One of the hardest things about being a freelance writer is seeing a great story— the kind of story you’ve always dreamed about writing—slip through your fingers. Your editors fail to see the beauty or the tragedy. No one shares your obsession; no one wants to put you on a plane to Miami or Lima or Mobasa, say, and pay for expenses while you throw yourself into the reporting. The pitch falls flat, eyes look away in embarrassment, and a half beat later, a kindly question. What else have you got?
Thirty years of freelancing and I can pretty much remember each and every one of these failures, these lost stories. They continue to dog me, and I sometimes think that this will be the last thing on my mind when I die. It won’t be my life flashing in front of me; it will be stories, particularly these stories, the ones that never saw light of day.
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Photo of Madre di Dios courtesy Marcin Nowak
Seventeen years ago, Canadian biologist Adrian Forsyth slipped into lyricism as he described the great wilderness known as Tambopata-Candamo in Peru. The cloud forests there, he wrote in an official report, “are dense with every limb matted with fern, orchid and moss and the only trails are those of the secretive spectacled bear and elusive mountain lion…. Along the banks of the Tambopata brilliant flocks of macaws concentrate by the hundreds to feed on mineral-rich soil pockets. Giant otters hunt the rivers for enormous catfish. Vast expanses of forest extend in all directions.”
This untouched paradise lay near the headwaters of the Amazon, and Forsyth and 23 colleagues explored it, charting its biodiversity for Conservation International and recording 575 bird species and 1200 butterfly species, the second richest documented butterfly community in the world. Their final report pleaded powerfully for the protection of this vast emerald wilderness. But the key to Tambopata-Condamo’s fate lay in just four words in that 184-page-long report: “mineral-rich soil pockets.” Today, nearly two decades after Forsyth waxed eloquent, steepling gold prices and a government seemingly paralyzed by corruption are transforming part of this paradise—the Madre de Dios river and its surrounding forest—into an ecological disaster on a grand scale. “It looks like Mordor,” said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist at the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima, in an interview I did with him in February.
To read more, please visit my post at Last Word on Nothing.
Photo. Tambopata, courtesy Dirac 3000