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A road will run through it

Staff Reports

One of my favorite parts about school is the opportunity the summer gives teachers and students to rest and reinvigorate their passions outside of the classroom. My passions have taken me outdoors and to Latin America. Through a generous grant from Vail Mountain School and The Klingenstein Fund, I had the chance to combine these interests on an adventure in Peru. Volunteering with Earthwatch Institute, I set off from our valley’s cool, dry June days to the hot, sticky rainforest. With a team of volunteers and scientists from Lima, we embarked on the ambitious project of providing a baseline study of fish diversity along a stretch of rainforest that will soon be paved with the highly debated trans-continental highway, a modern expressway that will cut through the high Andes over passes of nearly 16,000 feet and then shoot across the broad and flat Amazon basin.In the field we woke up with the crowing of roosters around 5:30 a.m. Shortly thereafter, the bread boy with his squeaking horn would pass by and we would begin to organize our gear for the day. Our base town of Mavila was small, rural, and located between Puerto Maldonado and Iapari along the proposed route of the trans-continental highway. Each day after having a breakfast of bread, butter, and tea we headed off to the river where our trusted guide navigated the Manuripe River for hours with his “pique-pique,” an onomatopoetic term meaning motor. Upon arriving at the swamp, river, or stream of choice, we would quickly begin our data collection.After collecting benthos, algae, and plankton samples and testing the pH, hardness, dissolved oxygen, and carbon dioxide content of the water, we began the real work, the netting of fish. At the first few sites, we entered the water to net under branches and in grasses, where the fish are wont to hang out. Some of these critters piranhas, leaches, electric eels, and even caimans were the very ones that I had feared from my childhood! I even learned of a new fish to fear the “candir.” This tiny fish swims up the urethra of cattle and humans that urinate in the water. It follows the warm water and then gets stuck in the urethra as its pectoral spines open. The only way to remove it is by surgery! As I tromped through cloudy black and red swamps filled with decomposing leaves and fallen logs, my mind raced, exploring all the possibilities of my demise in the Amazon. If these water creatures weren’t enough to make me paranoid, the thought of dengue, yellow fever, and malaria passed through my mind as I swatted at the mosquitoes, which thrived near these areas of standing water.However, after surviving the first few swamps, my willingness to enter the waist-deep mud and opaque water increased. Soon I was one of the first to jump into swamps three to four meters deep, covered in green algae, and home to caimans that we spotted. Usually the water was a welcome relief from the incessant heat of the mid-day sun in the rainforest, but sometimes on a cloudy day, it was difficult to volunteer to get cold and drenched, knowing that an uncomfortable canoe ride would follow. But we were motivated by the leadership of the head scientist, Max Hidalgo, who was possessed by the passion of a true taxonomist. With him I will always associate the words “una ms” (one more) as he pushed the group to net one more in hopes of finding a new Amazonian species. This process was repeated at station after station.For me, some of the most interesting work during the project was when I had a chance to interact with the local people and solicit their opinion on the trans-continental highway that would soon pass through their backyard. I learned that this highway will allow Peruvians to buy their own products as they will be able to be shipped more cheaply. Now they walk 10 minutes across the border to a significantly more modern supermarket with a larger variety of products at more affordable prices. In fact, I was shocked at the differences between the neighboring towns of Iapari and Assis on the borders of Peru and Brazil. Not only did the people retain their own languages, but also the physical features of the people differed greatly. Also, it was obvious that the wealth in Brazil had not infiltrated Peru at all. Another ramification of the highway will be the weakening of community ties as each settlement grows in size and new faces arrive. And drugs will undoubtedly follow the road as it is paved through these now remote communities. International goods, electronics, and television influence will permeate this region. Indeed, the benefits and risks of these new introductions are numerous.But one result of this new road is certain; the fish diversity in the area will decrease. We saw evidence of this trend when we took samples directly off the dirt road that will soon be the trans-continental highway and from deep in the forest in swamps off of the Manuripe River. Not surprisingly, in some remote areas we caught hundreds of diverse fish in one sweep of the net. After more than a dozen attempts in one of the swamps off of the dirt road, we could not catch one fish. These discrepancies will only increase when the paved road brings in more traffic and settlers to the rainforest. I am concerned that this heavily traveled road will not only alter the habitat for mega fauna and decrease water quality and fish diversity, but will also open an avenue for people to enter the rainforest and cut new roads for logging, mineral extraction, and farmland. In this way, even the remote swamps of the Manuripe River will experience the detrimental effects of the trans-continental highway. qElizabeth Lokey lives in Vail and teaches at the Vail Mountain School.


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