This year, The Field Museum has the privilege to honor an individual who has made a major contribution to conservation efforts in the department of Loreto Perú, both as a conservation biologist and as an expert ornithologist. José "Pepe" Alvarez A., in common with the late Ted Parker, has an uncanny ability to identify birds by their sounds. This skill has led Alvarez not only to recognize more than a dozen records that are new to Perú but also to discover no less than five bird species new to science, all of them associated with the unique habitat of white sand forests. One of the newly described bird species, Herpsilochmus gentryi, is named after the late Al Gentry, who initially described this habitat. Remarkably, these white sand forests are within half an hour’s drive from Iquitos, a city of more than 400,000 inhabitants.
While Alvarez was in the process of documenting these new species, he realized that their special habitat was in dire danger of being destroyed by a government initiative to pave a highway through the middle of the white-sand forest area. This unique habitat is a mosaic of different forests growing on a substrate of white, sandy soil. It contains many species of plants and animals with distribution restricted to this habitat. Alvarez worked tirelessly to convince the Institute of Investigation in the Peruvian Amazon to help him purchase the land and preserve the forests on one side of the highway. With the financial backing of the Finnish Embassy, he succeeded, and in 1999 the government set aside the Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve in the provisional category of a “Reserved Zone”. On January 14, 2004 the Ministry of Natural Resources in Peru, largely due to Alvarez’s continued efforts in conjunction with others, formally granted permanent protection to the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve, bringing global attention to this unique, nutrient-poor habitat that is strikingly rich in endemic species. (View Rapid Photo Guides to the plants of Allpahuayo-Mishana, and to the Burseraceae of the Allpahuayo-Mishana (PDF format, 3 mb)
Alvarez, a missionary-turned-biologist, remains Allpahuayo-Mishana's tireless advocate in the face of constant threats to the integrity of the almost 60,000 hectare reserve, as well as threats to himself and his family. He continues to champion the rights of the indigenous communities that live within its boundaries, to raise funds on behalf of the reserve, and to thwart attempts to delist the reserve or to illegally exploit its natural resources. He also continues to work for the conservation of Loreto’s extraordinary biological riches, most recently with the Zona Reservada Pucacuro, and to expand conservation efforts throughout the entire Peruvian Amazon. Alvarez is a co-founder of a grass-roots conservation organization in Iquitos, the Amigos de Allpahuayo-Mishana, which works to ensure protection of the new National Reserve. He is also the director of Proyecto Nanay; a World Bank funded project that works with IIAP to plan conservation, sustainable development, and land titling for the entire Nanay River watershed, which includes the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve.
Alvarez realizes that the future conservation of Amazonian forests depends most of all on the attitudes and activities of the people who live in the Amazon. He works directly with people, especially from local Amazon communities. He has dedicated his life to a better future for Amazonia, one that includes intact forests and rare birds that almost became extinct before they were discovered.
In addition to his extensive conservation efforts, Alvarez has continued his ornithological work, winning a Fullbright Fellowhip to study at Louisiana State University and publishing several papers on the new species of birds in The Auk, Wilson Bulletin, and The Condor.
Alvarez’s significant achievements are eloquently captured by Dr Paul Fine: “Alvarez embodies the spirit of both Ted Parker and Al Gentry for his accomplishments in Amazonian ornithology and his unwavering commitment to the conservation of Amazonian rain forests.” It is with great pleasure that The Field Museum acknowledges José "Pepe" Alvarez A. as the 2006 honoree of the Parker/Gentry Award.
We recognize that Alvarez has worked with many other individuals and that teamwork has been essential for his outstanding achievements on behalf of conservation in Perú. Most notably, because of the important role that she is playing today in the transformation of the conservation process in the entire region of Loreto, The Field Museum will be inviting Ms. Nelida Barbagelata, Head of the Environment for Loreto, to join us in Chicago for the celebration of this award and to be an integral part of the ceremony.
More information about Alvarez can be found in a short piece in the May 2001 issue of International Wildlife.