Lose Yourself to Find Yourself

The Las Piedras River (the “River of Stones”)  is a wilderness frontier – home to an immense diversity of life, and some of the planet’s last remaining indigenous people living in voluntary isolation.

“This is a good antiseptic. It can be used on cuts to remove toxins,” explains Samir, a tracker and shaman from the Ashaninka tribe in the mighty Las Piedras basin. He crushes the bright green leaves between his fingers and they transform into a deep purple paste which he swipes on my cheeks and forehead. “It’s also good camouflage.” We continue to climb, crawl and stumble through the dense, humid vegetation, encountering spider monkeys, fire ants, and all kinds of exotic creatures, as he explains each medicinal plant we encounter in great detail. We soon come to a clearing where Rustus – an ex-logger who laid down his chainsaws in favour of conserving and protecting the rainforest – is waiting on the boat, and soon we’re back on the mighty river, heading upstream to our base in the deep Amazonian jungle.

There are a number of major contributing factors that led me here. I have always been fascinated with the Amazon – considered to be the very lung of the planet we inhabit. Not only is it undoubtedly the world’s most important, biodiverse ecosystem, it is also a major player in the global climate, and home to some of the last uncontacted tribes on Earth – vulnerable, indigenous people who hold vast amounts of ancient knowledge and wisdom about the medicinal uses of plants, and the innerworkings of nature. A knowledge that needs to be safeguarded. As forests burn and global warming worsens however, the impact is continuously undoing the fragile processes of nature that have been refined over millions of years. Half of the largest rainforest on Earth is in danger of disappearing completely, and it should be our goal to prevent this catastrophe.

After landing in Peru’s capital, Lima, another three hour flight takes me to the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado – otherwise known as the gateway to the Amazon. It is here that I meet up with friend, co-founder, and director of ARCAmazon – a non-profit organisation with a mission to protect the Las Peidras basin, which is an important watershed in Peru’s south eastern Amazon. The Las Piedras River (the “River of Stones”)  is a wilderness frontier – home to an immense diversity of life, and some of the planet’s last remaining indigenous people living in voluntary isolation.

David Johnston, a South African-British entrepreneur and conservationist left a world of materialism in 2009 and has dedicated his life to conserving this remote, unstudied and largely unvisited area from rapidly expanding deforestation. After setting up ARCAmazon – Alliance for Research and Conservation in the Amazon – he, together with a team of researchers and members of the native communities living along the river, set up the Las Piedras Amazon Centre (LPAC) about four hours upriver in the deep jungle. The centre provides a base to develop research, sustainable living and livelihoods, technology innovation, and creativity for conservation outcomes.

As we board the boat and head upriver, the sheer energy and might of the river and the surrounding rainforest is hardly describable in words. It is something that has to be seen, and felt, to be understood. To our right, David points out the beginning of the corridor (or strategic zone) of the rainforest that ARCAmazon has protected to date – some 4,460 hectares of virgin, untouched jungle. On the other side of the river, the roar of chainsaws in the distance followed by a colossal 300-year old Ironwood falling to the forest floor is heart wrenching. The stark reality of this uphill battle against consumerism becomes more and more evident. And it is a desperately sad one.

My spirits are lifted as we dock the boat, take a short walk through the jungle and arrive at LPAC. It is an extremely impressive space, completely immersed into the natural environment and constructed with a mix of responsibly sourced hardwood timber, recycled vinyl (the roofs are large advertising billboards from Lima), and rammed earth. The communal space is extremely spacious and extends to two raised platforms, as well as a kitchen that feeds everyone from local community members, volunteers and researchers, to students, creative minds, and explorers – like us. The accommodation is described as rustic, “with a Medicine Man-style charm” and consists of raised, covered wooden platforms, with beds, composting toilets and rain showers. Camping facilities are also available throughout the camp.

The camp is the starting point for more than 50 km of hiking trails through the rainforest, which extend across the 11,000 acre conservation are that LPAC protects. Rare and abundant Amazonian wildlife such as jaguar, harpy eagle, anacondas, and spider monkeys all live within the reserve, and roam freely –  sometimes even into the camp. On our arrival, a large female anaconda from the nearby crystal stream had just been caught and brought back to camp to be tagged and photographed for research purposes, before being released in the same spot she was found. Never a dull moment, I can assure you.

Six days in the jungle, multiple hikes with Samir and other local trackers learning everything there is to know about the plants and animals, climbing to the top of Ironwood trees to the immense rainforest canopy, watching the bright macaws as they gather in hundreds each day at the clay licks on the river, admiring huge Brazil nut forests and cocoa plantations, listening in awe at the cacophony of the rainforest symphony, and visiting the local communities to share stories and learn about their sustainable practises… and it was time to go. With a heavy, yet full heart.

The work done at LPAC by ARCAmazon brings together local and international alliances, including the native communities in Las Piedras to offer sustainable livelihoods, and protect what is dear to us all, and the planet. It is important work – work that we should and can all be a part of.

Deep in the wilderness, is where you lose yourself, to find yourself.

 For more information, visit www.conservetheamazon.org.

 How Can You Help?

 Every contribution helps to discover and share the value of the mighty Amazon, to conserve and protect it, and to inspire the global community to connect with the rainforests. Today, more than ever before, it is possible to get involved with conservation of forests from wherever you are on the planet, and with whatever resources you can contribute.


  • Contribute your time and skills to the ARCAmazon initiative – they need support from people with diverse skill sets.
  • Visit. Go as a tourist or a group leader, with your own ideas or to collaborate. The aim is to get as many people involved in actively conserving the Amazon as possible so become part of the Alliance.
  • Talk to people about the Amazon. We can guarantee it will lead to some interesting conversations as people become more curious.


 Text © Julie Graham  |  Images © Supplied LPAC 

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