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Oct 21, 2020

Re-emergence: Learning from the Forest to be more Human

Partner farmer regards a healthy Brazil Nut Tree
Partner farmer regards a healthy Brazil Nut Tree

Hello GlobalGiving Supporters,

We are happy to report with the continuous support of donors like you, we have been able to continue our work despite the global pandemic that we have all been affected by. We are still planting trees in the Peruvian Amazon as we watch borders slowly open and restrictions gradually lift. 

We are also excited that during our quarantine time we have been working hard on developing a transparency application for tree planting. Look for our future updates and reports to find out more. 

As we re-emerge into our "new normal", there is an opportunity to reflect on ourselves. Here at Camino Verde we look to the forest, the land and its delicate ecology to learn how to improve ourselves, our work and our greater community. 

Please enjoy a beautiful piece of text by our Executive Director, Robin Van Loon:

Re-emergence, or how the Tallest Trees in the Amazon can Teach us to be more Human

I. Trees that Emerge from the Forest like Antennae 

Standing at the base of a giant kapok tree leaves you feeling small and insignificant.  Letting your eye be led by one of the characteristic rows of bumps that vertically stripe the trunk’s bark like meridiens, you can go from the soil to the hundred foot (forty meter) high crown by following what may very well be a route traveled by trains of leafcutter ants ascending into the canopy, descending with their cargo.  Tracing your glance slowly up the height of this elder, one of the Amazon rainforest’s largest trees, you will pass the hulking haunches of its buttress roots before reaching the dangling jeweled earrings of bromeliads and orchids that adorn its main branches, each as thick as a respectable tree trunk. Depending on the time of year, you might find at your feet and above you the pink and white flowers that smell faintly of jasmine and cinnamon. Or some months later you’d be lucky to spot the cotton pod-like fruits starting to dry out and pop open under the exacting tropical sun, loosing to the skies a silken, snow white, long-fibered kapok in the attempt to float the oily, edible seeds somewhere far away.

Called Ceiba pentandra by science, the tree is known to Peruvians as lupuna (loo-poo-nah) and is understood by some to be the home of the mother of the forest.  The morphology of its trunk gives the occasional tree a swollen shape reminiscent of a pregnant belly, and this is where a forest guardian spirit is said to live.  Several Amazonian tribes hold taboos against the tree’s destruction.  In Tambopata, Peru, elders in native communities have told us that it is really preferable to say your polite greetings outloud when passing by a particularly large one.  You wouldn’t want to come off as disrespectful, not to a lupuna.  These trees used to be left standing when farms were slashed, burnt from the forest.  This deference was born out of the fear that the tree’s powerful spirit could get you sick if you caused it harm.  

Around the globe, from the Amazon to the Old World, it’s only somewhat recently that human taboos strayed from emphasizing encoded naturalist knowledge.  Almost since we started walking upright, social taboos have helped keep rivers free from pollution and bird populations robust – and in this way they could be said to be a social technology, a software, of the human role in the ecosystem.  Taboos have helped to keep the great trees alive, with their special ecological role to play.  A forest without its largest, most ancient trees is simply... different.  

It is some trees’ nature to stand above the rest.  The dense multilayer structure of rainforests includes mycelium, herbs, brambles, vines, and shrubs.  Above these, palms, woody lianas, and young trees make up the mid range, and then the canopy trees form, well, the canopy, replete with epiphytic microlayers of life stacked on life.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s where the biological elevator stops its ascent, but instead there are trees beyond the canopy that stand head and shoulders above their peers.  These forest giants are called emergent trees, as in emerging above, and their crowns extend into the heights where others do not.  In the Amazon rainforest and elsewhere, emergent trees play a key role, positioned as they are at the literal physical apex of all that green.  

When we talk about the ecology of a forest, and the ecology for example of a tree species, we’re talking about anatomy and physiology, form and function. But when we say function, you could also say we’re talking about purpose – what unique role does this species play for the ecosystem that no other can fulfill in precisely this way?

Among biology students (and professors for that matter), it’s still common to see Survival of the Fittest style thinking superimposed onto our ecological models in frankly inaccurate ways. We get to imagining that each tree stands where it stands because it is the most apt competitor within the forest for that particular spot, who was able to specialize to a certain soil type and microclimatic characteristics better than others and thereby earn itself a continuing slot in the musical chairs game of life.  

