Dr. Patricia Alvarez
Dr. Patricia Alvarez
I study tropical ecology, botany and fungi. There are so many species of plants in the forest and amazing fungi live inside the leaves. It is like somebody opening a door to a different world, where you can learn how organisms coexist.
I used to live in a mining town where I did not see a plant or a living organism until I was 10 years old. My only memory of a plant was a picture in a National Geographic magazine. When I was 8 years old I saw a documentary about the elephants in Africa and I knew that there was something other than mining towns. When I was 12 my father took me to the jungle town of Tingo Maria, in Central Peru. I was mesmerized by the flight of the blue butterflies and the amazing flowers (later I learned that they were orchids). My mother bought me a pet tarantula and I was the happiest kid in the world. I think after that trip I learned that happiness for me was nature—not a car, not money—but just as simple as a pet tarantula. Now I have spiders, beetles, monkeys, birds and everything I want in the backyard of the forest.
One of the most interesting stories from my time in the forest is about an encounter with uncontacted people. We had to set up camp to census plants in Manu National Park in Peru. This plot was going to be new and it was located in a very remote area. We woke up early, around 4:30 am, prepared breakfast and set up the things in the boat. We traveled for 4 hours and once we arrived we began to cut a trail through the vegetation to start locating a place to set up the tree plot. We arrived at a nice location and the forest was a little bit silent for our taste but we thought it was because it was noon and it was hot, so the animals were napping. We started working and one of our workers said that he just saw a footprint in the trail—a bare footprint. We got upset since we thought the guy was making up the story so we would get scared and stop working. We knew that there are several native people living inside the forest who do not want contact with civilization.
We kept working and then we heard somebody whistling, like they were imitating a bird. We ran around and looked for footprints and we saw several footprints surrounding us. It was like the people were behind us but we could not see them. We did not even grab some of our tools—we just ran like maniacs to the boat. We ran away as fast as we could. I am absolutely convinced that the uncontacted people did not mean any harm, if they attack it is because they get scared, it is self defense. My main fear is that we could transmit diseases to them that they’ve never been exposed to before and kill entire populations.