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1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever

by Camino Verde
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1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever
1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever

Dear friends of Camino Verde,

I hope your year is off to a wonderful start, for those in the northern hemisphere with spring knocking at the door, and those of us in the Peruvian Amazon with the last pounding rains of the wet season still thundering overhead. As you may recall, the rainy season in the Amazon is the planting season, and in the lapse since you last heard from us in 2018 we planted around 30,000 trees.

This is our biggest planting campaign of all time, 100 acres planted all at once with over 50 species, and it’s just the first in a series of things we’re doing more of this year.

  • Producing more tree seedlings – Camino Verde now manages 3 forestry nurseries in Madre de Dios producing a total of 75,000 seedlings a year, representing over 100 species of trees.
  • Restoring more degraded landscapes – In addition to those 100 acres of former cattle pasture planted in the first months of 2019, we continue to provide seedlings to farmers, associations, companies, and government projects planting in a variety of degradation scenarios including subsistence agriculture, industrial papaya monoculture, and gold mining. We even provided native tree seedlings installed in the Plaza de Armas of Puerto Maldonado, the regional capital.
  • More Rosewood planting – We have secured funding for the planting of 10,000 rosewood trees in 2019 on Camino Verde land and possibly as many as 5,000 more trees in native communities.
  • Protecting more rainforest – With a new partnership in place, Camino Verde now oversees the conservation management of 5,000 acres of primary rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon. This initiative is being funded entirely by the partner, and is allowing our team and our impact to grow without relying on you our donors.
  • Producing more essential oil – Our production of aromatic essential oils from the Peruvian Amazon is set to expand this year, and that means working with more farmers to plant more endangered trees like Moena, Rosewood, and Copaiba.


Even as we are finding more private partners to allow us to grow our impact to a whole different scale – and even as we are building our organization’s economic resilience through the sale of essential oils and consultative services – we continue to rely on you our donors to make this work possible. Our growing team of 15 Peruvian staff includes farmers, ecologists, forestry engineers and one gringo (me). They and I thank you for the chance to do this work we find so meaningful and rewarding.

In this Missive I’m excited to turn things over to my friend and longtime colleague in the Camino Verde team, Ursula Leyva. Ursula and I met at a permaculture design course in 2010 and we’ve collaborated ever since. In 2014 she officially joined CV and in these 5 years she has worn many hats in the leadership of the organization. A natural builder, permaculture designer, orchid propagator, a writer and a mother, Ursula continues to wear many hats. But what comes to mind when I read her words is her study and experience in development communications (she holds a degree in Social Communications from the Universidad de Lima).

I hope you enjoy Ursula’s words on where Camino Verde comes from and where it’s going. Thanks so much for your interest and support of what we do. Together as a community of caring individuals we have a long path to walk ahead.

In gratitude,

Robin

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When I think about the future of our organization, usually the beginnings are what come to my mind. What was the first tree planted? How much have we evolved as an organization and how did we do it? All of our results are intrinsically related to the way our plants have thrived. Our green path started a little over ten years ago, but the journey of our plants is more remote than we can imagine.

One of the questions I receive most frequently is: "So, what do you plant on the farm?" I always have to take a second to think about how to respond. Although our work focuses on trees, the collection of plants comprising our Living Seed Bank defies generalization. To sum it up you could say that we propagate all kinds of native Amazonian tree species in our nurseries, so that they can be planted by human hands to improve the land, improve the diversity of farms, improve the quality of life of people and sustain communities over time. In this sense, we actively contribute to the domestication of species.

The process of domestication of plants and animals in Peru began approximately 10,000 years ago, according to a variety of researchers. Great civilizations like Caral (on the Peruvian coast), which had agriculture 5 thousand years ago, represent only half of this process. I wonder if we can imagine or intuit something about the life and dreams of the seed collectors of the past, who were able to adapt hundreds of species and develop thousands of varieties for the benefit of human beings.

