Charlie Hamilton James knew the moment he set eyes on his little piece of Peruvian jungle that he’d been reckless. It was not, as he’d imagined on the four-flight journey to see it for the first time, an ancient forest sculpted by the influence of the dominant mahogany tree, but a derelict piece of scrub disfigured by illegal logging, squatted on by a villager and used for cocaine production. “My heart sank. It was a crap piece of land. No trees, no animals, nothing. It was incredibly disheartening.”
Hamilton James – best known for wildlife films such as My Halcyon River – hadn’t banked on having such an emotional reaction to the 100-acre parcel of land. He had, after all, bought it over the phone for £6,000, sight unseen, as a way of preventing illegal loggers getting into the adjacent Manu National Park.
“It’s at the very end of a remote road that is a gateway to the park,” he explains. “The loggers would have to cross my land to get into the park so we figured, buy it, get a guard station built on it and stop this one route from being used by the loggers.” But the Peruvians had no money to build the guard station and only 26 staff to protect a national park the size of Wales. “So my little snap decision became a protracted problem,” he admits ruefully.
Back at home, his wife, TV presenter Philippa Forrester, struggled to resist the finger-wagging. “She didn’t agree with the principle of it because she has a degree in conservation and ecology and knows what she’s talking about. She said I shouldn’t be buying up land to protect it, but that wasn’t my motivation. My motivation was to help the park and stop the logging, but the moment we have ownership of something we want to protect it.”
Numerous visits – including meetings with loggers and coca growers – followed as Hamilton James sought to fashion his pig’s ear of a plot into something more useful. Two years down the line both he and the forest he owns are in a better place. The coca plants have been cleared, the illegal logger who was squatting on his land is now employed by Hamilton James and there’s even talk of the guard station being built.
But, most crucially of all, he has a new-found respect for the subsistence loggers, the very people he used to despise. “We have this idea that illegal loggers must be living the good life, but they’re not; they are just these guys living in horrible shacks in complete poverty and logging really is all they’ve got.
“The real issue is that the rainforest is a carbon sink. The west is producing more carbon and we are blaming the developing world for cutting down trees to sustain themselves. So we’re producing the carbon, and they’re cutting down the trees that absorb it. As rich nations we can’t keep blaming poor nations for problems that are of our creation.”
In a microscopic way, Hamilton James has found a solution. “The man who spent his whole life chopping down trees on my land is now replanting them and I donate money to his salary every month. We have fixed the problem by throwing money at it and that, at the moment, is the only way I can see us going.”
So does he expect to keep his little piece of paradise? “No, the moment the land is sorted I want to hand it over to someone who is better at looking after it. I want to walk away knowing that in the end I did protect that bit of the national park.”