There are reasons to be really scared of climate change and its effects. And there are reasons to be hopeful. There are practically insurmountable challenges to a permanent, sustainable way of life for humans and other biological communities. And there are remarkable people and strategies challenging the challenges, pushing what’s possible, creating something new.
For many, the question of life on Earth as we know it boils down to something that we can call the carbon balance. More carbon in the atmosphere means trouble. More of it pulled from the air and held in stable form marks one hopeful way forward. Forests play their part – we know that plants absorb carbon and hold it in, at least for as long as the plants’ bodies (wood, etc.) doesn’t rot, re-releasing the stored carbon.
Just one tiny shard of hope – an ancient technology. Prehistoric Amazonian Indians used charcoal as a way to improve soil on their farms. Charcoal is charred organic matter, the accumulated bodies of plants. More recently, many centuries after the Amazonians invented what we call “black earth” (terra preta), researchers realized that charcoal represents a singular proposition for carbon sequestration – the honeycomb-like composition of charcoal keeps carbon trapped in, for as much as thousands of years. Planting this charcoal in the soil means a carbon sink of amazing efficacy. Used as an agricultural input, it’s called bio-char.
Drawing from this body of ancient knowledge, our small organization Camino Verde has complimented our tree planting efforts with a drive to implement biochar in the Amazon once more, as was the case centuries or even millennia ago, but with an impact that’s purely 21st century. If you’ve followed our reports, you know that we’ve sought to identify the best appropriate technologies to produce and introduce bio-char as part of our lasting impact strategy.
It hasn’t always been easy. Examples of the right way forward have been few and hard to find. But this year was a sea change. Bio-char has debuted in the dialogue of public and private institutions in Peru (including a conference in the capital of Lima) and we are breaking ground on our first bio-char production facilities in the Peruvian Amazon region of Madre de Dios. There are reasons to be hopeful. Renewable, fast-growing bamboo is an excellent candidate for heavy carbon sequestration. Our pilot site captures the energy of sunlight into hundreds of stalks of bamboo which are then dried and later charred, or pyrolized, locking in the carbon captured during the plants’ growth.
For Gorka Atxuara, a farmer and agricultural technician promoting biochar in the Peruvian Amazon, biochar is one important tool in a broader toolkit. “Not a panacea – as reforestation and reduction of emissions are still vital strategies – but used as part of an integrative approach, biochar can produce tangible, quantifiable carbon capture results, storing carbon for 150 to 2000 years.” Though not the only way forward in regard to climate change, biochar offers important additional benefits. “In oxisol soils in research plots in Colombia, a treatment with biochar offered a doubling of production for maize, compared to control plots. Biochar addresses climate change while improving livelihood for tropical farmers.”
This year Camino Verde will have a chance to test Gorka’s and others’ hypothesis: that biochar offers carbon credit-style climate change mitigation while improving tropical soils. We’re grateful for your help in making the dream of a sustainable Amazon – indeed, a sustainable planet – a reality for future generations. Thanks for helping us turn carbon footprints into healthy soils. We couldn’t do it without you.
We all know the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed. Right? – I mean, we do know that. But why is it being destroyed? How is this happening – right before the world’s eyes? When we knew we should do something to protect this unique biological treasure. When we knew that our indifference and inertia would only yield, could only yield, the same old result. This is what happens when forests meet what we call abstractly, natural resource exploitation.
Are we really aware of what’s being lost? What does it mean to you or me if the Amazon is compromised? Most of our medicines come from rainforest plants. That timber in your desk, those railroad ties in China, are from Amazonian trees. Selective logging for fine quality wood retains a forest, but what happens to an ecosystem when many of its key species, its oldest giants, go missing? What happens when the reckless harvest of medicines sold as cash crops internationally threatens the wild populations of trees that are rarely, if ever, planted by anyone? Worse still, how do we reseed after slash and burn clear cuts, which are the norm in the practice of many forms of agriculture in the Amazon?
