Category Archives: Darwin Initiative Bolivia agroforest

Bolivian Amazon at a crossroads: oil, gold and paved roads

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Lush swamp forest one of several forest fomations in the Pando, one of the areas of highest primate diversity in the World

I first went to the Pando in the Bolivian Amazon in 1988 as a young undergraduate. Returning in 2013 as a middle-aged botanist it was a pleasant surprise to find that although the capital Cobija had grown a lot much of the forest remained and that sustainable Brazil nut harvesting remained the major source of income for rural communities. It also remained one of the forests with the highest diversity of primates in the World. A single locality having up to thirteen species of monkey! That all looks about to change though as a triple whammy of semi-legal gold-mining, oil exploration and road building took off in 2015 and which by 2018 will have completely transformed the infrastructure, economy and likely the social fabric of one of the least deforested parts of the Amazon.

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Road building between Puerto Rico and El Sena is well underway, a two-lane dirt track being transformed into a four-lane paved highway by a Costa Rican company

Asphalt roads are clearly of benefit to Amazonian communities, providing improved access to healthcare, education and markets and assist with the seasonal Brazil nut harvest. Roads also, however push back the frontiers of the forest and facilitate currently unsustainable agriculture, such as slash-and-burn, cattle-ranching or intensive soya / oil-palm production. Finding a balance between the opportunities and risks posed by asphalt roads is very difficult and rarely achieved. Oil extraction and transportation will also have an impact, changing the economy of the Pando and possibly replacing natural forest with its Brazil Nut and rubber trees as a major souce of employment and incomes. It also of course brings with it the risks of any large mining operations.

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The port town of El Sena, now neighbour to several gold dredging barges (to the right of the image) and associated ‘industries’

The rapid growth of semi-legal artesanal gold mining in the Pando could have a far greater impact. The mercury used to separate gold from the river sediment has profound health risks for those mining but also for the whole ecosystem downstream, and for decades to come. Artesanal gold mining also attracts people desperate for money, from all over South America, together with many other strands of the black economy leading to social and political instability.

How to pollard Inga trees for agroforest systems

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A member of the Motacusal community pollarding the first Inga tree.

In addition to getting the timing right it is also important to pollard at the right height, point on the stem and using the right tools. Pollarding involves cutting the top and branches off of a tree. Normally this is done to promote resprouting at the top of the stem but in the case of our agroforest system we want to allow light into our plot for the cultivation of annual crops or fruit trees. This means that we need to cut the stem at the right height so as to shade the crops below and to give them enough time to grow and be harvested before the branches have regrown to their original length. For this purpose we are aiming to pollard at approximately 1.30 m in height, the height of somebody’s chest.

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It is important to cut the main stem using a pruning saw, a few centimetres above or below a branch point, ideally at a height of between 1.30-1.50 m.

The best place to cut the stem is a couple of centimetres above or below a branch or branch scar. The reason for this is that new branches will sprout from these points. If you cut through the branch point or scar then the tissue from which new branches will develop will be damaged and new branches will be generated at the nearest point above or below it, meaning that it will be higher or lower than desired. The choice of implement is also important. Whilst it is much quicker and more natural to want to use a machete, this is not the ideal way to cut the branch. The reason for this is that it is hard to get a clean clut with a machete as Inga wood splits very easily and the split wood is vulnerable to insect and fungal infections.

When to pollard Inga agroforest


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Rolman Velarde, Terry Pennington & Jaime Leon inspecting our Motacusal site in October. This site has been ready to pollard since July.

The Inga trees in the first plot that we planted at the end of February 2014 have been big enough to pollard since July. We have not pollarded, however, as the conditions have not been right to do so. As Dr Terry Pennington, Inga agroforest expert explained, you should not pollard trees during the dry season and the best time to do so is a couple of weeks into the wet season. The reason for this is that when you remove all of the leaves and main branches of a tree, the above-ground loss is mirrored below ground. That is the roots die back comensurate with what was lost above. During the dry season there is little water in the soil and the tree needs all its roots to obtain the moisture it needs. Therefore if you have pruned during the dry season, the tree is left without enough roots to survive.

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Inga and Inga-agroforest expert Terry Pennington inspecting the Motacusal site and providing advice on the best time to pollard

In the case of the Bolivian Amazon, the dry season normally runs from April/May to October/November. This year has been particularly hot and dry, possible a consequence of the El Niño phenomenon, and so pollarding our plot would likely kill all of the trees. We will therefore wait until the middle of November when the rains should have started before pollarding.

