How I Found Myself in a Peruvian Cloud Forest Saving Endangered Monkeys

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Trees stand in the rainforest near illegal gold mining camps in an aerial photograph taken above the Amazonian National Reserve buffering zone of Tambopata in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Aug. 11, 2015.
Trees stand in the rainforest near illegal gold mining camps in an aerial photograph taken above the Amazonian National Reserve buffering zone of Tambopata in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Aug. 11, 2015.Credit: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking with: Dr. Noga Shanee, 40, primate researcher and political ecology expert, founder of the nonprofit Neotropical Primate Conservation and director of nature preservation projects in northern Peru. Where: A coffee shop in Tel Aviv. When: Friday, 8 A.M.

You’ve come to Israel for a brief visit, and from here you are going on to Cameroon, in Central Africa. What will you be doing there?

The plan is to volunteer for a while in a rescue center for baby gorillas, my dream. After that I will move on to a project there that was initiated by communities seeking to protect a local species of gorilla in danger of extinction. I want to see how I can help them move the project ahead.

What will you do as a volunteer?

Honestly? I want to clean up poop.


Really. That’s what I love doing the most. Taking care of them, giving them milk, and yes, also cleaning up the poop.

Dr. Noga Shanee.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I would be truly happy if I could kiss a baby gorilla.

Unfortunately, you have to keep your distance, so that they can later return to their lives as wild animals. These are animals in great [personal] distress, and they have a lot of problems. Consider the fact that just in order to capture a baby monkey – any monkey – you basically have to kill the mother. There’s no other way to take it from the mother. And, to get to it in the wild, you’re going to have to kill other monkeys. We did the math: Ten animals will die for every animal that is kidnapped from nature in order to be sold [to collectors].

That is shocking. You’ve been living in Peru for the past 10 years. What have you been doing there?

I’m busy in several areas. I’m most interested in nature preservation and political ecology, which is also the field in which I did my doctorate [at the University of Kent]. The idea is to take an environmental situation in a certain place in the world, and try to understand all of the politics around it, from the level of the family up to that of the major organizations. I really enjoy plotting the map and understanding it – how, for example, the decision of a wealthy and powerful organization or corporation can affect the life of a Peruvian villager who lives in a hut.

Subversion under the aegis of academia.

True. My work is extremely subversive. It has to do with all sorts of big sociological truths.

Isn’t this basically the story of your life? When you were a student at the Hebrew University, you documented with hidden cameras experiments on monkeys that were conducted there. The exposure provoked a huge amount of attention. Is that also why you left Israel?

A yellow-tailed woolly monkey.Credit: Hans Hillewaert / Wikimedia Commons

Yes. It was during my first semester. I was studying biology and somehow found this job in a university laboratory. It was menial work, cleaning out the monkeys’ cages and things like that. During the three months I was there, I was transformed from a nave girl into a person who understands the power and the intensity of corruption. I realized that there was no justification for these experiments, that it was all a matter of money, and that this is essentially how the whole world operates. I understood that this was not for me. That I needed something else. I for sure could not go on studying there; neither did I really want to. I left the country and went to Peru. There I met the person who is now my husband [Sam Shanee]. We traveled around the world, worked on all sorts of projects with animals, got married, and completed our master’s degrees in primate conservation.

What does that involve?

These studies train you to engage in all aspects of preserving the primate within its environment. From genetics, to the tools needed to set up a nongovernment organization. After we completed our degrees, we took part in the primate research conducted by a researcher in Colombia. There we heard for the first time about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey of Peru, which no one had seen since the 1980s. We didn’t even know if it had become extinct. We traveled to Peru to discover what had happened to it, and we’ve been living there ever since.

Staying in Peru was not the plan.

Ten animals will die for every animal that is kidnapped from nature in order to be sold to collectors.

No. Our intention was to write an article about this monkey, make our escape, and get on with our lives. The field conditions were so harsh – rain that never stops falling, mud up to your neck. I had never seen so much mud in my life. We asked ourselves what kind of idiot would be willing to live here, in the freezing cold and the mud, just to save monkeys? And it didn’t take long for us to realize that, apparently, we were those idiots.

What happened with the yellow-tailed woolly monkey?

It is a species of primate that is facing the highest risk of extinction worldwide. It is situated in a region that is itself facing the highest risk of extinction in the world – a region with a great many environmental problems, from hunting on a grand scale, to mining and forestry industries.