Despite this ancient legacy, the precious and uniquely rich biodiversity of the Amazon is not necessarily reflected in the species cultivated in our region’s farms today – and especially is not reflected in the edible species. Naturally, forest biodiversity has enormous potential to contribute to the food security of local families and the planet. But this is a well that remains untapped on many Amazonian farms.

An important part of what Camino Verde does in our labors of regeneration is to plant and cultivate the wild trees, so that they can adapt to new conditions and thrive. Every decision made about a plant’s development will have an impact on its ability to adapt – and its offspring’s success. So how do we know the best way to "breed" these native and wild species that interest us for their fruits, or their medicine, or for the ways they help the growth of other plants? In addition to a generous helping of local knowledge and a lot of practice, we rely on intuition and a great deal of respect. The objective is not to make a genetic change in the laboratory, but to support the resilience of each species, allowing for its successful growth in the field. We play our small part, with careful attention given to each of the plants we grow.

Facilitating a plant’s process of domestication involves close observation of the conditions that favor germination, the amount of water a species tolerates, testing of different soil substrates, not to mention trying to imitate conditions in a natural forest, understanding how to associate different species, how to prune trees to give more fruit or to thicken the trunk faster, among other activities. And so it is that, generation after generation, the trees sown in fallow fields in spaces designed for the uses of humankind will have a beautiful offspring that returns a protective covering of forest to the land.

Working in the nursery or in our extensive areas of long-term agroforestry systems is a fascinating, intellectually demanding task. Systematizing all the knowledge generated from this decade of experience (and also trying contribute to scientifically measurable results) is one of our most difficult challenges. Sharing our learning is one of our most important responsibilities.

Think about this. The changes that are taking place in plants are also reflected in us human beings. I always wonder, how much have these plants domesticated us? The communion between human and plant reaches its maximum expression through personal contact and deep observation. We are committed to this legacy, to the continuity of important species and their survival on the planet. They tame us. They raise us: they domesticate us even as they make us wild. In a sense we are the plants’ instruments and we have surrendered to them.

And that will remain at the core of what we do, throughout our growth and in time.

There is a green path that is traveled in our minds and in our hearts. That is the path that sustains us and on which our future is built. For us this work is an honor and a dream come true – and we hope, contagious.

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Dear friends,

This year Camino Verde celebrated 10 years of non-profit status, of tree planting and of Amazonian regeneration.  I can't tell you how grateful – and humbled – our team and I feel about this milestone.  To honor this big deal for our small organization, we gathered with a hundred or so of our dear supporters at Walden Woods in Massachusetts under the shadow of Henry David Thoreau's legacy.  The event was a follow-up to our 5th anniversay celebration at the same venue, and it was an amazing opportunity to reflect on all that has happened since that last gathering in 2013. 

In our first five years we went from zero to something.  But in the next five year period, we went from something to Awesome.  It's been gratifying for our team to review all that we've been able to accomplish, and I want to share that summary with you here. What can five years mean for an organization? Here's a snapshot. I hope you enjoy.

Our work is unavoidably based on relationships with people: individuals and communities.  And our work is also fundamentally based on the plant species we plant. 

I believe that Camino Verde’s unique contribution to the conservation and regeneration of Amazonian forests, our most fundamental value proposition, is our intimate acquaintance with the over 500 Amazonian species we have planted so far at our reforestation center, of which, by the way, several dozen contain aromatic essential oils. There are trees that provide economically valuable timber and medicines, dyes and fruits, crafts materials and ecosystem services. These are species that attract pollinators, improve soils, feed parrot populations, all the while providing products that sustain their human benefactors. We have even planted a few superhero species that practically hit all of the above bases related to a species’ usefulness. These are the multi-hyphenated species: such as this medicinal-timber-fruit tree called brazil nut.

When I look back at the last five years, at the growth Camino Verde has experienced as an organization, I see the growth of our programs as a direct extension of the learning and relationships we have formed with the miraculous species we plant.  If you ask me what the major milestones for CV have been since 2013, I could easily organize the answer based on the uses and applications we have found for a variety of Amazonian plant species.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Starting in 2015 we teamed up with what Wake Forest University calls their center for Amazonian scientific innovation, to address the region’s most pressing environmental crisis: gold mining.  Where there was once the world’s most biodiverse forest, gold mining leaves behind a deserted moonscape of sterile soil contaminated with diesel and heavy metals.  This highly degraded landscape is inhospitable to most organisms, and the natural regeneration of these sites takes decades when left to its own devices.

