To visit the recently-completed Manu Cloud Forest Canopy Observatory in southeastern Peru, one must first take a 4-hour car or van ride along a twisting and turning series of dirt roads. On its upward journey to a high elevation, the car passes through small indigenous villages whose people do not often see tourists. It then travels over slopes of the Andes Mountains at almost 13,000 feet where the climate is arctic-like. All along the way, passengers are surrounded by a rich diversity of plant life and scenery that is “just the most beautiful country you have ever seen,” according to Marguerite Gould, director of operations at the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), which co-funded the walkway with the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) (oral communication, November 19, 2009).
Once the car descends 8,000 to 9,000 feet to the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Station, visitors will see the unique Manu Cloud Forest Canopy Observatory on a steep slope of several thousand feet. Made completely from aluminum, which is durable and lightweight, the observatory is a canopy walkway system nestled within narrow trees, vines and dense vegetation. Its towers resemble giant silver DNA double helixes, which are connected by a series of narrow suspended bridges. While most walkway systems have wooden bridges and base towers connected to trees through bolts, ropes, or large rubber bands around the trees’ trunks, this walkway stands freely, its base towers held stable by posts drilled deep into the ground, said Gould. This had to be done for 2 main reasons, including the canopy forest’s steep slope that can be rather unstable and prone to mudslides in the rainy season, and the narrower cloud forest trees that cannot support a large attached structure.
Though canopy walkways can be found in many forest areas around the world, the Manu Cloud Forest Canopy Observatory is the first-ever canopy walkway in an Amazonian cloud forest.1 It joins about 20 cloud forests worldwide,2 and is near Peru’s Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.1
“[The walkway offers] the groups a chance to see a side of Peru and the Andes that many people don’t get to see,” said Gould. “It’s a unique opportunity to study that ecosystem, which is very different than any other.”
Unlike the better-known lowland rainforests, which are hot, humid, and filled with huge towering trees, the cloud forest is much cooler, sometimes producing fog, and the trees much narrower and shorter.2 Due to the changes in elevation, the plants that grow here are different from those that grow in the lowland forests, and each slope has its own climate and “micro-system” of plant life, said Gould. And while there is not yet a medicinal plant garden in the Manu Cloud Forest, there are a variety of naturally-occurring medicinal plants that are much different than those in the lowland forests, she added.
The walkway system, which was completed in the fall of 2009, took 5 years from fundraising, planning, and construction to completion. ACEER and ACA worked with several partners on the project, including the National Geographic Society, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (where ACEER is based), the Windhover Foundation, One Sky (a Canadian organization supporting sustainable development) and Rio Tinto (formerly Alcan), a leading supplier of aluminum and packaging materials.1 Based in Montreal, Canada, Rio Tinto donated $250,000 to the project to highlight a beneficial and “clean” use of aluminum.
Once the walkway’s preliminary stages were complete, the aluminum was shipped from Canada to Lima, Peru, then packed onto trucks, driven up the Andes, and stored in Cusco, Peru to wait out the rainy season. When drier weather arrived, the material was shipped to the cloud forest and constructed by Greenheart Construction of Canada with the paid labor of 12 workers from nearby communities and a Nigerian man who has experience building canopy walkways, said Megan MacDowell, director of ACA’s Washington DC office (oral communication, November 19, 2009).
On each of the large towers are platforms large enough for equipment, classrooms, and laboratories. ACA, which also runs the nearby Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Center, is using the walkway system for scientists researching climate change, said MacDowell. They will observe plants’ reactions to climate change, including those of orchids (Orchidaceae), which are common here and react quickly to small shifts in climate, as well as the forest’s many medicinal plants, she added.
“We will be studying the region intensively because its location on the edge of the eastern Andes mountains,” said MacDowell. “The canopy walkway helps us get to some of the harder areas to reach,” she said, noting that the region’s plants might be migrating upward in response to a warming climate. ACA will support additional research projects using the walkway, ranging from studies of epiphytic plants to different bird populations.
The classroom and laboratory platform, funded by West Chester University, will bring students and faculty into the outdoor classroom, where guides will educate the students about the forest’s medicinal plants and other topics, said Gould. ACEER’s first walkway group, which studied orchids, returned in November, and 2 more workshops are planned for 2010, including one on environmental education. A committee is being formed to create curriculum and activities for additional workshops, she added.
ACEER and the American Botanical Council’s (ABC) yearly botanical medicine trip to the Amazon rainforest and Machu Picchu will include the new walkway as an additional destination, she said. Because the location is so remote, it would add an extra 3 days onto the 10-day trip, so it will be offered as an optional extension.
“It’s a totally different environment than the trip has previously gone to,” said Gould, noting that the ABC trip focuses on the lowland forest and the Amazon River basin, as well as the Andean plants near Machu Picchu.
One possibility for ACEER workshops in the Manu Cloud Forest could be educational interaction with the nearby Haramba Queros, an indigenous Harakambut-speaking community of 56 individuals who are located just down the road from the walkway.3 Though this has not yet begun, Gould said that their traditional medicine practices are different from those in other areas of the rainforest and that by paying for the communities’ services, it would be a good way to give back. The local communities initially were hesitant about the walkway project, but they became more accepting after much outreach, such as training them to become paid walkway guides and bringing in local school children for educational visits, she added.
ACEER was the first nonprofit organization to build a rainforest canopy walkway in the Western Hemisphere (near the confluence of the Napo and Amazon rivers and north of Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest) and the first to use a canopy walkway for educational purposes, said Gould. The popularity of canopy walkways has since spread to many areas.
“[Canopy interest has] grown incredibly around the world,” said Gould.
The Manu Cloud Forest Canopy Observatory is the latest walkway with which ACEER has been involved. A second walkway site, in southeastern Peru's lowland forest, is the one currently visited by the ACEER/ABC workshop and is owned by Inkaterra, a nature-based travel company.
While the Manu Cloud Forest Canopy Observatory is currently open to some researchers, ACEER and ACA hope to have its official inauguration in the spring of 2010. More information on the observatory and ACEER’s current and future programs is available on ACEER’s website. Additional photos can be viewed in ACA’s photo gallery.