Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 7 - BLOCKADE!

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

On our seventh day of the trip, our trip came to a crisis point. There was a blockade on the road we needed to take that had now gone on for a week, and it seemed like it would not end in time for us. What would we do? Meanwhile, we had a long, hot drive from Rurrenabaque to Sapecho, which was interrupted by what seemed to be another blockade. WTF, Bolivia?

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

Shortly after we arrived in Bolivia, a blockade was announced in Yungas - right in the middle of our trip route. We had changed the order of our trip so that we would hit the blockade at the end of the trip instead of in the beginning, hoping the blockade would be over by then. It wasn't. At this point, we commissioned a few cars and drivers in Rurrenabaque to drive us to our next stop, Sapecho, and hoped we would be able to continue on our planned route from Sapecho to Caranavi, then Coroico, Chulumani, and back to La Paz. But it seemed pretty doubtful.

Daniel promised that our drive to Sapecho would be "long, hot, and dusty." I hoped he was wrong. When our three minivans showed up to drive us, I polled each of the drivers on whether their cars had air conditioning. Nope, no air conditioning. In fact, at this point, fuel was getting scarce on this side of the blockade, so even if there was A/C, we might not have been able to use it. Each of the drivers had large containers of gas in their cars to refuel with, in case the gas stations ran out.

Of course, Daniel was right about the "long, hot, and dusty" - at least for the first part of the drive. The road to Sapecho was mostly unpaved. Each vehicle we passed kicked up a huge cloud of dust behind it. Fortunately, traffic was low due to the cocaleros' blockade in Yungas, but we still passed several logging trucks. Strangely, we passed an area where there was roadwork going on. I didn't realize that dirt roads were the recipients of roadwork. I had assumed they were the result of a lack of roadwork.

The dirt road

Driving through the smoke from someone burning forest or pasture

Despite the dusty roads, our driver drove as if he were escaping a crime scene. Several times, I was sure he was going to hit dogs laying in the road, or even people. I had resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to see any wildlife in the rainforest (now that we were leaving for Sapecho), but I was wrong. A jochi (a.k.a. agouti) ran across the road in front of us and thankfully was not hit by our driver.

The two species that Bolivians call "jochis" - one is a paca and the other is an agouti

We came to a town that Daniel says always looks like an earthquake just hit it (it was a bit run down) and everyone stopped for bathroom breaks and snacks. I think the town was called Yucumo. While we were there, it began raining a little bit - good news to everyone who was worried that the rains were late this year, although just because it was sprinkling in Yucumo, that doesn't mean that it rained (or rained sufficiently) everywhere.

After that, we began to climb into the mountains, and the weather cooled down. We had been more or less driving around the 400,000 hectare (nearly 1 million acres or 1544 square miles) Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, and now we came around the other side of it and, from the mountains, we could look down on it.

We came to a stop at about 1000m of elevation, on a mountain called Pilon. For whatever reason, this mountain gets a lot of moisture, and it was a birder's paradise. Daniel said that often birds were sighted here at their lowest recorded elevation. During our stop, I took the opportunity to get a close-up shot at a hanging nest, and then realized that this was a nest that was under construction as I watched the beautiful yellow-tailed birds fly to it with twigs in their beaks. These nests are so common in this part of Bolivia that often you pass trees that are literally full of them. (I've been told by one source they were Crested Oropendolas, and another that they were Yellow-rumped Caciques. Maybe we saw both. The picture of the Crested Oropendola looks like the bird I actually saw in Bolivia that was building these nests.)

A hanging nest

Tree with many hanging nests

From this point on, the drive got downright pleasant. We passed through a town called Cascada ("Waterfall") that had a cascada - albeit a small one - and saw an absolutely gorgeous sunset. We drove over a road paved in stones (which was bumpy but better than dirt) and Daniel said we could thank our U.S. taxpayer dollars for it. The road was intended to discourage cocaine production, he said. "Did it work?" I asked sarcastically. Nope. Of course not. The coca growers were like "Thanks for making it easier for us to take our coca to market on our nice new road!"