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The Inga trees at our seasonally flooded Palacio site are not yet big enough to pollard and when they are finding an appropriate time to pollard will be complicated

At another of our sites, Palacio, the timing of pollarding is also important. The reason for this is that it is a site which floods for a couple of weeks each February. We therefore have to be careful that we leave enough time between pollarding and the floods. Or at least make sure that we pollard high enough so that the new shoots emerge above the floodwaters. So here again the timing of pollarding and the associated planting of crops needs careful thought!

Trabajando con la fundación innocent para apoyar a viviendas y nutrición

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Niños de la comunidad de San José a unos reuniones comunitarias celebradas en el bosque

Como parte de nuestros esfuerzos para fortalecer el impacto de nuestro proyecto Futuros Forest hemos sido muy afortunados de asociarnos con la Fundación innocent para expandir nuestro componente agroforestal con una mejor incorporación de árboles frutales. Fondos de la Fundación innocent nos están permitiendo incorporar tres comunidades adicionales, construir viveros de árboles frutales y desarrollar la capacidad dentro de cada comunidad para germinar, crecer y gestionarlos. Como es el caso de las otras acciones de nuestro proyecto comenzamos conversaciones con cada comunidad, atravez del ONG Herencia, sobre cómo esta adición podría encajar en sus planes de desarrollo. También tienen que pensar en qué tipo de frutales quieren producir: la cantidad para consumo personal y para vender. Si sienten que encaje dentro de sus objetivos luego de pasar a la fase más sencillo de construir los viveros y la obtención de semilla.

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Rolman Velarde del ONG Herencia en la parte de la parcela agroforestal Motacusal destinado a árboles frutales

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Community development plans to support agroforest fruit orchards

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Members of the Monte Sinai community producing a visual map of their community and its resources. Image: Rolman Velarde

We  believe that the introduction of new approaches to land use needs to be done as part of a broader and integrated plan for a community. It would make little sense for a community to plant an agroforest plot unless they had considered the costs and long-term benefits of doing so. The reason for this is that at several stages in the process there will be challenges and decisions to be taken that will need require the community to remain motivated and able to evaluate the pros and cons of persisting with the system or abandoning it. Given the general lack of success of previous agroforest initiatives elsewhere we feel that this will be the key to our success. As part of our efforts to strengthen the impact of our Forest Futures project and with the support of the innocent Foundation, our main partners  Herencia,  have been working with three Amazonian communities: Remanzo, Jerico, Monte Sinai,  to develop medium to long-term management plans into which agroforest for fruit and annual crops will be integrated.

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Group discussions of the communities needs and priorities follow an evaluation of their resources and entitlements from the Bolivian state. Image: Rolman Velarde

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Our first Inga agroforest plots 14-17 months after planting

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Our Motacusal agroforest plot 17 months after planting. The closed canopy has prevented weeds growing. Notice the large amount of leaf-litter on the ground which will provide valuable organic matter for the soil. Image: Rolman Velarde

We established our first Inga agroforest plot  just over 17 months ago. Since then the seedlings have grown into 5 m tall trees, their crowns  touching and shading out any potential weeds. They have captured the site meaning that it no longer needs any maintenance, allowing farmers to choose when to pollard (prune) at a time that best suits them. In the Bolivian Amazon the best time of year to sow plants is at the beginning of the wet season in October and so we are planning to return to complete this last step in the process.

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The Las Palmas fruit tree agroforest system 14 months after planting. This site was an abandoned cattle pasture and although the trees are growing slowly they look healthy. Image Rolman Velarde.

Continue reading Our first Inga agroforest plots 14-17 months after planting

Working with innocent to support livelihoods & nutrition

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Children from the San Jose community at a community meetings held in the forest

As part of our efforts to strengthen the impact of our Forest Futures project we have been very lucky to partner with the innocent Foundation to expand our agroforest component and better incorporate fruit trees into them. Funds from the innocent Foundation are enabling us to incorporate three additional communities, build fruit tree nurseries and develop the capacity within each community to germinate, grow and manage them. As is the case for our other Forest Futures actions we start by discussions with each community about how this addition to their community could fit into their development plans. They also need to think about what kind of fruit they want to grow: how much for personal consumption and how much to sell. If they feel that it fits within their long-term goals then we move on to the more straightforward phase of building the nurseries and obtaining seed.