Grappling with these questions, Camino Verde is proud to unveil our latest native species tree nursery in the Peruvian Amazon. The La Joya Native Forestry Nursery, just 4 kilometers outside of regional capital Puerto Maldonado, represents our commitment to the research and implementation of native species biodiversity conservation in its most active, tangible form: planting trees. The goals are ambitious: to propagate 10,000 individual seedlings representing over 100 native species in our first year.
Our team of Amazonian seed specialists is led by Manuel Huinga, a thesis candidate in Forestry Engineering at Puerto Maldonado’s UNAMAD University. Manuel started his work with tree seeds over 6 years ago at a biodiversity nursery run by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas near Puerto Maldonado.
Starting on with Camino Verde over 3 years ago, Manuel was part of the team that created our Reforestation Center’s tree nursery, home to over 350 species so far, and he’s brought that body of experience to bear on the creation of the La Joya nursery. For him the nursery work is nothing less than a tangible way to contribute to the Amazon’s longevity. With so much that seems daunting or impossible to change, Manuel is excited to be part of the solution. “If you come to the nursery, you won’t find just words. You’ll find real achievements. You’ll find trees growing, seeds sprouting. You’ll find trees being planted. You’ll get to experience what it means to plant a tree, what it means to take care of nature.”
Anyone visiting the Amazon, even briefly, cannot avoid witnessing the effects of exploitation of natural resources. The effects are obvious, are charred landscapes, are trees that when felled are as big as crash landed airplanes. As visitor and then resident in the Amazon, I saw landowners forced to make tough decisions in pursuit of a better life for their kids. I saw how greed is not as prevalent a motivator as the simple desire to maintain a dignified standard of quality of life.
The problem is complicated, but some solutions are remarkably simple. For Manuel and for Camino Verde, being a part of the solution is as direct as putting a seed in the ground. Thank you for joining your green thumbs to ours. This year we will plant thousands of trees together.
All the best from Peru,
Greetings from the Amazon of Peru, where we’ve just left the shortest day of the year behind. Before we jump in with this report, I wanted to take a step back and offer a brief overview of what we do – who is Camino Verde in 2016, in brief words. Think of it as talking points you might share with a friend or a loved one who cares about the Earth and its forests.
Many thanks for your support. Our regular report follows these few brief paragraphs.
What is Camino Verde? What do we do? This is living conservation: we are a dynamic team of Peruvian foresters, farmers, and ecological stewards. We intervene in bio-diversity preservation through active reforestation of hundreds of species of Amazonian trees. We engage with local communities and small holders in the Amazon to spread the strategies that have worked: ways of living from the land that are not just sustainable, but regenerative to human and other biological communities. We are a donor-supported organization with tax exempt status in the US and Peru. GlobalGiving is one of our most important partners for our development.
Let’s talk numbers. Our tree planting campaign this year has been our biggest ever – over 5,000 trees planted since November. Since our inception, we have planted over 20,000 trees representing 350 species at our reforestation center and on the land of partner farmers in native communities and elsewhere. This year our tree planting campaign will add 10,000 trees to that count. Each of our trees are individually mapped, measured, and tracked, allowing for an unprecedented level of accountability and transparency. Our reforestation center includes over 100 hectares (250 acres) of primary forest, a source of seed for our work restoring the previously farmed parts of the center.
What comes next? We are developing regenerative management plans for the sustainable harvest of dozens of species of trees that provide beneficial fruits, miraculous medicines, and aromatic essential oils. This last non-timber forest product has great potential, and we’re continuing to develop production-side and market-side our initiative to use aromatic essential oils as an economic driver for regenerative systems.
With your help we are continuing to do more each year. Thank you! And now, on to our Report...
Amazon Red Hot
“Smell this.” Farmer and forest savant Javier Huinga hands me a piece of bark he carefully slashed from the dark brown column of a forest giant. He smiles and nods knowingly as my face lights up from the scent – somewhere in the same aromatic solar system as cinnamon, spicy-sweet and pleasantly woody; the comparison that immediately comes to mind is to the candy Red Hots. Javier suggests I taste the bark and it’s sweet, like stevia. “This is how my grandfather stayed healthy. And for construction there’s nothing better, without a doubt.”
