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Dec 13, 2012

Saving Rosewood

Dear friends of Camino Verde,

The history of the Amazon could easily be written as a chronological inventory of products discovered—and then over-exploited—in the world´s richest forest. Quinine, rubber, mahogany, animal skins, oil, gold: each chapter would tell of how another amazingly useful wonder of nature was found and, almost without exception, driven to the verge of extinction to the great detriment of the ecosystem as a whole.

While bulldozers, chainsaws, and pipelines are a few of the more familiar symbols of rainforest destruction, one of the most bizarre episodes in this history relates to environmental harm at the hands of…essential oil distillation equipment.

This is the unexpected, true story of one of the world’s best smelling trees—and thankfully, an opportunity to write a new, more hopeful chapter.

Scent of the rainforest

Palo rosa, or Brazilian rosewood, is a large canopy tree named for the rich floral aroma of its leaves, branches, bark, andwood.  In the beginning of the 20th Century, this incredible rose-like scent caught the attention of the perfume industry, leading to a period of extreme over-harvesting.  But harvesting is probably too nice a word.  Finding the aromatic essential oil in every part of the plant, trees were literally dug out of the ground, roots and all.  

The wood was shredded or chipped as finely as possible and then passed through makeshift distillation equipment set up in the middle of the jungle.  Entire populations of rosewood were wiped out in huge areas of Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere. Before long, rosewood exports declined sharply due to a lack of available "material," and the perfume industry instead turned to synthetic scents and chemical equivalents.  Few people in the region of Madre de Dios, Peru even remember this brief, glorious, tragic burst of wealth from such an unlikely source.

Today, Brazilian rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species, as well as Brazil´s official list of endangered flora.  

Rewriting history, one tree at a time

Ever since we started planting trees, finding rosewood seeds has been a sort of holy grail for me personally and for Camino Verde´s mission to protect the most endangered trees of the Amazon.  This tree is so endangered that it took us five years to find a source of seedlings.  I am thrilled to report that as of this moment, close to 750 seedlings—baby rosewoods—are sitting in the plant nursery of one of our allied organizations, awaiting the start of the rainy season to be planted at our reforestation center.

In addition, we´ve teamed up with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute and the Center for Amazon Community Ecology (CACE) to bring the potential benefits of rosewood reforestation home, where they belong, to the native people of the Amazon.  We are propagating an additional 1,200 rosewood tree seedlings vegetatively (reproduced from cuttings) at a nursery in the Loreto region of northern Peru.  With Camino Verde providing oversight and technical assistance, CACE will help us make a home for these wonderful, highly endangered trees in one of its partner native communities.

But the coolest part is this: because essential oil is held in every part of the plants, we are working to refine standards for a sustainable harvest of rosewood—allowing for the production of essential oil without harming the trees (in fact, timely pruning can be beneficial to the trees´ growth).  By 2015, don´t be surprised if you see the first samples of rosewood essential oil from Camino Verde and the Center for Amazon Community Ecology.

Be a part of the change

We need your help to make this important work with palo rosa a reality.  A generous grant from the Marjorie Grant Whiting Center has enabled us to purchase our first small-batch distillation equipment for making sample essential oils.  But we are still $5,000 away from the funding we need in order to realize the project’s full potential: for larger, production-scale distillation equipment and to make good on the promise to share our reforestation experience with native communities that want to plant rosewood.  A sustainable future for rosewood, and many others of the Amazon’s amazing trees—your contribution can help grow this vision into reality.  

And now your help counts double.  Through the generosity of one of our long-time donors and supporters, in October through December (right now), all donations to Camino Verde will be matched, so that every dollar you give will count for two.  For as long as the matching funds last, your $100 donation will allow us to plant 40 trees, rather than the usual 20. 

We are grateful for your support—and so excited to see one more of the Amazon´s marvels protected for future generations.

Warm greetings from Tambopata!

Dec 13, 2012

Terra Preta: An Amazonian Tradition

Dear friends,

In previous reports for the "Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils" project weve talked about the whys and the hows of charcoal being used to improve soil fertility.  Soil charcoal, or "biochar," is a win-win: improving soil for farmers and locking in greenhouse CO2 for thousands of years. 

But where does soil charcoal come from?

Curiously, from our very own backyard here at Camino Verde: the depths of the Amazon rainforest.  In fact, a big part of what inspired us to begin working with biochar is the legacy of soil charcoal in the Amazon basin.  We were fascinated to learn that for hundreds, probably thousands of years, indigenous people of the Amazon have used charcoal as a soil ammendment, knowing full well what its taken modern scientists decades to unravel.

Terra preta (Portuguese for "black earth") has been created by various Amazonian tribes for millenia.  Mixing compost, broken ceramics, and charcoal into the soil, the indigenous technology of terra preta has allowed for intensive agriculture in the notoriously fragile soils of the Amazon region.  Early reports by exploring Spaniards mentioned huge cities throughout the rainforest, including the El Dorado of the conquistadors imagination.  Many modern researchers believe these reports of Amazonian civilization are in fact very real.  And that terra preta is crucial to understanding how the Amazons soils could have supported the intensive agriculture critical to maintaining a civilization.

