The Bird Man of the Amazon | Sojourners

The Bird Man of the Amazon

He Weaves Parables of Interdependency Amid an Economy of Extraction

From a palm-thatched gazebo in El Chino — a village of 300 inhabitants, three hours by boat and 90 miles as the kingfisher flies from the remote city of Iquitos — Juan Walter Lomas Pacaya looks across the flooded soccer pitch at the row of stilt houses that huddle together on the boundary between the rainy season and the dry months ahead. He sees nobody outside and gets sentimental.

He recalls the Aprils of his childhood as a time of exploration, the submerged canopy just giving way to Terra Firma and unveiling the mysteries of evolution and adaption unique to the Peruvian Amazon. He laments the technology — local families pay eight soles a month for solar power — that along with the rain has seeped into the village. Now he wonders if the digital pings of progress aren’t urging the region too far away from the past.

While the rubber boom may seem like ancient history to the teenagers of El Chino, it’s been scarcely more than a century since the global thirst for rubber exploded Iquitos — Peru’s ninth largest city, which is still only accessible by boat or plane. As the city’s population increased from 200 in 1851 to 20,000 in 1900, isolate tribes throughout the Tahuayo River basin were enslaved to exploit their own territory while magnates like Carlos Fitzcarrald bedazzled the city with grandiose Victorian facades.

While the rubber industry has moved on, the global marketplace remains, and conservation efforts often get lost in the rubble of a hefty paycheck. In 2012, the World Bank estimated that 80 percent of Peru’s timber exports were logged illegally. Coupled with illicit mining, deforestation has erased centuries of symbiotic habitat, and indigenous groups have been forced into the frames of our digital cameras. With their homes destroyed — in 2017 and 2018, more than 184 square kilometers (70 square miles) of forest was destroyed in southern Peru — these tribes have had to assimilate to a new life outside of the fauna. While activist groups are working to oust this new breed of near-sighted entrepreneur, Juan takes a different approach: He paddles down the Tahuayo River and listens to the birds.

And handed-down folk songs. And the Bible. A member of the Cocama tribe, Juan grew up in the town of Nauta, a sizable village of 20,000 two hours south of Iquitos. It was there where he first learned to mimic the call of the yellow-bellied cossack, first glimpsed the elusive great pootoo, and first began to parse the grand epic of the Peruvian Amazon. On the surface, he seems a contradiction — a believer in folk legends and a man of science who reads the Bible before perusing tomes of scientific reports. However, the jungle has taught him about harmony and balance. These metaphysical gifts dwarf any contradiction between Genesis and Eras like the Jurassic, which illuminate the great and distant past. A logistical hiccough is a technicality here, for the Amazon speaks only to the heart and the soul. And while soulless entrepreneurs pursue an economy of extraction, the other animals of the Amazon practice the inherited art of symbiosis.

Canoe under the canopy with Juan and see what I mean. Scan the palm trees for capuchin and squirrel monkeys trafficking in tandem through a spiral of vines. Be careful what you touch — fire ants parade up walking palms, and tarantulas patrol the downed trunks of rubber trees. Emerge from the light-scarce tunnels and lean into the murky drawl of the Tahuayo. Keep pace with the Kingfisher as it scans the brown water for sardines and barrels above the surface just inches from your vessel. Feel the singe of the high Amazonian sun as it disrobes your innocent skin, but don’t worry if you can’t parse anything but shadows nor cull semantics from the cacophony; when the time is right, Juan will speak.

Self-anointed as a beginner in the world of birds, Juan can identify 300 species of local birds by sight, and about 90 by sound. He’ll even mimic the harsh shrill of the harp eagle just to witness the slow-motion spectacle of the panicked sloth. Still, identification and simple observation are only the first steps to an apprenticeship in the Amazon. Juan, like any good teacher, will direct you toward the parables.

The Potter Wasp and the Yellow-Rumped Cacique

Nestled in spindly branches on the Tahuayo, the potter wasps and yellow-rumped caciques nurture vibrant and productive communities. The birds forage for food while the wasps keep vigil over the caciques’ chicks and unborn eggs. When capuchin monkeys approach to feast on the seemingly abandoned nests, the potter wasps swarm the invaders and drive them away. In turn, when the fledgling caciques hatch — wet and awash in nutrients — the parents step away and allow the wasps to feed on the bodies of the newborns.