The year is 2012 and we’re making new friends. I had known Huinga for years, but not the tree. We came to Javier’s farm and brazil nut forest concession – essentially a large swath of wild rainforest of which he’s the legal guardian – to see an example of a species known to science as Aniba canelilla and to locals as canelón (roughly, “wild cinnamon”). Though I’d heard of the tree for years, I’d only had the pleasure a handful of times before. This individual was the largest I’d seen, over a meter in diameter. “Most of the neighbors have cleared theirs out already, for wood. Others end up killing the tree accidentally by peeling off too much of the bark for tea.”
With us was ethnobotanist Campbell Plowden, later to become a close friend and collaborator to Camino Verde, a specialist in non-timber forest products, or things you can get from trees without killing them. He had lived with the Tembe Indians of Brazil and studied their use of a multitude of plants for food, for medicine, for dyes, for crafts, and for construction. Now he had come to Tambopata to see firsthand the non-timber forest products familiar to locals in this neck of the woods, distinct from those found in the Amazonian heartland of Brazil several thousand miles away.
Campbell and I asked Javier how the rich smelling tree was used and heard a laundry list of common and chronic complaints. “This keeps you strong; it’s good for the cold, pain in the joints, body aches. Or if you’re getting the flu. And the best thing is you can drink it every day as a tea. No special diet required.” Used as a health tonic for longer than we can know, canelón is also a favored flavor supplement added to coca leaves to sweeten the chew. So it may perhaps come as a surprise that this revered therapeutic herb is also one of the Amazon’s peerless timbers.
The rainforest’s most durable tree?
“It has no expiration date, no age limit. The elementary school at Chonta [a community neaby] is made out of canelón. That was built when I was a boy.” Javier goes on to tell us a few of the salient features of the wood – golden yellow, beautifully figured, hard as rock, and resistant to all manner of rot. Could it be that the rich aromatic compounds are part of what makes the wood so durable?
In the rainforest they say that a house only lasts as long as its feet. To thwart rising waters, to avoid unwanted animal guests ranging from snakes to ants, and to enjoy a relative measure of dryness amidst so much humidity, jungle houses tend to be up on stilts. For stability, the posts are sunk into the ground, usually to three or four feet of depth. In rainforest soil, there are few kinds of wood that can last more than a matter of months in contact with the wet, fungal, termite-laden soil. Those timbers that can last are in an elite class for density and durability.
In Tambopata, canelón is considered the best timber for in-the-ground post wood. Period. Sober-minded non-exaggerators I’ve met from the area consistently give figures of 40 years or more for the durability of the timber in the soil. Ship the wood anywhere else – where it’s drier, where it’s cooler, where microbial life is less aggressive – and the useful life ostensibly extends into the hundreds of years.
Not surprisingly, the excellent timber means canelón is sought out and now over-exploited. In one of the Earth’s most species-rich forests, a thousand kinds of trees can share a square mile of clay, each with its own suite of specialized ecological functions, each necessary to the forest in its own way. Individual canelón trees are few and far between, and we don’t fully comprehend what the new big gaps in the population map mean for the species’ future, or the forest’s. What happens to animals that rely on canelón fruits for food? What happens to pollination and other forms of interaction among individual trees now artificially distanced from one another? Our visit to the tree raised these questions and others, until Javier snapped us out of our rumination with a welcome dose of humor.
“The best thing about having your house made out of canelón is that whenever you want tea, you just scrape off a piece of the wall and put it on to boil.” Campbell and I erupted in appreciative laughter, but Javier’s smile was cryptic and slightly ironic. “No, seriously,” he said.
As we prepared to leave the massive elder behind, Javier noticed something among the leaf litter. A few strokes of his machete later and he was handing me a small seedling. The offhand remark he made next was a poignant commentary on the fragility of mega-abundant ecosystems. “This is one of the babies. I don’t know why there are so few of them out in the forest, but the fact is you don’t find almost any.”