But in practice, in the field, there are many species that fit any given site – and a variety of sites where a certain kind of tree can grow happily.  Few species succeed and persist as a product of elbowing out competitors.  Rather, species achieve longevity through relevance.  They do something useful, they are productive and helpful, maybe more so than they have to be, and the forest in turn “invests” in them.  You could say this investment comes in the form of dependence.  The way that a forest shows its support of a creature is by tying other species to it in interdependent relationships.  Successful species aren’t the loners who outrun the pack.  Rather, the winners are the ones with the highest number of actively vibrating strands in the web of forest connectivity.  Make yourself useful to many, and there will be many hoping for you to succeed. 

Think of the squirrels, looking out for the chestnut trees by dispersing and planting their seeds.  The squirrels celebrate the generosity of the chestnuts in this way and practice reciprocity each time a stashed nut is forgotten and allowed to become a tree.  The species that survive are not the species who do it better, to the detriment of the weak others.  The species that persist are the ones that make themselves useful, feed and shelter others, becoming keystone elements within their landscape.  And so the squirrel is a willing servant of the chestnut, thanks to the chestnut’s incredible generosity.  More than acting as a servant, in fact the squirrel is a beneficiary.  And thus the chestnut’s mission becomes the squirrel’s mission. 

II. Apex Predators and Apex Providers 

There are many superlative examples of generous providers as keystone species.  In the Amazon forest, the lupuna and the rest of the emergent tree species all share the trait of being mega-abundant fruiters.  Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) is not just economically significant but is also the tallest and one of the longest lived trees in the part of Southwestern Amazonia where it is native.  Researchers have found the productive life of Brazil nuts to surpass 800 years.  Similarly, when millenary hardwoods like chihuahuaco (Dipteryx micrantha) go to flower, the surrounding forest is abuzz with bees and expectation, for their seeds to be broadcast to the winds and showered over the other trees like so much edible confetti.  Quinilla (Manilkara bidentata) gives a hailstorm of sweet, sticky fruits related to the original chewing gum tree or chicle.  Birds and mammals alike delight in the abundance provided by these amazing producers year after year.  What animal doesn’t delight in a source of reliably plentiful food?  From fruit bats above to flightless birds below, the emergent trees recruit a squad of dispersers to invigorate and extend their reach and range.  This isn’t a capitalist system – the seed dispersers are paid handsomely for their services, so much so that one wonders if “the point” of the trees’ productivity is in fact to scatter seeds or rather to feed the animals.  

Meanwhile, the actual bodies of these largest of rainforest trees form important habitat for creatures ranging from harpy eagles through the full rainbow of parrots, on to the monkeys and other arboreal mammals, from the sloth to the giant anteater.  Even mountain lions sleep in trees.  Hanging gardens of epiphytes, dangling aerial roots, and woody lianas anchor or loop themselves over these, the most structurally stable of all terrestrial organisms.  Fungus beneficially infect the trees underground, delivering minerals in exchange for photosynthetically engineered sugars.  And when the giants must fall, it is the fungus that blanket the old bodies in honorable funerary garments before returning their growth to the forest in a feast of renewal.

Let’s leave aside the emergent trees for a moment, because it’s not just the “charismatic megaflora,” the keystone species, that survive through service to others.  In a resilient forest, all the trees have their role to play.  Each has its specialist expertise, some in a less conspicuous way.  There are those who invisibly fix nitrogen from the air through associations with bacteria living in their roots and feed this key nutrient into the forest as a whole via leaf drop and the mycelial mat.   Some trees and herbs pull up harmful minerals and store them, away from others who are more susceptible.  And practically all species of trees in a forest such as the Amazon invest sugars and minerals via soil fungal webs to tree seedlings in the shadowy understory, regardless of species, ensuring the presence of new young to replace any falling old.  Meanwhile strangler figs thin the pack of the infirm, bringing weak and sick trees down, thus creating light gaps where young trees get the chance to spring up into the canopy.

