Training Indigenous Tribes to Guard One of the Wildest Places on Earth

UAC-twisting-riverAn Interview with Chris Fagan, Founder and Director, Upper Amazon Conservancy (UAC)


What is The Upper Amazon Conservancy’s mission?

The UAC is dedicated to protecting the biological and cultural diversity of the upper Amazon River in southeastern Peru. We work in partnership with Peru’s park service, indigenous federations and communities, and other conservation organizations to strengthen protected areas and build the conservation capacity of local inhabitants.

Why the Upper Amazon? What attracted you to this region?

I was working for a professor at Duke developing a watchdog organization for protected areas in Central and South America.  In 2002, I had the opportunity to take part in an expedition to a very remote part of the Amazon headwaters in southeastern Peru called the Alto Purus. Our objective was to provide the Peruvian government with the scientific justification make the area a national park. We looked at everything from tree and mammal diversity to gathering socio-economic data on local indigenous communities. In 2004, the area became the Alto Purus National Park, which is Peru’s largest national park (over three times the size of Yellowstone). That’s around the same time that I decided I wanted to create an organization to focus on protecting this remarkable region, arguably one of the wildest places on earth.

It is extremely remote – there are still “uncontacted” tribes living in the forest; that is, people living in voluntary isolation from the outside world. Unfortunately, the areas is also the focus of rampant illegal mahogany farming that impacts these isolated tribes, and exploits the indigenous communities that live in settled communities outside the park.

Our work is a mix of helping Peru’s parks service strengthen the park by training guards, building control posts, conducting river patrols, etc., and working with the indigenous communities so that they benefit from conservation. We train them to become park guards, for example, and provide them with more sustainable alternatives to illegal logging. It’s extremely logistically challenging, getting in and out – everything we need has to be flown in, which is expensive. There are social and cultural challenges as well – we work with 10 different indigenous tribes all with their own distinct languages.

Why did you want a fiscal sponsor? How did you choose TCI?

I was working for another organization and decided to become independent and start UAC. I had funding lined up and in order to keep the work going without delays, and to make the funders feel confident in continuing to fund us, I needed a fiscal sponsor. A brand new organization might have been seen as somewhat risky to funders.  A colleague recommended TCI – you had a great track record and similar projects working under you.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Coordinating the work from so far away (Mr. Fagan lives in Wyoming and travels to Peru every 2 or 3 months), and overseeing the development of our sister Peruvian organization, ProPurús. Fortunately, we have a really strong team in Peru. Fundraising has its challenges, too, of course.

What do you love about your job?

I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to visit—and work—in such a unique and wild place. Walking through undisturbed jungle, immersing myself in the traditional cultures –it’s a real privilege!

What’s next for UAC?

If you can believe it, the government will soon decide whether to approve a proposal to construct a highway through the heart of the Park. The mahogany loggers are licking their chops, of course.  The local indigenous peoples, whose traditional way of life depends on a healthy forest, are vehemently opposed to it. But they are fighting against a small but very well-financed and politically connected group. Our priority over the next few months is supporting the Park’s managers and indigenous federations in this fight. The biological and cultural impacts are massive, and the world would lose one of its last truly wild places.