Campbell and I visited Javier as part of a broader exploration of the aromatic trees of the Peruvian Amazon. Astute readers may remember another tree from canelón's genus, Aniba rosaeodora, or Brazilian rosewood. Inspired by the great demand for the now-endangered rosewood in the perfume industry, we were looking for other relatives that could offer similarly promising aromas. The Lauraceae family is known for its rich-smelling members which include cinnamon, bay laurel, and camphor. Their aromatic phytochemicals are part of an ancient anatomy of self-protection, and even beyond Lauraceae countless trees use scented compounds to stay healthy, hence good timber. Some of these compounds help us stay healthy too, hence medicine.
We didn’t realize it then, but it was a momentous week. Just days later we experimented with distillation of another related species, Endlicheria krukovi, a tree known in Tambopata as moena alcanforada in reference to its camphor-like scent. We confirmed the presence of essential oils in this tree (not all rich-smelling plants have oils as the scent vehicle), which would become our first product. And without too much fanfare, I planted out the fragile canelón seedling Javier had given me at Camino Verde’s Living Seed Bank.
Over the years since, we’ve experimented with the essential oils of over a dozen other species, planted hundreds of rosewood, thousands of moena alcanforada, and brought several of our partner farmers into the fold of forestry and distillation technicians. Campbell and I have brought rosewood reforestation to native communities and I’ve marveled at the importance of his ongoing research related to other aromatic trees of the Amazon such as copal. Years on, Javier’s canelón seedling from the forest floor is now taller than me. It has been a journey. How all that came to be is too cool not to share.
Not long after our visit to Javier, his eldest son Manuel joined the Camino Verde team. A forestry student at the local university, Manuel was born and raised on the Tambopata River and was immersed in forest knowledge from his earliest memories. Manuel is a plant lover plain and simple. Green thumb is an understatement. To this day he often leaves his young son and girlfriend behind to plunge into the rainforest for days at a time. His mission? To find seeds of trees that are being lost before they’re even properly understood. As our nursery supervisor and field technician, Manuel has propagated literally hundreds of species of trees that are little studied and whose behavior in the nursery and in a cultivated setting isn’t well documented.
The point is to find trees that offer non-timber forest products that can incentivize the protection of forests, just as the destructive activities of today are market-driven. To use the very factors that fuel deforestation as an impetus to plant trees. Canelón checks off a lot of the boxes: it is otherwise killed for timber, known and valued locally, rich in essential oil, and well, delicious. We have just sent off samples of the essential oil for analysis to confirm that this product is edible, non-toxic, and therapeutic. If so, Camino Verde will help create a market for this novel oil while planting more of the trees.
On the forefront of our work with canelón is Manuel Huinga. This year his thesis for university will focus on studying a wild population of the trees in order to develop a sustainable harvest methodology that includes planting more of the trees as well as a modest selective harvest of leaves and branches from some trees for essential oil production. “I feel really passionate about it. This is a tree my father loves, and his father used. It’s an emblematic tree of our region and could be an important product for people here, something they could get without destroying the trees. It’s also a new precedent – forestry legislation in Peru doesn’t address management plans for essential oils. So we’ll get in on the ground floor, and make sure that production of canelón is synonymous with conservation of forests.”
While our emphasis to date has been on production of essential oils from trees we plant, as is the case with our moena alcanforada oil, Manuel’s work will focus on wild harvest, straight from the natural forest. Like his father Javier, many small farmers and landowners in Tambopata hold forest concessions – large areas of mostly intact jungle from which to harvest specific product(s). Hundreds of brazil nut concessions exist that give families harvesting rights for the wild brazil nut trees within a given area, sometimes hundreds or thousands of acres.
Over half the region’s population draws some of its income from brazil nut concessions. Complimentary management plans allow concession holders to extract other forest resources, if done thoughtfully and carefully. Essential oils could represent a valuable supplementary income to concession holders, who are typically only as effective at protecting their forests from poachers and illegal lumberjacks as they are economically prosperous. Amazonian farmers whose basic needs are reliably being met are some of the best conservationists the world has. Giving them the tools to make a living in ways that preserve and even regenerate the forest has big implications.
The canelón test run, in real time
Sometimes these things just happen that way. About a year ago Manuel and I were approached by Elber Herrera, a neighbor who lives a few short miles from the Living Seed Bank along the Tambopata River. He complained that his brazil nut concession wasn’t a