Discoverers Expedition Vilcabamba 2016: Pichari (VRAEM, Peru),
José Padial with herpetologists Juan Carlos Chaparro and Roberto Gutiérrez. (Part 1 of 2)
January 27-28, 2016
From the Peruvian jungle town of Pichari you can always see the lower slopes of Vilcabamba, the upper regions secluded in the dominion of clouds; to the west, across the rapid waters of the Apurimac—the god that speaks—lie the Andes.
We got to Pichari at night and the first thing that struck me was the dimensions of this town. A few years ago this place was a tiny village and even today is barely present on the maps or the internet. Nowadays, Pichari is the economic center of a large region known as VRAEM (for Valleys of the Rivers Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro). Cultures of the Andes, the Amazon, and western influences, collide along these valleys, and not always without conflict. Taxes paid to the Camisea Gas Project and coca leave production drive the economy, but there are also plantations of many tropical produce and lot of commerce—the streets of Pichari being swamped with hardware, cellphones, clothes, food stores and restaurants.
There was a lot for us to do in Pichari. First we had to meet with Ing. Carlos Barrientos, director of Otishi National Park, the protected area of where our expedition will happen. Ing. Barrientos was also the connection with local authorities of CODEVRAEM, the ministerial commission for pacification and development of VRAEM, through which we had to obtain authorization and support (more of this on the next post) to work in the area. Last and most importantly, Ing. Barrientos had scheduled meetings with the indigenous leaders of the Ashaninka people who had to give us the green light to cross their territory.
The Ashaninka are a large group of indigenous people from the tropical Andes and Amazon lowlands of Peru and adjacent Brazil. A large portion of Vilcabamba is part of their ancestral land, which was recognized by the Peruvian Government as the the Ashaninka Communal Reserve. Our expedition will proceed through part of their land to reach the upper region of Vilcabamba, which belongs to the unexplored Otishi National Park, though little is known about the herpetofauna of the Ashaninka territory either.
On the afternoon of Jan. 27, we got into a pick-up truck from CODEVRAEM with Ing. Barrientos, Ing. Joyer Bastidas, and Virgilio Pizarro—president of OARA, Organization Ashaninka of the Apurimac River— and drove up the hills of Vilcabamba to the Ashaninka town of Marontuari.
We left Pichari through a dirt road and an instant later we had left behind the noise of motorcars and the torrid heat of the tropical sun reflected on the whitish pavement of concrete. We were welcomed by the freshness of the exuberant tropical forest, the deep whistles of orioles, and the gentle screech of pairs of Amazon parrots. Small streams of clear waters crossed the road in search of the Pichari river, which rapids could be seen at the end of the slopes.
In about 30 minutes we arrived to Marontuari, a small Ashaninka village built on a cleared hill facing the imposing slopes of the headwaters of the Pichari River—our destination.
We were very well received by the leaders of the community, men in long striped cushma, a traditional article of clothing. In no time a meeting was organized under a wooden house that serves as public space for various activities. Woman, men, and kids were all welcomed, and their opinion heard and considered.
We were introduced by Ing. Barrientos and Virgilio, the Ashaninka leader, who explained the goals of our expedition and the relevance for Otishi National Park and Ashaninka Communal Reserve. (Both areas are under serious threats due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier and planned hydroelectric dams. Yet, the area is poorly known, and our expedition could reveal high diversity and unique species—the currencies for conservation.) Subsequently, and by turns, different members of the community spoke and exposed their opinion and concerns, either in Ashaninka or Spanish. We were asked to introduce ourselves and to answer their questions.
At the end, Marontuari welcomed the expedition and offered us their support. Masato —a turbid fermented beverage made of sweet potato and cassava—was served and shared in large calabash bowls. We drank and talked with people from the village; jokes in Ashaninka were exchanged—not everyday you meet a bunch of crazy scientists interested in your frogs, lizards and snakes. We said goodbye, got into our truck, and happily descended the bumpy road while looking at the amazing shades of green that jungles show before sunset.