

Madre de Dios alone is home to nearly 190,000 people, including 37 Indigenous communities, several of which live in voluntary isolation; many are still fighting for recognition of their right to manage their own lands. Across the Amazon, more than 2 million Indigenous people, representing more than 400 groups, hold vitally important stretches of land. In fact, the more than 3,000 Indigenous territories represent nearly a third of the Amazon Basin.

Their contributions to the health of this massive forest, which is directly linked to the health of our planet, have been historically overlooked. (Across the tropics, Indigenous territories have a fifth less deforestation than non-Indigenous ones, according to WWF’s 2023 Forest Pathways report.) Supporting Indigenous communities will be vital in the fight to keep the Amazon a carbon sink, not a carbon emitter.

Madre de Dios is of unique concern because it’s one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, located near the base of the Andes in the southwestern Amazon. Yet the area’s specific threats speak to larger issues at play across the entire Amazon, which spans eight countries and 40% of the South American continent—and contains about one in 10 known species on Earth.

Working with Indigenous leadership to protect their lands is just one pillar of WWF’s stacked approach to safeguarding the Amazon, a region it’s worked in since the 1970s. Just north of Boca Pariamanu, lining the Interoceanic Highway, is Peruvian cattle country. This is Texas in the Amazon, where lonely castaña trees (which cannot, by law, be cut down) die slow deaths amid vast pastures, a stark reminder of the teeming tropical forest that’s already been lost.

The lands along this highway—completed in 2011 to connect the Peruvian Pacific with the Brazilian Atlantic—were some of the first to be converted into ranches. Yet their soils have become severely degraded by years of unsustainable use. Remarkably, cows can no longer live on the pastures once created for them.

Traditionally, this would precipitate a vicious cycle of denuding and burning more of the Amazon to create fresh meadows. Yet several families in the community of Iñapari, a frontier town on the border of Brazil and Bolivia, are betting on a new model of regenerative ranching they say can revive degraded plots and optimize existing land.

“We always learned that the fewer trees you have in the pasture the better,” explains Verónica Cardozo as she walks in through rolling fields that back up to dense forest. “Recently, though, we’ve come to understand that animals, like us, need shade. They need clean water and good food.”

Two people and a dog walk a path toward a ranch building

María Cardozo (left) and her son Luciano Flores walk a forested path on their farm in Iñapari, Peru.

Extensive ranching is one of the biggest causes of deforestation in the Amazon, which has lost 17% of its historical range. (A swath of forest roughly the size of Rhode Island has vanished from Madre de Dios alone since 2000.) Scientists believe that should deforestation hit between 20% and 25%, the forest could reach a point beyond which it will no longer be able to sustain itself.

All of this makes optimizing ranchland an urgent, practical, nature-based solution—something supported by the Green Recovery Challenge Fund under UK PACT in Peru— that puts the economic needs of residents at its core.

In 2019, with training from WWF, Cardozo began to rethink the way she ranches, implementing new silvopasture practices. Instead of taking a machete to saplings when they appeared in her fields, for instance, she simply let them grow. Then, emboldened, she started planting trees—3,000 in total— noticing that their presence made the cows happier. “They’re so docile now that it’s much easier to control them, and we need less labor,” she says. (The trees also absorb some of the cows’ methane emissions, which accelerate climate change.)

Cardozo also built a small laboratory—a collection of giant blue industrial drums—where she makes her own organic fertilizers from cow manure that cost three times less than commercial products and have become a sustainable agricultural income opportunity. She also crafts nature-based antibiotics from jungle microorganisms that are friendlier for the soil as well as safer for the consumers who buy her chemical-free products.

The biggest change, she says, pointing to newly erected corrals, was dividing her severely degraded 140+-acre estate into small quadrants to rotate the cattle around, giving each parcel at least 25 days to recover before using it again. Richer soil has meant richer grass, allowing more livestock to live in smaller areas. For example, Cardozo could previously only host an average of one cow on every 2.5 acres. Now her ranch can support more than three cows on the same amount of land.

Across town, Verónica’s elder sister, María, undertook a similar transformation of her nearly 500-acre family estate; she can now manage up to four times as many cows in the same amount of space. “It’s clear that what we have is enough and that we don’t need to touch the forest anymore,” she says, sitting with her two adult children (fellow regenerative ranching pioneers) for coffee on her front porch, surrounded by abundant potted plants.

The Cardozo sisters are the third generation to ranch in Iñapari. Yet they may be among the first here to bridge the gap between ranchers and environmentalists. After all, they see themselves as both. “The heat these days is suffocating, and it doesn’t rain as much as it used to,” María explains as a blue butterfly the size of a small bird lands on her coffee cup. “We see the changes, and so we know we have to move beyond this model of knocking down the forest.”

All told, some 400 families in Madre de Dios have been trained in regenerative ranching, many by the Cardozos at a field school Verónica built on her property. Of course, long-standing traditions—and classic cowboy pride—are hard to change. Yet María says it’s happening anyway. “When someone else is doing well,” she explains with a smile, “others instinctively copy the model.”