All of a sudden, we could hear a loud, shrill noise. It could have been the background music to a horror movie. It was the sound of cicadas. Then insects in the rainforest are audibly loud throughout the day, but this was something else.

A view from Pilon

It was soon after the cicadas began that we came to the "blockade." I put it in quotes because it turned out that it was not a blockade at all. But this is Bolivia, where road blockades are practically the national sport. If you have something to protest, you go out and blockade the roads. So when everyone came to several cars stopped and people in the roads, we stopped.

As it turned out, it was nothing more than a funeral of some sort. I don't know what they were doing in the middle of the road, holding up traffic. Someone from among their group began handing out bottles of Coca-Cola to the people who had stopped and got out of their cars. Our drivers each accepted one. Even once it was clear that this wasn't a true blockade, no one wanted to be the first to drive through it. Finally, a big rig truck had had enough waiting around, and he drove through the crowd. Then everyone else followed. Phew. Our Bolivian "blockade" experience was just a no-big-deal fake.

The "blockade"

Well, at least, THAT blockade experience was no big deal. The real blockade - the one in Yungas - THAT was still going on. The road from Sapecho to Caranavi was clear, but with the blockade happening somewhere in between La Paz and Caranavi, our minibus could not make it to Sapecho to pick us up. We had to come up with alternate plans for the rest of the trip.

Rurrenabaque, at this point, was beginning to run out of things. There was not much gasoline left, and someone told me they were out of carrots. Also, farmers who grew fruits to sell in the highlands were now having their fruit go rotten before they could sell it. The blockade was becoming a disaster for Bolivians who were caught behind it.

Tanya, our guide from Food First, told us our new plans as we ate a homegrown, organic, and DELICIOUS dinner in Sapecho (at an agroforestry operation that we also visited the next day, which I will cover in a future diary). Tomorrow, as planned, we would visit the El Ceibo chocolate cooperative in Sapecho. Then we would return to the agroforestry operation for lunch and a tour. That much was in our original itinerary.

It was after that the plans had to change. We would drive back to Rurrenabaque and spend the night there. Early the next morning, we would fly to La Paz, get in a minibus, and drive to Oruro, spending one night there. Then we would return to La Paz for the rest of the trip.

The change in plans ruined the continuity of our trip, which was intended to show the various agroecosystems as one travels through each different altitude from the Altiplano to the Amazon, but at least now we would see some llamas.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 5 - The Motacú Palm

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

We spent our sixth and seventh days learning about the agriculture of the Bolivian Amazon, and we kept coming across what our guide, Daniel, called "the most important palm tree" of the region, the motacu palm. This diary is a collection of pictures and information about the motacú palm and its many uses.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

The motacú palm, which I believe is Attalea phalerata, is found in both Bolivia and Brazil. The motacú resists burning, so it's very common to see charred landscapes with nothing but motacús left standing in the Amazon, or green pastures full of cows that are dotted with motacú trees.

A motacú palm

To start with, the motacú produces a fruit:

A motacú with fruit

Peeling the fruit

The fruit

The remains of fruits eaten by jochis, large Bolivian rodents

And the seeds are useful for making an oil. Daniel recalls growing up in Bolivia, when you could buy soaps and shampoos made from motacú oils, and I think he might have mentioned candles as well.

In addition to the fruit and oil, Bolivians use the palm fronds for thatching, and they burn the flower covers for llitja, which is needed for chewing coca (see the link for an explanation).

Motacu fronds that were split down the middle lengthwise to use for thatching

The flower and flower cover still on the tree

A motacú flower and flower cover

In addition to its many uses, the motacú also serves as a home to a number of epiphytes; that is, other species that live on the motacu but are not either living symbiotically or parasitically with it. Below are a few pictures of ephiphytes living on motacú palms.

