When Ana was five years old, her father brought three seedlings home with him from the hacienda-like operation along the Putumayo River where he’d been working under an arrangement we would now call indentured servitude.
New liberty and a young family life were celebrated on this promontory overlooking the sinuous Shumón River, a tiny tributary that eventually, far away, flows into the unimaginably wide Amazon proper. Producing abundant creamy fruits, umarí trees were planted extensively, plus a variety of edible palm fruits, dye plants, and trees that provide materials to make hammocks and houses.
It was a rainforest idyll. Perhaps ironically given the spirit of the moment, the site they settled and its surroundings were the scene of infamous hardships inflicted on Ana’s grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations. The Ocaina, Huitoto and Bora – Ana is the latter – were brought to these rivers to harvest the tears of the weeping trees, rubber. They were resettled by the sociopathic rubber baron Julio César Arana, as part of his “terroristic reign of slavery over the natives of the region” (Wikipedia). By the time Ana was born the jungle had grow back over most of the rubber infrastructure, but not the memories from that time.
Right behind the family homestead, near the outhouse, Ana’s father planted those seedlings from Putumayo. Only one of the three survived, but now, fifty-five years later, the tree stands tall and healthy: Aniba rosaeodora, also known as Brazilian rosewood. As we contemplate its stout trunk there is little trace of the family homestead, no evidence of the outhouse. The forest has reclaimed the farm, but we can still see and taste clear signs of its existence – ripe umarí fruits dot the forest floor. Plopped into the ground cover of low fern-like plants they are shiny and golden-orange, green, yellow, and black – it’s hard not to think of easter eggs. And the children we’re with are quick to snatch them up, peeling the fruit with their teeth while darting to grab another.
This rosewood tree has many stories to tell, many chapters in its life. It went from early years in the careful tending of a home garden plot, to the wild and fertile chaos of secondary overgrowth (when years later the family moved to a racent son-in-law’s community several hours downstream by canoe), to the rapid establishment of a forest canopy – such that now the half century-old secondary forest could be mistaken for a primary rainforest by an untrained eye.
Despite the evident hands-off approach to old farms, it would be a mistake to think of the rewilding of this plot as a product of negligence. It’s a mistake that many Western visitors have made in the presence of Amazonian farming techniques and land management. Sure, the forest is just being left to do what it wants, but in the meantime the farm plot becomes more productive than ever from the non-management. The encroachment of secondary forest into farms that are better described as agroforestry systems (think of all those umarí trees planted) doesn’t drastically reduce the productivity of the suite of fruit trees there. And it does enrich the diversity. Most of the trees that grow back were actually left on purpose – selected from among the hundreds of species of seedlings that are constantly sprouting up as a kind of expression of the forest’s volition to recuperate the artificially and temporarily ceded ground.
As the forest grows back in, these tangled farm plots are visited regularly for the harvest of fruit and for one other key function – as hunting grounds. All the new growth provides cover for animals that wouldn’t readily visit an actively managed farm (many mammals especially avoid clearings such as croplands), and these secondary forest fallows (called purmas in the local Spanish) contribute the majority of game meat to the diet in many communities.
After 55 years of careful non-management, what we have is a forest where most of the trees are useful to human needs and wants. It’s a point driven home by one of our Bora companions, a cousin of Ana’s, as he casually harvests a few especially straight young trees for poles to patch part of his roof. The minimalist simplicity of the approach calls to mind Fukuoka’s do-nothing exhortations on farming. For some reason it also reminds me of the hammock, an Amazonian invention which has to be the most resource-efficient way ever designed to support a reclining human body. As with Amazonian farming its genius is invisible, is in the negative space of what it is not.
Now people only come to this forest to harvest from its generosity. As we examine the rosewood tree we see another evidence of use – a portion of the trunk seems to have been cut out, and now has grown over with thick bark. Ana’s cousin remembers the occasion well. It was for the birth of a curaca, a new village chief, an event marked in Bora custom by the creation of a sort of ceremonial seat, a throne. Rosewood was always used for this purpose, a recognition of the regality and beauty of the wood, and perhaps because it smells so nicely.
