Turning carbon footprints into healthy soils

by Camino Verde
a scarlet macaw at Camino Verde
a scarlet macaw at Camino Verde

There are few spectacles as visibly transformative as the rainy season in the Amazon.  In our home in Tambopata, Peru, intense rains can change the course of rivers and alter landscapes literally overnight.  These last few months have brought the most potent rainy season in the last half a century to our area, and the feeling of transformation is still palpable.  The highest river rise in 50 years has changed the face of Tambopata, part of the extraordinary cycle of life and death that is ongoing in the rainforest. 

But currently there are other winds of transformation in our area as well.  Illegal gold miners in our Madre de Dios region have taken to the streets of the department's capital of Puerto Maldonado, demanding the government make laws more lenient and permissive to their mercury-heavy and ecologically heavy-handed gold mining.  The current laws are poorly enforced, and are somewhat cursory in their ecological protections.  As I write, our city is paralyzed by a miners' strike that has closed schools and access routes and shut down all commerce.  In the uncertain scales of environmental justice balance the needs of thousands of working men and women in the mining zones, and the ecological integrity of one of the most bio-diverse regions on Earth.

For us at Camino Verde, there is a remarkable feeling of calm through these storms.  Our business is planting trees and conserving forests, and happily things are business as usual at our center.  One of the most effective and efficient teams of reforestation and agroforestry workers in our region is actively restoring degraded ecosystems and helping keep the green lung of our planet green.

Even so, the river rise meant that several hundred of our trees were killed by these rare water levels.  A lesson well learned-- to replant the affected areas with water-loving trees, but we need your help to do that.  We are seeking support from our donors now in order to bounce back from our losses, small in comparison to so many of the farmers in our region who lost whole fields of crops to the river.  Please help us in this work alongside our region´s farmers, to plant trees resilient to the wildly varying conditions of our region.

Despite the intensity of this time of year for reasons ecological and social, as ever I'm filled with a sense of gratitude for the life of the forests of the Amazon.  Recently I had a chance to greet a unique visitor to our reforestation center, a scarlet macaw who came to land outside our kitchen and was even willing to grab onto my hand.  The astonishing gifts of life are with us always.

Warm greetings from Tambopata,

Dear friends,

What if everyone in the world realized that the best way to celebrate this season was to plant Christmas trees?  With the close of one year and the coming of another, it's a wonderful time to reflect on where we've been and where we're going, who we've been and who we're becoming.  Thanks to your support, Camino Verde has had an extraordinarily fruitful 2013, and we're looking forward to all that 2014 will bring.  When you plan your holiday giving, we're grateful for your consideration as a worthy project to support.  We, and the trees, thank you!

A year in review

In 2013, Camino Verde broke new ground in several areas.  Here's a few of the highlights--

-In February, we planted 900 rosewood seedlings in the native community of Brillo Nuevo, Loreto, Peru in the parcels of indigenous farmers looking to establish a sustainable income from tree crops. (Photo 1, below.)  This brought the total number we planted in the first quarter of 2013 to 2,100 trees

-In April we inaugurated our new buildings at the Camino Verde reforestation center.  From the ground up, these new lodgings for visitors, volunteers, and staff are at the vanguard of sustainable architecture for the rainforest (Photo 2, below).  Thanks for making our new home so sturdy!  (And come visit.)

-In June we completed work on our tree nursery, which now allows us to propagate 2500 tree seedlings a year.  (Photo 3.)

-In November, with the first rains of the season we planted another 750 trees, our final tree planting of the calendar year.  These 750 trees represent a half dozen of the Amazon's most endangered, over-exploited trees.  Thanks to Carpe Diem Education for once again supporting our work in the world with volunteer visits and carbon offsetting donations!

What comes next?

In 2014, Camino Verde will ally with a diverse range of individuals and organizations to help transform our reforestation center into a world-class model farm of tropical agroforestry and sustainable agriculture.  Here are a few of the pieces of the puzzle to look forward to...

--Gorka Atxuara from the Basque country in Spain is an expert in bio-fertilizers.  Think compost tea: rich plant nutrient formulas that include abundant beneficial micro-organisms. In 2014, Gorka will help Camino Verde set up a small production facility for use in our tree nursery.

--Biochar!  In 2014 we're gearing up to step up the implementation of this vital technology on our farm.  Biochar improves soils and is an important carbon sink!  Check out our previous reports for more information.

--Allies from Earth University and the University of Guelph are helping us to implement solar power, biogas digestion, and other amazing green technologies on our farm.  With their help, we are aiming to become a living example of what's possible for our neighbors and farmer partners.

