After years of research projects and multiple trips, geography professor David Salisbury has developed a relationship with the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon—a relationship he was able to share with National Geographic magazine last summer.

With Salisbury’s expertise in Amazon borderlands, his work includes transboundary mapping between Brazil and Peru and an analysis of the Peruvian forestry system—analyzing the interaction between Amazonians, their environment and the outside political-economic forces. 

His experience looking at the political ecology of timber and traditional populations piqued the interest of National Geographic reporter Scott Wallace, who has written extensively on the Amazon. Wallace enlisted Salisbury to travel with him to Peru last summer.

Their team went on an expedition in July to document illegal logging in the remote Amazon borderlands. Traveling to an area that would normally take eight days to reach by boat, Salisbury arrived in 40 minutes by helicopter with Wallace. 

“My role was to help them understand the reality of illegal logging in a remote area where an indigenous group lived,” Salisbury said. 

The area they visited is untitled, meaning the indigenous community that lives there does not have title to their land. Instead, the land is overrun by illegal loggers who exploit the indigenous people and the forest. They talked to a local leader Salisbury has known for seven years, who said the magazine’s story would be welcome because “it would give exposure to an unjust situation,” Salisbury said. 

Salisbury’s research looks into how indigenous people are interacting with the timber industry and the forestry system in Peru. He sees the indigenous people as “complex actors who range across a scale from victim to agent.”

“They’ve been struggling for over a decade to get title to their land without success,” Salisbury said. “The hope is that National Geographic can bring attention to their situation.” 

It already has, Salisbury added, as Peru’s Indigenous Association recently agreed to prioritize titling of this community. 

Not only is Salisbury intimately involved with Peru’s forestry issues and mapping its Amazon borderlands, but he can share that involvement in ongoing circumstances with his students at Richmond. 

In the fall he taught a class called “Society, Economy and Nature: Global Perspectives on Sustainable Development,” in which his students delved into the issues surrounding the Peruvian forestry system, such as rainforest ecology, labor systems, and indigenous communities. At the end of the semester, students gave presentations, some of which Wallace sat in on via Skype. 

“The exciting part about this from a UR perspective is the teacher-scholar connection,” Salisbury said. “The idea that there are classes that are being created around real-time issues—ugly, messy issues that exist and have real importance, not only to Peru but to the world at large.”

This spring, Salisbury is teaching an environmental studies seminar in which he will focus on the environmental and social impacts of roads and railroads with his mapping project in mind. The class will look at the issue through the lens of political ecology, as well as land change science—a more objective, scientific approach. 

The mapping project comprises Salisbury’s research into the social and environmental impacts of a proposed transboundary road in Peru and Brazil. He has mapped the route, and now with local sources and partners at Oklahoma State University, he has begun modeling the deforestation that will take place if the proposed road is created versus an ecological railroad.  

The transboundary map is the best available, which Salisbury created by using existing data, his knowledge of the landscape, and an analysis of satellite images to mark conservation areas, uncontacted tribes and untitled lands through which the road would cross. He hopes that ultimately, the map could lead to signed formal agreements between institutions and governments to share data across borders.

Salisbury lamented that the trade-off of being able to share his experiences with his students is that he can only do so much for the people and forests of Peru from Richmond. 

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “One of the great challenges of my position here at the University is it gives me a great opportunity to contribute to issues of environmental and social justice—but you’re also here, so it’s hard. You can’t do as much as you’d like. 

“It’s tremendous to be able to share these real-life, in-the-moment situations with young talented students who have the potential to make change as well.”

Originally printed in the spring 2012 issue of Artes Liberales.