And this is where you live today. And it is also the sole habitat of this monkey.

Yes. It is an endemic primate, and this is the only place it can be found. Its habitat, which was already considered very small to begin with for any species, has since that time been reduced by more than half.

How many of these monkeys are left?

We don’t know exactly. A few thousand.

And the immediate danger to its existence was from hunting – for food and for trade?

Yes. When we arrived, we were simply shocked. There were wild animals in nearly every house in the village. This one had a monkey; that one had two parrots. In one house we found a month-old yellow-tail monkey, perhaps the rarest monkey in the world. She was simply lying there, in terrible conditions. People just walk out to their field with a rifle, see an animal they like or that is causing damage to their crops, and they hunt it. Usually they eat the meat they’ve hunted, and if the animal also has a baby, it will be sold.

What did you do to save these animals?

There is an organization in Peru called Ronda Campesina. It’s a confederation of farmers that sprang up from below, it has representatives in every village and part of its agenda is environmental protection. So the work was basically to find its representatives and ask them to intervene. When we arrived at our first gathering, we didn’t yet know any Spanish. We arrived there and said something like, “Oh no, the poor monkey, oh no, the monkey is crying.” We did this in front of a microphone, in front of 150 people, at a gathering that went on into the small hours of the night. The following day, they informed us that the organization was taking responsibility for the unlawful hunting, and that from now on anyone who hunted wild animals would be punished. And that is exactly what happened. We couldn’t believe it, but the change was astonishing, and it happened right before our eyes.

You started with monkeys, and then you went on to environmental preservation, to rescuing the region. Tell me a little about the place where you live.

We asked ourselves what kind of idiot would be willing to live here, in the freezing cold and the mud, just to save monkeys? And it didn’t take long for us to realize that, apparently, we were those idiots.

It is an area [between the St. Martin and Amazonas regions] situated high above the Amazon River. This forest receives a lot of rainfall, because it is very high up, and essentially the entire Amazon is fed from there. That is why this area is so important – if it stopped raining there, it would be a tragedy on an international scale. This forest is responsible for the air we breathe, and its existence is critical to us all. And it has been greatly damaged.

The threat to the forest is coming both from above, by way of the Peruvian government, which allocates tracts of land for the use of corporations and for the establishment of mines, as well as from below, from local residents, who cut down trees for their own private use. Some observers say that the latter threat is the most serious one.

The bottom line is that it is people who are cutting down the forests. But it is the corporations exploit them, causing them to harm the environment 10 times more than they otherwise would. For example, [a large conglomerate] buys milk from these farmers for a shekel [28 cents] or a half-shekel per liter. At these prices, a family has to maintain 15 head of cattle simply to survive. They do not know how to work correctly with the cows, and no one thinks of teaching them how to properly use their land, and so it happens that each such family, which is earning only a few pennies and is hungry, consumes tens or hundreds of dunams of forest [a dunam is approximately one-quarter of an acre].

It is a chain of distortion and exploitation. The locals themselves do not drink milk or eat meat; they sell everything to corporations at ridiculously low prices. They are told that the milk is polluted and unsuitable for consumption until the corporation purifies it. They are frightened into believing that if they drink it they will die. The conglomerate buys it and sells it back to the state, in cans. God knows what they add to it [before distributing it to population]. It is a super-industrialized product. I would never be willing to touch it. The little farmer is screwed from every direction, and the only one who profits is the one who sells the milk to the government at exorbitant prices.

What about the mines?

Most of the companies that set up mines are foreign. They bring their workers to a mine, and the method is that every two weeks they simply replace the entire crew. They receive a little food, but no meat at all. Instead, the company supplies them with rifles. So they simply hunt everything around them.

The mines are destructive in other senses too. This is conservative community of believing people. But brothels are opening up in the places where the mines are established, and alcohol is sold, along with all sorts of things that did not previously exist there. The companies also bribe villagers, and a sort of vicious circle is created in which there are increasingly more corrupt leaders in the communities, and the leaders that really care about people’s fates don’t manage to get into government. They set up mines, and within five or six years, the social fabric has disintegrated. People say they once used to sit every evening with their neighbors and sing and play music, and now everyone in the village hates and suspects one another.