Despite the importance of the motacú to Amazonian Bolivia, I have found precious little about it on the internet. Where I have found information, I have found suggestions that the name motacú actually refers to several other species (such as the Babassu palm) or I have found suggestions of various synonyms for the name "motacú" in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, which then turn out to be names that refer to other species. And even then, there is very little about those species on the internet too.

The one solid source I seem to have found is a book called Biodiversity: a challenge for development research and policy by Wilhelm Barthlott and Matthias Winiger, which mentions the motacu on page 273 (for sale for the low low price of $135... or more). Here is part of their description:

The motacu palm is the single most important palm species in Bolivia...

Roofing made from leaves lasts for 5-7 years; the fruits are edible - and dispersed by rodents, wild pigs, cattle, and monkeys - and also can be used for oil extraction (Moraes et al. 1996). The oil of the motacu palm is used for a variety of home remedies and in the production of cosmetics. Local communities gather mature and immature fruits for oil extraction. The kernel fat content reaches 60-70% and potential oil production from natural stands is estimated to be 1.1 to 2.4 tons/ha/year (Moraes et al. 1996).

The citation here refers to "Notes on the biology and uses of the motacú palm (Attalea phalerata, Arecaceae) from Bolivia," which was published in Economic Botany in 1996 by Monica Moraes Ramirez, Finn Borchsenius, and Ulla Blicher-Mathiesen.

Lack of information about basic, important Bolivian species has been a theme since I returned home and began sorting through my notes from the trip. Bolivians possess an incredible wealth of knowledge about their natural environment and the species that surround them, and yet nearly none of it is available online. And where it is available - under scientific names, or in English, Portuguese, or even Spanish - I can rarely find online references to the terms used in Bolivia.

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 6 - This is Where Coffee Comes From

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

On our seventh day of the trip, we drove through a coffee-growing region. This is a just simple photo diary with pictures of the town.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

We left Rurrenabaque to visit a town called Sapecho in Bolivia's top chocolate-growing region. In Rurrenabaque, I had purchased a bag of coffee called Cafe Mujer. The bag claimed to be both fair trade and organic (I think), but without any of the familiar U.S. certifications, all I could do was trust. At any rate, the coffee was so cheap, they were practically paying me to take it. I pay $11 per pound for my coffee at home. The bag of Cafe Mujer was 25 Bolivianos, or about $4.

As we drove to Sapecho, we passed the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve and drove up into the mountains. Good coffee requires elevation. Daniel, whose farm we had just visited, was in the same car as me, and he pointed out the town that produces Cafe Mujer. He said they likely have a bit of extra wealth from their coffee, and perhaps some of the families own cars as a result. I did not get any sort of in depth look at the lives the people of the town lead, but it certainly did not look like anyone there was wealthy. And this town is the beneficiary of a fair trade program (for at least the segment of their coffee sold under the Cafe Mujer brand). If this is fair trade, what does unfair trade look like?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 4 - The Most Biodiverse Golf Course in the World

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

After spending a day with an indigenous community that runs an eco-tourism operation on the sixth day of the trip, Day Seven was a reality check. We visited Daniel Robison's farm and learned about what he is doing to try to "save the rainforest" and what his neighbors are doing, which - in some cases - is not so good. This diary is about a strange attempt to help the Amazon by building a golf course there.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

After showing us his farm, Daniel took us to a place he only referred to as his "other property." This property is 100 hectares and it backs up to the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, which is 400,000 hectares. Daniel asked us to guess what this property was for.

Well, if we are guessing, then it's probably not another farm, right? And he had already said that there are horses here. I was stumped. Then Daniel took out a golf club and pretended to swing it at a golf ball. A golf course? In the rainforest? Created by an environmentalist who is an expert in agroecology and soil science? Could it be???

Daniel, with a golf club

Then Daniel told us his plan. He wants to make this the most biodiverse golf course in the world. And - before we make judgments about it - he explained that the holes are separated by areas of forest, creating a lot of surface area of "edge," which wildlife loves. I know from my previous experiences in agriculture that the "edge effect" can be very helpful to agricultural productivity - edge in that case being the edge between the field and the uncultivated area next to it. In Daniel's case, edge meant the border between the forest and the wide open spaces on the golf course.