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Rolman Velarde of Herencia in the part of the Motacusal agroforest plot destined for our first fruit-tree seedlings

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Visitando a sistemas agroforestales Peruanos

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Participantes visitando la finca Marques en La Merced (Chanchamayo) con Juan Santos Cruz

Uno de los elementos más importante de nuestro proyecto es convencer a las comunidades rurales de que los sistemas agroforestales basados en Inga les ayudarán a utilizar sus tierras con mayor intensidad sin necesidad de talar el bosque. Esperamos lograr esto de dos maneras: 1) desarrollar parcelas agroforestales como demostración en una red de comunidades asociadas con el proyecto, y 2) tomar representantes de estas comunidades asociadas para visitar parcelas agroforestales ya productivas. Visitar estas parcelas es una buena manera de dejar que la gente vea por sí misma lo que sus sistemas agroforestales van a lograr en pocos años, y también de facilitar el intercambio de experiencias entre campesinos. Tal vez intercambios entre campesinos tiene más peso/fuerza que hablar con un científico, técnico o una ONG ya que tienen intereses y conocimientos similares/comunes.

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Forest Futures Peru visit

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Participants visiting Marques farm in La Merced (Chanchamayo) with Juan Santos Cruz

One of the most important elements of our Forest Futures project is to get rural communities to believe that Inga-based agroforest systems will help them use their land more intensively without the need for regular land-clearance. We hope to achieve this in two ways: 1) develop demonstration agroforest plots in a network of partner communities, and 2) take representatives of partner communities to see established working systems. Visiting established communities is a powerful way of letting people see for themselves what their agroforests will like in a few years but also, as  importantly,  it facilitates the sharing of experiences, farmer to farmer.  Speaking to somebody from the same profession who is using agroforest is likely more convincing than speaking to a scientist, technician or NGO whose livelihoods are not on the line.

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Selección de posibles frutales para cultivar en parcelas agroforestal

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Uno de varios especies de Garcinia, posiblemente macrophylla conocido como Achachairú, aquí en venta en el mercado de Cobija

Ahora que las primeras de nuestras parcelas agroforestales están listos para apoyar la producción de frutales tenemos que ayudar a nuestros comunidades socios a seleccionar las especies / variedades a cultivar. Este es un negocio complicado, ya que tendrá que equilibrar a corto plazo frente a los beneficios a largo plazo con la toma de riesgos con la actualidad de alto valor y cultivos de moda que podría no conservar su demanda o precio en el futuro. Además hemos tenido la suerte de conseguir el apoyo de la fundación innocent para ayudar a nuestras comunidades con la producción de plántulas a través de la construcción de viveros robustos y la oferta de formación experto de Kew y horticultores locales.

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Cedrillo o Spondias mombin, una fruta muy popular en toda América Latina, pero tal-vez  con limitado potencial como cultivo comercial

Nuestra estrategia es hablar con expertos locales, consumidores potenciales y buscar en los mercados locales para identificar a una lista de una docena o más especies potenciales. A continuación vamos a preparar una lista de las ventajas y los riesgos asociados a cada especie, localizar las fuentes de semilla y comenzar a crecer un par de cientos de plántines de cada uno. Una vez que tenemos un “stock” de trabajo de plántines, luego presentaremos cada especie a las comunidades en una reunión comunitaria. Esto nos permitirá ayudar a decidir qué especies les gustaría cultivar en función de sus necesidades y deseos.

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Variedades silvestres de cacao (Theobroma cacao) como éste con provinencia del río Tauhumanu podrían tener potencial si el comercio de Cacao silvestre cosechada aumenta

Siguiente es un listado preliminar de especies debajo consideración:

Scientific name Local name
Malpighia punicifolia Acerola
Annona muricata Sinini
Garcinia macrophylla Achachairu
Theobroma cacao Cacao
Theobroma cacao Cacao silvestre
Eugenia stipitata Arazaboy
Euterpe oleracea Acai
Myrciaria dubia Camu camu
Spondias mombin Cedrillo
Anacardium occidentale Caju
Spondias tuberosa? Cacharana
Paullinia cupana? Guarana
Rollinea mucosa Biriba
Pouteria macrophylla Lucuma
Pouteria lucuma Lúcuma
Theobroma grandiflorum Cupuacu