An illegal gold mining camp stands in a cleared area of rainforest in this aerial photograph taken above the Amazonian National Reserve buffering zone of Tambopata in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, Aug. 2015Credit: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

As someone who has been there for a decade, can you really observe this deterioration with your own eyes?

For sure. The institutional corruption has reached monstrous proportions. For instance, in 2015, the government passed an environmental law meant to regulate all matters concerning the wild animals and the forest. But the specific document that is supposed to constitute the “fine print” of the law has not yet been published. Which means that everyone can invent the fine print and do whatever he feels like. Minor laws are constantly being passed that are intended to serve specific individuals. Say, for instance, there is some well-connected person who has a zoo and who wants to sell animals [from it]. Lo and behold, a law is suddenly passed that allows the sale of protected animals from zoos.

This is of course a general problem in most developing countries – the regime collaborates with the special interests of the developed world.

This is very much in evidence in Peru. Another example: To set up a mine, you need to submit a survey mapping all the animals and assessing the condition of the region so that it’s possible to gauge the potential damage. Somehow – and this is really interesting – in any region where someone wants to establish a mine, the survey always seems to show that there aren’t any animals. I’ve seen this in regions that I am personally investigating, where I know for certain that there are 40 species of mammals and 30 species of birds. But according to the survey, the animals don’t even exist.

Where is the government in Lima in this process?

The government won’t even send any experts out to the field. It’s all a show, and the government is engaged in diverting the conversation to a safer place. They invest a lot of energy in campaigns against unlawful mines, while in the meantime the legal mines are simply destroying the entire region.

Peru and its resources face massive and continuous pressure from the developed countries, first and foremost China. The Chinese are simply buying up everything, and on a colossal scale. From wild animals to trees. The more the standard of living in China improves, the more the environment in Peru vanishes.

When land merchants kidnapped our local crew – the government did not come to our aid.

And you propose a subversive solution. You are establishing nature reserves. It’s a nice twist on the capitalist system: leasing land in order to leave it as [undeveloped] land.

In collaboration with the local communities, we are setting up nature reserves, and this irritates the government. In Peru, where the nature reserves are privately owned, one can simply purchase a franchise for state-owned lands, like acquiring a license to operate a mine, but for a nature reserve. We have already set up several reserves this way. However, it’s expensive and the process is lengthy and complex. Also, it discriminates a priori against the poor locals. They don’t have a chance, even if they very much want to preserve the nature in their area. They tell us, “When I was a child, they were tapirs here and there were parrots here, and I no longer see them and it pains me. I want my children to see such animals, too.”

But these are poor villages that don’t have water, don’t have electricity, and definitely don’t have $20,000 to pay the government for a franchise. So how does it work? Do you raise money and organize the reserves for them?

At the start, we did it the customary way, and then we discovered that although we’d paid a lot of money and gone through the entire exhausting process, the government was not truly committed to the reserves. On the contrary, whenever we had problems and needed help – for instance, when land merchants kidnapped our local crew – the government did not come to our aid as required by law. They only pester you and issue fines to the people responsible for the reserves, because, say, people came in and chopped down trees in a reserve. So I was really fed up with them, and I came up with a new preservation model.

Police torch motorcycles, generators and other supplies in a raid on an illegal gold mining camp inside the Amazonian National Reserve buffering zone of Tambopata in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, Aug. 2015.Credit: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Together with Ronda Campesina, the farmers’ organization, we formed ARCAs: Ronda Run Conservation Areas. The reserves are created by signing an internal agreement at a Ronda assembly; they are not registered in any official way with the government. These reserves have two primary advantages: They make possible rapid and effective preservation by locals. And, it’s a wonderful way to protest the discrimination and the exclusion of governmental conservation. We are reclaiming conservation.

There are by now hundreds of ARCAs throughout Peru – autonomous initiatives undertaken by a wide variety of communities, all of which have their roots in Ronda Campesina, covering areas that range from dozens to tens of thousands of dunams.

‘Craziest greenwashing’

What does your average day look like?

The day progresses in accordance with the telephone calls we receive. Let’s say we get a call from one of the reserves, which may be a 16-hour drive away: There is some crisis and we have to get there. Sometimes we get a call from the police – they’ve found and impounded a wild animal and we have to drive there to pick it up. Right now, for instance, we have a wild boar at home, with a baby still connected to it by the umbilical cord.

And what is a reserve, actually? A tract of land where it is forbidden to hunt and to cut down trees?

