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,
I hope this finds you well. In this season of family union and reflection on what we have to be grateful for, I’m reminded of the many people I’m thankful to know. For this Missive, rather than shooting you with bullet points or dry descriptions of our progress, I want to share with you the story of one friend for whom I’m grateful.
Neighbor, farmer, colleague, teacher, his story is also the story of Camino Verde. It’s my honor to share it with you, and to wish you a peaceful, joyful end to the year.
Thank you for your support!
One farmer’s story
Like millions of other Peruvians, my friend Juan Rafaele left his homeland in the Andes to escape the violence that erupted there like wildfires in the 1980’s and 90’s. The militants of Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path took guidance from Mao Zedong in their pursuit of power by the barrel of a gun. The wave of killings and skirmishes that lit up the Andes of southern Peru were of unprecedented brutality. As a direct result, the population of the capital city of Lima swelled with highland emigrants to become the over-10 million strong metropolis of today.
And in an isolated backwater of the Peruvian Amazon, a young Juan Rafaele and many of his peers sought a more peaceful future in an unfamiliar landscape. Rafaele arrived to the provincial capital of Puerto Maldonado, at the time little more than a muddy crossroads scratched out of the tangled rainforest, and quickly was able to find work in the informal artisanal gold mining operations that dotted the Madre de Dios, the Inambari, the Colorado, and the Malinowski rivers.
The mining work consisted of hard labor, running wheelbarrows full of river sand through crude filters to separate out the denser gold dust. Pay was good, but Rafaele remembered a youth spent tending fields and livestock and longed to return to the farming that he found intuitive and familiar.
Creating a new home
Before long his opportunity came. The Japanese-Peruvian president Fujimori’s policy of colonization of the sparsely populated Amazon region (representing over half of the national territory) meant squatters could easily obtain legal title to comfortably expansive tracts of virgin rainforest. A single land claim usually amounted to 30 hectares (around 75 acres)– an area that felt downright luxurious compared to the small patchwork farm plots of most Andean villages. The only demand on the squatter was to “improve” the land by clearing forest, planting crops, and erecting a modest camp. Many a jungle homestead was born.
Juan fell in with the settlers of an area along the Tambopata River called Baltimori where previously the only inhabitants had been rubber tappers and occasional nomadic timber extractors cutting out massive mahoganies and tropical cedars, widely scattered in a forest containing thousands of species of trees. Now, in the early 90’s, around fifty families of “colonists” moved in, partitioned off their 30-hectare parcels, and inaugurated a school and a health post. Their pursuit of prosperity involved small slash-and-burn agriculture (at this scale, nowhere near as noxious as industrialized agriculture and cattle ranching), as well as subsistence hunting and fishing.
For over 10 years, community life was idyllic in Baltimori. Despite the kinds of petty rivalries and neighborly feuds that characterize small villages all over the world, Juan and the other settlers of Baltimori enjoyed excellent and diverse crops thanks to Tambopata’s fertile soils. Pick up soccer games ended each work week, and community anniversaries were celebrated every 1st of May.
During this time, Juan married and had four children (a fifth would come several years later, and one daughter’s life would be tragically cut short). Together with wife Rosalia, the farmstead blossomed with vegetables and corn, chickens and pigs, and the family embraced tropical crops that were unknown in their motherland 10,000 feet above sea level.
The fruits of Santa Rosa
Around the same time, the non-governmental organization Pro-Naturaleza came to Baltimori and helped Juan transform the farm into a highly diversified agro-forestry orchard. He grew mangoes, cacao, oranges, lemons, and a dozen fruits that have no name in English. With a little guidance from the NGO extension officers he planted nitrogen-fixing cover crops and punctuated the fruit trees with reforestation of increasingly rare, high value timber trees like mahogany, amburana, and brazil nut. Following the principles of successional agro-forestry, papayas, bananas, and corn provided income while the fruit trees were getting established.
When I first met Juan Rafaele and visited his farm in 2006, the orchards were overflowing with fruit— Juan’s recurring problem, he explained in his humble way, was finding extra labor to help with the bumper harvests. I had seen agro-forestry systems before, but never so fully realized. Santa Rosa Farm (as Juan and Rosalia named it) was and continues to be an inspiration for Camino Verde’s work. As luck would have it, we became neighbors.