The Greater Ani and The Squirrel Monkey

Squirrel monkeys travel in packs, often 50 to 100 strong, and given their numbers and diminutive nature, they require some extra help to wrangle the clan in the event of an emergency. The greater ani, primarily an insectivore, sounds the alarm as large birds like the raptor approach. While the monkeys flee to safety, insects fly off their backs and into the mouths of these deserving and vigilant birds.

The Sloth and The Moth

Unsurprisingly, the two-toed sloth can only be bothered to shimmy down to the forest floor every seven days or so. During this weekly escapade, the sloth defecates in the same place — the base of its tree trunk. The moths that live in the sloth’s fur lay their eggs in the feces, making it very simple for the young moths to take up residence on the sloth. More moths mean more nitrogen, which helps to produce more nutrient-laden algae — a substance rich in fats that the sloths need to complement their usual diet of insects and leaves. This relationship also protects the sloths, for when an eagle, or some other predator is foraging for a meal, the sloth curls up and the moths cover its body, so it resembles a large termite’s nest.

The Owl and the Village

The coffin-maker and the midwife. These two owls, technically known as the spectacled and the Peruvian pygmy, still prey on the minds of villagers. While the global forum and imported religion have saturated remote settlements with churches and Wikipedia, these birds are still considered omens. The eerie hammer of the spectacled owl, like a nail into coffin, foretells an imminent death; once the call is heard, locals tiptoe under the canopy and give their hammocks an extra shake. The pygmy, however, signifies new life. If the midwife appears in a family’s backyard, it means someone is pregnant. In turn, mothers and fathers scramble to interrogate their daughters and eventually to celebrate the new mother and another grandchild.

While the birds remind Juan of collaboration and legends help him preserve the past, his ultimate lesson goes unspoken; a savvy tourist will feel his absolute determination to observe rather than disturb, his unfaltering allegiance to a hostile environment, his desire to know and share the riches of his one and only home. But don’t mistake Juan’s stoicism for apathy; he’s a strong advocate for more conservation areas throughout Peru, and he calls the deforestation and mining a “shame for me”— not for the world or in general, but as a personal affront to a man who only seeks to play a minor note in the larger symphony of the Tahuayo River basin. For it is there, 100 miles south of Iquitos, where one can understand the nature of risk and compromise, the dichotomy between need and want; it is there one might finally remember that animals — despite the carnage inherent in any ecosystem — aren’t subject to the perils of original sin.

Though proud of his animal nature, Juan is a devout Christian. He reads the Bible every night and sees little difference between local folk legends and the lessons of the New Testament. The birds have brought him insight and balance, a Field Guide to intra-species survival and adaptation. The Bible helps him with human nature. How can we work together and thrive like the sloth and the moth? He sees Christ as a personal tour guide who compels him to be a better representative of his native habitat. His ancient parables remind Juan that we too are one species, that we could co-exist and thrive if we adopted the unequivocal law of the jungle.

Just the same, the jungle is not immediately forgiving. People are unlucky. As a teenager, Juan himself spent 15 days in the hospital after an encounter with the venomous fer-de-lance. He’s been bit three times by bullet ants, widely considered the second most painful bite of any creature on Earth, and the week before we met, he’d been swarmed by a gang of mud wasps.

And his children are also subject to the everyday threats of the Amazon. In March, while Juan was working at a remote lodge, his wife watched helplessly as a tarantula crawled across their baby’s face. Asked if he was concerned, he smiled and said, “This is the life here in the Amazon.”

For the traveler — as the guide books and Trip Advisor reviews report — the Peruvian jungle is an experience. Untethered from hyperbole and superlatives, experience is what Juan seeks to pass on — not simply an encyclopedic knowledge of Latin labels nor the Book of Psalms, but immersion. One who properly experiences the Amazon and its give-and-take of inter-species compromise, feels a fundamental shift in the world thereafter — the same world that has forced 51 Peruvian species onto the critically endangered list. A student under Juan’s guidance will have found a tangible foundation for social change, a perspective buoyed not by statistics and inherited hubris but by the universal principles of faith and collaboration. All we have to do is listen to the birds.

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