III. Learning the Language of the Forest

In the Amazon it’s common to refer to the madre, or mother, to mean the spirit that dwells within a plant or tree, a river or a claylick frequented by the fauna.  Each tree species has its madre, and many of these “spirits of the trees” are colorful figures in the local folklore.  To understand what is called in some cultures the “medicine” of a tree, something of its personality and character, the flavor of its wisdom and the tone of its melody, studying its ecology is an excellent place to begin.  For many non-indigenous and Western people it’s frankly daunting to try to imagine how to get in touch with non-human life, to communicate with plants as some humans, some entire cultures, purport to be able to do.  It’s easy to think that this knowledge has been lost from a lack of practice.  But if we can entertain the notion that it’s possible for humans to get closer to life, to nature, to the consciousness of non-human life, then studying the way a species contributes to its ecosystem in tangible terms is an excellent place to start.  The chamomile tea calming a child before bed is one example of the beneficial interspecies ecology of a plant.  Ginger helping you fight off a cold is another, human-centric as this may be.  

Ecology is about relationships, about the intersection of benefits to beings belonging to different kingdoms and phylums.  Ecology tells us about what a language spoken across species might sound like, about how a “superorganism” like a forest thinks: in three dimensions.  

To look at one example, the towering Amazonian ironwood or chihuahuaco produces delicious edible seeds that are sometimes dispersed but more often are depredated (eaten) by a rodent called the agouti.  This is the same agouti that disperses other species’ seeds so helpfully.  Given that there are dozens of seeds to a Brazil nut pod, it’s rare for this guinea pig-like creature to finish them all off, so many are left behind and thereby “planted.”  But chihuahuaco produces only one seed per pod, and so the agouti rarely carries it anywhere, preferring to eat the one seed per pod in a single gulp.  This is a clear recipe for over-consumption of the almond-like seeds and a resulting dearth of regenerative germplasm – bad for the chihuahuaco.  

But the chihuahuaco is wise so to speak, and has developed a fuzzy, resinous coating over its seed pods that is attractive to giant fruit bats for superficial chewing and sucking that doesn’t damage the seeds inside.  Because these large flying mammals are in turn attractive as prey for owls, the bats usually carry the fruits to a secluded perch for peaceful enjoyment – which is first rate seed disperser behavior.  For whatever reason the saliva of the bats renders the seed pods unattractive to the agouti, who no longer crunches through the hard shell to get to the almond.  As a result, small nursery beds of chihuahuaco seedlings spring up on the forest floor below, always a clear indicator of where a bat has perched to eat.  By spotting the seedlings, you know the bat was there.  You are reading something of the language of the forest.  And thus we learn that the bat has a purpose to play with regard to the chihuahuaco and the agouti.  We see a relationship that we otherwise would not have suspected, and so we learn something about the important role the fruit bat plays in the forest.

And this brings us to a critical question, perhaps the most important question for our culture to ask.  What is the ecology of humans?  What is the role for which we are uniquely cast?  What is our function, our purpose on Earth? Why would life need an animal like us?  If we think of the unique gifts of humans as having been endowed to us by nature in order to fulfill a vital function, we are doing more than confirming the conclusions of countless indigenous creation myths, not to mention the book of Genesis.  We are also shifting our cultural orientation around how we see humans in the ecosystems where we’re found.  Our present cultures largely take it for granted that humans will interact with nature mostly out of self-interest and to achieve satisfaction of our material needs.  In other words, we have become convinced that what drives people to interact with nature is profit and gain.  It’s a zero sum game in which we’re extracting value in a way that subtracts value from the landscape.  This is a far cry from the stewardship entrusted to Adam and Eve.  

So much can come from engaging our intellectual curiosity with the simple idea of a helpful role in the landscape for a species like humans.  It’s a potentially useful practice to take time when in the forest to think about how remarkable it is that nature crafted a being like humans that can alter landscapes at will, for good and for ill.  And let’s remember, the landscape is living too.  Plants and fungi and the soil are the stable foundation of the forest and nothing would be possible without them.  The trees and the plants are the structure and are our ancestors.  They form the forest, within which animals are the messengers, bobbing through the trees like synapses conducting neurotransmitters, relaying information in the form of nutrients transferred and seeds dispersed.  And in an added layer of subtlety, humans are the ones to not just participate as equals, not just messengers but also regulators, the ones with the ability to see and measure what’s going on in the ecosystem and even make adjustments.  Just as the introduction of animals enhanced life’s locomotive dynamism, the introduction of humans represented an additional opportunity to build complexity.  Life’s natural tendency is toward just this kind of complexity, or as Ernst Gotsch puts it, syntropy rather than entropy.