The horses, which double as lawnmowers

Daniel went on to tell about the animals he's already observed on this golf course. "From Argentina to Mexico there are a possible 6 wildcat species. We have 4 on our property," he said. I've looked it up and that might be a slight over-simplification, because there are a few more than 6 wild cats in South America, but some have small ranges or ranges that don't extend into this part of Bolivia. The cats that live in this part of Bolivia are, to the best of my knowledge: pumas, jaguars, jaguarundis, margays, ocelots, and pampas cats. Of those, Daniel and his staff have observed the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, and "a smaller jaguarundi type of cat" (I have no idea what that might be) on this property.

Daniel went on to describe his plans. In addition to golf, he plans to offer horseback riding, bird watching, and hiking trails. "Bird watchers come here and they just drool," he said. "At five in the afternoon, this place is full of toucans." He also mentioned sitings of wild turkeys and macaws. He's been in consultation with birding experts, who encouraged him to have parts of the property in all different stages of succession, and to leave the dead trees in the forest to encourage a maximum biodiversity of birds. The caddies, Daniel said, won't be your typical caddies. They will be experts on the forest, pointing out interesting species to the golfers as they go.

"Do golfers actually come here?" we asked. After all, Rurrenabaque seems to be the type of tourist destination that attracts mostly young backpackers, not rich golfers. Daniel responded that his golf course is not open yet, but they are on the brink of opening the first holes. This golf course is an hour's flight from the world's highest golf course (in La Paz) so an adventurous golfer could easily visit both on the same trip.

So far so good, but really, what is a self-proclaimed agroecologist doing opening a golf course? Daniel explained that there are limited economic possibilities around here for agriculture, largely because families are willing to exploit free family labor, thus making it impossible for anyone to compete who is willing to pay a living wage. But tourism - that's where he sees promise.

With the rise of tourism, Daniel's seen an influx of local foods for sale here in Rurrenabaque. In the past, he said, it was impossible to buy local foods, even though the fruit is quite literally falling off the trees. If you go elsewhere in the Bolivian Amazon, areas without tourists, you'll still see that the food gets shipped in from La Paz. Yet now, people see a way to profit by selling fresh squeezed tropical juices, (relatively) local coffee (it's produced near here, but not here, because the elevation is too low), local chocolate, etc.

Daniel also appreciates the tourism because it is creating a demand for indigenous knowledge. Bolivia has a long history of racism and exploitation of its indigenous majority. In fact, Daniel even told us of one entire culture that was entirely wiped out, not via a planned genocide, but just because the people were simply worked to death. But now, the tourists show up and they are looking for the people who speak the indigenous languages, who are in touch with the indigenous culture, and who have the in depth knowledge of the forest that the indigenous communities here have (knowledge that Daniel says is being lost in his lifetime). That's a big deal.

I'd like to add that while I believe Daniel when he speaks of the vast improvement in locally produced foods and other goods now available here, you can see in my initial diary about Rurrenabaque that the entire town resembles a dollar store. There are many, MANY places to buy cheap crap, and only a few that I found where you can buy locally made handicrafts. I also found a few shops that served tropical fruit juices, including one called Cafe de la Jungla that sells fair trade organic coffee that was grown nearby and serves local, wild chocolate.

As for his own golf course, Daniel says that this land would support four families at poverty level if it were used for slash and burn agriculture. He plans to support 10 families with a living wage with his golf course. I certainly hope that is the case. And I am also encouraged by the successes of San Miguel del Bala and other eco-tourism operators like the Chalalan Ecolodge. I don't believe that all tourism operations will be as committed as Daniel to paying a living wage, and there are also legitimate concerns about exploitation of wildlife by tourism operations. But it does seem that this golf course, at least, is something good.

