There are several reasons why it might be necessary to use transplanted seedlings for the establishment of agroforest plots. The most obvious one is that it avoids the planning and serendipity of obtaining seed from trees whose fruiting time can be hard to predict and whose seeds cannot be stored, or where parrots and monkeys find the fruit first. Often if appropriate Inga species can be found nearby then the chances are there will be a bank of seedlings also. Fortunately there are few predators of the seeds so even when the fruit have been eaten, the seeds will normally make it to the forest floor where many will germinate. Continue reading
Our aim is to develop Inga as a tool for restoring abandoned agricultral land to productivity. To date we have worked with rural communities to restore abandoned slash-and-burn sites. Following a chance meeting with a cattle rancher in October 2013 and another in March 2014 we now have two ranchers keen to see whether planting Inga could increase pasture productivity and reduce pressure on natural forest. Because individual ranchers manage large areas of deforested landscape and are well-connected socially and politically, we can also leverage significant impact working with them. Because they are not subsistence farmers they can afford to take greater risks and be more experimental than subsistence farmers who risk going hungry if they try something new. Continue reading
We are using Inga to restore soils to productivity because of its ability to grow rapidly in, and improve the fertility of compacted, acidic and nutrient poor soils. This is depends on its ability to form an association with Rhizobia bacteria in the soil which, in return for shelter and some sugar, convert nitrogen in the air to a form which promotes plant growth in the soil. This association takes the form of small nodules on the roots (see image below) which act as mega bacteria colonies. If our seedlings are to restore soils to productivity then it is essential that we help them form these associations. In the pod the seeds are not in contact with Rhizobia bacteria and in the wild inoculation would occur only when the seed falls to the ground and comes into contact with the soil. Continue reading
Although not rocket-science planting Inga seedlings in abandoned sites requires some basic preparation and thought. Transplanting a seedling can stress it significantly as both the roots and leaves will experience a significant change in water relations. In addition the roots are very fragile and can suffer significant mechanical damage, whilst the leaves can be badly damaged by the sudden exposure to bright and direct light. For both of these reasons it is advisable to only plant seedlings in the wet season, ideally at the beginning so that there remain a couple of months of cloudy wet conditions that will give the seedlings time to grow their roots and adapt their leaves. Continue reading
Most people in the UK are unaware of the strong historical connection between Britain and Bolivia. Connections that were built on two major non-timber forest products from the Amazon: rubber, the congealed sap of Hevea brasiliensis and the incorrectly named Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa). The rubber tree had a great impact on the rise and fall of the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon during the 19thC and early 20thC; the Brazil Nut continues to be Bolivia and the Amazon’s major non timber forest export today. The UK played a key role in developing both markets and today remains the main buyer of Brazil Nuts from the Bolivian Amazon. Being presented with a pair of artesanal rubber shoes (below) by our partner community Palacio brought to life over 150 years of shared history that I was only vaguely aware of. Continue reading
Projects always seem relatively straightforward when you plan them but of course the reality can be very different. We are working with two hard to predict phenomena: the fruiting time of our seed trees and the weather, coupled with one inflexible one: the harvest season for brazil nuts, and one which with hindsight we should have predicted, but did’t: the difficulty of hiring a vehicle to access our sites.
En-route to the Pando I took the opportunity to introduce our project to HM Government’s Ambassador in La Paz, His Excellency Ross Denny, and to learn of UK Government funded projects in Bolivia. I was also very interested to hear that whilst Governor of the Ascension Islands, Ross Denny had been involved in the protection of a rare endemic fern and in the conservation of a historic cloud forest planned by Joseph Hooker, founder of the RBG Kew on the advice of Charles Darwin!
We also discussed the possibility of arranging him to visit our project in the field which would be a great support to us with the local government and media.
Despite the impact cattle-ranching has had on the Amazon over the past 40 years many ranchers are not making money. Degradation of the soils and quality of the pasture results in farms with very low densities of cattle spread over large areas that are expensive to maintain. There is also significant encroachment by inedible (to cattle) shrubs and grasses. This generates demand for fresh pasture which is in-turn leads to further deforestation. In addition, diversification away from beef to more profitable dairy relies on cattle breeds, such as Frisians, that are not well adapted to the heat of the tropics and suffer from the lack of shade in the colossal fields.
Our project aims to reduce pressure on natural forests in the Pando by supporting Inga-based agroforest systems, identifying non-timber products and raising awareness of the economic and biodiversity value of these forests. This requires a dedicated team of people in Bolivia but also in the UK where some of the technical expertise and the funds reside. Our team comprises people from the Bolivian NGO Herencia, the Noel Kempf Mercado Natural History Museum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.