IV. Practicing Regeneration 

The more time we spend in the state of mind in which humans are limited actors working within and in service of the broader web of life, the more human we become.  In believing ourselves godlike and apart, we have trashed the sandbox, stomped across the playground, and played out our adolescent rebellion toward mother life, father life, with devastating consequences for many a river and many a bird species.  It is a proof of life’s unconditional love toward us young newcomers that we have been allowed so much freedom to learn through our mistakes.  We are equipped with an extraordinarily high tolerance for the poisons we emit into the waters and soils and skies.  Nature has given us resilience to learn and keep going, and we can only be grateful for the ongoing pardoning we receive.  But now we know too much to ignore the reality that we’re disintegrating ourselves as we dismantle our planet’s web of life.

This is why it becomes more than just an artistic endeavor or flight of fancy to make a sincere attempt to get in the mindset of most of the biological humans ever to have lived.  A mindset of dynamic apprenticeship with nature is vital if we are to cultivate the ability to engage as stewards of life, and in so doing save our skins.  But how do we “get in the mindset” of being ecological actors?  Here are two things that we have found most helpful as a sort of daily practice, accessible to anyone who qualifies as a biological human.  

First, when in a natural landscape such as a forest, take time to remind yourself that the trees are actually alive.  Take time to feel them and perceive them as living beings. Imagine yourself surrounded by animals or people rather than trees.  Imagine the possibility of universal human access to the clarity of the mystic or shaman who sees the trees breathing and hears their voices.  Take a moment to actively abstain from a closed mind, simply suspending doubt for long enough to see what it feels like.  Try to remember the trees as the living beings they are – and push back against the tendency to see them as inert, inanimate matter.

Second, and this takes some greater intellectual flexibility, practice thinking from a perspective that is one lens aperture setting wider, broader, than the norm of thinking of yourself as an individual person.  If we locate identity one order of magnitude higher than the individual, we can actually have the experience of “thinking like a forest” and in so doing, thinking for the forest in the way that must precede stewardship. Examples of this include learning from the landscape through observation, asking why a mushroom sprouted from this stump but not that stump, thus becoming a student of the forest and thereby contemplating what would be good for the ecosystem rather than simply what is good for humans.  We can learn to perceive that the chihuahuacos will suffer if there aren’t enough fruit bats around.  It’s the type of strategic engagement that allows us to see the value of bringing wolves back into landscapes where they were once present, despite our self-interested ambivalence toward having wolves around.  

Humans are a different kind of emergent species.  In the proverbial rainforest that is the diversity of life on Earth, humans have the ability to function as both apex predators and apex providers.  We can help ecosystems and landscapes maintain a dynamic balance and polychromatic harmony.  Or we can bring ourselves crashing down to the ground, abolishing an inordinate amount of life in the process.  Given that all forest resources are renewable, we should be embarrassed at the squandering but also at the lack of thoughtful replacement.  We’ve had all the time in the world to plant more trees, and we haven’t, and now we experience the shortage.  

Our species has been given the tools, physically and intellectually, to sustain ourselves in active co-creation with nature.  Unique animal that we are, we could emerge as a distinctive, generous feature of the landscape not unlike a lupuna or a Brazil nut tree.  Maybe it’s time we stop rebelling like teenagers and act like grown ups, as indigenous people have done for upwards of a hundred thousand years.  With today’s technology and our astonishing human ingenuity in service of the effort, it is imaginable to achieve the regeneration of our Earth’s life-sustaining systems.  Remarkably, the only things stopping us from doing so are our entrenched economic systems and our unwillingness to change course.  It appears that we still have much to learn from the forest.  How fortunate we are that the forest is still willing to teach us.

Jul 13, 2020

Reforestation in the time of a Pandemic

How is the world today? Well. Communities are feeling fractured, people are being asked to self isolate, systemic racism has come to a brutal and heart-aching head in the United States – and so much fear is being propagated.

