Elizabeth is a biologist who loves studying ecology, food systems, and traditional knowledge. She has been working in the Peruvian Amazon since 2018 when she joined OnePlanet and has since concentrated on research and development of community-based stingless beekeeping, ecotourism, and mammal conservation projects with indigenous Maijuna partners. She is passionate about understanding and sharing the ecological wonder of Amazonian stingless bees through research and education. Elizabeth grew up exploring the Indiana Dunes and majored in ecology and evolution at Harvard University, where she studied pitcher plant microcosms and coral reef ecology.
Learn more about Elizabeth Benson
August 26, 2021
Images from an ancestral forest
The morning light is dimmed by the rainforest canopy as I scramble up the bank of the Sucusari River from our wooden boat. The rustling of my steps startles a collared peccary and her young – they bolt through the understory. Victorino, a Maijuna guide, deftly scales the bank and expertly tracks their flight below rustling palm leaves. Today, though, we aren’t hunting for dinner; we continue watching the peccaries until they disappear behind a ridge. We then set off into the forest to complete the task at hand: to plant camera traps.
Our team is collecting data to assess mammal activity over time and space throughout the river basin. Starting 15 hours upriver from the nearest community, Jairo and Victorino, local/Indigenous research assistants, Diana, a Peruvian biologist, and I hike miles into Maijuna ancestral lands. As we walk single file through the forest, Victorino gestures toward landmarks known only by the Maijuna: the direction of a hunting cabin from his childhood, storied mineral licks, varying forest types, and vast palm swamps. He sees signs of the forest and Maijuna people’s history, evident in marks on the land that I haven’t yet learned to read. A gouge containing an odd scarcity of vegetation endures where loggers felled and hauled away an enormous tree. Its absence remains conspicuous as Victorino recalls the species. We pause again along our route to watch a saki monkey leap heavily between branches high above. With eyes fixed on the animal, Victorino and Jairo murmur to one another, recalling the somber, hungry years that had passed without seeing such wildlife.
When timber camps sprouted along the river 20 years ago, loggers hunted the primates, ungulates, rodents, jaguars, birds, and reptiles as sources of both food and revenue. That intensive hunting and logging left the Maijuna people starving on their own lands for over a decade until they successfully organized and expelled the exploiters. Five years on, the Maijuna then secured the legal protection of a regional conservation area which recognizes their use and control of nearly one million acres of their ancestral rainforest. Fortunately, the Maijuna had intervened early enough to protect some of the most difficult-to-reach forest, which now acts as a wildlife refuge and source for animals to repopulate the river basins.
Arriving at the first waypoint, Diana shows me how to position, set, and test the camera traps that will spend months photographing passing mammals, documenting their occupancy in the river basin. With long-term monitoring through camera traps, researchers and the Maijuna are exploring important questions about mammal populations: How do they recover after over-exploitation? How do Maijuna hunting practices influence distribution of game mammals and endangered keystone species like the tapir?
After walking miles into the forest to set the most remote cameras, we retrace our path. Victorino continues casually teaching, indicating a whiff of the distinct musk of a nearby porcupine, the tracks of red brocket deer, and palm fruits gnawed by agouti. The team stops to admire the prints left by a jaguar that had crossed the path shortly before.
We set up camp in a shelter near the edge of the river. As we hungrily watch the cooking pot and poke around for dry wood to feed the fire, Jairo and Victorino remember what the Maijuna would eat when the fish and game were gone because of the loggers. In the absence of animals that nourished Maijuna communities for innumerable generations, they were left to feed their families with what they considered starvations foods: frogs, electric eels, and small birds.
Despite the devastating hunger and abuse suffered through the actions of the loggers, the Maijuna continued to fight to secure the future of their lands and people. Today we see some of the fruits of their efforts, from the peccaries and primates to signs that other large animals are gradually reclaiming the forest. Victorino and Jairo’s pride and excitement at seeing wildlife and tracks is palpable. Grim memories of hunger are followed by levity in tales of close encounters and humorous blunders from their lives spent with the river and trees. The forest, once teeming with abundanc – then stripped of much of its life – is on its path to recovery.
I try to take in all that Jairo and Victorino shared and the history their commentary revealed. Simultaneously I recalled theories of tropical diversity, ecological source-sink dynamics, biogeography, occupancy models that filled my academic studies. It all depends on the Maijuna’s connection to the land and their subsequent efforts to protect it. The Maijuna are the reason the forest here remains to this day.
There is once again meat for dinner (and enough to share with neighbors). There are trees big enough to provide habitats for stingless bees, whose honey-laden nests allow the potential for a forest product that the Maijuna can fold into their livelihoods. The Maijuna forest spirits are alive and well; their medicinal plants, natural fibers, dyes, and memories, too. During a day’s walk through the forest, the Maijuna’s past and future both come into focus.