A new chapter
Fast forwarding through 8 years of sharing seeds and calling greetings to one another across the waters of the Tambopata, of seeding fields together and blueprinting dreams, Juan joined the Camino Verde team in a more official way in August of 2014. In the meantime, much had changed around us. From 50 families, Baltimori was reduced to no more than 10 active farmers. Urbanization is a global trend, and here it was largely caused by a lack of access to education. Families wanting a better future for sons and daughters turned increasingly to Puerto Maldonado, which had become a bustling little city six hours’ boat ride away. The jungle reclaimed fields and quickly deteriorated the houses that were left empty.
Another significant change was in Juan’s intervertebral discs. All those bumper crops were heavy to carry, and Rafaele’s back was no longer that of the spry young man who had arrived to the rainforest. I often saw him wincing, and a doctor’s visit confirmed that it was unwise to continue handling serious loads. It was this development that led him to seek a day job with Camino Verde, leaving some of the work of his own farm to a brother living in the area and his now-adult son, Isaías.
Juan embraced the new work environment, seeing in our Living Seed Bank many reflections of his own farm, and also learning some new things as well. He was fascinated by our work extracting essential oils from trees usually felled for timber. After some brief training which he found simple enough, this year he became our head distiller, a job which happily spares his spine. The 500 Moena Alcanforada trees we distill from have become familiar, their value clearly demonstrated, and this year Juan approached me about installing a similar “aroma forest” on his own farm across the river.
In February of 2016, we will plant these trees together. And in 2 years’ time he will be able to begin distillation of essential oil from his own trees, which he sees as easy “seated work” and a pathway to economic solvency that will allow him to hire help for the more backbreaking chores the farm demands.
A model for the future
Juan’s story is one bright example of how growing and stewarding Amazonian trees can become a viable livelihood for small farmers. When his trees come online for essential oil production in 2018, Camino Verde will help Juan acquire distillation equipment and place his product in the market, both in Peru and abroad. We see essential oils as just one economic motor available to improve livelihoods for rainforest farmers while directly encouraging practices that are regenerative for forests and bio-diversity.
In 2016 Camino Verde will take these strategies to scale as never before. In addition to planting over 10,000 trees in the coming year, we’re deepening our work with more farmers like Juan Rafaele. Meanwhile, we’re sharing our replicable models to communities in different parts of the world, particularly in our consultation work in Uganda (from where I’m writing this missive).
Thank you for supporting Camino Verde. We truly couldn’t do it without you. This holiday season, consider giving your loved ones the gift of trees planted in their name. (And please be sure to let us know the names of whom you are honoring!)
Bamboo is a grass that can grow 50 meters tall. It's the source of fibers used to make paper and clothing, and a sturdy "timber" familiar in the tropics and increasingly throughout the world.
And it's fast. Many species of bamboo grow faster than trees. And many species sequester more carbon dioxide than trees, a fact that has made bamboo attractive for possible carbon capture credit systems.
It works like this: the growing plant takes in CO2 as part of photosynthesis, incorporating much of that carbon into its body as biomass. For as long as the plant resists decomposition, this carbon is captured, sequestered, sunk. If the thing rots, much of the carbon offgases as CO2 and methane. So for bamboo to be effective as a carbon capture system, the bamboo must be preserved, as is the case with bamboo-as-timber in construction.
The other way you can lock the carbon in is by making bamboo charcoal.
Counter-intuitive as it appears at first glance, charring bamboo is in fact pyrolysis instead of combustion and releases few emissions. And the carbon captured in charcoal exists in a much more stable form -- charcoal can last for hundreds or even thousands of years without re-releasing its carbon.
Bamboo charcoal is like pulling carbon out of the atmosphere by some magic trick and placing it in stable organic canisters that can safely be buried -- and in fact provide great benefits in the soil.
Our bamboo plantings are over a year old now but still need more time before they can start yielding sustainable harvests. Thanks to your support, we're approaching the execution phase in which we'll demonstrate bamboo bio-char's value and begin to share it.
Thanks so much for your interest and support!