Here at Camino Verde, we dearly want to help inspire a way to grow toward a resilient future. After all, diversified communities are our “bread and butter” – we have been wary of homogeneity and whitewashing since we first started investigating forests and human societies. As a result, we’re thinking that diversity is key to a healthy ecosystem; this is the way that all things grow on Earth. In our agroforestry and restoration projects we always plant multiple species. Our Rosewood restoration project utilizes not only rosewood seedlings – but rather three keystone trees get planted for every rosewood. Resilience means you don’t put all your eggs in your own basket. Resilience means you know you’re stronger when you’re aligned with the complete scope of diversity that your ecosystem desires.

We have been in a strict quarantine here in Peru. With a curfew imposed the Country feels intense with the military in the streets, people being arrested for being out past curfew and all native communities closed to any outsiders. However, here at Camino Verde we have been focusing on our farm team, living and working together; making sure everyone is well fed and healthy. 

Recently we harvested  huasaí (E. precatoria). Tropical palms always were and continue to be important to humans. Important as food, important to the economy.  Can we imagine life in the Anthropocene without coconut or oil palm?  Examples span the planet’s thick middle, but in the Neotropics and especially in the Amazon the use of palms reaches an impressive level of economic botanical mastery.  This mastery is on display in the home gardens of Bora communities, where five species are by far the most planted of palms, and three of these are found as a significant component of home gardens.  Along with pijuayo and chambira (planted out mostly in the farms), the three most planted palms, those found in the neighborhood, are Euterpe oleracea, Euterpe precatoria, and Mauritia flexuosa.  The first two are both called huasaí in Bora Communities, though many Peruvians and most all Brazilians distinguish E. oleracea as asaí (or açaí in the Portuguese spelling). E. precatoria (picture attached) is a sturdy solitary palm that provides edible, oily fruits more commonly consumed as a thick beverage.  These beverages (collectively called cahuana when thickened with homemade cassava starch) are consumed immediately at home whenever the fruit is available, providing clear cognitive compatibility with the species’ presence in the garden just outside the house. This tree is one that we love to include in our agroforestry systems.

Even in a time of a pandemic we have some good news to hold our spirits up, we were recently selected to be apart of the GlobalGiving Climate Action Cohort and are excited for the upcoming July Bonus Day. Which both are highlights that make us hopefull for the future. We know the seeds of the future are in our hands and we can't stop planting them!

Harvesting at the Reforestation Center
Harvesting at the Reforestation Center
Farm Team Cooking Together
Farm Team Cooking Together
Mar 16, 2020

The Start of a Great Year

The land of Palo Santo
The land of Palo Santo

Dear GlobalGiving Friends,

It is once again the rainy season here in the Peruvian Amazon and our 2020 has had an amazing and supportive beginning. 

As you may remember from our last report, we faced some challenges last year, one of which was the fire that destroyed the main building at our Reforestation Center. However, with the generous support of everyone who gave to Camino Verde we were able to rebuild while also continuing our reforestation work.  

In 2020 we are grateful for you, the extended family that surrounds the Earth with its love and intentionality.  As we rebuild a house in Tambopata, Peru, this year we turn our sights on a bigger impact, one that affects the country Camino Verde calls home.  In this spirit, for March we're sharing a report fom Piura, northern Peru, the home of the strange and enchanting landscape called tropical dry forest. 

Our director Robin Van Loon shares with us a recent field investigation into the unique region of Peru where Bursera graveolens, the aromatic tree known as palo santo grows. We hope you enjoy getting a glimpse into the broader work of Camino Verde.  Since we all face the effects of climate change and habitat loss, it becomes more important to understand how we can collectively work to conserve and regenerate what we are losing. 

Thank you for your belief and support.

The Camino Verde team


Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens): Keystone Species of Peru’s Tropical Dry Forest

The smell is so unique yet has become so familiar. Palo Santo – holy wood, Bursera graveolens – was almost unknown outside of Peru and Ecuador’s borders as recently as the 90’s. But in 2020 Palo Santo is subject to controversy and continues to be shrouded in mystery and confusion. Is it endangered? How endangered? Where does it come from? Are people cutting the trees down? Is it true that the only aromatic wood is that of naturally fallen trees collected from the ground?

