Wilder, the guide


Wilder could identify most plants to species and also place them within their taxonomic families

Wilder is 33 years old and a native of San Juan de Yanayacu. His home is one of the dozen or so huts lining the river, all built on stilts to stay relatively dry when the river crests at a high water mark that predictably will reach to a few inches below the floor–and if it gets any higher the families just retreat back into the forest until the water drops. All together the residents of San Juan de Yanayacu number somewhere around forty adults, and all of their names are written on a chalkboard as you enter the village.

Wilder’s mother died only six months after he was born, and he lost his father during the cholera epidemic of the early 1990s. Thus from the age of ten, he and his older brother brought themselves up in their home village. Wilder served in the army, and after returning from war (I think Peru was at war with Ecuador at around the time he was soldier-age) he got a job with the tour company that we used, and eventually this led to his job as ecotourism guide, a profession that perfectly fits the person he is.

He speaks effusively and with great animation in a way that allows a listener with only a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish to understand pretty well. Although he knows the names of almost all the life in the forest by their names in Spanish, English, Quechua (a local dialect deriving from a blend of Spanish and a language of Andean origin), and Latin, Wilder speaks only Spanish and Quechua. If his English were better, he might be wooed away from this tour company by higher salaries that could be paid by companies catering specifically to visitors from non-Latin countries. I’m not sure guides for those companies actually are paid more, but you’d think they would be, given that some of those tours are costing ten times what we paid. In any case Wilder feels a strong loyalty to this tour agency, and if I were in the management I’d want to make sure to keep Wilder happy.

When he’s not away shepherding visitors into, out of, and around the reserve, Wilder lives with his wife and six kids in a house built on stilts overlooking the Yanayacu. Entering from a stairway you come into one of the structure’s two main rooms. The first room has a couple of spare pequi-pequi engines on the floor as well as half a dozen nesting hens. There’s also a wooden strongbox closed off by a hasp and padlock–I’m imagining this is where all valuable possessions would go, since the open nature of homes here–no door or complete walls anywhere in the house except for the strongbox–provides little security against theft.

Wilder's home is the one with the balcony.

The second room has a steel basin for wood-fueled cooking fires. All water comes directly from the river and is boiled to sanitize prior to drinking. As an off-topic note I watched once as Wilder took a long drink from the river directly, though he said that by no means should we follow him in that particular example. For our canteen refills the lodge supplied purified water from Iquitos.

There was also a small balcony extending off the front of the house facing the river. Every time our pequi-pequi passed the village Wilder waved to his kids who were watching and waving back from the balcony. It was a bit unsettling to see four or more little kiddies perched on a small platform some fifteen feet off the ground, but Wilder laughed and said that the only time they get concerned about kids on the balcony is when the river is high, because because being farther out into the river, the water would be flowing faster under the balcony compared with the flow underneath the floors of their house, and at these times they do keep a much more watchful eye over the niños.

being a good guide doesn't mean taking yourself seriously all the time

The account I’ve written so far is based either on what Wilder told us about himself or what I have observed directly. I’m now going to extend more speculatively on the bigger question of what Wilder is all about, and why he so deeply impressed Seth, Karen, and me as a sort of beacon of the hope that we all should have for the continued preservation of the exquisite beauty of the Peruvian Amazon.

sky and treetops on the Yanayacu reserve

From our discussions with even urban Iquiteños, it was clear that people are aware of how human exploitation has eroded the quality of habitat. It’s too damned easy to make the case that pollution and overfishing have not been sustainable activities on, say, the River Itaya. Anyone older than ten can reminisce about times when the water was cleaner and fish more abundant. No one, however, is old enough to remember when the Itaya had anything close to the abundance of life seen in places like the river around Wilder’s home. So splitting time between his home and Iquitos Wilder more than anyone has the awareness of what has been lost, and in his job he demonstrates a strong sense of pride in not only the marvels that a relatively pristine Amazon habitat offers but also the way in which his village can maintain that habitat through sustainable land use and a community effort, which is in certain ways better than protection through governmental fiat. Yes, the government can establish an immense national park and restrict development and exploitation within the park boundaries, and logistically speaking it is a gargantuan or impossible task to oversee enforcement of sustainable practices in a national park the size of Pacaya-Samiria. At Madre de Dios, another huge national park in the south of Peru, illegal gold mining by tens of thousands of people has destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary forest and dumps something like 40,000 kg of mercury into the environment annually. It’s just crazy stupid, stupid shit. When sustainable practices are imposed from the outside there’s not going be any real buy-in on the part of the people.  Contrast that with situations where the reserve is manageably sized and if the impetus for preservation and the enforcement of sustainability is generated by the residents–this is the ideal described by Wilder of his “home reserve” on the Yanayacu.

clean, trash-free water with tons of fish, abundant animals, and primary forest are the key attractions of protected areas in Peru

Wilder is also a naturally-gifted educator and a leader. If there’s ever a need for passionate advocacy for continuation and further growth of the Yanayacu reserve, I can see Wilder being right there, speaking to the way that the quality of life in the village is directly proportional to the quality of habitat and size of the reserve–both from the standpoint of revenue from ecotourist visitors as well as the availability of wild foods–fish in particular.

Wilder's favorite hat