Los Amigos: Volunteers Vacationing with Scientists
Long Horned Beetle Researcher at Los Amigos Research Station, Peru. Image via: Rob Holmes, Green Living Project.
This year, you've decided you want to do more on your vacation than lounge around like a beached whale, eh? Well why not volunteer, but not just volunteer anywhere, why not check out the Los Amigos Biological Research Station which allows guests to work alongside and with researchers in the Peruvian Amazon. Pretty cool, right? Last month I got to see the Los Amigos Biological Research Station first-hand when I traveled with Green Living Project as they documented this sustainability project. What makes the Los Amigos so special? Well, in terms of biodiversity, this is a hotspot, with over 4,000 species (including humans) identified on the 160,000 hectare preserve. The station itself borders a 360,000 acre Los Amigos Conservation Concession, meaning that an enormous area around the site is protected which is all the better for doing research on. Being so remote, it does take a little bit to get there - including a 4 hour boat ride from the nearest city, but this affords you the chance to stay at and see the most active research station in the Amazon basin, with on average 25 researchers at the station every day.
What Will Volunteers See and Work On?
Volunteers at the station agree to work a few hours each day, doing things like catching and counting beetles, trail maintenance, working in the kitchen and a variety of other scientific and general maintenance activities. In return, they get access to all facilities, three square meals a day (most of which are made from foods grown sustainably on the property), plenty of free time to explore over 60 miles of trails and use of canoes/kayaks to explore the Los Amigos River which borders the property.
Native, short-eared dog is one of the animals of study at Los Amigos. Image via: Rob Holmes, Green Living Project.
Adrian Tejedor, Director of Los Amigos, described another benefit of visiting this remote location - it's probably the only place in the world where you can stand at a very high point in the Amazon (200+ stair steps just to get up to the site) and look out across the country and see a glacier. Because the area is so remote, one guest mentioned that he enjoyed the fact that he could hike for 3 days and only see 2 other people. It meant that he had a greater chance of spotting birds and animals without them getting spooked, especially the elusive jaguar. Guests who stay at Los Amigos are allowed, and encouraged, to go along with researchers to conduct studies, monitor species and even collect bugs while out on walks. At any point there are on average 25 researchers at the site, so there is plenty of work for guests to get involved in and a variety of topics to learn about.
Thatched Roof Buildings at Los Amigos Research Station. Image via: Rob Holmes, Green Living Project.
The site itself was a fully functioning mining site up until just a few years ago when it was abandoned. It sat along for roughly 6 years when the researchers came through looking for property. They found buildings that were still intact but in need of a little work (no roofs and plants growing inside the building). A little elbow grease and they have a fully functioning research station complete with bunk houses, labs, classrooms, offices and even a cafeteria and common area. If Los Amigos had not come through and cared for this place, it is most likely that the land would have been chopped up and sold to foresters or used for agricultural purposes. What a shame that would have been, as today its home to many threatened species. For example, spider-monkeys and razor-billed curacao’s can both be found here, which are typically the first to disappear when development takes over. Their presence at this preserve indicates a pristine forest.
Mining, Hunting and Logging in the Area: Which is Worse?
While all are bad, according to Tejedor, logging is less problematic because it only opens up small areas of the forest as select trees are chosen and cut down. Mining, particularly gold mining, on the other hand opens up huge areas of the forest and also invites contamination from mercury – which is either dumped in the river or burned and then inhaled by the miners and their families. Hunters can be devastating to animals, for example, the tapir, which only lives in clay lakes. Hunters can just stay in this one, small area to do their job and end up wiping out an entire population.
Former Miner now participates in research at Los Amigos Research Station. Image via: Rob Holmes, Green Living Project.
Several of the workers/researchers we met at the site were actually former loggers, hunters or miners. In talking with one guide, he said that in his former job as a miner, he just couldn't understand why all of the animals were killed indiscriminately, without any sort of sustainable management plan. He just decided one day that he couldn't be part of something like that any more, that he just didn't feel right with himself so he started looking for other work and found a position guiding scientists through the jungle. He eventually was asked to help with research and now he runs a few of his own projects.
At many of the places we visited, we were reminded that conservation does not happen without solid science to back up the need for protection. Staying at Los Amigos gives you that chance to be on the front lines of conservation. The Los Amigos Biological Research Station is part of the Amazon Conservation Association and you can find more about them and make plans for a visit online at Amazon Conservation.
This spring Green Living Project took their crew down to South America to capture sustainability in action, learn from the stories of the people on the front lines of conservation and prove that something can be done to improve the planet. Brazil, Peru and Ecuador were the target countries for this trip, and I was asked to tag along. Over the next few weeks I will be reporting from the front lines.
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