The canoe glides among lianas like mythic serpents and under gray-trunked giants. Insects stare back at us from seasonal perches on branches backdropped with multicolored lichens, their homes when the Amazon's waters run its banks. A white hot sun filters through the canopy and I watch the flashing progressions of light and dark on my companions’ faces, their expert hands adjusting paddle and pole and bringing the boat to a comfortable stop at our trailhead. Moving on foot, we share laughter as our path is submerged once more; our gum boots fill with water for the fourth time of the day.
The commute to work for the rosewood farmers of the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo involves such ordinary tribulations as these, flooded paths, wandering serpents, yet another opportunity to read the forest. Before long we emerge from the thick secondary growth of an old purma (fallow farm) into a clearing where we discover a well-tended garden. Rimmed by the gorgeous chaos of the forest, this garden is a sanctuary for one particular kind of tree, pushed to within a thread of extinction but now cared for, cared about, accompanied closely in its growth as it was once aggressively sought out for its monetary value.
The tree is Brazilian rosewood. And the garden is now three years old. We have pruning shears and saws and we begin by trimming away dead branches, then go on to harvest some of the bottommost live ones. Shortly a sugar sack is filled with branches and leaves. In a half hour, working in teams of three and four, we’ve pruned the whole grove, a hundred trees yielding their first harvest, just a branch or two or three from each tree. Tomorrow, these leaves and side branches will be chipped and then distilled, yielding an essential oil that made fortunes for perfumers several decades ago but now is increasingly hard to find.
Once, whole rosewood trees were ripped up from the forest loam, as even the roots contain the precious linalool-rich aromatic oil. Now, we prune the trees according to old forestry techniques, in order to improve their health and growth. Our modest harvest is of branches that the tree would soon shuck off anyway. The result of these careful prunings is also esthetically pleasing— the trees look beautiful.
David, one of the Bora guardians of the Brillo Nuevo rosewoods, put it well:
“It’s amazing to see how much better my rosewood trees looked after removing some dead wood and a few lower branches with leaves we can distill. I suppose this is science, but it feels more like a kind of art I can practice to shape and care for my trees. Some of them will eventually produce seeds we use to plant more of these beautiful trees all around our community.”
For three years, five families in Brillo Nuevo have taken on the care of over 500 rosewood trees. Modest as this scale may seem, it’s the first step in a broader vision to use rosewood as an economic motor to help sustain conservation-compatible activities in the Amazon. And this harvest means that finally our friends in Brillo Nuevo can receive the first fruits of their labor. Our harvest yields just a few hundred milliliters of the precious oil, but David, Oscar, Brito, Felix, and Dolores have seen what the future can hold. The biggest of the trees give impressive yields, with a branch or two weighing kilos, and in another year or two these rosewood groves will be able to sustain ongoing harvests on a monthly basis.
Though it’s still early in the productive life of the trees, the rosewood stewards at Brillo Nuevo have reason for optimism. It’s unusual to find sources of income that are also amenable to traditional, sustainable land use strategies, and rosewood is one. As Oscar said, “Our goal isn’t to create big plantations of rosewood trees. The Bora have an old tradition of planting many kinds of trees together to produce fruits, fibers and medicines. It’s great that we can now include valuable rosewood trees in this mix.”
For those of you who have followed the rosewood story through our project reports, thanks for accompanying us thus far. This first harvest is a culmination of years of effort on the part of the rosewood team. And it is also the beginning of a new chapter. I hope you will continue to follow us on this journey. We couldn’t do it without you.
We’re grateful for your support of this work. And now is a particularly impactful time to do so, as TODAY, March 16th, is GlobalGiving’s first Bonus Day of the year. Donations made on March 16 will be matched. Make your contribution count extra. You can do so here. Thank you! Together we will ensure a future for rosewood and so many others of the Amazon’s miraculous trees.
I'm pleased to share with you that the Camino Verde project you support, Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils, has been selected as GlobalGiving's Project of the Month. What this means is added visibility and impact for this month, and additional funding toward the work we're doing from the members of GG's Project of the Month Club.