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 3 - Rainforest Destruction in Bolivia

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

After spending a day with an indigenous community that runs an eco-tourism operation on the sixth day of the trip, Day Seven was a reality check. We visited Daniel Robison's farm and learned about what he is doing to try to "save the rainforest" and what his neighbors are doing, which - in some cases - is not so good. This diary is about some of the dumbass things happening that destroy the rainforest.

"Save the Rainforest"

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

I'd like to begin this diary with a picture (actually, two pictures):

Rock formation with ocean deposits. Millions of years ago, this part of the world was under water.

These rocks contain ocean deposits, because this part of Bolivia was once under an ocean. The land here has changed quite a bit over time and will continue to change. Over the time that the Amazon has been what we know as the Amazon, it has not been a static entity. It changes. Human activities have made the Amazon what it is, just as other human activities are destroying it. In other words: the goal is not to cordon off the entire Amazon and keep people out of it. And we should also consider that proper management by humans can actually enhance this ecosystem.

There are also some people who would see the rocks in the pictures above and then start looking around the Amazon for evidence of oil. I've heard that in some parts of the Amazon, oil companies have been quite destructive. Fortunately, for whatever it's worth, I did not personally observe this happening in the area I visited.

The next relevant picture is this one:

25 years ago or so, this area was slashed and burned and planted in rice. Daniel wants to leave it alone and allow it to become tall forest, and unless the law changes, that's against the law.

Daniel is planning to pick a fight with the Bolivian government at some unspecified time in the future, unless the laws change. He does not want to burn this forest. He wants to let it grow to be tall forest, and he wants to leave it that way.

So why would the government be against NOT burning the forest (or, more specifically, not USING the forest)? To find the answer, you have to look back in Bolivian history to the time of the haciendas. Landowners would own enormous swaths of land and only use a tiny fraction of it, and at the same time, the landless people of Bolivia would be going hungry. Owning forest and doing nothing with it is seen as elitist.

After the 1952 revolution, Bolivia's government did a major land reform. From that point, and until 1995, it was illegal to own land and do nothing with it. Then, in 1995, the law changed again. At that point, it was legal for people to have "private communal forest" (as Daniel put it). And since then, that law has been eroded and things are trending the other way. (Note: I'm relying on Daniel's explanation here and need to look up the actual letter of the law to confirm this.)

Let's move on to the next picture. The picture below is of a post installed by the National Land Reform Institute. It represents that all of the landholders of the adjoining properties agree that this post marks a boundary. Daniel joked that they painted the sign in yellow because it's worth more than gold.

Daniel, standing next to a post that marks his property line.

What do these pictures have to do with rainforest destruction? Take a look at this:

Daniel's neighbor's property, two properties over. This guy is a speculator from Europe who burnt his forest to a crisp for no good reason.

and this:

Daniel's next door neighbor, who maintains a pasture here (presumably for cattle). When the next property over went up in flames, the pasture caught on fire by accident.

and this:

Daniel's property. This was forest, and Daniel intends to keep it as forest. It caught on fire after the pasture next door caught on fire.

When I took these pictures, we were visiting a second property that belongs to Daniel and his wife Sheila, one that I will explain below. About 10 days before our visit - BEFORE the first rains of the season (which is NOT when you are supposed to burn if you are doing slash and burn) - the National Land Reform Institute showed up in this area for the first time in a long while. Daniel's neighbor two properties over - a speculator from Europe - was eager to justify his right to his property. So first he had the National Land Reform Institute put in some markers to show where his property was, then he lit a match to his forest (to "prove" he's using it), and then he walked away.

The forest was extremely dry since it hadn't rained, and the fire spread to Daniel's next door neighbor's pasture. Then it spread to Daniel's property. Daniel and Sheila spent hours putting the fire out, and in the end, the only lost 5 hectares (about 12 acres) to the fire. The fire also spread into the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, a 400,000-hectare protected area that abuts Daniel and Sheila's property. Fortunately, after the fire spread into Pilon Lajas, it rained, and the fire went out.