Deep in the forest, about a three-hour drive west of the Cardozos’ ranchlands on dirt roads that melt into sludge after passing storms, is the “office” of Vania Tejeda, a former wildlife officer with WWF-Peru. She’s here inspecting the case of a missing forest.

Just three months ago, she was in this very spot wrapping camera traps around stately quinilla trees, part of a wildlife monitoring project with MADERACRE, one of Peru’s largest timber concessions with Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) certification for responsible forest management. The company extracts an average of one to three trees per 2.5 acres every 20 years, and its 849 square miles of concessions account for a significant portion of the productive permanent forests of Madre de Dios. Yet it’s constantly under threat. Those same quinilla trees, for example, have been burned to the ground and replaced with fields of corn.

Woman sets camera trap on tree

As part of a biodiversity monitoring project, Vania Tejeda, a former wildlife officer at WWF-Peru, checks camera traps near MADERACRE’s forest concession in Madre de Dios.

No sooner has Tejeda arrived in the missing forest than two men race over on a motorcycle. Their long hair and bushy beards are indicative of a local religious group known for aggressively grabbing land, burning trees and planting crops, and then claiming the territory as their own. Their sudden appearance is an unspoken warning, and it’s not unexpected: Just two months earlier, men from the group attacked MADERACRE’s surveillance patrol.

So Tejeda, who’s petite but fearless, packed up and retreated deeper into the forest. She’s here, after all, to check on not only the existing forest but also its wildlife—including South America’s apex predator—and her camera traps and acoustic sensors are cost-effective tools for monitoring the local population. A third of all jaguars in Peru live in Madre de Dios, and MADERACRE’s lands have one of the area’s highest densities of the big cats.

That’s a good sign: The health of jaguars is a key barometer for the health of the overall ecosystem.

“We need to assess the connectivity of jaguar populations because if we work with apex predators, we can also influence the fate of other species,” Tejeda explains, batting away hordes of flies. Her shirt swarms with sweat bees as she unstraps a camera to change its battery. “We have these isolated patches where these animals try to live, but it’s very difficult because they need to take risks to cross from one patch to the other.”

The new field of corn, she adds, is yet another hole in an increasingly fragmented forest.

Tejada placed 70 camera traps in a rough grid along the logging roads that jaguars use as hunting corridors. She checks the camera in her hand for the latest sightings, scrolling back just three days before a jaguar appears, crossing this very road at dawn. Its saffron coat gleams under the low spotlight of the morning sun, accentuating spots that act like unique fingerprints for identifying individual cats.

Tejeda also has positioned camera traps and acoustic sensors at each end of the canopy bridges she has installed across logging roads to increase forest connectivity for the Amazon’s tree-dwelling wildlife. It’s all part of WWF’s partnership with MADERACRE under Forests Forward, WWF’s signature program for corporate action in support of nature, people, and a healthy climate. Tools like camera traps assess the efficacy of the company’s model for responsible forest management.

Surrounded as it is by public parklands and Indigenous territories, MADERACRE is an invaluable shield against deforestation closer to population centers near the Interoceanic Highway.

As part of her work promoting regenerative ranching near her home in Iñapari, Peru, Verónica Cardozo has shifted how she manages the cattle on her farm.

A decade on, this frontier-opening road has exposed the southwestern Amazon to a swarm of new threats. And yet, if you look hard enough, there’s still reason for hope. A friendlier kind of forestry has given jaguars a surprising refuge. Brazil nut harvesting has provided Indigenous communities with the economic heft to defend their territories. And regenerative ranching has staved off needless deforestation.

It’s hard to argue against progress. Yet as the highway encourages population growth across Madre de Dios, its industries will need to rethink some of their old ways. Change is never easy. “It’s not magic, it’s not romantic, and you need to dedicate a lot of time to it,” explains rancher Verónica Cardozo. “But the most difficult part is believing that it’s possible.”

Harnessing the power of nature

To meet global targets aimed at confronting climate change, slowing the loss of biodiversity, and reducing the degradation of natural habitats, the world must triple its investment in nature-based solutions by 2030—and increase that investment fourfold by 2050.

As their name suggests, nature-based solutions rely on the power of natural areas, systems, and processes to help us achieve a stable and biodiverse future. One such solution: keeping forests standing. Healthy forests capture and store CO2, which mitigates the effects of climate change. Healthy forests also benefit people across the world, including by sustaining the livelihoods and cultures of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

WWF’s Nature-Based Solutions Origination Platform builds on WWF’s global reach and diverse partnerships to harness growing interest in the approach, particularly from businesses striving to adopt commitments to minimize their footprints, reduce climate change, and protect nature. The platform engages governments, multilateral agencies, and philanthropists as well. All told, WWF’s goal is to generate measurable, long-lasting, positive impacts for communities, nature, and our climate through conservation, management, and restoration activities in forest landscapes, including Madre de Dios.

Corporate partner HP Inc. currently supports efforts in the region to improve the management of working forests and habitat restoration to ensure jaguar connectivity across the landscape.

Learn more about the Nature-Based Solutions Origination Platform.


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