In our latest Mizu Mission we catch up with Chris Fagan, director or the Upper Amazon Conservancy, which works to protect the biological and cultural diversity of the Amazon River headwaters in Peru.
Photography by Jason Houston (@jasonbhouston)
Where exactly did this Mizu Mission take you?
Our headquarters is located in the jungle city of Pucallpa, Peru, an hour flight from Lima. From there we traveled by small plane to military base towns near the border with Brazil. Then we traveled several days by boat through remote indigenous communities and protected areas. The region is called the Alto Purús and it is arguably among the wildest places left on earth. Its core is the Alto Purús National Park, which is Peru’s largest park and roughly three times the size of Yellowstone. Close to a dozen indigenous tribes live outside the Park and survive mainly on subsistence activities like hunting, fishing, and tending small gardens.
Had you been before or is this a first-time excursion?
I have been working here for 15 years, so not my first visit.
Why did you choose the Alto Purús?
I am working on an awareness campaign for isolated indigenous tribes who, in the past few years, have been appearing near remote communities and park control posts with increasing frequency. The tribes often steal food and manufactured items like machetes and clothing from the villages, and in many cases these visits lead to violence. Disease transmission is also a huge threat as the isolated people have no natural defenses to common illnesses. We think that illegal logging, drug smuggling and road construction is forcing the tribes from their territories.
There is very little tourism infrastructure, but to visit the Alto Purús is to experience authentic Amazonian wilderness and indigenous cultures. It is not always comfortable, but it is 100% wild and, therefore, quite a unique experience in this day and age.
What was so special about this Mission?
I was leading a team from National Geographic interested in documenting remote indigenous tribes who are in various stages if assimilation with modern society. The purpose was not to document the still isolated tribes, but to visit those people who have already sought contact with the outside world, and look into the reasons that isolated tribes are deciding to leave the forest, and to better understand this process of “contact”.
Tell us about one or two memorable experiences/highlights of this Mission.
Among the highlights was spending the day with a family who left isolation and their nomadic lifestyle a few years ago after being contacted by missionaries. The family of four, one man and three women, live in a palm thatch not far from the riverbank, but hidden under the dense canopy. Their situation is rather sad, as they depend on nearby remote villages and park guards for much of their food. However, they hold remarkable knowledge of the forest—animal behavior, flora, medicinal plants, etc.—and tell remarkable stories of living as hunters and gatherers. They offer a wholly unique view into a way of life that is exceedingly rare in today’s world as even the most remote parts of the Amazon and the Congo, for example, are impacted by natural resource extraction and infrastructure projects like roads.
What are the guiding principles and beliefs that you live by?
Among my guiding beliefs is that we have so much to learn from native cultures, especially those that still rely on a strong relationship with the natural world. Unfortunately, these cultures—their knowledge the natural world, language, cultural traditions, creation myths and religious beliefs—are being lost at an incredibly rapid rate. And with them is lost immeasurable insight that, frankly, we desperately need.
There is so much to learn about ourselves through the outdoors and nature and those that live among nature. I feel like my experiences in the Amazon and other inspiring landscapes make me a better person and keep me searching for new experiences.
What advice can you give to those who want to travel but can’t seem to pull the trigger?
All it takes these days is a click on the mouse! We are overwhelmed with information which really complicates decision-making. But just pick a place and go. My most memorable, life-changing experiences have been winging it, without a plan.
Your work takes you to many other exciting places – do you have a personal favorite destination and why?
Well, the Amazon is constantly trying to kill me – the heat, sun, bugs—but it is so utterly wild that it is still my favorite, and it constantly humbles and inspires me. I have many favorite places, Wyoming and the Tetons, for example, but I feel so honored to work in the Amazon and with my friends who call it home.
Being an advocate for reducing single-use plastics is important to you. Was there a certain instance you recall that really opened your eyes to the importance of reusing whenever possible?
I remember years ago hitchhiking down the coast of Mexico south of Cancun on a remote peninsula along the most gorgeous remote and deserted coastline . . . and being overwhelmed with the amount of plastics – bottles, bottle caps, flip flops, buckets -- on an otherwise deserted and super remote beach. We don’t often see the mess here in the US, but when you travel to these remote places in the third world, even in the middle of the Amazon, you are reminded of the impacts of plastics on the natural world.
Reusing can be hard while on the go. Do you have any tips to help make going reusable a little bit easier while on the road?
I carry a filter that I can clean when needed. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to filter water from your hotel sink when you can easily buy a bottle, but sometimes you have to ask yourself just how lazy are you!
What was your favorite Mizu product on this Mission?
The M8 worked great. It is super durable. While on the river, I can throw it in the bottom of the dugout canoe, and it’s simple design means the cap always closes without leaking. It’s not too big to carry around yet holds enough water for a gringo in the Amazon constantly fighting dehydration.
Do you have advice for others to inspire them to continue their own mission in reducing single-use plastics?
Visit densely populated areas in the third world that lack proper recycling and trash processing services... the impact of plastics an be utterly depressing yet it can inspire us to get working on the solution.