Austin-Based Non-Profit Works To Save Rainforests
In a small warehouse that hugs Lady Bird Lake downtown, Niyanta Spelman clicks through short video clips of a small village in Peru.
“So this is just people’s houses. So you can get a sense for the cloud forest. Down there is where the eco-lodge will go,” Spelman explained. She points to a small rural village in the video that shows wooden houses surrounded by a sea of green rainforest and white loom of clouds and mountains above.
Niyanta Spelman is the executive director of Rainforest Partnership.
“The idea of Rainforest Partnership is that we work in local communities that live in and around rainforests in ways of making an income that basically allows them to keep the forest standing,” Spelman said.
One of the projects the Austin-based non-profit is working on is in the Pampa Hermosa district of Central Peru.
UT Public Affairs graduate student Patricio Prieto, a Rainforest Partnership volunteer, spent last summer in two villages in the region.
“There was like 200 species of butterflies and during orchid season there’s more than two hundred species of unique orchids to the area. It’s an amazing place,” Prieto said.
About 50 families live in the two villages just below the cloud forest, which is home to frogs, orchids, ferns and birds that live nowhere else in the world. The two villages sit on the west side of the Andes on the low slopes of the mountains between the cloud forest above and the rainforest below.
When Prieto was there, it was coffee growing season.
“Cut a whole bunch of trees. Burn what is left. And then use that land to plant whatever crop it is,” said Prieto.
When that happens, regrowing cloud forest habitat is extremely difficult.
The group’s goal is to break away from the slash and burn method of sustaining life in the villages and start an eco-tourism business.
“We leverage everything we can, we partner with everybody on the ground, the municipalities, the NGOs, the communities themselves,” said Spelman. “We can do a project from between $20,000 and $30,000 a year and decreasing amounts after that with real results.”
Rainforest Partnership is hosting a fundraising event Wednesday at the Barr Mansion to raise money for their projects in Ecuador and Peru.
Ken Young of UT-Austin’s Geography department said that would be helpful for maintaining the biodiversity of the cloud forest.
“So it’s actually one of those ‘win-wins,’ where if you can protect a cloud forest, it doesn’t really hurt local people who might have needs but it helps lots of plants and animals,” Young said.
Young said preventing deforestation in more densely populated area of the rainforests can be more beneficial, because of the function rainforests play in the world’s ecosystem.
“I put out carbon dioxide here. A plant is taking it up and putting it away in storage down in the Amazon,” said Young. “I’m actually getting a benefit, even though it’s indirect. It’s actually possible nowadays to start to measure that.”
Robert Dull studies Central and South American wildfires at UT-Austin. He said farmers like to burn their fields all at once to get rid of stubble, so they can plant in advance of the rains that come at the end of May. And that throws more than carbon monoxide into the air.
“But also soot and other aerosols that will migrate up the Gulf Coast and cause hazy poor air quality in Houston and places along the Gulf Coast of Texas,” said Dull.
The Rainforest Partnership organization in Austin hopes eco-tourism will be a better fit for the environment and the people living in those villages. They’re also working with some villages in nearby Ecuador, using rainforest plants and fibers to weave baskets, brooms and purses to sell in nearby cities.
When the idea was first presented the villages were skeptical. After a few meetings and pledges of support from the partnership, the village people slowly climbed on board.
UT’s Robert Dull said the biggest job is for people there is day to day survival.
“To put food on the table, to have shelter, and rainforest, alone or intact, rainforest don’t necessarily provide what these people want,” Dull said.
No one can accurately forecast how successful the eco-tourism business will be in the two Peruvian villages. It will be another three to five years before they become fully reliant on eco-tourism for income. Although the villages in the Pampa Hermosa district of Central Peru have already welcomed backpackers who visited the rainforest in their village.
Until full-fledged ecotourism can be launched, villagers will continue growing crops on cleared rainforest land.
The video below is courtesy of the Rainforest Partnership.