An Orchid Super-Hero Responds….

In the midst of the Orchid Guide Forum dust-up, the extraordinary Oliver Sparrow responds with dizzying logic and sanity to frenzied finger-pointing over the stripping of Phrag. Kovachii from the wild:

Shame on the Peruvian government! Shame on the collectors! When are they going to pay?? What they did is far worse then what Selby did. Why is there no call for their collective heads (including the Peruvian officials who are complicit in their lack of action)?

Oliver’s response:

I carry no torch for the Peruvian government, but I happen to have a team in Peru writing a guide book to its wild places, so we do have some insight. To quote our introduction:

“…A more detailed assessment shows how extraordinarily diverse Peru actually is. International convention divides the world into various types of ecosystem. There are, altogether, just over a hundred of these that are recognised by science. With only minor straining, no less than 84 of these can be found in Peru!

Recent studies of the World’s biodiversity hot-spots place at least five of these in Peru. In particular, the Tambopata and Manu regions possess two of the most diverse flora and fauna forests in the world.The Pongo de Mainique Canyon on the Urubamba River is alleged to be the most biodiverse area on Earth’s surface. It is, however, a relatively accessible area and so has been studied with more intensity than the backwoods. There may well be more diverse regions elsewhere. […]

Peru has the fourth largest expanse of primary forest in the world. As with most primary tropical forests, this is extremely species-rich, with up to two hundred different kinds of large tree cramming themselves into a hectare of forest. […] Peru and Ecuador are the heartland of a range of mist-forest and other orchid genera. The ceja de selva [montane forest] is particularly rich in these plants in areas where rock breaks forest into a myriad of patches. However, the are epiphytic orchids growing to 3800m, probably a world record. At least two species of cactus grow under snow cover at 4500m. There is an extraordinary diversity of medicinal plants, all readily available from market stalls. At least five narcotic plants grow in Peru – the coca shrub, the three plants used in the ayahuasca brew, the hallucinogen cactus known as el cactus de San Pedro – and probably many more. ”

My point – that there is a lot to protect. Peru has around 30 reserves, parks and the like, many essentially abandoned for want of funds. I visited the San Martin centre last year, and found the staff both unpaid and without fuel to patrol their area. Set against this, the drugs industry was still very active in the area.

But should Peru not fund its wildlife protection better? Average per capita income buys what about $4500 buys in the US, per annum. That puts it on a par with nations such as the following: Albania Algeria Cuba Egypt Guatemala Honduras Iran Jordan Morocco Romania.

The country is recovering from the disasters of the 1983-94 period, when the war against the Sendero and economic mismanagement brought the country to deep crisis. There was a further crisis of climate and institutions at the turn of the century and there are still many millions of needy people, displaced into shack-cities on the coastal desert, malfunctioning industry and problems of collecting due taxes.

Excuse the length of this. The point that I want to get across is that priorities in such nations are extremely focused, and a minor botanical detail cannot expect much attention. Equally, the lesson to take from this is that what is tractable to conservation in low income countries is, at best, habitats and not species. Something which lunatic foreigners will pay a year’s income to acquire, and which will fit into a small suitcase, is virtually impossible to protect, notably in a nation which has a vast industry entrained in shipping illegal cocaine paste (and now opium balls) North. Better by far manage this by making the object of desire – plant, parrot or shell – available to collector gluttony through breeding programs, legal export and so forth. Better to focus state efforts on keeping habitats from being logged, farmed or simply trashed through general erosion.

Oliver Sparrow