It’s remarkable that these customs based in naturalist knowledge persisted through the series of holocausts to which many Amazonian people including Ana’s forefathers were subjected. It’s ambiguous whether this knowledge will survive the most recent cultural transformations associated with globalization and technology. In the midst of the modernization of agricultural practices throughout the rainforests of the world, the naturalist knowledge possessed by indigenous farmers is more relevant and vital than ever before. By harnessing the power of natural processes, by working in alignment with what the forest wants, Amazonian farmers gain a great deal by doing less.
It’s a different way to conceive of farming and forestry, rooted in a practical understanding of the human role within an ecosystem – as arbiters and catalyzers of an extremely productive natural order. It’s a knowledge-based management practice rooted in adept familiarity with local species with potential to provide economic empowerment to communities that have historically been marginalized or worse and are rapidly entering the cash economy. It’s called agroforestry by some, and people in the Amazon have been doing it for millennia.
Carrying it forward to today, Ana’s family and 30 others planted over 400 rosewood seedlings last week as part of a 5 year program to reintroduce this valuable, endangered tree into the agroforestry systems of today – tomorrow’s forests. This doubles the number of trees planted by Camino Verde and our allies at the Center for Amazon Community Ecology in native communities. It’s a small effort now, but with your support this year we hope to expand our rosewood planting efforts. Seeds from that 55-year old tree are going into nurseries this year.
This is Amazonian regeneration in action, planting trees that bring back biodiversity, improve livelihoods, and empower communities. And we couldn’t do it without you. Please support Camino Verde generously today.
Let's follow the carbon.
Plants catch CO2 from the air during photosynthesis. Part of the absorbed carbon remains stored in the plant's "body" while it's alive, and normally most of that carbon is re-released when the dead plant decomposes – whether in a matter of days as some leaves, or in a matter of centuries as some slow-to-rot hardwoods. Overall the natural carbon cycle maintains more or less a balance, but we are now far from the natural carbon cycle and might therefore ask the astute question: is there a way to stop the dead plants from re-releasing their carbon? Such a mechanism would become a sort of carbon negative pump.
One way to do just this is to turn the plants' bodies in question – biomass, in the jargon – into charcoal through the slow burn known as pyrolisis (not to be confused with combustion). That's right, charcoal is a stable form of plant carbon, holding it in for hundreds or thousands of years. This excellent carbon sink device also has another key benefit – charcoal is great for agricultural soil, especially in the tropics where most of the world's poor live and where soil fertility is often compromised by a lack of organic matter.
So this is what all the hype is about when people talk about biochar. But not all charcoal is created equal. Much charcoal production is dirty, in terms of gases harmful both to the atmosphere and to human health – many of those volatiles are potent carcinogens and are implicated in a wide range of respiratory illnesses. So how charcoal is produced is important.
In our case here in Madre de Dios, we opted for a charcoal production oven called an Adam Retort, a simple design licensed to us by the designer Chris Adam (based in Ethiopia). What we like about this model is that it was easy and inexpensive to build with locally available mateirals, and it dramatically reduces emissions from the charcoal production process by redirecting wood gases (and all those harmful volatiles) back into the combustion chamber, a self-propelling process that earns the oven the name retort.
Thanks to some simple new cages on the way, we're now going to be able to use a much wider range of biomass materials in our retort – not just cord wood anymore. Now we'll be able to use locally common free waste materials like sawdust, rice hulls, and brazil nut shells to make our biochar. And we'll be able to use branches pruned from fast-growing plants we're growing for this purpose. Trees and shrubs that can be coppiced (or cut back to a stump of height varying by species) such as bamboo and many trees in the legume family for all intents and purposes become the carbon pump I mentioned earlier.
The last piece of infrastructure needed – a roof under which to dry out our biomass thoroughly before feeding it into the oven to have its carbon fossilized – is also on its way in coming months thanks to the generous support of our donors.
