Dr. Devon Graham – Interview with an Amazon biologist, community supporter and ecotour operator

Interview by Campbell Plowden

Devon Graham with children patients on the Nenita. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Devon Graham with children patients on the Nenita. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Devon Graham began his career as a broad-based naturalist with a B.S. in zoology at Andrews University in Michigan, spent two years working on agricultural projects with the Peace Corps in Niger, Africa, obtained a masters in biology at Walla Walla College and a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Miami. He is President of both Project Amazonas, an NGO which conducts ecological research at four field stations and provides humanitarian assistance to native and campesino communities in the region and its partner company Margarita Tours which offers special ecotours in the northern Peruvian Amazon. Dr. Graham also teaches field courses about the Amazon and the Everglades in the Honors College at Florida International University and has done extensive consulting and teaching with other educational institutions, zoos, aquariums, and environmental firms.

CACE Executive Director Campbell Plowden often meets up with Devon at their favorite hangouts in Iquitos during their visits to Peru. He and other Project Amazonas associates have been very supportive of CACE’s efforts to develop and market handicrafts made by native communities in the region. Plowden asked Dr. Graham about his work in November, 2012.

CP: What got you first interested about working in the Amazon?

Project Amazonas field station in the Santa Cruz Forest Reserve. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Project Amazonas field station in the Santa Cruz Forest Reserve. © Photo by Project Amazonas

DG: From the time I was a kid I was fascinated by Amazon stories, but never dreamed that I would ever have a chance to go there – it seemed so remote! Then in graduate school, a mutual friend put me in contact with the founder of Project Amazonas, who invited me to come down and do an assessment of the biological field station that the organization was setting up – so in September, 1994, I flew from Miami to Iquitos – a 3 1/2 hour flight (not so remote!), and just kept going back again and again afterward.

CP: What experiences led you to join Margarita Tours and Project Amazonas?

Margarita Tours Amazon birding expedtion. © Photo by Margarita Tours

Margarita Tours Amazon birding expedtion. © Photo by Margarita Tours

DG: Project Amazonas was founded by the original owners of Margarita Tours and former clients of theirs. They wanted to give something back to the Amazon, and this was their way of doing it. I worked for Margarita Tours for a number of years, learning all the ropes, before assuming ownership in 2004. At the same time I was dovetailing-in work for Project Amazonas, and was voted president of the organization in 2000. In reality, the proceeds from ecotour trips by Margarita Tours is a large part of what allowed the expansion of Project Amazonas in its early years, and it still funds my travel back and forth to the Amazon.

CP: How do you view the opportunities and risks of ecotourism for Amazon conservation and communities?

Project Amazonas students learnng to thatch palm leaves. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Project Amazonas students learnng to thatch palm leaves. © Photo by Project Amazonas

DG: Ecotourism can be a very positive thing for the Amazon and its natural environment and communities if handled right. From the start, we have made a concerted effort to involve the local people and communities at every level – all of our employees are Peruvian, for starters, and virtually all of our proceeds also stay in Peru, and are re-invested into conservation, medical and educational work there. It also helps to be selective in the types of ecotours that are offered. We only host relatively small groups of ecotourists, as well as several school groups annually, so our footprint is small. Likewise, our clients are people who are truly interested in the Amazon and who expect to have interaction with the local people, and also expect to get muddy and sweaty in their explorations of the Amazon. No armchair tourists collecting another destination to brag about back home. Our clients like the synergism between Margarita Tours and Project Amazonas, and many of them become contributors to Project Amazonas. We also have a lot of repeat clients – the record to date is 10 trips by one of them!

CP: What have been a few of the best achievements and biggest challenges for Project Amazonas to connect its NGO work to the Peruvian Ministry of Health?

Project Amazonas providing medicines. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Project Amazonas providing medicines. © Photo by Project Amazonas

DG: We conducted our first medical service trip in 1998, and have offered them annually since then. In the early years, funding was the big block to conducting more trips. In the last couple of years in particular, however, interest in participation on trips has skyrocketed, and we have 8 two-week trips scheduled for 2013. A couple of them are already at or near capacity. The Peruvian Ministry of Health has been very supportive of the trips. Peruvian medical personnel are very well trained by any standard, but the Ministry of Health simply doesn’t have the budget to be able to regularly reach the thousands of small communities scattered along tens of thousands of miles of riverbank in the region.

Project Amazonas dentist in community. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Project Amazonas dentist in community. © Photo by Project Amazonas

With our boats, we bring some of that logistical capacity to play, and we also provide much of the medications that local people might not otherwise be able to afford. Generally one or more medical staff from the largest health center in the area to which we are travelling accompanies the boat, as does a doctor and dentist from Iquitos (and additional medical volunteers, of course). The local medical personnel know the communities and use the boat as a base for vaccination, malaria prevention, and education campaigns, while the other medical personnel take care of the immediate needs of the residents.

CP: What do you consider the most interesting research project that has been or is being conducted at any of your field stations?

Project Amazonas research on bromeliad. © Photo by Project Amazonas

Project Amazonas research on bromeliad. © Photo by Project Amazonas

DG: There are so many interesting puzzles to work out in the Amazon that it is hard to say! Two of my favorites (I can’t just pick one!) are “Devil’s Gardens” and a complex story involving cucumbers, flies and wasps. Dr. Megan Frederickson (who is now an Ecology professor at the University of Toronto) was a graduate student at Stanford when she studied stands of an understory tree – Duroia hirsuta – which forms an association with ants that live in swellings in the twigs. The ants kill off competing vegetation, leading to the “devil’s gardens” where virtually nothing, other than the Duroia trees, grow. By looking at growth rates and sizes of hundreds of trees in many different gardens, she was able to determine that some of these gardens may be very old – one large one at the Madre Selva field station was estimated to be about 800 years old. Just this year, Dr. Marty Condon (Cornell College, Iowa) and colleagues studied wild cucumber species that have separate male and female flowers, which are parasitized by different species of fruit flies, which in turn are parasitized by various species of tiny wasps. Both systems are fascinatingly complex, and since I like puzzles, they grab my attention!

CP: What do you think is the value of the work that the Center for Amazon Community Ecology is doing in Peru?

CACE project manager reviewing guitar straps with Bora artisan. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

CACE project manager reviewing guitar straps with Bora artisan. © Photo by Campbell Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

DG: Empowering local people in the Amazon to sustainably maintain their environment while providing them with the opportunity to make a decent living and better their futures is essential if we hope to have a functioning Amazon in the future. What CACE is doing needs to be replicated a 100 times! There are a lot of valuable skills that the CACE projects are encouraging – resource management, quality control, marketing, social and political organization skills – all of these are really going to be critical for local people as they take more direct control of their lives and futures.

CP: How do you find balance in your life being a teacher, running a business and directing an NGO?

DG: Balance? Since no sleep or extending the numbers of hours in a day aren’t options, I guess the balance comes from realizing that I can’t do everything, and learning to be OK with that. I’ve started to try to delegate more as well, though that is hard to do! Balance is something that I’m still working on! If someone out there has the solution, let me know!

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