Project #16074

1000 trees a year 1000 acres of rainforest forever

by Camino Verde
CV researcher Olivia Revilla in the veggie garden
CV researcher Olivia Revilla in the veggie garden

Dear Friends of Camino Verde,

I'm writing because tomorrow, Tuesday we have a unique opportunity to help restore the world's forests with Camino Verde. If you have a dollar to give, we'll get a buck fifty, thanks to the Gates Foundation.

What is it?  It's the biggest matching bonus day ever on GlobalGiving, where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given half a million dollars in matching funds available for one day only. Any donations received on Tuesday, November 29th will be matched at 50%. So you give $100, we get $150.  This is the link to donate.

Matching funds kick in right when Tuesday, November 29th begins – tonight at 12:01 am midnight when Monday ends. Whatever the time of day you're able to be online tomorrow, Tuesday, please take advantage of this great opportunity to hit up the Gates Foundation for matching funds.  There will even be prizes given out to organizations with the most donations. Please share with friends!

If you’re thinking of a year-end contribution to Camino Verde and would like to maximize its impact, this is the way to do it.  Here's our project page on GlobalGiving, where you'll be able to donate on Tuesday: 


Camino Verde is a small organization that leverages our resources to make a great impact in the restoration of the Amazon. This Bonus Day is also a chance to make a little go a long way.  If you only donate once this year, please make it Tuesday.  And please forward this to a friend who might be interested in contributing to the effort to regenerate the Amazon. 

And now on to our regularly scheduled report...

When is a forest a forest? (and when is it a plantation?)

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting the amiable representative of an institutional investors' group that had a stake in a reforestation scheme in Madre de Dios, the region of the Peruvian Amazon that is arguably the world's greatest remaining treasure in terms of a relatively intact, relatively large area of tropical forest. The investors were turning their money into teak trees, which will turn into more money. They had reason to be confident about this: teak is one of the most valuable timbers in the world and its growth and reforestation are ubiquitous in a number of areas of the tropics, including Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Teak is so popular as a species for commercial reforestation it part because it's timber is highly valuable and in part because its growth rate is known – investors know what to expect for their ROI.  Similarly, known quantities for species of pine and eucalyptus encourage the reforestation of these exotic trees on a grand scale, while many native trees remain poorly studied and little planted.

While it's hard to expect an investor to take a wild leap of faith – and reforestation is already a risky business – it's also somewhat unconscionable that the greatest impediment to massive restoration of native tree species around the world is our ignorance about how they grow.  We don't know what Return on Investment to expect, and therefore we leave these trees to the side. Unfortunate, as many of the native trees are highly valuable and in some cases can give the exotics a run for their money.

Take Amazonian ironwood, Dipteryx micrantha, a tree whose eligibility as an endangered species was recently questioned by a timber interest group mainly because they wanted to keep logging it. This emergent rainforest giant is the preferred nesting place of the harpy eagle, the world's most powerful raptor and as such an obvious conservation target. Somewhat surprisingly for a tree with wood so dense, the ironwood grows quite quickly, showing amazing vertical gain even without lateral competition for light, a property that makes it well-suited for inclusion in agro-forestry systems.

If it's true that the key ingredient missing for more reforestation of native species is more knowledge, the Peruvian Amazon's own organization, Camino Verde, is working to bridge the gap with an ever-growing body of research about the performance of over 300 native tree species.  With 2 forestry nurseries producing more than 100 species of trees a year, it is our small team's mission to push the agenda of native species restoration throughout the Peruvian Amazon and beyonod. 

Camino Verde's forest nursery manager Manuel Huinga shares, "There are tree species that when I was growing up were abundant, and now are found only deeper and deeper in the forest.  It's our work to find the seed-bearing trees and propagate more of these species that will be extinguished without our intervention.  Many of these trees grow surprisingly well, making us question why we always prefer the exotics.  If we have all the facts, native species will be able to speak for themselves."

Our nursery is a living commitment to giving native trees – fruits, medicines, timbers, and more – the chance to speak for themselves. The chance for ecologically restorative strategies to demonstrate their value. This year our nurseries will produce 20,000 seedlings representing 120 species. Next year, we hope to do more.

We couldn't do any of this without your support. And tomorrow your support will count extra. If you plan to donate any time this year, please Donate tomorrow

Thanks so much for your interest and support!