Palo Santo is therapeutic, special, unique – and subject to a wide variety of misconceptions. In November 2019, Camino Verde dove into the region of Piura, Peru to strengthen our sourcing relationships with communities that are working hard to ensure the robust health of Palo Santo and the stunning landscape where it is found – the Tropical Dry Forest of northern Peru.

Tropical Dry Forest: the Landscape

Some of Earth’s most dynamic ecosystems are at the edges where different realities meet. What can you find at the transition zone between the coastal desert of Peru, one of the world’s driest, and the foothills of the Andes, the second highest mountain range? – where rushing rivers run down from tropical glaciers, and the last rains discharge and the clouds evaporate before reaching the West Andean flank, the rain shadow side.

What do you get when the cold water Humboldt current – the other key factor in the exceptional dryness and socked-in cloudiness of Peru’s coastal desert – meets the equatorial ocean current that further north gives the verdant glow to so much of Ecuador’s coast? Also, what do you get when this edge zone happens to be adjacent to one of the lowest passes in the Peruvian Andes separating the coast from the Amazon?

You get an ecosystem that is rare – and becoming rarer. You get the Tropical Dry Forest of South America, the landscape that Palo Santo calls home.

The forested Andean foothills of the Piura region are a scene of remarkable biodiversity, the collusion of a mix of different ecosystems that meet but are filtered through the prism of a particular place’s own demands and peculiarities. There are wild trees found here that are also naturally found in Mexico, in Brazil, in Argentina. The history of the Earth is long. There were once jaguars here. There are still snakes, deer, peccaries, and puma, all found also in the Amazon. Tiny streams teaming with fish fill generously to become rivers in the brief rainy season – and sometimes erupt tragically, cataclysmically in the El Niño years.

Most of the tree species have deep tap roots against the drought and strong resins to protect themselves from relatives of Amazonian termites. They are pollinated by Meliponas, cousins to Amazonian stingless bees. The giant kapok tree – deemed the mother of the forest by many Amazonian tribes – has a wild relative here of the same genus.

And a tree that is botanically close to Frankincense, Myrrh, and Copal covers the hilltops and literally scents the breeze just by dropping its branches.

“The Tumbes-Piura dry forests ecoregion is in the neotropical realm, in the tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests biome. It is part of the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena biodiversity hotspot, one of 25 biogeographic regions globally that have a significant reservoir of biodiversity under threat from humans... The fauna and flora of the global ecoregion have high levels of endemism.”— Wikipedia: Tumbes-Piura dry forests

Palo Santo: Keystone Tree Species

To be clear, when we say Palo Santo in this missive we mean the species known to biology as Bursera graveolens, member of the namesake genus from the tropically-significant botanical family Burseraceae, or “incense tree family.” In Peru, Mexico, Burkina Faso, Greece, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Somalia, Brazil, Oman, and elsewhere, aromatic species from the family Burseraceae are used in traditional practices that are millennia old. In many of these places the trees are the subject of subtle cultural knowledge addressing respectful and sustainable harvest practices, what we might now call forest management, or the intimate knowledge of complex webs of ecological relationships.

That sounds interesting, but no background summary can prepare you for the smell of Palo Santo. Do you remember the first times you smelled it? If you are older than the 21st century (above the age of 19), you probably recall the circumstances in which you first encountered a smoking smudge stick giving off a warm, sweet smell somewhere near the convergence of caramel, wood, citrus, and vanilla. Or none of the above. The smell of palo santo is not something you mistake for something else.

In several but not all of the Tropical Dry Forests of Piura, Peru (as well as Tumbes, Peru, and the southern regions of Ecuador) Palo Santo can be found at remarkable densities – up to 300 trees per hectare – meaning at higher distribution densities than many monoculture fruit plantations.

But this forest is far from a monoculture. Palo Santo’s branches intertwine with those of other beautiful and useful trees that have helped sustain large human settlements in these valleys and hills since long before the Inkas, for at least the last five thousand years. In the 21st Century, many of these trees, including Palo Santo, are coming under increased pressure from modern extraction that in a sense is the product of forgetting, of the falling out of practice of traditional knowledge.

