Tambopata, Peru:

Protecting Forests and Empowering Local Communities

About Tambopata

Locator map for Tambopata, Peru

The Tambopata National Reserve (TNR) was created in 1990 to protect one of the most biologically diverse and least disturbed forests on the planet. The region is also home to indigenous people, like the Ese’eja, who see their very survival threatened by development. Many other local residents see Tambopata as a poor region of Peru that contains untapped reserves of timber, gold, and farmland.

Experience Tambopata. Watch the sizzle reel (Password: gold2019) for The Defenders (2019, S. Lupton, director; Dr. A. Stronza, producer).

To balance biodiversity protection with economic development, officials are promoting participatory zoning of the 272,000 hectares of land within TNR. Leading this zoning exercise is Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry has invited local stakeholder groups to propose zoning maps and promote their map at a public roundtable. The consensus map selected at the roundtable will guide future management.

About The Assignment

Participatory zoning initiatives are underway in scores of protected areas in the tropics where forests are rich, but people are poor. Ideally, participatory zoning promises to

  • Balance conservation and development goals at the landscape scale
  • Bring competing interest groups together to negotiate rules and create a shared sense of landscape
  • Encourage greater stakeholder buy-in and avoid costly top-down enforcement

In this exercise, you will assume the role of a stakeholder from Tambopata. Based on your stakeholder’s interests, you will define your land-use priorities for TNR, find allies, and negotiate with your opponents as you collectively negotiate and vote on one of four zoning proposal maps created in the local participatory planning process. In thinking about which map should guide land use activities in Tambopata’s future, consider the following: Why do your interests deserve priority? What kinds of activities will generate income without destroying biodiversity? Does your character have special interest in a certain area, e.g. the fertile, gold-rich and scenic riversides? Which areas have old-growth forests? Conversely, which areas are already deforested? Which activities are taking place up-stream from your character’s areas of interest?

You will advocate for your stakeholder’s vision for Tambopata by participating in a role-played roundtable and writing a position paper. At the roundtable and in the paper, you will identify the map you think best matches your character’s priorities, and defend your character’s position using the kinds of arguments most appropriate for your character. A key challenge in this assignment is identifying your character’s best arguments. Here are the kinds of arguments to consider:

Moral Arguments: Who should benefit from Tambopata’s forests and why? The area's original indigenous inhabitants? Or the largest group, namely small-scale farmers of mixed ancestry, some of whom have lived in Tambopata for decades, others only a few years? Which kinds of land use activities can offer security for Tambopata’s residents? Do Tambopata's forests and wildlife deserve protection apart from human economic concerns?

Environmental Arguments: What land uses are most likely to maintain biodiversity and/or other ecosystem services? How can environmentally destructive practices be mitigated? Why should certain activities be conducted in certain areas of TNR (e.g. where does old-growth forest persist? Where has forest already been cleared? Which areas are up/down stream? Which areas are closer to the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park?)?

Economic Arguments: Tambopata is poor. What kind of economic activities should have priority? Why? Which kinds of land use activities can generate capital and taxes to improve Tambopata’s services?

Instructors: If you are interested in using this assignment, contact naughton@geography.wisc.edu for a teacher’s guide.


Madre de Dios:
(Literally “Mother of God”) the name of the 8.5 million ha Department (region) surrounding Tambopata. It is the least populated area in Peru (~ 2/km2).

A 100 x 100 m unit of land (1 hectare = 2.3 acres). Abbreviated “ha". Most Tambopata farms are ~40 ha.

Puerto Maldonado:
The largest city (~90,000) in Madre de Dios. It has doubled in size in the last 10 yrs.

The National Service for Natural Protected Areas is the govt. agency in charge of parks, reserves, wildlife and forests. It is part of Peru’s Ministry of Environment and was called INRENA during the zoning exercise.

People who harvest castañas (Brazil nuts). Madre de Dios holds nearly 30% of the world’s supply.

The largest group of indigenous people in the region, numbering ~600 today, some estimate ~10,000 before 1890.

Artisanal mining:
Small-scale mining performed by individuals, often on an informal/unofficial basis. Technology used has lower impact than industrial mining.

Industrial mining:
Large scale, high-capital mining activities typically require a formal concession.

Reduced-impact logging:
A logging practice designed to cause the least ecological impact on forests possible. Ideally informed by studies of local ecosystem dynamics.

A formal permit issued by the government for a certain activity (e.g. mining, logging, ecotourism) for a specified period of time (usually several years, although not permanent).

"Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation", is an incentive-based mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improved forest management in developing countries.

Bosques Amazónicos (BAM):
A for-profit organization facilitating a REDD project in Tambopata.

Nature-based tourism:
Any form of tourism based on natural attractions.

A form of nature-based tourism in which tourist impacts on the environment are mitigated.

Key Events

1890-1915: The global demand for rubber leads companies to penetrate the forests of Tambopata to tap rubber trees. These companies bring the first wave of colonists, diseases, and market economies to the region.

1930: People begin to extract Brazil nuts from Tambopata for international markets. Small-scale gold mining begins.

1990s: The Tambopata Candamo Reserve Zone (TCRZ) is created as a temporary reserve on 1.5 million hectares, including uninhabited forests and areas settled by ~6000 people. The local farmers’ federation FADEMAD and a local conservation group, Conservation Internacional-Peru (CI-Peru), work together to classify land in the region according to its agricultural potential and create a national park (“Bahuaja-Sonene”) (see VIDEO “Return to Tambopata”).

Early 2000’s: Participatory mapping and zoning exercises continue.

2000: The Peruvian Congress passes a new Sustainable Forestry Law. A moratorium is temporarily placed on logging in the Peruvian Amazon due to “destructive, corrupt, and wasteful” practices. Local loggers revolt and burn government vehicles and confiscated timber. They demand to log forests and to dissolve the TCRZ. The protestors set up a roadblock near the airport. One person killed, offices burned. After three days, anti-riot police from Lima squelch the protest with tear gas and arrests. INRENA temporarily lifts the logging moratorium and then uses a phased approach to introducing sustainable logging rules.

2006-2010: The Interoceanic Highway is constructed through Tambopata, vastly improving access to this previously remote region.

2008: As global economic crisis sets in, gold prices soar, and a gold rush brings tens of thousands of Peruvians to Tambopata.

2012: SERNANP uses an emergency decree to halt mining within the Tambopata Reserve. Public riots break out. The National Federation of Miners of Peru strikes and burns government buildings. Six people die in the ensuing conflict. The decree stands. Peru’s military evicts most of the miners from the Reserve. Mining continues (illegally) in the proposed Buffer Zone.

2019: Peru’s government launches ‘Operation Mercury,’ to confront illegal mining in this region. This crackdown significantly slows gold mining in the Buffer Zone and keeps it from penetrating the Tambopata National Reserve and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park.

2020: The COVID pandemic sends gold prices to new highs. Illegal mining surges.

2022: Illegal mining continues to expand and is associated with episodes of violent conflict. An environmental leader defending his land is murdered in March. An illegal timber racket is exposed that includes the governor of the region. Positives: tourism activity is resuming, agroforestry, pasture rehabilitation and forest carbon (REDD+) projects are all underway. Local, national and international conservationists are trying to restore order and promote sustainability.