We provided the Wake Forest research group with a list of promising species for the restoration of these polluted wastelands, trees that can grow where others can’t, and that transform the soil through the production of organic matter and association with beneficial soil micro-organisms.  They liked our list, and so in 2016 and 17 we produced over 50,000 seedlings for the group, representing more than 30 species.  These trees were planted out on a hundred acres of degraded former mines and their growth is being carefully monitored to identify the most promising of our species for this demanding context, which unfortunately is quite widespread. 

A big win-win, this collaboration allowed us to greatly expand the production capacity of the now multiple tree nurseries we run.  Offering seedlings to researchers, government and non-government projects and organizations, as well as companies and investors has been an important sustainer of our activities.  It has also been a powerful realization of the original dream of Camino Verde: which is to make the important useful tree species of the Amazon, which are being lost so fast, available to all – as seeds and seedlings for planting efforts.  In this vein, in 5 years we’ve gone from a single tree nursery, producing 5,000 seedlings a year – to three nurseries in different locations producing over 50,000 seedlings – and an incredible hundred species of trees – each year.  This is something that makes us proud. 

Some of those trees go to those other actors in the region I just mentioned, while some trees we entrust to small farmers and native communities with whom we partner.  And, some of the trees we plant ourselves, at Camino Verde’s reforestation center in Baltimori and at a recently created demonstration site adjoined one of the new nurseries, just outside the regional capital of Puerto Maldonado.  In the last 5 years our planting efforts on these lands that CV owns outright have reached 50 acres of trees planted, over 400 species laid out in a mosaic of various kinds of forest-imitating, productive agroforestry systems.  Before the end of this year we will have completed the planting of all of the areas we have available, that is, all the areas that were clear cut by previous owners for farming.

This represents the culmination of our vision for a Living Seed Bank that provides a source of seeds for the future – including seeds of inspiration.  We have begun to bring more and more farmers and other groups to the reforestation center, to let it speak for itself and inspire others to plant.  Seeing trees at 1 year old, 3 years old, age 10, has proven to be the best device for making tree planting contagious, way more effective than any seminar or pedagogical model.  Finishing the planting on our own land means we can turn more energy toward working with others who want to plant on their land.   It’s time to replicate what has worked, on a larger scale. 

Speaking of which, I mentioned that some of our seedlings go to small farmers and partner communities.  In the last 5 years, we’ve gone from farmer outreach in one community – Baltimori – to working with farmers in 5 communities, two of which are the indigenous territories where we’re planting rosewood.  In a moment I’ll touch on what’s to come in the next 5 years, and deepening our work with Amazonian communities is one focal area for our growth.

I’ve talked a lot about tree planting, but another area in which CV has seen welcome development is in the conservation of a growing area of primary rainforest – which is a better term than “virgin” rainforest but means the roughly the same thing.  Primary rainforest is valuable intact for any number of reasons, but CV has an even more direct vested interest in the conservation of our forests – since, they’re the source of the vast majority of the seeds we plant in our nurseries.  I’m glad to report that our reforestation center is now recognized by the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment as a private conservation area.

We work closely with two of our next door neighbors to conserve an additional two thousand hectares, which is five thousand acres, but the area that we own outright is a modest 100 hectares or 250 acres.   For perspective, this is twice the area we managed back at Walden Woods 1.0.  In the effort to preserve more rainforest we have had the support of an incredible ally.  Member of the Camino Verde tribe, visitor to the reforestation center, advocate, and donor Jim Sherblom, has forged an indelible conservation legacy in the creation of the Sherblom Family Forest, an area of 30 acres of pristine rainforest that was donated to Camino Verde for conservation in perpetuity.  It’s special to be able to publicly offer heartfelt thanks to the Sherbloms for their vision.

