Challenges of working with vulnerable rural communities

Some of the Children of Pimpollo keen to show me their new school building. The Government of Bolivia provides all rural communities with a primary school and a teacher, no matter how remote they are. Click to see a clip of me introducing the project to the community

We have been working with the Pimpollo community for just over a year. It has been a real challenge for us, as well as for them. The community is formed of a group of ca 25 families  settled in the Amazon for less than two years and from three different parts of the Bolivian Andes. Life is very difficult for these communities. For a start they do not know each other very well and yet will depend on each other for their survival. This creates a number of tensions and in the last year of contact with Pimpollo we have seen an almost complete change in family composition with only three of the original families remaining. Secondly, Pimpollo is located over a 100 km, on dirt-track, from the nearest town, the last 30 km or so of which is semi-passable during the wet season. This makes access to medical care, schooling and security intermittent at best, especially considering that there is no phone coverage and all communication occurs through VHF radio. Thirdly, they are very poor and farming some of the World’s poorest soils. Having recently come from the relatively fertile Andes, this poses real challenges. It also makes it much harder for us to maintain contact.

In answer to question from community members, Roman Velarde from Herencia explains some of the detail of the agroforest plot layout

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Flooded forest agroforest plot five months after planting

Forest Engineer Rolman Velarde standing between two rows of Inga saplings planted in the middle of May at our Palacios site. The site is on wha would be flooded or ‘varzea’ forest had it not been cut to grow rice. Click to see a clip of the site (in English)

Our plot at Palacios is located in seasonally flooded forest on the banks of the Tahumanu river. This meant that we had to plant our seedlings after the flood had receded as they would probably not have survived if completely immersed. The up-side of flooding though is that the soils are rich and the seedlings, although planted late, have grown well. When the next floods occur in February they will be tall enough not to be completely submersed and so should survive. It might seem strange that a slash-and-burn site on such rich alluvial soils should be abandoned and this was something I was keen to find out from the community. They explained that after a year or more weeds invade the site very aggressively and are very difficult to remove. We are hoping that Inga‘s rapid growth, spreading crown and large leaves should act as an effective weed-suppressant. It may be that weed control could be one of the main uses of Inga in the Amazon.

The Palacios plot five months after planting. This plot is aimed at supporting the cultivation of annual crops, fruit trees and mahogany as timber. Growth has been strong but the plot needs weeding soon. Click to see Rolman Velarde talking about the site in Spanish.

The trees at Palacios have grown well, on average over 11 cm per month. Currently they range from 1.0-1.5 m in height at six months since planting. With the most intense rains to come they should increase this rate significantly over the next few months. They still need weeding, probably until after the next floods,. The community seem pleased with progress too and are planning another plot for after the next floods.


Agroforest plot on compacted bull-dozed site eight months after planting

Eight-month old seedlings at our San José site planted on heavily compacted bulldozed land. Whilst over 3/4 have survived the site has suffered higher mortality and significantly lower growth rates than at other sites. Click on link to see clip.

Although the seedlings we planted at our San José site are growing poorly and about 1/4 of them have not survived, this is a strategically important site for us. This is because it represents a worst-case scenario in terms of land-use: top-soil removal combined with heavy compaction by a bulldozer. Compaction causes severe and long-lasting damage to soils that can take decades to recover from. The community of San José, by electing to establish an agroforest plot on this site, have given us an opportunity to gauge growth and mortality rates Inga edulis on such areas and so evaluate their potential with respect to restoring them to productivity.

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Our first Inga agroforest plot nine months on

Our first row of seedlings planted on February 27 2014. See the next image below to see how they have grown. It is of the very same row.

We established our first Inga agroforest plot on an abandoned slash-and-burn site in a community called Motacusal just over nine months ago. Since then the seedlings have grown into small trees, most of which are over 2m high.  In another six months their crowns will be touching and they will have captured the site, that is to say, they will prevent any other plants from growing. This will enable the local farmers to plant what they want when they want and not have to worry about weeds. They will of course need to pollard the trees before they do so.

Rolman Velarde, Forest Engineer for our project and Vitalia our outreach communicator standing between two rows of Inga seedlings that were planted nine months ago (see image above)

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How tapping wild rubber can help protect the forests of the western Amazon

Pastora Bismark de Gónzalez, spent much of her working life as a rubber tapper in Porbenir. Her parents came to Porbenir from Peru to tap rubber for the infanous Suárez rubber company in 1899

One of the most effective ways to conserve natural forest is to maximize the income local communities get from it in a sustainable manner. Even if they are not the official owners of the land they will likely resist any deforestation if it impacts on their income.  The forests of the Pando are fortunate in having two important non-timber forest products: brazil nuts and wild rubber. Both of which have wrought the history of this part of the Amazon.  In recent years, with the drop in the price of wild rubber associated with the rise of plantation rubber in Asia, there has been a decline in the tapping of wild rubber. If done correctly the tapping of wild rubber does little lasting damage to the trees and produces a high quality rubber that is currently sold for 14 BOB a kilo, about £1.40 / $2 / €1.60. If that price could be increased then rural communities would be much keener to tap the wild rubber trees in their forests. By how much could be the focus of a fascinating research project.

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Mural in the centre of Cobija depicting the role of rubber in the Pando’s history. Image Alex Monro

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Tree planting on ex rubbish dump in Cobija

Staff from our partner NGO Herencia and RBG Kew planting seedlings of Inga edulis on an cleared rubbish dump on the outskirts of Cobija

Whilst in Cobija we were invited to participate in a mass planting of native tree seedlings around the town as part of an initiative organised by students from the University of the Pando. The students had decided to plant about 5,000 seedlings around Cobija with help from Bolivia’s Ministry of the Environment & Water and the support of the Ministry of Education. This particular site was a large unofficial rubbish dump next to their campus. Fortunately it had been cleared of rubbish prior to planting.

Amelia Baracat planting an Inga seedling in the searing heat, after having tried to clear away as many of the old plastic bags littering the site as she could

What was exciting for us was not just the fact that this initiative had been initiated and organized by the students but the fact that all but one  of the species planted were native. Something that most municipal planting in the UK fails to do. It shows that the students way ahead of most local authorities in London!

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Forest Futures: back in the Pando

The Tauhumanu river with its endles curves is one of the main geographical features of the Pando, the bright orange colour of its water suggests not only heavy rain in the last few days but also Andean tributaries

Amelia Baracat and myself have just arrived in Cobija, capital of the Pando to help plan and manage our Darwin Initiative ‘Forest Futures’ project. We need to go through budgets, recent developments and some of the challenges that need overcoming. We are also very excited to start our fruit tree nursery project funded by the innocent Foundation. Since I was last here in July we have begun to get significant interest from national authorities interested in sustainable development and forestry. At the end of November Rolman Velarde showed our San José agroforest plots to Engineer Raul Aguirre Vásquez of the Dirección de Gestión de Desarollo Forestal (Department for the Management of Forest Development) of the (Ministry of the Environment and Water). Earlier in September we also had a visit from Moory Romero of the Autoridad Plurinacional de la Madre de Tierra, the Government Department responsible for the application of Bolivia’s innovative ‘Mother Earth’ legislation.

Engineer Raul Aguirre from the Department of Forest Development of Bolivia’s Ministry of the Environment reviewing one of our agroforest plots at San Jose

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