--And, of course, more planting trees!

Once again, we're grateful for your support in 2013.  Thanks for helping us to plant a greener world, one tree at a time.  

Dear Friends,

A few months ago, I was hired by a group of investors to offer a consultation on organic agriculture in our region of the Peruvian Amazon, Madre de Dios.  These bankers and businessmen were interested in contributing meaningfully to the improvement of agriculture in our region.  And, they were committed to making their contribution count by investing in organic, sustainable agriculture.  Thank goodness!

Part of my report was an overview of the current reality of agriculture in Madre de Dios: slash-and-burn as the norm, rapidly declining biodiversity on farm and off, increased use of agro-chemicals and non-native technologies.  It was a sad, scary list.

But the longest section in the report was a lot more inspiring and positive.  It was a rundown on all the amazing, powerful organic technologies and strategies that exist to make agriculture truly sustainable in the tropics. And one of the cornerstones of my review was, of course, bio-char.

The exciting outcome of this consultation job is that the investors have listened.  And they've expressed their interest in creating the region's first bio-char production facilities in the years to come.  While its too soon to know if these good intentions will be acted on, it's a very exciting step to see bio-char appearing in the field of vision of change makers and green investors.

Let's hope that soon, we at Camino Verde won't be the only ones making bio-char a reality in our region.

Warm regards from Tambopata!

Meet the team
Meet the team

Dear friends,

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Greetings from Tambopata!  It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to share the latest from Camino Verde.  And as always, I’ll be happy to provide an update.  But our Missives are so often about what we’re doing that I know many of you may be wondering who it is that’s actually making it happen.  So after a quick summary of what we’ve got going on, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to our team, the Camino Verde family.

We’re always grateful for your support, and now more than ever.  Your donation keeps our unique grassroots programs thriving and provides meaningful, fair employment to the folks I’ll introduce you to in a moment.  But first, a word about our work.

Update at a glance

1. The numbers are in.  The early 2013 season was our most intensive tree planting campaign ever.  We put close to 3000 trees in the ground in the first four months of the year, representing 25 vital and endangered species.

2. A new look.  Our infrastructure overhaul was a wild success.  Construction was completed in May on our new lodgings for staff, visitors, and volunteers.  If you haven’t checked it out already, take a look at the photo album here.

3. The Rosewood story continues.  Our brand new essential oil distillation equipment has landed in Lima and is being shipped to our Tambopata home as we speak.  Special thanks to Gary from Heart Magic Distillers for giving us such wonderful service to go along with his excellent equipment.

4. Camino veggies?  This year we’re stepping up our on-site production of vegetables, to eat healthy and share seeds with our neighbors.  We’re proud to report that our permaculture-style mulch gardens will focus on rare Amazonian tubers and greens, helping to preserve many crops that are closer to being lost each year.  It’s not just about the trees any more.

Meet the team

None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the folks I’m about to introduce.  The Camino Verde team is a group that loves the forests and farms of Tambopata and is working hard to preserve the region’s wonders.  It’s my honor to call them colleagues and friends.  And it’s my pleasure to present them now.  (In alphabetical order by last name…)

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Born and raised in Puerto Pardo at the mouth of the Heath River on the Peru-Bolivia border, 

Livia Amurús (or “doña Kika”) joined Camino Verde just two months ago.  And we’ve been enjoying her cheerful sparkle and amazing cooking ever since.  After living in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for over 20 years, doña Kika returned to her native Madre de Dios eight years ago.  Here at Camino Verde, she provides the whole team with delicious meals and helps manage our vegetable gardens.


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Though not a part of our permanent staff, Carlos Arimuya is a the friend and neighbor who built our new and improved lodgings.  A long time ally and native of the community of Baltimori, we’re sure to work with Carlos again in the future.

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Miguel Cardicel was born and raised in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios.  Our longest running employee, don Miguel has worked as a fisherman, a lumberjack, a farmer, and a rubber tapper.  He is the grounds manager at our reforestation center and for over two years has been helping us keep the trees ahead of the weeds.

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For the next three months, Sam Goodman is our intern here at Camino Verde.  After studying political science at Oberlin, Sam moved to Lambayeque, Peru for two years with the Peace Corps.  Currently in a joint program at American University in Washington DC and the UN-chartered University of Peace in Costa Rica, Sam is working on his masters in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, focusing on how Camino Verde’s work helps mitigate the environmental impact of the Interoceanic Highway.  (You can read his excellent first paper on the Highway here.)