Conservation of rainforest doesn’t mean we’re just cordoning off an area as a human-free zone.  For us, conservation means active monitoring of the forest both to prevent trespassing, poaching and illegal logging, and also to document and map seed trees and collect seeds that are relevant to our planting efforts.  We’ve also used motion sensor cameras to capture images of the wild diversity of fauna that roams those woods.

Thanks to the Sherbloms’ support we were able to pilot a new tool in our conservation tool kit.  Last year we generated our first ever high-definition maps of the reforestation center and conservation areas via drone.   Future drone flyovers will allow us to compare the height of individual trees then and now, saving us lots of time on on-the-ground data collection about how are trees are growing.

In my roundup of our growth and accomplishments in the last five years I’ve been saving the best two for last.  These final program areas I want to mention are a source of great excitement for me and the Camino Verde team – which is now 15 full time Peruvian staff members strong.

The first touches back on the topic I started with – essential oils. For the past 5 years we’ve experimented with the distillation of a variety of oils as a potential non-timber forest product to provide alternative income sources for Amazonian farmers.  Last year we began selling the essential oil of one species, Moena Alcanfór, which is entirely new to the aroma markets of the world.  The oil comes from carefully pruned branches of trees we planted in 2010 at the reforestation center.  As an organization we welcome wholeheartedly the opportunity to achieve more of our financial needs via sales of products, allowing donations to go to more impactful things than our basic operational costs.  Recently we’ve enjoyed deepening relationships with mission-centered companies like Pacha Soap and Floracopeia and it now is the case you can find products with our essential oils in them in stores and online retailers.  As we wade through the bureaucracy to attain export permits for rosewood oil, we look forward to a future in which Camino Verde’s growth is sustained in a robust way through our goods and services.

Yes, services.  The final program update I wanted to mention is related to the development of Camino Verde’s consultancy work.  We don’t want our tree planting strategies to persist in a bubble of invisibility.  We want to share what has worked in an open source fashion.  We want the native-species-based agroforestry systems we develop to go viral. So one way we have been doing that since 2015 is to help develop others’ projects and visions using the toolkit we know and trust from a decade of learning in the Peruvian Amazon.  We believe that offering consultative services is a way we can scale our impact. 

Our first opportunity in this regard was to help create a project in recently war-torn Northern Uganda linking a US-based non-profit organization to indigenous herbalists with the intention of native species reforestation.  The herbalists wanted to preserve and regenerate their sources of plant remedies in a context of rapid deforestation.  We helped this budding Ugandan organization of herbalists to plant over a hundred thousand trees, representing an impressive 50 different native medicinal species.

More recently, we were hired to manage a property in the Tambopata province which CV calls home.  The site includes over 100 acres of degraded former cattle pasture which we will reforest between now and the end of the year.  Our biggest planting campaign ever, we’ll plant tens of thousands of trees, over twenty species, with a dual emphasis on regeneration (of soils, of forest) and productivity.  For us to engage with a partner like this is the first step in a journey toward being able to create polyculture-based strategies for the kinds of company that are currently torching the tropics to plant palm oil. It’s kind of a thrilling thought to prove that reforestation can be competitive economically with the short-sighted and devastating models that are so horrifyingly commonplace.  We want to engage with more companies like this in the future, and in that vein in March I’ll be paying a visit to a two thousand acre farm whose owner is keenly interested in finding a better way to make a profit than oil palm monocultures, which surround his land.

We're thrilled at all that we're able to accomplish thanks to your support.  It's even more exciting to think about where we will be in 5 years from now, as we continue to improve and grow.  

Here's to a decade of Amazonian regeneration!  Thank you so much for being an integral part of it.

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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.

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 in a single month. 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.

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:

  1. Working to restore the Amazon with new partners who ensure our work is in line with their needs
  2. Engaging more farmers, more native communities, building livelihoods in the Peruvian rain forest for locals by using the forest in sustainable ways and bringing back forests that have been lost.
  3. Planting more species of trees, providing and developing a variety of income streams from the forest for local farmers. 
  4. Producing and selling tens of thousands of seedlings for re-planting the rainforest
  5. Building a new income source from trees – we are selling essential oils from trees we have planted. 
  6. Working with companies who share our vision for regenerating the Amazon.  These companies are now paying Camino Verde to plant trees on their land.