The Productive Ecology of Palo Santo

Each of the images above shows Palo Santo. Local communities recognize three distinct varieties of the tree – white, yellow, and black – each of which seems to prefer a respective soil type or position in the landscape. White is down below on the plains and valley bottoms, black is on the hilltops, yellow is in between. White is so soft in scent as to be disappointing; the yellow is the classic scent we know as Palo Santo; and black has a resinous, penetrating aroma that takes it up an octave in intensity. The black variety exudes the most and strongest smelling resin when wounded, and the white variety the least.

Natural regeneration of Palo Santo can be found in stream beds (as shown in the image here) where above- and below-ground water can help seedlings survive – but can kill these babies when the rivers rise violently in the rainy season. Natural regeneration also comes sprouting from out of the tree’s small fallen fruits, as from bird and squirrel droppings at the corresponding time of year. The fruit pulp contains a sweeter-smelling variant (with different chemical composition) of the essential oil found in the wood.

Though the majority of volunteer seedlings in the wild dry out and die at an early age, those individuals that are able to successfully take root do grow relatively quickly. By age 3 a tree might reach a couple meters in height and the thickness of a human forearm.

As a lightweight softwood, comparisons to balsa or cork come readily, and Palo Santo trees are not long lived. The end of most individuals comes before they surpass 35 cm (a foot) in diameter and usually long before their hundredth birthday. The vectors of mortality for Palo Santo are the wind, the shifting hillside soils in the rainy season, and the trees’ own weight, factors which alone or in combination lead to trees falling over uprooted or broken off at the base.

Termites can also sometimes play a roll in the trees’ structural collapse, but they are more of an issue post-mortem. Naturally fallen trees lying on the ground are the source of the most aromatic Palo Santo, but if left for too long only a corky pulp will remain, run through by black termite trails that make the wood less aromatic – as well as less visually attractive, and therefore less commercial.

Some sources erroneously report that only the wood from naturally fallen trees is aromatic – but how would a branch know if it broke off naturally versus being cut off? – and others wrongly report that the wood needs 4-10 years of forest floor time to cure to full aromatic potential. It is true, however, (and relevant to trade in the species) that the aromatic oil composition and content density of older woody tissues differs from that in the younger greenwood of branches and shoots.

Bursera graveolens and Homo sapiens

Palo Santo has been used ceremonially as an incense for a long time. Remains of the wood have been found in tombs alongside mummies throughout the territory that is now called Peru and its ritual use has persisted into modern times in most regions of the country as well as in Ecuador and Bolivia. Alongside Spondylus shells from the Ecuadorian coast and Bactris palm timber from the Amazon, Palo Santo has been part of a religious economy that pre-dates even the pre-Inka cultures.

That said, in the last hundred years Peru’s cultural landscape and land usage patterns have shifted in profound ways. In the 1950’s the old hacienda system was disbanded and massive estates relying on the labor of a sort of ongoing post-Conquest indentured servitude were split up – and the workers finally had access to land of their own. There was an abrupt shift in land tenure structures and management practices, and a breach with the past in other ways as well.

Some of Piura’s elders of today, who came of age in that post-hacienda era, report that the use of Palo Santo in their homes was more practical than ceremonial – they burned it as firewood and for the mosquito-repelling properties of the smoke, this in valleys wracked by recurrent outbreaks of malaria. More recently, Western aromatherapists have “discovered” Palo Santo’s extremely practical ability to fend off headaches.

In a parallel but relatively little-documented history, Palo Santo continues to figure prominently in the ceremonies of modern shamanic healers and herbalists, especially in the northern coastal area. In addition to the burning of incense, symbolically-rich staffs and icons of saints are carved from the wood, which retains and continues to emit its characteristic scent.

As with its relatives Frankincense and Myrrh, Palo Santo is seen as holy and has been the subject of market demand, two factors that are not considered mutually exclusive in the local culture. It is wonderful to place prayerful intention into the use of Palo Santo as a sacred, special incense. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it is also an effective insect repellent.

