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The Light at the end of the Tunnel (2 July 2021)

As we move towards 18 months of enduring the Covid-19 pandemic, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. A new report from Project Amazonas and the Peruvian Amazon is long overdue, so here it is! I was able to travel to Peru again in May 2021 to advance with various projects and activities that had been postponed or prevented due to the pandemic, and I'm very happy to report that overall, the situation in Peru is looking much better than it has since the pandemic started. I've broken this report into several segments, so if you want to jump immediately to a particular topic, just click on the appropriate link. Without further ado….

Covid-19 in Peru at the Current Time

In early June 2021, Peruvian medical authorities reinterpreted the Covid-19 data that they had in hand, and accordingly revised the number of cases and deaths attributed to coronavirus. This resulted in a 2.4 X increase in deaths attributed to covid, with the new total death count topping 180,000 persons (in a country with a population of 33.4 million persons). That officially transforms Peru into the hardest hit country in terms of deaths per capita. Mind you, there are many other countries that also need to study their medical data, and an honest and non-politicized assessment could result in various other countries knocking Peru out of its unwanted front-runner status (Brazil would be one of the candidate countries – having just passed the ½ million death mark, but with the severity of the pandemic having been grossly downplayed by its president from the very start).

That said, things in the Peruvian Amazon are looking much better now. The first wave of Covid-19 in April and May 2020 was the most devastating. Deaths in Iquitos, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon were topping 70 to 80 daily. A second wave, powered by a new variant that originated in Brazil occurred in February and March 2021, but deaths then topped out at (only) 20-25 daily. New infections are now very low, and deaths are down to 1-2 per week. Hospital ICU’s are largely empty of covid patients, and most people are going about their new-normal lives (i.e, masks on, double masks required for banks, government offices and some stores, sanitation stations, occupancy limits, and the illusion of social distancing).

Social distancing measures are still strictly enforced at the Lima airport, and masks and face shields required on flights. Dorks rule!

If you read my previous blogs, you might recall that many months ago I predicted that the official data were a serious underestimate of the actual number of cases and deaths, and I pointed out a number of reasons why. I also talked about the factors that allowed the virus to spread so fast in Iquitos (and elsewhere in Peru). A few days ago, an Iquitos contact told me that “the virus has disappeared from Iquitos”. While that is not quite the case, I do believe that the “disappearance” is because a very high percentage of the population has already been exposed to the virus and has either recovered or died. Basically Iquitos has reached herd immunity (at least to the currently circulating variants), and serological studies, although limited in scope, support that assertion with one study reporting 70% seropositivity for antibodies in mid-January 2021. This is good news and the percentage of seropositivity is certainly even higher now, but it came at a heavy and heartbreaking cost.

In the more cheery “good news” category, Peru has contracted for 70 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and is currently vaccinating older and at-risk persons. Most recently, two million doses of the Pfizer vaccine were sent to Peru from the US on 28 June, and people aged 40 and above are currently eligible for vaccination. Despite the many challenges of geography and physically getting vaccines where they need to be, the initial roll-out has been smooth, with people being directly contacted and given appointment times for their vaccine. Currently 9+% of the population is fully vaccinated and 13+% partially vaccinated.

Two of the vaccination challenges in Peru. In the vast Amazon region, most communities are accessible only by boat, whereas in the Andes Mountains, the rugged topography and frequent landslides make access to mountain communities very difficult. Note the switch-backs in the photo at right. You have to travel a long way to go a short distance!

The Ministry of Health’s goal is to have all Peruvians vaccinated by the end of 2021. Even though a new government will be inaugurated on 28 July 2021, who-ever is in charge during the rest of the year will be under incredible pressure to make the vaccination campaign a success. I predict that by 31 December 2021, a higher percentage of Peruvians will be vaccinated than the percentage of residents in the USA. Everyone in Peru knows someone (or multiple “someones”) who died of covid, so vaccine hesitancy isn’t going to be an issue. People also remember when children died of easily preventable diseases, and within their lifetimes they have seen how vaccination campaigns have dramatically reduced childhood deaths.