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.  

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Planting rosewood trees
Planting rosewood trees

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. 

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hot peppers as natural Christmas tree ornaments
hot peppers as natural Christmas tree ornaments

Its name means healing water or “Medicine River.” The Ampiyacu, one of hundreds of minor tributaries of the Amazon, shines silver in the imposing afternoon sun.  The etymology of the river’s name is open to speculation: whether due to curative properties possessed by the water or for a concentration of medicinal plants along the serpentine course of its densely vegetated banks, perhaps we will never know. 

At the mouth of the Ampiyacu, its confluence with the Amazon proper, the brilliant surface of the water is punctuated by porpoise fins – here both pink and gray river dolphins are present in abundance.  With an extensive folklore of enchantment similar to Western myths of sirens, the dolphins hold a place in the local imagination that is magical, seductive, and somewhat sinister.  Fishermen complain about them as competitors for the catch, a perception that has led to senseless killing of these unique freshwater mammals.

Let’s imagine we’re making a trip upriver on the Ampiyacu.  After turning off from the world’s largest river near Pijuayal, we go against the current of the medicine river heading north toward the border with Colombia.  Lining the banks and submerged in the water are wild bushes of camu camu, the most vitamin C-rich fruit in the world, a kind of Amazonian swamp berry from the guava family.  Further along we encounter the spiny trunks of chambira palms, whose new leaf shoots provide the best fiber for making hammocks and other useful crafts.  Medicinal trees called huacapurana dangle with oversized seed pods that look like Christmas tree ornaments.

Before long our journey brings us to the mouth of the main tributary of the Ampiyacu: the Yahuasyacu, after the Yaguas natives who have inhabited the area at least since the river’s naming.  Turning off from the main river, the course of the Yahuasyacu quickly becomes even more curvy and tightly wound than the Ampiyacu.  In the flood season, when these rivers run their banks each year and great swathes of forest are underwater, we are able to cut miles off the trip via floodwater shortcuts, darting between trees on narrow channels that will disappear in the dry season, allowing us to skip long stretches of river following the highwater’s path of least resistance. 

By now we are in deep jungle.  Though we pass by the occasional dugout canoe with a single person or a couple of youths sitting in a shaded eddy fishing, for the most part the river is quiet and still.  Coming around a bend we see flocks of black crow-like birds and the surface of the water sliced by darting kingfishers of several colors.  Vines as thick as a human torso act as improbable vectors for the stacking of life on top of life.  Spindly wild passionfruit vines drape over a scaffold of leguminous bushes as if they were placed there for that purpose alone.  Around each bend we now see towering lupunas, one of the spectacular emblematic trees of the Amazon with massive fin roots and a swollen trunk reminiscent of a pregnant belly. 

Perhaps it’s time we cut the motor and glide along in silence for a few minutes.  Morpho butterflies of an impossible stained glass blue lope along on the motions of a barely perceptible breeze.  A Noah’s Ark of insect life buzzes and hums all around us and occasionally on top of us – the rainforest idyll seemingly pays little homage to human comfort.  In the midst of this kaleidoscope of green shapes and flowers of unexpected sizes and colors, the jungle appears inviolable and eternal.  It almost seems to be a land outside of time, a place outside of history. 

This is of course false.  The recurring perception of the Amazon and its people as existing outside of progress, a kind of primitive time capsule at odds with the modern world, has been perennially disastrous both for ecosystems and for human communities here.  In the case of the Ampiyacu basin, a microcosmic example that is representative in many senses of the past of the Amazon as a whole, the human history these last several centuries has been one of cataclysmic exploitation and diaspora.  Despite the river named in their honor, the Yaguas Indians are now confined to a single village in the basin, their lands having been colonized by rubber tappers who imported slave labor in the form of “docile and desirable” tribes like the Bora and Huitoto, who had previously inhabited areas to the north across the Colombia border.