Incredibly, terra preta soils created in the Amazon by indigenous people thousands of years ago continue to be fertile and productive.  Many documented cases show modern Amazonians selling the rich black soil to plant nurseries and gardening companies, "mining" their "black gold."  Others keep it in the ground and produce year after year of bountiful crops-- a feat unheard of in the Amazon, where soils are often left to rest for fifteen years between crops. 

Even more recently, terra preta has been suggested as an important strategy for soil conservation and improvement throughout the tropics.  Projects have sprouted up using biochar around the world.  Camino Verdes is one of many efforts to bring back a prehistoric technology that just might help save the world.

Improving soils through sustainable means is an Amazonian tradition with ancient roots.  Were proud to be a part of furthering that tradition.  And were grateful for your support in making it happen.

Sep 17, 2012

How can we really, truly save the Amazon?


Dear friends of Camino Verde,
For this GlobalGiving project report, I'm reprinting Camino Verde's last Missive.  (Please let me know if you'd like to be added to our regular mailing list.)  It takes us back to basics, to probably the most fundamental question that can be asked about our work...  
Why save the Amazon?  I mean, why should we care?
Well, let´s see... Let´s start with the obvious.  One out of every three species of everything on Earth-- plants, animals, you name it-- call the Amazon their home: one in three.  One fifth of the world´s fresh water is found here.  Different sources give different figures for the percentage of the planet´s oxygen produced here, but needless to say, it´s a lot. 
I don´t mean to sound melodramatic, but without the Amazon, we´re all in trouble. 
But why should we care, enough to do something about it?  Here´s my version of why.  Before I founded Camino Verde, I worked with a few other non-profit organizations here in the Peruvian Amazon.  And while these organizations all had noble aims and good intentions, there was a real disconnect between the ends and the means.  Here we had projects and NGOs working for great causes: conservation, sustainable development, the protection of wildlife habitat.  But the means used to pursue those goals were insanely inefficient, absurdly ineffectual, and tragically indirect.  I mean, local people were left scratching their heads, or else downright outraged at how outsiders had once again blown through budgets with few tangible fruits.
I remember thinking, we can do better.  We the human race, can do better.
In founding Camino Verde it was really vital to me to marry the ends to the means-- in fact, to ensure that the means were an end unto themselves, the sort of clichéd truth that what you do is often only as is important as how you do it.  That´s one of the meanings of our name, which is "green path:"  it´s about how we live and act. 
Plus, when I founded the organization, I was 23, 24.  I wanted to act, now.  To do something that made a difference, that had an impact in and of itself.  And that was when I started to plant trees.
To me, it´s sort of the ultimate version of a zen koan, or a snake eating its own tail, where the means is a noble end in and of itself: planting trees.  And the Amazon is home to some extraordinary trees.  I started hanging out at lumber yards, sawmills, the ports where people brought their products in from the forest.  And in talking to my neighbors I made a list.  It was a list of the top 50 over-exploited tree species.  On it were some powerful medicines, and world class timbers, and exquisite, exotic fruits.  I asked around, and to my amazement nobody-- no government institute, no NGO, no individual-- was bothering to plant most of the trees on that list.  But at those ports, day in and day out, the timber and the direct evidence of the destruction of those trees was staring me in the face.
It didn´t take an expert to foresee that dwindling wild populations lead to impoverished genetic diversity within these species, meaning that so few adult trees are left that in some cases we can no longer trust the genetic diversity-- meaning the genetic resilience-- of these trees´ offspring, if indeed they´re ever allowed to have any offspring.
So I started with those trees.  And in fact, more than five years later, I´m still checking species off that list.  Seeds for many of these trees are harder and harder to come by; experience with planting them, nonexistant.  I´ve gone on some wild "off-list" tangents as well-- by now, we´ve planted a total of over 250 species of trees at Camino Verde´s reforestation center-- but the goal remains: to plant at least 200 trees of each of these key species, that in time will become a true Living Seed Bank.
I was talking about ends and means.  And here it is in the simplest terms.  The goal: to protect the biodiversity of the Amazon.  How to do it: we plant trees.
As always, I extend my deep gratitude for all the support we receive in this work.  A friendly reminder: just ten dollars helps us plant two trees.  Won´t you help us plant a few, or a few dozen, today? 
Also: December 1-10, 2012, we hold our first ever Sustainable Living and Ecological Design Course for all of you interested in visiting, volunteering, and working with us here in beautiful Tambopata, Peru.  Information on a pretty flyer is available on our Facebook page (or let me know if you want a copy in your email inbox). And finally: the new and improved is coming soon! So now is your last chance to see the previous version.
Thanks so much for your interest and support.  Warm regards,
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