So there's slash and burn agriculture, which can be practiced in an ecological way, but then there are idiots who torch their property just to justify their ownership of it. And sometimes those idiots also lose control of their fires and the fire spreads to other properties, as happened in this case.

I saw property after property burned along the road we drove out of Rurrenabaque on that day. Daniel said people get touchy when the "authorities" are around (there was road construction going on). In many cases, it looked as if the areas burned were in the early stages of succession, hinting that they had not been left fallow long enough to properly carry out slash and burn agriculture. We also passed what appeared to be a logging operation, with a yard strewn with absolutely enormous tree trunks. And we were passed by several logging trucks, including the one in the picture at the top.

In addition to speculators and accidents, there's development and - perhaps the biggest cause of deforestation - cattle ranching. In the last post, I showed you Daniel's cattle ranch. His ranch is an attempt to find an eco-friendly way to do cattle ranching in the Amazon, but it began as an experiment to show that agroforestry could be just as profitable as cattle ranching. But here's how cattle ranching is usually practiced in the Amazon:

A large pasture without trees

The picture above is of a six-year-old pasture. It's a large area without trees, and it is probably maintained by burning it annually to remove any weeds. The cows are not grazed rotationally, as they are on Daniel's ranch. Daniel said that most of the 15% of the Amazon that has been deforested looks like this pasture here - or worse. "Up in Pando," he said, referring to the Amazonian department in Bolivia that is just north of La Paz, "you have to leave Brazil nut trees, which don't survive in the open, so you end up with Brazil nut corpses dotting the pastures." Daniel calls these large tree-less pastures "low carbon cattle ranching" (i.e. there is not a lot of carbon sequestered in the ecosystem).

As I said above, Daniel and Sheila began their agroforestry farm as an experiment to show that it could be just as profitable as cattle. Over the first two years, the system cost $1000/hectare to put in, the same as the cattle. Every year he spends $100/hectare on maintenance. And over 10 years, he's gotten maybe $100 (per hectare, I assume) out of it. Compare that to $200 per hectare per year in revenues that he gets from his cattle ranch.

Daniel said he has hopes for the profitability of the lumber species growing in his agroforestry system, but if all you want is lumber, why bother maintaining the forest as he does? You could just let the lumber trees grow in the forest and then cut them down when they get large enough, without spending what he has spent in maintenance.

Out of 27 fruit species, only a few have produced fruit. There's no market for fresh palm heart, and the canneries pay so little that Daniel and Sheila just eat the palm heart themselves. They can sell pineapples. Their varieties of cacao have amazing flavor but very low productivity. I believe they've had some luck with their bananas. Daniel noted they get one peach palm harvest per year. The cupuaçu tree was saw was not really producing after 10 years.

Part of the issue may be that they are using all - or nearly all - native varieties of native Amazonian fruits. They planted cacao from seed instead of grafting in more productive varieties from elsewhere, for example. So could this work if they were using other species, or other varieties of the same species? Maybe.

Much of the problem comes down to economics. Fruits and many vegetables rot. If you harvest a bunch of mangoes and take them to market, you've got a limited window of time to sell them before they are worth nothing. So you drop the price in order to get SOMETHING for them instead of nothing. That's one reason why people around here like to produce rice: it stores well.

If you've got a cow, you can keep it alive until you're ready to sell it. If the prices aren't good, then don't kill your cow. But, meat has an elastic market. If the price drops, people buy more meat. That tends to keep the price of beef up. So for a poor farmer, cattle ranching provides more economic certainty than their other alternatives. And I get the impression that most of the cattle ranching in the Amazon is done by relatively small landholders, not millionaires with enormous herds of cattle.

Then there are a few more potential (or actual) threats to the Amazon. The Bolivian government has built several dams already, and they've suggested one on the Beni River, right where we visited. These dams, when built, flood large portions of the rainforest, thus killing it. A biologist in La Paz told us they've already built three such dams elsewhere in the Bolivian Amazon (in Pando, I believe), and Daniel told us about the one proposed for the Beni River. Daniel doesn't think the dam will actually be built - at least not now.

