“A child excited about nature is an ally for life”
Javi Velásquez is the founder of Amazon Forever Biopark, an initiative that combines the rescue of endangered animals with environmental education. Located an hour away from Iquitos, the project of the Peruvian marine biologist has managed to capture the imagination of children in the region, thanks in part to the creation of Huayo, a character with whom they identify. Velásquez envisions a future where a close bond with nature drives the citizens of Iquitos to protect the forest. He has several surprises in preparation, including Huayo: the movie.
By Alonso Almenara
Photograps by Andrés Cardona
When Javi Velásquez began rescuing manatees 15 years ago, he never imagined that this adventure would lead him to create one of the main tourist attractions in Iquitos or to direct an upcoming 3D animated film. His story begins with the establishment 2007 of the Amazon Rescue Center (CREA), a refuge thirty minutes from the capital of Loreto, created to house and return manatees to their natural habitat. Manatees are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Velásquez, a marine biologist, knows that their survival is at risk due to the destruction of their habitat and also because of poaching and direct contact with humans. That is why he decided to initiate an ambitious educational project alongside his conservation work, aiming to strengthen the connection between the people of Iquitos and nature. Today, he directs the Amazon Forever Biopark, a Private Conservation Area that protects 11 hectares of white sand forests and Aguajal (swamp) ecosystems on the city’s outskirts. There, visitors—many of whom are schoolchildren—come into contact with hundreds of animals of different species rescued from illegal trafficking and receive an enjoyable environmental education that includes theater, sculpture, and audiovisual resources.
“Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, is a very urban space with fewer green areas than Lima. Nature is something distant for the children, something they do not know or identify with.”
The project has been successful, in part, due to the creation of Huayo, a character that has managed to capture the attention of the little ones. Amazon Forever Biopark is a deserving recipient of Peru’s National Environmental Award (received in 2016 and 2019), and it is currently the most visited park in Iquitos, with 26,000 visitors last year. “This is extremely important,” says Velásquez, “because it has become a self-sustainable project. It is designed for the region’s children, but it is funded thanks to the immense influx of tourists who visit us.”
It was not an evident path. “At the beginning, we went to schools in the city with a PowerPoint presentation,” recalls the Peruvian biologist. “We talked about manatees and nature, and we found that children already had a lot of information: they knew that we should take care of the forest, not litter on the streets, but they did not feel involved.” In 2016, the CREA team conducted a survey that confirmed what Velásquez suspected: the vast majority of children in Iquitos—about 80%—had never visited the Amazon forest.
“The city is surrounded by three rivers that form a natural border that has not allowed it to expand further,” explains Velásquez. “That’s why all forest spaces have been occupied. It’s strange, but Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, is a very urban space with fewer green areas than Lima. Nature is something distant for the children, something they do not know or identify with.” Changing this situation was a complex task, and Velásquez’s initial efforts did not manage to engage the little ones.
The inspiration for a different approach came with the visit of Ralph, a Canadian friend. “Ralph rescues birds. He discovered that after thirty years of work, his birds migrated to South America in winter, where they were killed,” Velásquez explains. “So he decided to come here to raise awareness among the population.” Ralph visited businessmen, officials, and academic authorities in search of financing but failed to secure it. Until one day, he got in touch with a Canadian official who decided to help him. “You will understand that for Ralph; it was important to know why: what made this person different from the fifty who had denied him support. The official told him something he would never forget: that once a man had gone to her school carrying an eagle, he talked about the bird and its role in the ecosystem, which impressed her. Since then, she has offered help with this type of project whenever possible. Ralph started to cry. Years ago, he went to school carrying his eagle. He was the man the official had known as a child.”
According to Velásquez, there are two types of education: “one education for the brain, which can last a lifetime, and another that can take five minutes, which is education for the heart. The second one is based on emotions. If you touch a child’s emotions with nature, you gain an ally for life.” After Ralph’s visit, Velásquez abandoned PowerPoint presentations, books, and theory and set out to create conditions for the children in his city to connect with nature experientially.
Surprisingly, most children in Iquitos have never visited the Amazon forest. What does this data mean to you?
Statistically, adults who care for nature have something in common: as children, they have a strong connection with natural environments. They might have been taken to the beach, the mountains, a farm, had pets or went to the forest. It is unlikely that in 20 years, when this generation that has not had the opportunity to get close to nature takes the reins of such a fragile and vital place for the planet as the Amazon, they will be able to do so with a criterion of sustainable development or conservation. That’s why we thought it was essential to create an accessible space where this contact with the forest could happen. We created a private conservation area located an hour from Iquitos. Since 2017, we have been taking children from local schools to have their first experience with nature in an educational program called ‘A Day in the Forest.’
