LIVING LAB FOR TROPICAL TOPICS
DOCTOR DISCOVERS A MISSION IN PERU
SOLVAY EYE DOCTOR'S VISION LEADS TO CREATION OF RESEARCH VILLA AND NATURE PRESERVE IN PERU
Paul Singley Contributing writer
Eight years ago, Dr. Charles Mango gave into his son's request that the family vacation at a tropical rain forest in Peru.
Now Mango finds himself going back more and more often. He founded a lodge and a research center there.
He befriended a native tour guide.
He brings antibiotics, eyeglasses and some clothing.
And he manages 45,000 to 50,000 acres that were donated to his environmental cause by natives and by the Peruvian government.
"While I'm there, I do run a clinic and take care of their eyes, but that's not the reason I'm there," said Mango, an ophthalmologist with an office in Syracuse and a home in Solvay.
Mango forged a partnership with Cornell University, which along with the University of Miami, brings students to the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge to do research.
"Dr. Mango has been so generous not only to Cornell, but also to supporting Peruvian people and their families," said Eloy Rodriguez, a biology professor who teaches some semesters at Cornell and others at Miami.
The idea for a lodge began in the summer of 1996, when Mango took his family to Peru. Then, nobody would have described Mango as an avid environmentalist. But he went to satisfy his oldest son, Charlie, who was teaching tropical lowland ecology at that point.
While on a boat tour of the Amazon, Mango and his family became intrigued with one of the tour guides, a Peruvian native, 22, named Victor Serrubio. "Victor sort of took us under his wing and we really enjoyed his company," Mango said.
A year later, Mango returned the favor.
Serrubio told the doctor that he was going blind in one eye and was afraid he would have to stop giving tours. So Mango arranged for Serrubio to come to Syracuse so the doctor could perform surgery. Mango and his team of doctors worked on Serrubio's eye free. "Victor became like an adopted son to me," Mango said.
Months after the surgery, Mango and Serrubio began talking about building a lodge in the Amazon. The doctor wanted to help Serrubio, and the people of his village, have a business so they could make an income.
Three years later, the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge was finished. Serrubio is the manager.
Mango said he doesn't make money from the lodge and that he probably will never recoup the money he invested. But he said he doesn't mind because his intention was to have the lodge benefit the Peruvians. He wants to attract just enough tourists for the natives to make a profit.
"We want to keep the groups rather small," he said. "These tourists will then buy their native goods. And the local natives work at the lodge and also provide some guiding to the tourists."
After seeing what he did with the lodge and the area nearby, the Peruvian government gave him a 15-year renewable contract for ownership and management of a 40-square-mile tract along the Amazon.
Mango also realized the potential for educational experiences. And the land donation he received gave him the means to set up a research center for students. So, he pitched the idea to Rodriguez at Cornell.
"I was not interested at first because we had a research site in Venezuela," Rodriguez said.
"But he eventually convinced me to take a look at the site in Peru, and I liked the spot. It is what you would call a "hot spot of biodiversity."
Rodriguez eventually stopped sending students to Venezuela when civil unrest made it dangerous. He then made Peru his main focus for research locations outside the United States.
Mango donated the property and the land to Cornell. Cornell alumni then donated money to develop a state-of-the-art research facility at Mango's lodge. Now the Cornell University Esbaran Field Laboratory building is connected to the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge.
The laboratory is a place where students studying biology and other sciences perform hands-on research. They get to study plants and animals, such as pink dolphins, anacondas, caimans and 800 species of birds.
"Some of the natives will make comments about how we're a little weird and nuts because we will do things like climb a tree just to look at a little fruit or something," Rodriguez said.
"And hey, maybe we are a little weird. But the important thing, and our focus here, is that we're teaching the students how to do research."
Although most of the students are from Cornell and Miami, the opportunity is not strictly confined to those schools. Mango said he has discussed participation with Syracuse University, Upstate Medical University and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
"If you go to a university and talk to any undergraduate student interested in science about the chance to do research in the Amazon, they will be thrilled," Rodriguez said.
"If they are stuck in weather like they have in Central New York, they will be bouncing off the wall.
"And then if you tell them that they will learn about the land and culture by people from indigenous tribes in the Amazon, it will be like a dream come true."
Jason DeMera, associate director of the Cornell undergraduate research program on biodiversity and the minority international research program, went to the Amazon laboratory as a guide when he was a graduate student.
DeMera said field research is invaluable.
"It's much different doing research outside of the United States and in the middle of a rain forest," DeMera said.
"It helps undergraduate students realize whether or not this is something they want to go on to graduate school for and do research on. They have to figure out whether they can handle this type of research. And if they can, they get to ask themselves if this is something they actually want to do."
DeMera and Rodriguez said they were glad Mango had the vision to see the educational benefits of such a project.
"Dr. Mango reminds me of an old-fashioned philanthropist," Rodriguez said. "He's there because he loves it. He is very enthusiastic about this, and I have to admire him for that. I think it's great."
Copyright, 2004, The Herald Company - used with permission.