But let's get back to following the carbon. Where is this sink actually sunk? In our case the charcoal produced ends up on site at the Camino Verde La Joya Forestry Nursery and reforestation site. The biochar is also carried in the planting pots of the 50,000 tree seedlings that our nursery will send out to various reforestation efforts in the Peruvian Amazon this year. The sunk carbon also goes into every hole dug for every single one of the new trees planted each year at the Nursery site, which was formerly a deforested cattle pasture, burnt every year for two decades. Together we're bringing back Amazonian soils while pulling carbon from the atmosphere.
Simple and straightforward, a powerful solution that's implementable at scale, biochar is one answer. Today is a good day to trap some carbon for good.
Its name means healing water or “Medicine River.” The Ampiyacu, one of hundreds of minor tributaries of the Amazon, shines silver in the imposing afternoon sun. The etymology of the river’s name is open to speculation: whether due to curative properties possessed by the water or for a concentration of medicinal plants along the serpentine course of its densely vegetated banks, perhaps we will never know.
At the mouth of the Ampiyacu, its confluence with the Amazon proper, the brilliant surface of the water is punctuated by porpoise fins – here both pink and gray river dolphins are present in abundance. With an extensive folklore of enchantment similar to Western myths of sirens, the dolphins hold a place in the local imagination that is magical, seductive, and somewhat sinister. Fishermen complain about them as competitors for the catch, a perception that has led to senseless killing of these unique freshwater mammals.
Let’s imagine we’re making a trip upriver on the Ampiyacu. After turning off from the world’s largest river near Pijuayal, we go against the current of the medicine river heading north toward the border with Colombia. Lining the banks and submerged in the water are wild bushes of camu camu, the most vitamin C-rich fruit in the world, a kind of Amazonian swamp berry from the guava family. Further along we encounter the spiny trunks of chambira palms, whose new leaf shoots provide the best fiber for making hammocks and other useful crafts. Medicinal trees called huacapurana dangle with oversized seed pods that look like Christmas tree ornaments.
Before long our journey brings us to the mouth of the main tributary of the Ampiyacu: the Yahuasyacu, after the Yaguas natives who have inhabited the area at least since the river’s naming. Turning off from the main river, the course of the Yahuasyacu quickly becomes even more curvy and tightly wound than the Ampiyacu. In the flood season, when these rivers run their banks each year and great swathes of forest are underwater, we are able to cut miles off the trip via floodwater shortcuts, darting between trees on narrow channels that will disappear in the dry season, allowing us to skip long stretches of river following the highwater’s path of least resistance.
By now we are in deep jungle. Though we pass by the occasional dugout canoe with a single person or a couple of youths sitting in a shaded eddy fishing, for the most part the river is quiet and still. Coming around a bend we see flocks of black crow-like birds and the surface of the water sliced by darting kingfishers of several colors. Vines as thick as a human torso act as improbable vectors for the stacking of life on top of life. Spindly wild passionfruit vines drape over a scaffold of leguminous bushes as if they were placed there for that purpose alone. Around each bend we now see towering lupunas, one of the spectacular emblematic trees of the Amazon with massive fin roots and a swollen trunk reminiscent of a pregnant belly.
Perhaps it’s time we cut the motor and glide along in silence for a few minutes. Morpho butterflies of an impossible stained glass blue lope along on the motions of a barely perceptible breeze. A Noah’s Ark of insect life buzzes and hums all around us and occasionally on top of us – the rainforest idyll seemingly pays little homage to human comfort. In the midst of this kaleidoscope of green shapes and flowers of unexpected sizes and colors, the jungle appears inviolable and eternal. It almost seems to be a land outside of time, a place outside of history.
