Artists for the Amazon

Donovan WebsterDonovan Webster

Donovan Webster is a journalist and correspondent who has reported for some of the most prominent news sources in the world including the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, Men’s Journal, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair among others. Donovan’s articles and books on have focused on subjects as diverse as the Abu-Ghraib prisoner scandal in Iraq, Dinosaur fossils in America’s national parks, Chernobyl, the Empty Quarter, and the Burma Road. In addition to corresponding, Donovan has been a contributing editor to BestLife and National Geographic Traveler, where he won the 2006 Lowell Thomas Award for the year’s best foreign travel story.

Donovan’s stories have been nominated for National Magazine and AAAS awards consistently; he is a current contributing editor to Men’s Health and has published several books. Recently, Donovan traveled with conservationist Enrique Ortiz and photojournalist Ron Haviv to southeastern Peru to film the Amazon Aid Foundation’s documentary “River of Gold” which examined tropical deforestation as a result of illegal gold mining. Donovan is currently working on a piece that documents and sheds light on the humanitarian and environmental issues associated with alluvial gold mining in the tropics.


When I think of the forests of the upper Amazon River Basin, what comes to mind are three separate things.

The first is the amazing, rich, and complex diversity of the place. Thanks to the location, there in the eastern foothills of the Andes, the place-and every living thing in it-wants to live and grow. The local climate and its generous characteristics encourage it. There is ample rain and sun; there are ample sources of food. There are enormous Brazil Nut and Ficus trees: giants that shade the leaf-covered earth. There are animals living and hiding everywhere. Beetles and lizards and snakes; birds and deer and rodents. Bees pollinate everything, and, consequently, everything flowers, hoping to attract the bees and continue to grow and spread. But, mostly, for me, there are these metallic-blue butterflies of the family morpho, that drift through it all, lovely and as unpredictable as kindergartners in a school play. They just do what they do, and when you’re there, in this enormous natural cathedral of a place, you’re lucky enough to get to watch. The place and its morphos: that’s the first thing.

The second is this: It’s getting destroyed. Yes, over the last 40 years, the phrase “Save the Rainforest” has now been uttered so many times it’s become background music. Which, for the record, doesn’t make it any less true.

Consider for a moment the landmass of the state of New York. It’s 47,214 square miles. And over every year in recent memory, in tropical rainforests around the world, our planet loses the equivalent of one New York of tropical ecosystem. And nowhere is this happening faster than in the Upper Amazon basin along the Peru/Brazil border. Recipient of one-fifth of the planet’s annual rainfall, the Amazon jungle recycles that liquid five full times before delivering it to the Atlantic at the giant river’s mouth.

With new hydroelectric dams going in, illegal gold-mining and timber extraction running rampant due to the rise of the values of gold and virgin wood, plus a new trans-South-American highway soon coursing through this formerly pristine jungle (which will also carry more people into the rainforest), this is an ecosystem whose extraction-industry value is spiking in direct relation to how quickly it’s being degraded.

But it isn’t only the Upper Amazon Basin that’s imperiled due to deforestation and increased human activity. Thanks to its predictable and regular rainfall cycles, the Amazon functions as a stabilizing zone inside the larger patter of global weather. Ripples of Atlantic air come ashore along the beaches of Brazil, then work inland to the west, picking up further humidity and heat from the rainforest. Eventually, still drifting west, these ripples become tall, columnar thunderstorms that drop the Amazon’s deluges of rain. Eventually, these storms work their way west out of Brazil to meet down-trending airflow off the Andes, pushing these systems southward before, in an almost circular pattern, returning to the Atlantic in far southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. This circularity of flow is said to provide a stepping-stone for predictable weather across the earth. This, it seems, might be worth protecting. So that’s the second thing.

The third one is this: there are people out there succeeding in protecting the Upper Amazon Basin. And that group of people is growing. One Saturday morning in 2010, a little southeast of the town of Puerto Maldonado, I was lucky enough to visit El Refugo K’erenda Hemet, where I was met by its proprietor, a tall, thin, 63-year-old man named Don Victor Zambarno. After growing up nearby, he left the region for 25 years as an officer in the Peruvian Navy. When he returned, owing to the rise of legal and illegal gold-mining and timber-extraction in the region, and given his history in the area, he was able to see the destruction, he was stunned..

To counter it he took a now-denuded chunk of former rainforest outside town, and he has revived it, planting more than 19,000 trees in the last two decades, refining the idea of “agro-forestry” by harvesting cultivated natural fruits and vegetables and nuts from the jungle while also re-integrating it into the larger environment. “We have to do more of this,” he says. “It’s a war on the rainforest and the mountains. It’s a war where the world starts out pure and ends up dead. That is the human intention. That is the war.”

Naturally, living by example and thanks to his articulate statements and precise thinking, he has become a respected local leader, building a congress of government, local peasant and indigenous groups, farming, and environmental groups. Consequently, thanks to this leadership, he is currently being pushed toward the idea of running for regional Governor.

“Look,” he says, He glances around the jungle he’s re-created. “This was a field years ago. It did not produce much, maybe a grazing animal. Now it is a productive farm and a rainforest that is growing back to join the larger ecosystem, a place my family and I can make a good living.”

It’s exactly this stripe of hopeful, even charismatic thinking has earned Don Victor friends and followers-as well as more than a few enemies. In recent years, as his visibility has grown, his life has been threatened many times.

When asked about these threats, he shrugs. Then he smiles: the creases on his long, weathered farmer’s cheeks growing deeper. “What am I to do except what I have been doing?” he says. “If there are those so threatened they would make statements against my life? Well, I think, maybe, I have made a strong point.”

The rainforest of the Upper Amazon Basin is worth preserving and supporting because it is rich, imperiled, and capable of not only being protected–but wisely used by people far into the future