Though considered good workers by their sociopathic bosses, the Bora and many other tribes were subjected to unimaginable atrocities as part of the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many visitors to the Amazon today see what they think of us as a quaint or “authentic” primitivism among people who use handmade tools and have little conventional capital wealth.  These visitors would do well to remember that many native communities in the Amazon are the fragmentary remnants of cultures that were intentionally divided and scattered while experiencing extremes of abuse that call to mind a Holocaust.  The ongoing duress experienced by native people under the current neoliberal economic system speaks to just how strongly the forces of history continue to influence the Amazon. 

The present makeup of the Ampiyacu basin includes Bora, Huitoto, Ocaina, and Yagua communities, over a dozen villages in total joined together in alliance as the Federation of Native Communities of the Ampiyacu, a small organization that gives the tribes a collective voice at the table in matters of local governance and regulates internal relations among the communities.  In 2010, the efforts of the Federation and several allied institutions resulted in the creation of the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area (ACR, by its initials in Spanish), a 434,130 hectare conservation area protected and managed directly by the native communities and the regional government. 

The seemingly impenetrable forest that lines our virtual river journey is not untouched, though it is a wilderness. This forest landscape is a mosaic of hunting grounds and abandoned farms returning to forest, plus actively populated areas shoulder to shoulder with islands of intact primary forest.  Similarly, the ACR is a protected area under active use by the local population, a model that confounds the hands-off approach of many national parks and protected areas, but which paradoxically ensures that the forests will be cared for with thought to permanent use and sustainable production. 

At this point in our voyage we are undoubtedly bugbit and sunburnt, and it’s a welcome sight when we round a bend and arrive at our final destination for now – Colonia, the most distant community in the federation.  On a promontory surrounded on 3 sides by the Shumón River, small tributary of the Yahuasyacu, the village center of Colonia is home to just a dozen families from a single extended clan. First cousins to the Boras of Brillo Nuevo, the next community downriver, the chief of Colonia and his followers set up camp at a site that had been farmed and occupied by a previous generation.  If you look closely at the vegetation here, overgrown fruit trees of umarí begin to emerge from the tangle as a clear sign of past inhabitation.

But we’ve come looking for a different sort of tree.  In an area that to an untrained eye looks almost indistinguishable from a primary forest, rumor has it that there’s a rosewood tree that was planted over 40 years ago by the farmers of a generation ago.  Leading the way to see if the tree is still there, don Oscar snaps thin tree branches as we walk, marking the path so we won’t get lost on the way back.  Despite the lack of actively used trails, Oscar should know where the tree is – after all, it was his father who planted it.

We tie up the canoe and navigate the muddy banks up to the village grounds.  Tree calabash (Crescentia crujete), aguaje and wasaí palms line the grassy village green.  Don Oscar’s cousin is the apu or chief of Colonia and we greet him at the maloca, a communal house under the chief’s care.  He seems pleased that we’ve come to ask for dialogue and permission from the community to visit a tree within their territory.  After hearing a quick summary of our work planting rosewood trees in the area – including over 300 trees in active production downriver in Brillo Nuevo, trees that are now 5 years old and some of which are over 25 feet tall (7 m) – an impromptu party is formed with several of the neighbors to visit the rosewood tree.  

After another half hour in the canoe and a 20 minute walk, we’re there.  The tree is thick and robust.  And we’re in luck: a few seedlings and a few old seeds on the ground show proof that the tree is productive. This year when the tree goes to fruit we can be there in time to gather the fragile seeds and grow them into trees in Colonia and communities just like it. 

These are a few of the challenges in planting some of the world's most endangered trees. And this is just a little bit of what you’ve helped us accomplish in 2017. Happy 2018 to you! We look forward to sharing more in the New Year.

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Organization Information

Camino Verde

Location: Concord, MA - USA
Website:
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Project Leader:
Robin Van Loon
Concord, MA United States
$117,413 raised of $125,000 goal
 
1,690 donations
$7,587 to go
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