Iquitos, June 23, 2012
Every year or so I want to bring samples of the insects we’ve been collecting in our research in Peru back to the United States. While the Amazon has the greatest diversity of many species of many kinds of critters on the planet, there are very few people in the region who have the experience and resources to identify specimens of many groups to the species level. In spite of this reality, the governments of Amazon countries have created increasingly layers of requirements to legally export plants and animals even for purely scientific purposes.
My quest for an export permit began last summer with an application for a basic collection permit to the Ministry of Agriculture. We had fully explained what, where, and why we wanted to continue our study and included letters from our native community partners giving us permission to work in their areas. Even though our forms mentioned nothing about doing genetic studies on the insects to be collected, the agency delayed its approval for nine months while we tried to figure out how to its respond to its questions about our potential access to “genetic resources.” With those issues resolved and the authorization granted, I needed to go to the Ministry office in Lima in person to pick up and sign for our collection permit. While this trip required extra time and expense, I was happy to have a chance to visit an old colleague working there.When I made my first observations of copal resin at a forest near Iquitos almost ten years ago, my field helper was a young biologist Victor Raygada who was a volunteer with a local NGO called Friends of the Alpahuayo-Mishana reserve. Victor designed and monitored the first trap to try and catch an adult weevil emerging from a resin lump on a copal tree. When he moved on to more regular work, he introduced me to Angel Raygada (a somewhat distant cousin) who continues with us today. Victor steadily gained experience working with communities and conservation and now works with the ministry department that reviews applications for the limited harvest and export of mahogany and other high-value timber species.
Iquitos has a wide variety of hardware stores, but I hadn’t found a couple of things in previous visits I thought would be useful in the field. Yully now really appreciates using a solar powered LED flood light I picked up at the Lowe’s to work and read at night in the field. We had bought some basic pole saws at a few of Lima’s equivalent home improvement stores some artisans were now using to carefully harvest chambira palm leaf spears. This time I hoped to find a light socket adapter with pull chain. Many times one finds light sockets fixed on boats or hanging from wires in houses in little Amazon villages with no other plug in sight. I thought this little fixture would give me some extra chances to use my laptop or charge a camera battery. I couldn’t bring this item from home since it wouldn’t handle Peru’s higher (220 volts) current. I walked about ten blocks from the Ministry building to the nearest Sodimac and was very happy to find this adapter the sales fellow simply called a “sockit.”
Since I had some time before my flight and cabs from downtown Lima to the airport now cost $13 to $19 (for “official” airport cabs), I made my way in stages to the middle of a block crammed with people waiting for northbound buses. The sundry buses carom by the curb at reduced speed for a few seconds while a man leans out of the mid-point entrance calling out the buses main destinations. Having faith in the advice of someone waiting, I hopped onto one bus with faith it was heading for the airport. The traffic was classic Lima – almost permanent rush hour outside of the darkest hours of the night and early morning. Almost an hour later, though, I squeezed through the pack of fellow passengers and emerged a block from the airport entrance for the bargain price of $0.70.
I had hoped to spend a few days in Iquitos before heading out to the field, but it took a full week to go through the next stages of preparing the application to bring some of our insect and resin samples home. The first big part of this was getting the insects ready. A critical part of the process requires leaving at least half of the specimens of any taxa (related species) with a registered Peruvian research institution. The last time we did this was with the Institute for Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) – our partner with whom we had finally managed to renew a three year cooperative agreement. Cooperation with its entomologist, however, was rather lacking so we turned to the zoology museum of the National University of the Peruvian Amazon (UNAP) as the only alternative in Iquitos.
The director was very pleasant to work with, but when we first showed her our bees in little vials of alcohol, she sent us home to try again. Angel spent the better part of the next 24 hours scraping off tape that protected the codes written in permanent marker on the side, cleaning what remained with alcohol, rewriting the information in pencil on tiny pieces of paper, and putting these in the vial and resealing it. We missed our noon deadline to get back to the museum and then spent another 12 hours without leaving the table in Angel’s front room (thanks to Angel’s mom for bringing us some chicken soup in the evening) entering the data on a spreadsheet and making sure that we had the 237 samples properly divided between those that would be deposited at UNAP and those that I would bring with me.
I had some guesses how to classify some of the bees, but without access to the internet I created what I hoped would be a plausible name for the genus of our lone scorpion. The next day we delivered our samples and six bottles of alcohol and were rewarded with the essential form (“constancia”) affirming that our insects had been duly deposited with the UNAP collection. The equivalent process of depositing our resin samples with the university herbarium went very smoothly. While well-trained botanists can identify plant species by looking at flowers, fruits and sometimes leaves, only chemical analysis will reveal how much the composition of resin samples differs from one species of copal to another.
Beyond filling out the forms to export plant and animal specimens from the country, one also needs to get separate transit permits called “guia de transporte” (with accompanying fees) to take the samples from their point of origin in Peru to Lima. In our case, we needed to take our insects to a contract biologist to verify that the samples we wanted to export matched the ones listed on our documents. Yully and I greatly appreciated that he received us in his home on short notice. Looking over our paperwork, he kindly said we could simply write “undetermined” in place of the “new” genera I had created for our scorpion and a few wasps. He confirmed that a few of the bees were indeed bees, signed our form, and thanked us for his payment.
Lest this process not be thorough enough, when Yully handed in the full applications to the agency office in Iquitos, we learned there was yet one more step to get the “guia de transporte.” An official had to accompany her to physically see the specimens again. Assuming all goes well, I will get the fully signed forms that will allow me to legally bring our prizes to Lima. In the meantime, the Ministry office there is now reviewing our export permit application.
This convoluted process makes a certain amount of sense when the government wishes to cut back on the uncontrolled harvest and sale of logs from overexploited trees or protected species of wildlife and to some extent protect its genetic heritage. What makes the process so frustrating, though, is that it has a stifling impact on research intended to help Peru (and other countries) better document, preserve, and to some extent use its vast biodiversity for the benefit of forest peoples and the nation. The rules keep changing, officials often don’t have the most up to date forms, don’t know how to answer questions about them, and clever people with well-placed friends still find easy ways to circumvent requirements they find onerous. In short, the system just seems more arbitrary and onerous with little actual gain in accountability or benefit to conservation.My first stint in the city wasn’t entirely devoted to bureaucratic gymnastics. I got caught up on our inventory of crafts, write two grant proposals, had two pisco sours during happy hour (and one long chess game with Stacey) at the Karma Café. I dined with CACE and Rainforest Conservation Fund board member Michael Gilmore and his Maijuna friend Sebastian and got the latest on their project’s success getting a regional conservation area declared for the Maijuna homeland and challenge with their new bee hives not making honey. Devon Graham from Margarita Tours and Proyecto Amazonas told me about the growing number of medical missions his groups are holding in native communities from their boat. One evening I went out with grad student Tracy Misiewicz, and Italo Messones who work with Paul Fine at U.C. Berkeley to an authentic Peruvian cumbia music show. For 10 soles (about $4), we stood about 10 feet from giant speakers where we watched and danced to a band with more than a dozen musicians, singers and scantily clad women that left my ears ringing for most of the next day. By the end of the week in Iquitos, I was more than ready to head into the field.