A Regenerative Approach to Palo Santo

The Tropical Dry Forest is not expanding, it is reducing in size. To pretend otherwise is willful ignorance in the era of valleys of foreign-owned monocultural plantations of export mangos sitting in the shadow of once-forested Andean hillsides turned into eroded gravel fields by illegal gold mining reliant on mercury. (This is not poetic license. It is an accurate description of the San Lorenzo valley in 2019.) Here, as most everywhere in the 21st Century, the remaining intact forest landscapes are under existential threat at the hands of humans. We are referring to the actual felling and razing of forests with axes and chainsaws, not just to such abstract specters as mass extinction or global warming.

In this context, there is no coherent rationale for describing Palo Santo as anything but endangered. In recent years conversations have emerged in Ecuador about proposing a CITES listing for the species, while Peru has reported the tree to the 2005 Global Forest Resource Assessment (GFRA) as critically endangered at a national level, using IUCN Red List classification criteria. But to date, neither of these conservation status designations have gained traction to reduce the booming informal (and opaquely-sourced) international commerce in Palo Santo.

But sometimes the problem is the solution. The market that demands Palo Santo has contributed to the over-harvest and destruction of the species. But the same demand, that same desire for something so unique and valuable, can also fuel the careful management and even regeneration of Palo Santo. Communities that keep their forests strong can expect for their children to be benefited by a stable harvest of Palo Santo just as they benefited – and their grandparents before them.

The Piura region is home to one of Peru’s first community-managed nurseries of Palo Santo. Currently awaiting the Agricultural Direction’s approval of a community management plan for an area of 900 hectares (over 2,200 acres) of Tropical Dry Forest adjacent to the village, the comuneros from the area are trying out different propagation techniques (seeds, cuttings, and natural regeneration) while preparing to implement a forest patrol schedule to prevent trespassing and encroachment from illegal miners and timber harvesters.

This co-op wants to forge relationships with reliable customers like Camino Verde to ensure that regenerative practices are implemented from the start and that a legitimate harvest based on thoughtful forest management can sustain the real costs associated with the conservation of this unique ecosystem. In the coming months we will work with communities to increase their nurseries' success at producing seedlings and to experiment with other untapped opportunities with Palo Santo, such as essential oil of the fruits and a test distillation of the lacquer-like and highly aromatic resin that flows freely from broken branches or wounds in the bark.

Palo Santo sticks cut to ~10 cm length for use as incense have become the internationally-sought commodity unit associated with the species. But the production of sticks leaves behind splinters and wood chips that can be repurposed to other supply chains such as essential oil and artisanal jewelry, providing additional added value opportunities to village-scale producers.

We believe that additional communities will follow this example in the future. With the help of the Piura Regional Agricultural Direction, we have already identified three additional communities with the intention to manage productive community forest reserves of Palo Santo. For regeneration to be impactful it has to be replicable.

Meanwhile, another community has already forged ahead with a sustainable forestry management plan for a 90 hectare (220 acre) area within the thousands of hectares the community protects as a Private Conservation Area. Biologists and community members worked hand in hand to inventory the forest’s “production area” exclusively for the harvest of naturally fallen trees.  Working together we are stronger, and the future of Palo Santo is brighter.

Appendix: Misconceptions about Palo Santo

Certain tree names are used and used again. Say Ironwood, or say Rosewood, and you might mean a species from Asia or the Americas, or of one botanical family or another. Some common names are, well, very common.

In this fashion, Palo Santo or holy wood is a name that refers to a variety of tree species in the Spanish-speaking world. Confining our summary to South America alone, the shared common name can be applied to the genera Tachigali (family Fabaceae), Triplaris (Polygonaceae), and most notably Bulnesia (Zygophyllaceae). None of the above are related to or look like or smell like our B. graveolens. None of the above grow in the Tropical Dry Forest of Peru either.

The Palo Santo also known as Bulnesia is a source of particular confusion, as the wood in question is aromatic and classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The IUCN classification criteria (which in some cases attempts to estimate remaining populations for a species) are a primary source for one common misconception, causing many readers (and article writers) to erroneously believe that there are less than 250 Palo Santo trees left in the world.

To state it once again, Palo Santo and the forest where it is found are, without a doubt, under increasing threat from human development. But a single hectare of forest can contain more than those “250 remaining trees” cited by journalists who have not done their homework.

Recommended further reading on Palo Santo sustainability and endangered status can be found here: Dr. Kelly Ablard on Palo Santo


Palo Santo Seedlings
Palo Santo Seedlings
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