This is of course false. The recurring perception of the Amazon and its people as existing outside of progress, a kind of primitive time capsule at odds with the modern world, has been perennially disastrous both for ecosystems and for human communities here. In the case of the Ampiyacu basin, a microcosmic example that is representative in many senses of the past of the Amazon as a whole, the human history these last several centuries has been one of cataclysmic exploitation and diaspora. Despite the river named in their honor, the Yaguas Indians are now confined to a single village in the basin, their lands having been colonized by rubber tappers who imported slave labor in the form of “docile and desirable” tribes like the Bora and Huitoto, who had previously inhabited areas to the north across the Colombia border.
Though considered good workers by their sociopathic bosses, the Bora and many other tribes were subjected to unimaginable atrocities as part of the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many visitors to the Amazon today see what they think of us as a quaint or “authentic” primitivism among people who use handmade tools and have little conventional capital wealth. These visitors would do well to remember that many native communities in the Amazon are the fragmentary remnants of cultures that were intentionally divided and scattered while experiencing extremes of abuse that call to mind a Holocaust. The ongoing duress experienced by native people under the current neoliberal economic system speaks to just how strongly the forces of history continue to influence the Amazon.
The present makeup of the Ampiyacu basin includes Bora, Huitoto, Ocaina, and Yagua communities, over a dozen villages in total joined together in alliance as the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu, a small organization that gives the tribes a collective voice at the table in matters of local governance and regulates internal relations among the communities. In 2010, the efforts of the Federation and several allied institutions resulted in the creation of the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area (ACR, by its initials in Spanish), a 434,130 hectare conservation area protected and managed directly by the native communities and the regional government.
The seemingly impenetrable forest that lines our virtual river journey is not untouched, though it is a wilderness. This forest landscape is a mosaic of hunting grounds and abandoned farms returning to forest, plus actively populated areas shoulder to shoulder with islands of intact primary forest. Similarly, the ACR is a protected area under active use by the local population, a model that confounds the hands-off approach of many national parks and protected areas, but which paradoxically ensures that the forests will be cared for with thought to permanent use and sustainable production.
At this point in our voyage we are undoubtedly bugbit and sunburnt, and it’s a welcome sight when we round a bend and arrive at our final destination for now – Colonia, the most distant community in the federation. On a promontory surrounded on 3 sides by the Shumón River, small tributary of the Yahuasyacu, the village center of Colonia is home to just a dozen families from a single extended clan. First cousins to the Boras of Brillo Nuevo, the next community downriver, the chief of Colonia and his followers set up camp at a site that had been farmed and occupied by a previous generation. If you look closely at the vegetation here, overgrown fruit trees of umarí begin to emerge from the tangle as a clear sign of past inhabitation.
But we’ve come looking for a different sort of tree. In an area that to an untrained eye looks almost indistinguishable from a primary forest, rumor has it that there’s a rosewood tree that was planted over 40 years ago by the farmers of a generation ago. Leading the way to see if the tree is still there, don Oscar snaps thin tree branches as we walk, marking the path so we won’t get lost on the way back. Despite the lack of actively used trails, Oscar should know where the tree is – after all, it was his father who planted it.
We tie up the canoe and navigate the muddy banks up to the village grounds. Tree calabash (Crescentia crujete), aguaje and wasaí palms line the grassy village green. Don Oscar’s cousin is the apu or chief of Colonia and we greet him at the maloca, a communal house under the chief’s care. He seems pleased that we’ve come to ask for dialogue and permission from the community to visit a tree within their territory. After hearing a quick summary of our work planting rosewood trees in the area – including over 300 trees in active production downriver in Brillo Nuevo, trees that are now 5 years old and some of which are over 25 feet tall (7 m) – an impromptu party is formed with several of the neighbors to visit the rosewood tree.
After another half hour in the canoe and a 20 minute walk, we’re there. The tree is thick and robust. And we’re in luck: a few seedlings and a few old seeds on the ground show proof that the tree is productive. This year when the tree goes to fruit we can be there in time to gather the fragile seeds and grow them into trees in Colonia and communities just like it.
These are a few of the challenges in planting some of the world's most endangered trees. And this is just a little bit of what you’ve helped us accomplish in 2017. Happy 2018 to you! We look forward to sharing more in the New Year.