As you know, every so often I send out a report sharing some of the good news from Camino Verde in the Peruvian Amazon, and this year there’s been lots of good news to share.
Keeping closely to our mission, we’re doing more and more to save the world’s forests and sustain local communities who live here. We are:
The growth of our work has been astonishing and we’re grateful for all we’ve been able to accomplish.
During this period of rapid growth, our cash resources are strained to new limits and we look to you once again to continue your support of our work. Although we write foundation proposals to fund our programs, this year we have had challenges meeting our unrestricted funding goals. Your support in this area has historically been our backbone. We rely on contributions from people like you, our generous supporters, who firmly believe in what we do.
We understand this year has been a time of tremendous uncertainty for many of us on many different levels. The world feels strange to many of us. And yet it’s an ideal time to act. This year I’ve been renewed in my sense of mission to help create a more humane, loving world, and I hope you do as well.
So, I’m writing to ask for your help at a time when we have a significant need. Since we’re a small organization, every donation counts big. Please consider giving generously in support of Camino Verde today.
My sincere thanks for your continued support for the regeneration of Amazon forests and communities. And now on to our report.
Thanks to your contributions, each year Camino Verde is able to transform a little bit of the atmospheric carbon that causes climate change into a powerful soil improving technology that builds sustainable livelihoods for farmers here in the Peruvian Amazon. I’m talking about biochar. If you’ve read some of our previous reports (see below) you’ll know that biochar has been trapping atmospheric carbon and improving the soils of smallholder farmers in the Amazon since long before the Europeans arrived to the Americas.
To be more specific, what it means to make biochar is to turn biomass like scraps of wood, downed branches, sawdust, and rice hulls into a form of charcoal that dramatically sustains fragile tropical soils. We believe in biochar – so much so that we put a small payload in the planting pot of each of the 50,000 tree seedlings produced at Camino Verde’s forestry nurseries every year.
But where does this trapped carbon go? Where do all these tree seedlings end up? Last week I got on a boat and visited one parcel on the Tambopata River in Madre de Dios, Peru, where biochar is aiding the growth of trees in the agroforestry fields of Amazonian farmers.
Some of the trees are taller than don Cipriano, though he planted them only a year ago. Standing in the dappled shade of bananas protecting us from the harsh tropical sun he tries to estimate the number of times he had to weed around those trees that have grown roots here since April of 2017. It’s clear that it wasn’t many times, that it wasn’t very laborious. (We’ve changed Cipriano’s name to respect his privacy.)
Just over a year and the hectare of mixed native species looks robust. We spot 15-month-old ironwood trees (Dipteryx micrantha) that are taller than basketball players. A little further along, the flowers of bobinsana (Calliandra angustifolia) are wide open. This small medicinal tree is attractive to pollinators, fixes the stingy commodity of nitrogen into the soil, and is the perfect structure on which to grow a vine or two, say black pepper or passion fruit. Don Cipriano is describing how he pruned the lower branches off a copaiba tree (Copaifera sp.) that is about his height – remarkable for after only a year. Everywhere between the trees a leafy cover crop of Pueraria protects the soil from the sun and “feeds” the trees as Cipriano says.
And that’s just to mention the bean or legume family (Fabaceae).
Out in the same 2.5 acres of mixed agroforestry plantation we see moena trees that provide aromatic essential oil, camu camu which gives a delicious fruit cherished on the local market for its flavor and vitamin C content, and cacao for well, chocolate of course. Cipriano is modest about the results and about the work he put into achieving them, but it’s clear that he feels proud of the trees’ growth.
Farmers like Cipriano are growing trees back in areas of the Amazon that were deforested via shortsighted agricultural practices. There’s a better way, and more and more farmers know it. By diversifying his planting strategy and by incorporating biochar to capture carbon in his soil, Cipriano’s ecological impact – and the productivity of his farm – are maximized.
Each year, we build the capacity to capture more and more carbon, reach more and more farmers, and turn a drop in the bucket into a real sea change.
We are grateful for your support in making it happen. Camino Verde is a donor-supported organization that strives to increase our impact while maintaining the integrity of our efforts. Thank you for contributing.
Best regards from the Peruvian Amazon!
My sincere thanks for your continued support for the regeneration of Amazon forests and communities. And now on to our regular report.
Don Hipólito arrived here in 1960, when he was 33 years old. His previous parcel had been flooded in the infamous river rise named after its year, el sesenta, in which he lost everything. Without other options available, he hoisted his few salvaged belongings onto his back and walked 60 kilometers in two-and-a-half days to a place where he’d been told he might be paid to harvest brazil nuts. (We've changed his name to respect his privacy.)
In this part of the Peruvian Amazon the population was sparse, as it remains today. The “owner” of the land welcomed Hipólito’s help and eventually left, encouraging the young man to make a home for himself in this prized location with ready access to two streams that held water and fish all year round. The brazil nut harvest wasn’t bad and there was lots of timber in the forest. Hipólito decided to stay.
In the 57 years he worked his farm, the world changed around Hipólito in unexpected ways. His once isolated outpost had a decent dirt road running past it by 1964. In 2010 the road was finally paved. Before his ninetieth birthday in 2017 electricity had arrived to the farm. From the same single house, he presided over the childhood of three generations, slashed and burned around a hundred acres of pristine rainforest, and made his living wrangling cows across the grass he planted there.
Remarkably, he also planted brazil nut trees and several of the more sought after timber species. Twenty years later he was harvesting fruit pods from the castaña and wondering why he hadn’t planted more.
At age ninety he was looking to switch up his plan. He told me he was ready to find someone to whom he could entrust the farm now that soon he would have to move to town to be closer to his grandchildren. He laughed that they worried about him and seemed reluctant to leave the place he’d called home for over half a century. He was spry and quick-witted as he told me stories that seemed to jump to life fresh out of the landscape.
Hipólito got me involved, and together we found someone to carry the torch, a group of like-minded folks that wanted to plant trees in the pastures where his cows had once grazed. He and I had spoken more than once about how impressed he was with the results of his tree planting experiments, how remiss he felt in not having converted more of his pastures to reforestation. He was genuinely pleased to think that his land would be covered back with trees after he left it.
Fast-forward six months and a lot has changed. With the help of Camino Verde, the new owners of Hipólito’s land are making swift changes that honor the spirit of his time on this land. Over forty acres of grass were planted back to native trees. More brazil nuts are going in, as well as thirty other species that will help restore this worn-out pastureland to productivity and ecological equilibrium.
Hipólito and his family still visit the farm. Their stories are alive here. I walk under 25-year-old brazil nut trees with Hipólito and he picks up a pod full of the valuable seeds. “I remember when these trees you see producing here were just seedlings. You’re young. You have plenty of time to plant more.” Twenty thousand trees planted later, and we know he’s pleased with the new direction.
Thanks for all you help us do – building bridges that restore hope and ecosystems. We’d like to think it makes the world a better place. And we know we couldn’t do it without you.
All the best from the Amazon of Peru.
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.