The program aims to explore nature in a fun way. Our goal is to create memorable experiences—experiences that, when the person is 40 or 50 years old, remember that at the age of eight, they visited the forest and fell in love with nature.
The project has grown, and we have developed various tools to inspire the children. We have an animal rescue center where we work with manatees, sloths, and birds—all confiscated animals, victims of illegal trafficking, that are rehabilitated to be returned to nature. We also have an ethnobotanical circuit where the children learn about the ancestral use of plants, such as ayahuasca or barbasco, which fishermen use to attract fish. Another strategy is art for conservation: we have installed sculptures made by local artists using recycled wood from the forest. We also have the first educational Paiche aquarium, where visitors can marvel at the largest fish in the Amazon swimming.
But the star of our project is undoubtedly the character of Huayo, a magical fruit of the forest. Our educational program comes to life through stories, tales, and legends.
How did the idea of Huayo come about?
It was a lengthy two-year process during which we created several prototypes with the guidance of specialists in children’s education. The idea was to invent a hero with whom children could identify, but we also wanted to do something original with characteristics unique to the Amazonian culture. Children’s literature has many characters: talking animals, extraterrestrials, and forest spirits. Huayo is different: it is a fruit born from the wisest and oldest tree in the world. The story goes like this: thousands of years ago, tree people took care of the Amazon forest. When the first humans arrived, the tree people made a deal with our species: they allowed us to use nature in exchange for taking care of it. They then began to take root. But every two hundred or three hundred years, these beings wake up and inquire about the state of the world. The world was doing well: the natives knew how to care for nature. But recently, the oldest tree, Arbubuelo, has awakened and cannot believe what is happening: the forests are disappearing, and the animals are going extinct. Arbubuelo wants to stand up and scold the humans, but he can’t. He’s too old. Then he comes up with an idea. He uses all his energy to ripen his last fruit. Thus, Huayo is born, given a special mission: to go to the cities in search of people with the most potent spirit to save nature. Those people are the children.
“One feels a strong hope when working with the little ones. It’s tough to change the behavior of adults, but it’s straightforward when the child corrects their parents. Culturally ingrained behaviors can change overnight if the little one insists.”
The beauty of Huayo is that it has become a potent tool to awaken the interest of the youngest ones. It’s different for me, as Javier, to stand in front of them and talk about nature and manatees, as it is for Huayo to appear with its big yellow eyes. The children’s eyes widen in amazement when they see him. They get excited, then go home and recount what they’ve seen. The educational process becomes exactly what we were looking for a memorable experience.
The success of Huayo has led us to plan the production of a 3D animated feature film. What stage is the project currently at?
One of the most significant leaps we are taking as a project is to bet on “Huayo: The Movie.” I am also a screenwriter for films, and here I have tried to combine my two passions: telling stories and protecting nature. We are now working on refining the script. We have received financial support from the Ministry of Culture for pre-production, which should help us secure the rest of the funding. Making a film of this nature in Peru is quite a challenge, but we have released a first teaser already available on YouTube.
What has been the response of the children to these proposals?
One of the most impressive experiences is when we see a child getting off the bus, crossing the bridge, and we tell them: “This forest belongs to you.” You see the child run, and suddenly they haven’t fully grasped where they are. They stop, look around, and say, “Wow, is this nature?” Some children arrive scared and hesitant, afraid of insects, and reluctant to sit on the ground. But after about 20 minutes, you see them running around, rolling in the sand, and grabbing handfuls. That change is quite encouraging. There are children who, after participating in our workshops, tell us, “When I get back home, I’m going to plant a little plant,” or “I have a little turtle, and I’m going to talk to my dad about bringing it here so you can release it.” These might be indirect indicators, but they are powerful for us, telling us we are on the right track.
So, is it true that change begins with children?
When we started doing theater workshops at schools, many parents would call us and ask, “Are you the ones developing the Huayo project? My son drives me crazy because every time we ride the motorcycle and see a bottle on the ground, he makes me stop, get off, and pick up the bottle so we can find a trash can together. His friend Huayo told him there shouldn’t be litter on the streets.”
One feels a strong sense of hope when working with the little ones. It’s tough to change the behavior of adults, but it’s straightforward when the child corrects their parents. Culturally ingrained behaviors can change overnight if the little one insists. As Eduardo Galeano said, “Many small people, in small places, doing small things, can change the world.”