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Manuel Huinga comes from a long line of Tambopata Huingas.  Born and raised on his grandfather’s farm on the Tambopata River, Manuel learned a love for the region’s flora and fauna at an early age.  Currently an Environmental & Forestry Engineering student at UNAMAD, Puerto Maldonado’s university, Manuel has worked at a tree nursery for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)’s Andes to Amazon project.  As part time staff for Camino Verde, Manuel compliments his university studies as the head of our tree nursery and inventories seed-bearing adult trees in the wild forests we protect.

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Ursula Leyva is CV’s second in command and the executive director of Camino Verde Tambopata, our Peruvian legal organizational branch.  Originally from Lima, Ursula has lived in Madre de Dios since 2005.  She has worked as the administrator of an eco-tourist lodge, the director of a non-profit organization focusing on environmental education for children, and in the United States as a counselor at an alternative outdoor education program.  For over a year, this Permaculture design consultant has managed CV Tambopata’s legal presence and helped keep our reforestation center running smoothly.

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Ever since Camino Verde began, Juan Rafaele has been a good neighbor and great friend.  Native to Apurimac in the Andean highlands, Juan has lived in Tambopata for over 20 years.  His farm is an extraordinary example of diversified agroforestry systems.  Two years ago, Juan sold Camino Verde 100 acres of his land on the condition that we’d hire him for any work there.  For the past two seasons, Juan has helped us plant over 2000 trees on this land.

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Our newest employee, Ricsi Taborga has in less than a month proven herself as an incredibly hard-working, joyful addition to our squad.  Native to Puerto Maldonado, Ricsi is a mother of three with a wicked sense of humor.  Her favorite jokes are about how no man can match her weeding abilities with a machete.  And she’s right!

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Then there’s me, Robin Van Loon.  But I think you know enough about me already.  But there are also animals! They'll have to wait. For now, meet Rosita...

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I hope this Missive has helped to put a face, or faces, to go along with those trees.  And of course there’s one more member of our team who we couldn’t do it without: You.  Thanks for your support now and always.  Your interest and your contributions are what keep our work alive.

Warm greetings from Tambopata!

Livia Amurus
Livia Amurus
Carlos Arimuya
Carlos Arimuya
Miguel Cardicel
Miguel Cardicel
Sam Goodman
Sam Goodman
Manuel Huinga
Manuel Huinga
Ursula Leyva
Ursula Leyva
Juan Rafaele
Juan Rafaele
Ricsi Taborga
Ricsi Taborga
Robin Van Loon
Robin Van Loon

Dear friends,

In past project reports I've laid out the basics of why charcoal added to soils (known as bio-char or terra preta) is a win-win-win.  Charcoal sequesters atmospheric CO2 for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  At the same time it creates healthy soil structure and benefits beneficial micro-organisms in soils.  And, on top of all that, in our last report I described how bio-char is an Amazonian tradition, invented by the indigenous people of the region where our organization, Camino Verde, now works to plant trees and improve lives.  

What I want to describe now is the integration of all these elements, the bringing together of the parts to form a whole: a vision of a more sustainable, humane future created in part by something so simple it's right under our nose.

Nothing short of a revolution.  With apologies to the author of one well-titled book, this "Bio-Char Revolution" is starting to sweep the planet.  And not a moment too soon.  In Africa and the United States, in Australia and Latin America, people are adding charcoal to their soils and spreading the word about this powerful technology.

We at Camino Verde are excited to be a part of it.  In 2012 we started by adding charcoal to our compost piles-- helping provide habitat for important micro-organisms and lock in nutrients that would otherwise be leached out-- and in our vegetable gardens.  In 2013 we'll be stepping up our game: we are currently exploring options for technologies and systems to produce our own bio-char.  

Our plan is to utilize bamboo-- incredibly fast-growing and pulling in more CO2 than trees-- as a renewable source of charcoal.  The bamboo grows, sequestering CO2 in its woody fibers.  Charring the bamboo keeps that carbon tied up in a stable form.  Even composting organic matter re-releases much plant carbon as CO2 and the even more harmful methane.  With charcoal the carbon stays in, for centuries or even millenia.

At the same time, we're talking with our region's largest sawmill about turning scrapwood and even sawdust into biochar.  With tons of wood debris at our disposal, we hope to develop a partnership with this least likely of allies that can be repeated anywhere that wood is milled around the globe.

We've already introduced bio-char to our region and set our sights on improving the world we live in.  But we can't do any of this without your help.  We're grateful for your support and your interest.

With warm regards,


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Organization Information

Camino Verde

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

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