Manuel Huinga and co. at the La Joya Nursery
Manuel Huinga and co. at the La Joya Nursery
Nursery workers Elvis and Percy at La Joya Nursery
Nursery workers Elvis and Percy at La Joya Nursery
Eating pineapple at the nursery
Eating pineapple at the nursery
Manuel Huinga with Dipteryx micrantha seedlings
Manuel Huinga with Dipteryx micrantha seedlings

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,

Seeds of Acacia sprouting
Seeds of Acacia sprouting
Manuel and CV researcher Olivia Revilla
Manuel and CV researcher Olivia Revilla
Juan Rafaele working at our first nursery
Juan Rafaele working at our first nursery
Olivia with seedlings
Olivia with seedlings
Manuel Huinga and Olivia Revilla take a specimen
Manuel Huinga and Olivia Revilla take a specimen

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.” 

Scent logic

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. 

Propagation generations

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 as productive as it used to be, that rising taxes and other costs associated with managing the concession meant little time and energy available for anything but the most basic monitoring of the area. The result, he said, was illegal logging and hunting.  

“How can I protect the 3,000 acres of rainforest the government’s entrusted me with all by myself? I need capital to do it. What else can I do in addition to harvesting the nuts? My concession is big but has few brazil nut trees, and the harvest only barely covers the cost of hauling the nuts from deep in the forest.”  Herrera said he didn’t want to resort to timber extraction to pay the bills, that he’s seen too many of his neighbors and family members come to regret the over-exploitation of valuable species and the squandering of forest resources.  So he finds himself asking a question that is all too common: “How can I keep my forest in good shape when I have to eat?”  

Despite the low density of brazil nut trees, the splendid coincidence is that Herrera’s forest is remarkably rich in canelón.  So, that university thesis that Manuel is doing? He’ll be doing it here.  The road map to follow is easy to imagine. Repopulate the forest with more canelón. Create and put into effect a sustainable harvest methodology. Get the corresponding government offices to give the harvest plan the green light. Try to sell the essential oil.  If we’re able to hit all these bases, the model is replicable both in terms of other concession holders and in terms of other aromatic species of trees.  We want to do it right, and then help others to do it too. 

We all look for signs that we’re on the right track.  Just days after our preliminary conversations about the concession, Manuel was out in Herrera’s forest and for the first time ever found canelón seeds. That same week an adult tree offered us a huge fallen branch and we were able to distill samples of the oil without even picking up a pruning saw.  In the nonhuman language of the forest, this feels like a pretty clear affirmation. 

I have said it before, I always say it, but this work really would not be possible without your support. It makes me proud when I tell people that the majority of Camino Verde’s funding comes from individual donors, people like you who believe in what we do, who believe that the Amazon is worth protecting.  At the intersection of people and forests, of human and other biological communities, we’re working for a stronger, healthier planet actively cared for by human stewards, not just another national park.  As we prepare for the second half of 2016, this is a particularly significant time to make your support count.  Please consider giving someone you care about the gift of trees planted in their name.  

May your season be joyous, whatever the hemisphere.  Very best regards from Tambopata!

Camino Verde team and volunteers find canelon
Camino Verde team and volunteers find canelon
Fruits of canelon
Fruits of canelon
Distilling canelon
Distilling canelon
Julian, Percy, Manuel, and Olivia in search of...
Julian, Percy, Manuel, and Olivia in search of...
Moving through the backwaters of the Yabasyacu
Moving through the backwaters of the Yabasyacu

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. 

Oscar carefully pruning a rosewood branch
Oscar carefully pruning a rosewood branch
Pruning in the rain
Pruning in the rain
(Photos courtesy Campbell Plowden)
(Photos courtesy Campbell Plowden)
David collecting rosewood oil
David collecting rosewood oil
Juan Rafaele at his farm, Tambopata, Peru
Juan Rafaele at his farm, Tambopata, Peru

Dear Friends,

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!)  

Best regards,



Juan and some of his Camino Verde teammates
Juan and some of his Camino Verde teammates
Rafaele and his son, Isaias
Rafaele and his son, Isaias
Flowers of Moena Alcanforada
Flowers of Moena Alcanforada
Juan and the Camino Verde team
Juan and the Camino Verde team

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Organization Information

Camino Verde

Location: Concord, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.caminoverde.org
Project Leader:
Robin Van Loon
Concord, MA United States

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