Stories|Part of The Roots of a Scientist
Part1

My rainforest upbringing

In her introduction to this five-part serial, Nataly Allasi Canales, who grew up in the Peruvian Amazon, describes the childhood passions and influences that moulded her future. Admiring her mother’s work as an environmental lawyer and Indigenous rights activist, Nataly decided to help preserve this beautiful and threatened environment in her own way: by understanding the biology of Peruvian species and helping others learn about them.

Words by Nataly Allasi Canales|artwork by Cat O'Neil

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Photograph of a papercut 3D artwork. The image shows a meandering mottled blue and yellow river with white and gold brush strokes indicating the river’s curvature. Surrounding the different bends of the river are plants and shrubbery of various shades of green with red and yellow paint splatters. There is a brunette girl wearing glasses resting with her head in her hands near the river bank.  Four brown otters are shown resting and playing on a branch outstretched across the river. Three tortoises are piled on top of a floating log, travelling downstream.
My rainforest upbringing. © Cat O'Neil for Wellcome Collection.

I scream, “Dengue! Dengue!” as I rush to tag my friends, catching two who fall as they pretend to get the disease. It’s getting darker as we play and I know my friends will be called to go inside soon. When they leave, I stay in the soil-pressed street, eager to start my discovery-and-collecting games that can only happen alone.

I rush to the ditch that divides the street, where the tall grasses are, trying to find something that will catch my eye under the dim yellow streetlights. This isn’t difficult if you live in the Peruvian Amazon, in a region like Madre de Dios. Soon enough, I find some apple snails’ eggs in vivid shades of fuchsia and tangerine. The game is on now: I have to find them in other colours.

In the same way, I collect different leaf shapes and colours that I put in a notebook. At the age of seven, I would’ve never imagined this to be part of my job as an adult. Once you’ve experienced Madre de Dios, you can’t help but feel deeply connected with it; for example, my best mate from primary school is now a tourist guide.

One of the biggest provinces in Peru, it is also one of the most diverse and the least populated. As of 2016, 76 per cent of Madre de Dios’ tree cover was intact forest. My home province encompasses, among others, the Manu Biosphere Reserve, the largest rainforest reserve in the world and where the Andes and Amazon meet. It is uniquely diverse and the home of thousands of species; the highest number of reptile and amphibian species in a national park can be found here.

This unique biodiversity matches cultural and language diversity; in Manu there are eight native nations, including thousands of peoples who are in the situation of isolation in the forest. But there are also nomads who use the rivers as the fastest way to reach other communities. In fact, everyone uses the snake-shaped rivers (or as they are locally known, yakumama).

Photograph of a papercut 3D artwork. Detail from a larger artwork, showing a brunette girl wearing framed glasses, resting her head on her hands. She is surrounded by green plants and trees with red and yellow paint splatters. The girl is resting near a river bank, which is a mottled blue and yellow colour with white brush strokes showing its curvature. Four brown otters are shown resting and playing on a branch outstretched across the river.
My rainforest upbringing. © Cat O'Neil for Wellcome Collection.

“I rush to the ditch that divides the street, trying to find something that will catch my eye. This isn’t difficult if you live in the Peruvian Amazon, in a region like Madre de Dios.”

What a fascinating and golden colour they have! Their turbulent beauty carries logs at very high speeds that the canoe master must avoid. Some river turtles (taricayas) travel on top of those logs, and on top of them, butterflies. That is the visible beauty, but the rainforest’s hidden beauty is even more immense. Both sides ignite curiosity.

Fighting for environmental justice

The riches of this tropical paradise attract curious minds but also extractive activities that harm the place and the species inhabiting it, including us. My mum moved to Madre de Dios in 1987 and ten years later she became an environmental lawyer and Indigenous rights activist.

Since then, she has devoted most of her career to advising Indigenous leaders on their constant struggle for their human and land rights, for environmental justice and to preserve biodiversity under the current conditions of global climate change and constant local political turmoil.

Her first contact with Indigenous communities was giving talks to empower Indigenous women about their rights. About this first experience, she says: “I just loved doing fieldwork, being more in touch with reality. I didn’t want to rely on papers and files that were perhaps altered. While outside of those four walls, there were vibrant forests to explore that had pressing issues.”

