How cocaine farmers and illegal loggers joined one man’s quest to save a slice of the Amazon

Charlie Hamilton James and his spider monkey companion Image courtesy of Charlie Hamilton James

Charlie Hamilton James and his spider monkey companion
Image courtesy of Charlie Hamilton James

The Amazon, comprising more than half of Earth’s remaining rainforest, is frequently described as the lungs of the planet — so it’s understandable that there’s worldwide alarm over its rapid deforestation, often by illegal burns to clear land for cattle ranches.

While news reports generally focus on global repercussions, conservation photojournalist Charlie Hamilton James is shining light on the costs to people actually living in there.

James is uniquely positioned to do so: He owns 100 acres abutting Manú National Park, a UNESCO-recognized Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site in Peru that he first visited in the 1990s while making films for the BBC.

The story of how James came to buy that land for £6,000 in 2012 prompted BBC-TV’s 2014 documentary “I Bought a Rainforest,” which also chronicles James’ somewhat amusing discovery that he was landlord to illegal loggers and a cocaine farm. (Last year he also did a story for National Geographic.)

But any humor is dark. As a seasoned photojournalist, James understood the complexities of the Amazon’s environment as well as the dire need to protect it. As he acquainted himself with his tenants and nearby gold miners, James became aware that addressing their extreme poverty is essential if any rainforest-preservation policy is to succeed.

He’ll discuss his experiences and efforts to protect Manú at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Thursday, Oct. 13, and Friday, Oct. 14.

James has been working since age 16, when he got his start on director David Attenborough’s TV series “Trials of Life.” Whether he’s underwater photographing river otters in the Grand Tetons or catching the eye of tree-perched cheetahs dining on freshly caught prey, James’ photos have a stunning visual and sometimes emotional impact.

Capturing those images takes its toll. Documenting environmental crises, he’s often “seeing dead stuff all day,” he says.

Small wonder he tries to spend as much time as possible at home with his family in Wyoming. Speaking in his thick British accent, James made time for a cellphone conversation while taking a “gorgeous” morning stroll along the Snake River with Watson, a Benji-like doodle with his own Instagram account (@watsonthewonderdoodle).

What makes Manú National Park so precious to you?

I started going there in the late ’90s, filming giant otters, and I kind of fell in love with it. It’s a hard place to exist in, because it’s the rainforest and it’s hot and full of insects; it’s not an easy environment to enjoy. But I ended up going there again and again, and I felt duty-bound to do more with my time to protect it rather than just taking from it. I wanted to put something back into it.

When you bought the land in Manú, did you visit before taking your documentary crew?

I’d never seen it before. I thought it was sort of a bucolic, lovely rainforest, but it wasn’t. It was basically an illegal coca plantation. I didn’t know that until I stumbled out of the bush into it. [Laughs.]

Visitors to the Amazon often talk about their awe of the biodiversity.

Yeah, in the rainforest, the moment you step into it, you very much start to become part of it. You become a source of blood and a source of salt. There’s very little salt in the Amazon, especially in that part of Peru, so everything wants a piece of your ass, basically. [Laughs.] So you can’t experience it in the same way you can the plains of Africa, where you sit and look at it. … There’s pretty much more life there than anywhere else, but you don’t really see it. You can only see 50, 60 feet, and then this green curtain blocks the view of everything. It’s actually quite hard to see animals in the rainforest.

It sounds very time-intensive, sitting and waiting for things to happen.

It is. It’s not somewhere I really enjoy working, although I do spend a lot of time there. It’s very difficult getting photos of wildlife. Really the only places you do get to watch wildlife are on the lakes and rivers. I spent six months filming giant otters on the lake. They’re out in the open and you can see them. That’s great when it’s like that. Otherwise, it’s occasionally you see a monkey or a bird or a hummingbird. Mainly it’s looking at insects.

Did Manú inspire your shift from wildlife photographer to conservation photojournalist?

Absolutely. And not just that, but actually photographing people. In Manú, when I started living with the gold miners and the illegal loggers, I started to realize that people were actually of interest.

Did the people you met express concern that burning the forest has consequences elsewhere in the world?

Do they say that? No. They are people who are very poor. They have to survive there. They have to feed their families. They live in an enormous resource, which is the rainforest. We in the West suggest that they can’t use their resource because we don’t want the Amazon cut there. We’re in a very tricky position, because actually, why shouldn’t they be able to use their resource? They need to, to survive. Which leads to what I say in my talk, which is basically that conservation is a bourgeois concept. It’s very easy for us to talk about when we’re in a position of health and food security. It’s very difficult to talk about conservation when you don’t have a regular supply of money and food and you can’t plan for the future. To expect people in that position to not cut down a tree to feed their family is kind of ludicrous.

Do you have any thoughts about how to break that cycle of poverty while protecting the environment?

That’s one of reasons I work with this NGO, the Crees Foundation. They’re trying this thing called agro-forestry. They teach people to grow instead of cutting the trees down — to actually grow food crops, sustainably, within the rain forest. That’s just one way of doing it. But really, you need a kind of paradigm economic global shift to effectively solve the problem, especially as we’re in a situation with a growing human population. If you want to do anything successful, you need to address these issues on a global level. People need to realize that the Amazon is globally important to all of us, and globally need to invest in it rather than expecting NGOS and [the public] to look after it. But that’s not gonna happen. Not with the way the world works, unfortunately.

If you’d been sitting at the table at the Paris climate talks, or if you could speak with world leaders, what would you suggest?

We ignore the poor people of the world at our peril, basically. We expect the most important ecological areas in the world to be looked after by people with no money. In Africa, the Serengeti, and all these places in the Amazon, it’s the very poor, often indigenous people whose land is being taken away [whom] we expect to look after these places, and we really shit on them when they don’t do it. We sit and shout at them that they aren’t looking after it properly. We have a go at illegal loggers for cutting down trees; we have a go at rhino poachers for killing rhinos. But when you start looking at it, these are all very poor people just trying to feed their families. We really need to address that.

You made a rather contemplative picture of a spider monkey sitting by a river; she almost looks human. How much time do you spend around animal subjects before photographing them?

That monkey was part of a very remote community in the Amazon. It was part of a gang of kids running around. They can have pets, and they often travel with all their birds and their monkeys … it was very much a part of the family. That monkey spent a lot of time on my head and my shoulders. We became friends, just hanging out. It’s kind of an emotional picture.

In Kenya and South Africa, you recently photographed threatened vultures and the burning of confiscated ivory. Are there other stories happening on the ground that you wish were receiving more attention?

The vulture decline in Africa is a massive catastrophe that the world doesn’t know anything about. I managed to get National Geographic behind it, and the poisoning [story] grew from that — over the last year I’ve been working on a big story of wildlife poisoning. Poisoning in Africa is probably the biggest untold story in Africa at the moment; it’s a massive event.


The intentional poisoning of wildlife.

For political reasons?

No, for food, for conflict — there are a lot of conflict issues. People poisoning lions because lions eat your cow. In olden years if you were Masai, you could go out with a spear and kill the lion; now you can kill half the pride with half a cup of pesticide. There are horrible stories.

What’s the main thing you’re striving to communicate with your photography?

I just want people to care about it, and give a shit a bit more about their fellow humans. I think if we all saw the world’s environmental problems we’d care more.  I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. One thing I learned in the Amazon with loggers and things, we — the haves and have nots — need to care about it more.

Nat Geo Live presents Charlie Hamilton James’ talk “I Bought a Rainforest: From Manú to Yellowstone” at The Broad Stage (1310 11th St., Santa Monica) at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 13 and 14. Tickets are $50 to $75. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit