Paradoxically, forest-dependent rural communities in the tropics often have little experience of propagating trees, either from seed or from cuttings and this is the case in the Bolivian Amazon. As part of initiatives to enhance non-timber forest use through agroforestry and fruit tree production we sought the support of the innocent foundation to bring Kew horticulturalist, Carlos Magdalena to the Pando to provide hands-on training to three rural communities. Carlos is well known in Kew’s tropical nurseries as an expert in the propagation of challenging species, he is also a native Spanish-speaker and experienced in training. The aim of our training was to help communities propagate material of species for which they either can’t get enough seed e.g. Sinini (Annona muricata), whose seeds have low fertility such as acerola(Malpighia emarginata) or which take a year or more to germinate, such as the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa).
Training covered key aspects of making cuttings, air-layering and grafting. For example, how to cut the stem to expose the maximum amount of cambium, the tissue from which new roots will grow? What part of a stem is best for preparing a cutting? How many leaves should remain on a cutting? And how to trim them if necessary. It then covered how to look after cuttings once established, including how to make a polytunnel from locally available materials. In total we worked with approximately 60 community members spread over a 300 km stretch of the Pando. At each community the needs and interests were slightly different, as were the facilities available and so we tried to tailor the training accordingly. We found considerable interest and enthusiasm amongst community members, which suggests that the limited capacity for tree propagation is not for lack of interest.
The Darwin InitiativeForest Futures project aims to mitigate threats to natural forest in the Bolivian Amazon by raising awareness of the value of these forests, supporting the diversification of non-timber forest products and adapting a soil-restoring agroforest technique to the Amazon. The project was launched in 2013 and this week we held a half-day conference in the capital of the Pando, Cobija. The aim of which was to disseminate our results and outputs to local decision makers who included the Vicegovernor of the Pando, Dra Paola Terrazas Justiniano, the Mayor of Cobija, Luis Gatty Ribeiro Roca, representatives of the Universidad Amazonica del Pando, the Autoridad Bosques y Tierra (Forest and Land Authority) several NGOs involved in rural development and journalists from five television stations and two radio stations. We had 73 people participate in the meeting which for us was a great success.
The aim of this was to highlight the value of natural forest, both as a source of ecosystem services on which the Pando and the region depend, but also as a source of potential products which can either be harvested directly (non timber forest products) or cultivated in agroforest systems. The idea being that the perceived value of forest increases making unsustainable alternatives such as pasture for cattle or as sites for slash-and-burn seem less economical. Juan-Fernando Reyes from Herencia presented his vision for an integrated forest-based economy and future for the Pando, Bente Klitgaard outlined how the relationships between Kew, Herencia and our rural partners had developed and Alejandro Araujo Murakami presented a summary of the plant diversity of the Pando, ca 3,000 species and how this translated into stored carbon. I presented an overview of how Inga based agroforestry could help restore the soils of abandoned slash-and-burn sites to productivity and support sustainable agriculture in the region. In addition, with 73 participants at the conference it was a good opportunity to launch our Inga agroforest manual and promote the forthcoming book on economically promising Amazonian fruit tree species.
Since the start of our Forest Futures project I had been thinking about the best way to support the production of agroforests once we have left. We had committed to produce a manual but my initial thoughts were that this is a little old-fashioned and that an electronic publication formatted for mobile phones would be a good option. The reality, however, is that Bolivia has very poor internet access. Even in Cobija, the capital of the Pando, internet acesss is sporadic and poor. Once in the field it is only available at a few points along the main road . We therefore decided to opt for a printed manual, of the size that it will fit on a narrow shelf or somebody’s day pack and on high quality paper that will resist the high humidity of the tropics.
The next decision was how to best communicate to the people we working with. I believe that a majority text-based format would not be of great interest or very accessible for the communities we work with. I decided on an image-rich poster-like format. This was because posters remain a major communication tool by Government and NGOs in the region and so local people will be familiar with them, secondly I assumed that Governments and NGOs know what they are doing! Following this I had to think quite hard about content. Whilst the mechanics of establishing a plot are relatively straightforward to explain what has struck me working with rural people is that communicating the underlying principles of agroforestry as we practice it is very challenging.
This is in part because a lot of their knowledge on soils and and nutrient cycling is based on temperate systems, either in Europe or the Andes where soils are replenished by the action of frost or weathering of rock. Amazonian soils have been leached over millions of years and hold few nutrients for plants but this is not obvious looking at the lush dense forest growing on them. So not only do we need to explain that the soils are very poor but then explain how such rich forest grows on them. Similarly, it is less challenging for people living away from the Amazon to accept that cutting forest is not sustainable, but quite a different thing when it is your livelihood that depends on slash-and-burn and when you have always been surrounded by forest for as far as the eye can see and that this has been the case for as long as anyone can remember. The upshot of these considerations are a substantial introduction that attempts to explain all of the background and context whilst assuming little prior knowledge.
Dos años después de plantar nuestra primera parcela en Motacusal, la comunidad acaba de terminar la primera poda de los árboles. El denso follaje de los árboles de Pacay (Inga) se ha reducido a una capa vegetal y los tallos sacado para servir de leña, dejando aproximadamente 1/3 hectárea de terreno fértil para cultivos anuales como maíz, arroz o frijoles. Es la culminación de más de dos años de trabajo y testimonio del esfuerzo de nuestro equipo de campo, dirigido por Ingeniero Forestal, Rolman Velarde.
Dejaremos la hojarasca pudrirse un mes antes de sembrar las primeras cosechas. Gestión de la parcela de Motacusal está siendo supervisado por los niños de la comunidad a través del programa ‘Bosque de los Niños‘ lo que significa que pueden elegir lo que van a sembrar. Esto es importante para la participación de los niños, y también para la comunidad, uniendo nuestras parcelas con su recurso más valioso y llevarlo a buen término es un poderoso símbolo. Los niños han experimentando con diversas semillas para plantar como parte de su currículo productivo y estoy entusiasta de saber lo que han sembrado en siguiente mes. Sin embargo quedan algunos desafíos, por ejemplo el tiempo anómala asociada con El Niño podría dañar las cosechas o al Inga.
Se utilizó la oportunidad de que sea la primera parcela que se podado para invitar a representantes de las otras comunidades participantes: Palacios, San José, Jerico y Monte Sinaí. Esto nos permitió formarlos en la poda, también para ellos era una oportunidad para tener una idea de como sus parcelas agroforestales se verá en más o menos un año.
Two years after planting our first plot at Motacusal, the community has just completed the first pollarding. The dense canopy of Inga trees has been reduced to a green mulch and the main stems taken away to be stored for fuel wood leaving about 1/3 ha of fertile ground for growing annual crops such as maize, rice or beans. The pollarding is the culmination of over two years work and testimony to the skills and hard work of our field team, lead by Forest Engineer, Rolman Velarde. We will leave the mulch to rot down a little and in a month the first crops will be sown.
Management of the Motacusal plot is being overseen by the communitie’s children through the ‘Bosque de los Ninos‘ programme which means that they get to choose what will be sown. This is not just important for the engagement of children but also for the community as a whole, linking our demonstration / trial plots with their most valued resource and bringing it to fruition is a powerful symbol. The children have been experimenting with growing various seeds for planting as part of the ‘productive’ part of their school curriculum and I am keen to see what has been planted in a month’s time. There stil remain some challenges though. The anomalous weather associated with El Niño could lead to the crops failing or to the pollarded Inga not recovering as planned.
We used the opportunity of this being the first plot to be pollarded to invite representatives from the other particpating communities: Palacios, San José, Jerico and Monte Sinai. This enabled us to train them in pollarding but also for them to get an idea as to what their agroforest plots will look like in a year or so.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.