The Mother of all Lockdowns

10 July 2020

Since we entered Peru on 14 February this year, it has been a non-stop whirlwind of action, reaction, problems, solutions, mystery, stamina, ups and downs and somehow keeping the boat moving up a very fast flowing river!


The first – and probably only – retreat of 2020 started with a very loud bang. All 22 participants were initiated BIG time by the thunder and lightning beings, with everyone cowering and praying in their bunks. Everyone, that is, save for a Danish biologist who had just travelled 48 hours non stop from Vietnam!

After the traditional retreat celebrations up in Cusco (Initiates of Ayni Foundation’s 2018 Pilgrimage to Peru can rest assured that the legend continues), the Sipapu team made it back to Puerto Maldonado on the very last bus, with the CoVid lockdown hot on their heels.

The rest is a story of a much longer stay in the jungle than anyone imagined!

After a long series of extensions, Peru, which has operated one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet since March, has begun to relax in some places but not others. Cusco, for instance, where hundreds of UK expats were trapped in hotel rooms has kind of gone back to normal – only to find the CoVid-19 curve lifting off again. Lima is in a similar fix. Let’s face it, everywhere is in a similar fix. Keep it locked or give up and let whatever happens happen?

Here in Madre de Dios, the Department which includes our beloved Tambopata, the lockdown continues. Puerto Maldonado is all face masks, alcohol gels, foot trays. Men in a hazmat suits zap you with infrared thermometers at the entrance to markets. At the same time it’s kind of relaxed. Businesses of all sorts do business from behind closed doors. The chicken & chip shops seem to be slowly creeping back to normality. Now and then you see someone getting busted for riding two up on a motorbike.

At Sipapu, it’s a bit different. One is among the plants and trees, close to the constantly cleansing energies of the river, and the groanings and grumblings of world seem pretty far away, if one thinks of them at all. The jungle is all around, all singing, all dancing, now powerful, now peaceful, ever present. The river rises and falls with remarkable speed, sometimes as much as 10m in a few hours. The landscape is ever changing. Change is constant. It’s a kind of paradox.

Shiny happy wood!

Change is constant when it comes to buildings, installations, plantations and chacras. The default building material is of course wood. There are lots of trees around. But not all offer wood suitable for construction. The favoured trees – those that produce hard wood, like coiba (mahogany) or shihuahuaco (ironwood) – take longer to grow and mature, and are mostly endangered. The mighty castaña (brazil nut) tree also produces hard wood, but is illegal to log as it is a protected species.

The buildings of Sipapu are made of cedar, bolena and ironwood. Whereas living trees employ all sorts of natural defenses – and symbiotic mechanisms – when it comes to insects, cut wood needs regular protecting. Here the default choice is diesel for the visible parts, and used oil for the undersides of the buildings. It’s not exactly a nice job, but embalming all the buildings in diesel helps keep the termites away.

Plan of the chacras

While the larger chunks of work planned for Sustainability Phase 1 have been seriously delayed due to the lockdown, we have pushed ahead with some clearing large areas of secondary forerst regrowth – the brambles and weeds – and maintaining existing chacras (jungle gardens/plantations).

Some of this work is solidly based in local vernacular. There are well established plantations of bananas, plantain, cacao and avocado, and bamboo grows everywhere. We’re also trying a few things out – wild basil, garlic and coriander (cilantro), lemon grass, hierba louisa, lettuce, tomato and yuca. As you might expect, the lettuce are having a tough time against the insects.

We’re working with an organic mixture of tobacco, garlic, vinegar and water, rather than commercial insecticides – much to the amusement/chagrin of locals.

Likewise, we’re avoiding the standard ‘slash and burn’ method of clearing, where you basically have a go with the machetes, then set the whole cleared area alight – trees and all… again much to the bemusement of local experts. They have a point. You can raze a patch of secondary growth to the ground, and next week it’s back. Stuff grows fast.

Most importantly – and perhaps this is a hidden gift of the lockdown – we’re having to be on site and observe the land under different conditions before we do anything substantial. We’ve weathered a few storms, seen where trees can fall and low land get waterlogged, all of which informs the process of planning Phase 1 installations like water tower, solar plant and wifi tower.

What else? The two hens – real survivors these ladies – are still here. 2 out of the 3 cats are still here. Tigre was gifted the ultimate cat ascension, she was got by a bigger tigre in the night. The nightly raids of the intutu (possum) were thwarted by lopping the branches of a bush. We are moving slowly, and perhaps surely, towards solving the Mystery of the Aguajal, a geographic and metaphoric odyssey to and through the swamp just beyond our boundary to the North. (That one deserves an article all of its own, meanwhile follow the video updates on Instagram and Facebook.

Lots more to come. Wishing you a miraculous lockdown/breakout wherever you are.

If you’re interested in sustainable human community or wondering how to get involved, let us know!

If you feel like lending a long distance hand, you can support us.


PERU FOOD ASSISTANCE PROGRAMME

Help get food to remote communities in Peru

Our good friend Pauline Saade is helping communities all over Peru take care of food fundamentals.

There have been more than 197,000 cases and 5,465 deaths from COVID-19 as of June. People rely on tourism for income and one fifth of the people live on only around $100 a month.  This has made it near impossible for many Peruvians to get their basics needs. Please lend them a hand by visiting Pauline’s GoFundMe page.