After this experience, she quit her job as a judiciary adviser, which would have economically assured our family’s livelihood, as she is the only parent. Instead she chose to tackle pressing issues that were endemic to our region.

Photograph of a papercut 3D artwork. The image shows a meandering mottled blue and yellow river with white and gold brush strokes indicating the river’s curvature. Surrounding the different bends of the river are plants and shrubbery of various shades of green with red and yellow paint splatters. A tree branch is outstretched across the river. Two otters lie resting on top of the branch.
My rainforest upbringing. © Cat O'Neil for Wellcome Collection.

“Everyone uses the snake-shaped rivers (or as they are locally known, yakumama). What a fascinating and golden colour they have!”

An inherited passion for the forest

At the age of ten, I decided I had to move to the capital, Lima, to have access to better education, with or without my mum. She quit her three jobs in Madre de Dios to move to Lima with me and ten million others, mostly immigrants from other regions, like us.

We were both quietly anxious but also enthusiastic about our new lives; me starting secondary school and my mum with a similar job in Indigenous rights, only this time it was at national level. By the age of 14, I had the privilege to decide to pursue further study at university. As an ever-curious person, I liked all subjects, but in the end had to decide between literature and genetics.

When I thought about the great biodiversity of my hometown and the need to bolster science in my home country (and the fact that there are already many amazing Peruvian writers), I opted for genetics.

Now I work as a postdoctoral researcher in Denmark and my focus is to understand evolutionary processes and biodiversity patterns in economically important species by analysing their genomes and metabolites.

Since then, many years and kilometres have passed and I feel Madre de Dios walks with me in big decisions, like choosing a PhD subject. But it’s also in me every day in the background; for example, when I see leaves tumbling on the streets, my peripheral view tricks me into thinking it’s a toad.

Photograph of a papercut 3D artwork. Detail from a larger artwork, showing a mottled blue and gold river with blue and yellow stripes indicating the river’s curvature. In the foreground, three tortoises are piled on top of a floating log, travelling downstream. The first tortoise holds a red flower in its mouth whilst looking slightly upwards. Some green shrubbery is shown on the riverbank in the background.
My rainforest upbringing. © Cat O'Neil for Wellcome Collection.

“Some river turtles (taricayas) travel on top of those logs, and on top of them, butterflies. That is the visible beauty, but the rainforest’s hidden beauty is even more immense.”

As my mother's daughter, I inherited her passion about our forest, its biodiversity, and the Indigenous peoples.

Madre de Dios, with its riches as well as its issues, filled my mum’s heart and mind with purpose. As her daughter, I inherited her passion about our forest, its biodiversity, and the Indigenous peoples. During dinners, slowly and progressively I gained more insights about the struggles and the importance of preserving the forest; my mum, her colleagues and the elders would tell us about the cases that ruled in favour of the communities, although most of the time they were against.

But they aren’t giving up the fight to defend the forests. Once someone told me something along these lines: “If you could do ten per cent of what your mum has done for us, you would’ve done a lot.” It was at that moment I learned how committed she was to environmental justice.

In the same way, I’m not giving up on understanding the biology of Peruvian species, because they’re so rich, beautiful, and have complex stories. They’re also threatened, and more importantly, we’re still in time to make a change to preserve them.

I also want to show young locals that we can be the scientists behind these studies, the same way our ancestors were curious and connected with the forest and the living forms in it, which helped them to domesticate crops and animals – like potatoes and guinea pigs – thousands of years ago.

About the contributors

Nataly Allasi Canales

Author

Dr Nataly Allasi Canales is a researcher and environmentalist at heart. Originally from the Peruvian Amazon, her aim is to unravel evolutionary histories of important organisms from her hometown, and by doing so she also aims to empower the local communities with science. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen.

Colour illustration of a person representing Cat O'Neil.

Cat O'Neil

Illustrator

Cat O'Neil is an award winning freelance illustrator, specialising in editorial. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2011, and has lived in Hong Kong, London, Glasgow, Lyon and Edinburgh. Her clients include the New York Times, Washington Post, WIRED, LA Times, Scientific American, the Financial Times, the Guardian/Observer, Libération and more. Her work explores the use of visual metaphors to convey concept and narrative, and combines the use of traditional and digital mediums. Much of her recent work includes the creation of 3D paper sculptures, which are made in her studio in Edinburgh.