It depends whom you ask. As far as I’m concerned, the definition of a reserve is exactly what you just said. For me, preservation is mainly preserving the territory and ensuring that the animals get what they need, within their environment, and that they are not being harmed. For the government, a reserve is a place where you have to lay out money. It is part of this way of thinking of how to turn nature into a money machine, a game in which all of the nonprofits and the major organizations play a role [by monetizing elements in the local environment for purposes of fundraising]. Let’s say that such-and-such a tree cleans the air to some degree or another, then it is worth X money. Or that this monkey is already practically extinct, so it is worth Y money.

Ignoring the suffering and the corruption, and pursuing a quote-unquote normal life seems like a crime to me.

Creating imaginary parameters.

Parameters that have nothing to do with reality. It’s only a matter of money, of how to link the goal to some celebrity or another, in order to raise more money; environmentalism has become a coin of the realm. There is a lot of talk and a lot of PR, but in the field nothing is being done. It is the craziest greenwashing imaginable.

What do you see with your own eyes?

I see that a project starts on the internet, which is awfully successful, raises funds like crazy, and then you go to the place, and the locals have never heard of the project. If they do know about it, it’s because someone made them all sorts of promises he has no intention of keeping. The representatives of these nonprofits tool around in four-wheel-drive late-model vehicles. The money remains within the nonprofit and does not get to the field. Millions of dollars are poured into huge preservation organizations that don’t do a thing, and the crisis of species extinction and vanishing forests only grows worse.

For that precise reason there is something so beautiful about your story, about locals who are nevertheless trying to stick their finger in the dam.

The large nonprofits have become part of the dominant economic establishment; they cause horrific damage to nature in that they control the near-absolute majority of the resources and do not produce results. In order to justify their failure, they have developed this sort of discourse that depicts the locals as being destructive and greedy haters of nature who have to be constantly greased with money so that they will not interfere with the work of the nonprofits.

Dr. Noga Shanee.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Our work with communities, and primarily with the ARCAs project, proves that this is idle chatter. Locals are fighting for their right to protect the nature in their environs and not only do they not receive support from the governments and the nonprofits, but the latter belittle, interfere and struggle against them.

In this context, how do you view the decision by President Trump to have the U.S. withdraw from the Paris Agreement?

The way I see it, Trump is the end of the age of hypocrisy. He is not the problem, but rather the symptom of a society that is sedated, racist and fearful. Suddenly, we are standing in front of a mirror, and people are panicked. This agreement and its predecessors are based on science that has been distorted and crumpled to conform with the desire of countries and corporations to keep on doing what they’re doing. Without getting into too many technical details, people simply do not understand this story of the two degrees or the degree and a half in global temperature that is referred to in the agreement. Right now, the climate changes amount to less than one degree, and the changes are already very perceptible and are exacting victims all over the world.

Already, following every extreme climatic event – floods, droughts, receding glaciers – the planet’s ability to contend with the changes is reduced. For example, in the past year, there have been harsh droughts in Peru and horrific fires, with entire forests burned down. The consequence is that more carbon dioxide is emitted into the air, and in the years to come there will be less forest, and therefore less rain will fall. There are a great deal of such examples all over the world. The oceans will cease to hold CO2 once they reach a certain temperature, and so on. It is a snowball effect over which we have no control. When governments state that they will limit the temperature increase to two degrees, with an aspiration of making that one-and-a-half degrees, they are simply lying. The situation will spin out of control a lot earlier.

Why do you do what you do?

That is a question to which I don’t really have an answer. Most certainly, it is not for the money. I don’t think it is really a choice; I simply cannot imagine myself doing anything that is not a socio-environmental struggle. Ignoring the suffering and the corruption, and pursuing a quote-unquote normal life seems like a crime to me. Sometimes I am a bit envious of all the people who live in a bubble and go to work every day, but it is obvious to me that it would kill me within two weeks.

So, it’s pure ideology?

I live in a hut in a Peruvian village, in super-basic conditions, work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and earn 700 shekels (about $200) a month, most of which goes back into the project. What else could it be, other than ideology? People waste all of their energy and strength protecting their own lives, in order to survive. I’m not interested in surviving, I invest the same effort in order to protect life in general, not necessarily my own; it is a lot more satisfying. I don’t know exactly what I am giving up on, living in Israel and working for money may be pleasant and easy for a lot of people, but to me, it would seem like punishment.