With new cases and deaths tapering off rapidly and a vaccination campaign underway, Peru has re-opened officially to international tourism. A negative PCR covid test is required for entry, along with a digital health form, but there are no quarantine requirements. You do still have to wear a mask and face shield on flights though! Travel was also boosted when the CDC moved Peru from a Category 4 (very high risk) country to a Category 3 (high risk) country in terms of exposure to Covid-19. A step in the right direction, to say the least.

A Successful GlobalGiving Fund-Raising Campaign

A huge “Thank You” to everyone who made our April GlobalGiving Campaign a great success. We set out to raise $15,000 for Covid-19 relief in the Peruvian Amazon, and we met and surpassed that goal. To date (as of 28 June 2021), $15,960 has been raised (not everyone donated through the GlobalGiving platform, so the true total isn’t shown on that platform). Our stated objective was to split the funds raised three ways. One-third to support the Orosa Clinic, and one-third in direct medical relief to rural communities. Lastly in honor of our colleague and friend Guillermo Guerra who passed away from Covid on 3 March 2021, one-third was designated to support Kanatari, the Catholic Diocese medical facility where he was cared for. Kanatari provides critical care to many of the most underserved and disadvantaged persons in Iquitos, and the diocese is one of the few truly trusted institutions in Iquitos.

I was privileged to meet with Father Miguel Fuertes at the Diocese offices next to the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos, and we completed a $5K donation by wire transfer to Kanatari a few days after my return from an administrative trip at the end of May.

Myself and Father Miguel Fuertes in Iquitos (left). At center, community health workers inaugurate a first meal in the new dining hall at Madre Selva Biological Station, and at right, participate in a refresher training session.

During my May trip, we were also able to purchase a substantial quantity of medications to restock our Orosa River clinic. Additional medications were sent to communities represented by Community Health Workers participating in a refresher workshop at the Madre Selva Biological Station. Additional packets of essential medications will be distributed during a return visit to the Amazon in July 2021.

With the GlobalGiving campaign being a success, Project Amazonas is now a permanent member of the GlobalGiving community (we needed to show that we could raise at least $5000 from 40 or more unique donors during the duration of the official three-week campaign). We can now post unlimited additional campaigns for general or specific purposes on the GlobalGiving platform. As a bonus, donors in the UK can now receive an official receipt for tax purposes, something that we were unable to do previously (US donors have always had that benefit).

And a special thank you to everyone who elected to donate on a monthly basis. Even if it is a modest amount, those modest amounts add up and really help us to plan our budgeting more effectively. Thanks!

Community Health Worker Refresher Session

Last September/October, and in conjunction with Wired International, we conducted a community health worker (CHW) training session at Madre Selva (you can read the full report here). During my May trip, we took the opportunity to have a short refresher session for the CHWs in the local area. We spent three intensive days reviewing many of the learning modules that the CHWs had previously studied, and on the fourth day repeated the final exam. Happily, all the participants improved on their previous scores, in some cases dramatically. Many thanks to volunteer Theo Borrmann for assisting with the training session!

The mini workshop was also an opportunity to finally inaugurate the use of the new kitchen and dining hall that had remained un-used due to the ongoing pandemic. While at Madre Selva, I also had opportunity to assess additional infrastructure needs and repairs, and we will move ahead with those infrastructure improvements in July 2021.

Top: A front view of the new dining hall and kitchen at Madre Selva. The second floor has crew quarters and a veranda/hammock area. Rainwater is collected off of the roof surface.

Middle: The dining hall area - all screened in and with ample space for groups up to 40 persons.

Bottom: A spacious tiled kitchen will make food preparation and maintaining cleanliness much easier. Screening here includes an extra layer of wire mesh to prevent rodent and opossum intrusion.

Santa Cruz Forest Reserve Update and Forest Regeneration

Spending time at the Santa Cruz Forest Reserve is always a highlight of any trip to Iquitos. This time was no exception. After the severe storm of November 2020, which took down tens of thousands of trees, the forest is springing back. With all the dead wood, mushrooms of many types are thriving everywhere you look. And with much more light reaching the ground in many areas, gingers, heliconias, and other understory plants are bursting out with new growth and flowers, while seedlings of thousands of other species are vying for their spot in the sun.

