In a village of 300 people the discovery of an ancient petrified forest resounds like silent thunder from the earth, for the villagers as well as scientists across the globe.
The forest, formed 39 million years ago as the result of volcanic eruptions, is a gift that bears responsibility as well as opportunity for the people of Sexi, Peru. “The site only came to be known to scientists in the early 1990s,” said Herb Meyer, Ph.D. and paleontologist with Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. “It’s a very diverse site as far as petrified-wood sites in the world.”
Meyer and Deborah Woodcock, Ph.D., paleo-climatologist with Clark University in Massachusetts, were hosts this month to Diana Pajuelo Aparicio, a geologist, and Santiago Asenjo Davila, village native and accountant who now lives in Lima, Peru.
The two Peruvians were in Florissant to learn how to help Sexi benefit from the discovery yet maintain the integrity of the site, which is protected by the national government.
The Friends of the Fossil Beds, whose members are partners in the project, funded the visitors’ travel expenses.
For the scientists, the discovery at El Bosque Petrificado Piedra Chamana offers a wealth of information; for Meyer, it’s the opportunity to study 25 leaf fossils, for Woodcock, it’s the 30 various kinds of wood.
As the fossil beds attract tourists from around the nation, the Americans hope to help the villagers promote geo-tourism to the forest. However, the traps are obvious.
“As people become more aware of it, fossils start to disappear,” Meyer said. “Sexi is a very poor village where the economy is based one chicken and eggs, very basic subsistence.”
But for Asenjo, who at times is emotional over the poverty and challenges faced by his people, the fossils could be a pathway to something previously unreachable.
“There is no opportunity for the people of Sexi; there is no work, the schools aren’t very good, health care is not good,” said Woodcock, translating for Asenjo. “Everybody leaves, so the idea that we could do anything that would make the economy strong is exciting.”
Asenjo is crossed by concern yet enticed by the possibilities. “His family tries to get him to rest and not worry about Sexi,” Woodcock said.
In visiting the fossil beds, as well as other sites in Colorado, the Peruvians hope to help the villagers form a group like the “Friends,” and amplify auxiliary opportunities for tourists, such as burro rides to view the Continental Divide from the top of a mountain.
For Pajuelo, who works with an INGEMETT, which is comparable to the USGS, the visit has been an eye-opener. “I have seen what you can do with geology. In Peru we write papers and investigate sites but we are missing communication with the public,” she said. “In Florissant they tell how the fossils are formed. If you show people with pictures they will see the importance of that bone, or that hill, for instance.”
Developing geo-tourism is comprehensive, she said. “Yes, you have technology but I have seen the imagination to create geological evolution in a good way.”
Woodcock and Meyer have explored the forest several times, with an eye on the science as well as the human aspect of the discovery.
“Our concerns are in helping them develop this very important site in a way that benefits the economy of the small village,” Meyer said. “The mission of the National Park Service is to extend the benefits of conservation throughout the world, not just in the United States.”