This is a brief note to invite you to make your support of Camino Verde's carbon capture work count More. Today, March 16, your donation will be matched! It's GlobalGiving's first Bonus Day of the year, and we'd be grateful if you'd consider making your donation now, to take advantage of this amazing matching funds opportunity. Between the Bonus Day and the Project of the Month, I know this month will be especially powerful.
The timing of this support couldn't be better. After a period of researching carbon sequestration strategies from around the world, we recently selected what we believe to be the most impactful, scalable strategy to implement in partnership with small farmers in the Peruvian Amazon.
Thanks to your contributions, we will be able to begin installation of our very first Adam Retort, a clean, efficient technology that allows the carbon captured by plants as biomass to be stored almost indefinitely in the form of bio-char. Bio-char is then used by farmers to improve their soils — an elegant win-win. We will literally be able to weigh the carbon removed from the atmosphere. It's our plan to work closely with our farmer partners to measure the impact that bio-char has on their farm's fertility and therefore their livelihood.
We're grateful for your help in creating a holistic approach to climate change that has a real, measurable impact on greenhouse gases while improving the lives of farmers and the health of their agro-ecological farms. We'll keep you posted on how it goes.
We couldn't do it without you-- thank you for your support. With gratitude,
The trees of Acholiland
A quick glance at Northern Uganda and you might think that it’s another Serengeti. It is a home to rolling savannah, to vast horizons seen blurred through the dust-heavy air. Sunrises and sunsets are red giants rippling mirage-like, and indeed in the region’s protected areas and natural parks the iconic big game of sub-Saharan Africa does roam.
But the image is a recent and artificial one. Yes, giraffes and elephants wander these plains. But until very recently savannah was just one ecotype in a varied mosaic landscape whose microclimatic idiosyncrasies bore out many full-fleshed experiments in forest. Trees were not the exception but the norm. Only in the past 50 years has forest cover been lost to an extent that allows for the Serengeti analogy to seem plausible.
A product of the chaos of armed conflict and the tumultuous collision of capitalism and corruption, Northern Uganda’s deforestation history has been stunningly rapid and continues today. On any given week, dozens, even hundreds of trucks speed down the recently improved Gulu-Kampala highway, the North’s central artery, filled to overflowing with sacks and sacks of pyrolized trees’ bodies— in other words, charcoal.
Traveling along this road recently, for over two hours the smell and even the taste of charcoal production scratched in my throat uninterruptedly. It’s a known public health hazard to live near production of this “dirty” fuel, and respiratory infections are Uganda’s second leading cause of morbidity (i.e., preventable death by treatable illness). Citing the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 7, to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” many Ugandans have realized that charcoal is far from an ideal fuel source. So why torch the trees? For many of Uganda’s 30 million citizens, charcoal is one of the few available options for greater participation in the cash economy.
Universal challenges, universal applications
As more of the world is touched by global development (include accusatory quotation marks around the word development if you like), more and more people are choosing to monetize their forests through means that are directly antagonistic to ecological health. Destruction of countless hardwood trees for charcoal production is just one example, but indeed an example that carries unexpected connotations.
As you know from reading previous reports here, bio-char, or charcoal used as a soil amendment, is gradually spreading throughout the tropics as benefit to farmers’ soils and important carbon sink — the charred wood in charcoal maintains its carbon in a remarkably stable state, as long as 2000 years maintained in the soil. The traditional “dirty” incentive for charcoal production is but one of many. Perhaps there are ways in which production of cooking charcoal can be tied to more environmentally wholesome bio-char production. What we know for sure is that there are better, cleaner ways to make charcoal. As much as we’d love to see more of that charcoal turned into the soil, perhaps it’s permissible to imagine some charcoal production for cooking fuel, but produced efficiently and cleanly.
Bill Mollison reminds us that “the problem is the solution.” While cooking charcoal production should properly be seen as ecologically reprehensible in most places where it’s done, there’s no reason not to dedicate effective, clean production practices toward “the enemy” — charcoal for cooking.
Thanks for your support of our bio-char advocacy and development work! Greetings from Peru and Uganda,