Left to right: Aphelandra flowers; spiral ginger (Costus sp.); a section of intact forest that wasn't impacted by the November 2020 storm.

All that tender new growth means a lot of food for animals that like tender new plant growth! Caterpillars have already morphed into dozens of species of spectacular butterflies, and with little effort, you can come across many species of snazzily dressed grasshoppers.

Top to bottom. Left: A trio of grasshoppers. I had never seen the spectacular top species before. Center: A Prothysana (headstander moth) caterpillar and a (also new to me) red and black jumping spider. Right: the spectacular blue Metacharis regalis butterfly; the equally stunning Amarynthis meneria butterfly, and a moss katydid (possibly a species of Haemodiasma).

While the storm damage is still very evident, the impact is being blurred as snapped off trees develop fuzzy crowns of new growth, or as vines begin to climb up standing snags. There are still some damaged trees that are coming down months later, but the trails are mostly clear and free of serious obstructions.

From left: a recent fall of a destabilized tree; rapid regeneration of herbaceous and shrubby growth along the edge of a trail; snapped trees starting to resprout branches.

The May trip was also the opportunity to get mushroom photographer Taylor Lockwood situated at Santa Cruz. One of Taylor’s main objectives was to find bioluminescent mushrooms, and he was successful in doing so! Yep – these are genuine glow-in-the-dark mushrooms. No blacklight or LSD needed. In addition to finding bioluminescent mushrooms, much of Mr. Lockwood’s work focused on time-lapse videography of mushroom growth. You can check out his preliminary report (and website) here.

From top, left to right: Mycenae mushroom cluster; a trio of a Marasmius species; the edible Auricularia (ear) mushroom; an inedible (i.e. poisonous) Amanita species; and lastly, a young cluster of more Mycenae mushrooms - these have been super abundant!

Nanay River Bridge. What will this mean for the Future?

One big project that has continued moving ahead despite the pandemic has been the construction of a major bridge across the Nanay River which will link Iquitos with lands to the north. This is just the first stage of a mega project to build a highway to the Putumayo River on the Peru-Colombia border. While the highway itself will be decades away (if ever), the bridge itself is worrisome in terms of environmental impact. Currently, Iquitos itself is essentially an island surrounded by low-lying land which floods every year. There is little room for expansion, except upward. Once the bridge opens, there will be flood of new development on the north side of the Nanay River, and when a road eventually links the bridge to the towns of Mazan and Indiana, their populations will explode.

Left: location of the new bridge across the Rio Nanay. Right: location of the Santa Cruz Forest reserve with respect to Iquitos, Mazan and Indiana.

Some years ago, a new road was opened between Iquitos and the Marañon river port of Nauta, some 90 km way. New squatter communities popped up almost immediately as land invaders organized the occupation of both private and public lands. Those communities are now permanent and continue to expand as the government provides services like water, electricity, and schools. The first 20 km of the Iquitos-Nauta road is now crowded with development. Further down the road most of the natural forest is also long-gone, with the exception of a national reserve area which is under constant pressure itself. This scenario will be quickly repeated with any roads linking the Nanay bridge to other areas further downriver on the Amazon.

Top row: The new bridge under construction, the span crossing the main channel of the Nanay River will be suspended by cables strung from the concrete towers. Bottom row: While millions of dollars are being spent on the new bridge, the residents of adjacent Bellavista depend on makeshift bridges to get to their homes during flood season.

A projected road to Mazan and Indiana will pass within a few kilometers of our Santa Cruz Forest Reserve, and will also pass close to, or through the designated forest reserves of several communities along the route. Development along the road will also mean that timber for construction will be in very high demand, putting extreme pressure on communities to allow lumbering in their forest reserves, and will also result in a lot of illegal logging. Project Amazonas will have to be very vigilant to prevent incursions into our reserve, and will also be working together with communities and organizations along the route to work to protect existing forest areas to whatever extent possible. And if a community does decide to sell its trees, we'd like to make sure that they get full value for them and aren't swindled. You’ll be reading more about this in the future, guaranteed!

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