A more pressing threat to the area of Amazon we visited is a new sugar refinery. Daniel griped that - as with the dam - this was initially the proposal of a right-wing government and now it's being carried out by the current left-wing government. Because this isn't a very good area for sugarcane, the economics of sugar production on a large scale here don't really work.

That is, in other parts of the world, it takes 3 liters of cane juice to make 1 liter of molasses. Here, we were told, it takes 6 to 10 liters of cane juice to make 1 liter of molasses. So farmers would have to produce 2-3 (or more) times as much sugarcane (and cut it and process it) just to get the same amount of sugar (and, presumably) revenues as sugar producers elsewhere who they would compete with on the world market. And a sugar refinery would require a large area of rainforest to be converted to sugar production. Yet the government is seemingly going through with it.

And, here's one last issue in the Bolivian lowlands that should be considered:

A cholita in the Amazon!

The Bolivian government has been actively resettling highlanders in the lowlands. Normally you would not see cholitas in the lowlands, but this woman has apparently moved here from the highlands. According to Daniel, the indigenous lowlanders generally do not thing this is a good idea, and the indigenous highlanders do not understand why the indigenous lowlanders aren't for it. From Daniel's point of view, Bolivia has decades of proof that any time you resettle highlanders to the lowlands, they practice monoculture. This is a complex issue but I wanted to at least mention it.

The next installment of my Bolivia diaries will cover a strange but perhaps wonderful project of Daniel's and Sheila's to preserve the rainforest.

UPDATE: Here is an excellent excerpt from the book Whispering in the Giant's Ear about how one bishop, Bishop Ramon, provides families with church land in the Amazon. Despite his good intentions, his land giveaways result in deforestation and an expansion of cattle ranching.

But it's hard to slash-and-burn your way to salvation. Bishop Ramon falls prey to the myth that if land grows trees, it must also grow crops. Quite to the contrary, the World Bank says that less than ten percent of existing rainforests grow in soils good for agriculture. Huge areas of tropical soils are composed of nitrogen-poor silica - the fossil sands of ancient oceans. In other rainforests silica dissolves out of the underlying rocks, and alumina, iron oxide, and magnesia accumulate, yielding the typical tropical "laterite" soils infused with the bright reds and yellows, and, while containing adequate nitrogen, they don't have much calcium, phosphorus, or potassium. Rainforest plants draw their nutrients not from these pitiful soils, but rather from themselves - by penetrating directly into rotting loggs. When the forest is cleared by peasants, torrential rains quickly leach away what nutrients there are, often creating gullied badlands. The bishop might as well christen the new towns Hell on Earth.

What's more, the settlers often fall prey to malaria and other tropical diseases for which their high-altitude constitutions are ill-equipped. But with nowhere to return to and their poverty often worse, they are forced to fell deeper into the Amazon as their soil erodes, thereby inadvertently acting as the shock troops clearing the jungles for cattle ranchers. More ironic still, some of the peasants the bishop so yearns to help are only pretending to be landless. They are traficantes de tierra, or land traffickers, who already have small holdings. In front of the Bishop Ramon they bow their heads and mouth the Lord's Prayer and then deforest the jungle. Once felled, it's theirs, and they hawk the land off to cattle ranchers and others.
- Whispering in the Giant's Ear by William Powers, p. 166.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 2 - Cattle Ranching in the Amazon

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

After spending a day with an indigenous community that runs an eco-tourism operation on the sixth day of the trip, Day Seven was a reality check. We visited Daniel Robison's farm and learned about what he is doing to try to "save the rainforest" and what his neighbors are doing, which - in some cases - is not so good. This second diary covers Daniel's cattle ranch.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

Daniel Robison and his wife Sheila operate a small cattle ranch in the Amazon, in conjunction with the agroforestry system that makes up the other half of their farm. They are trying to do what they call "high carbon cattle," i.e. keeping as much carbon in the ecosystem as possible.

We all walked into a grassy pasture that was dotted with shade trees, and pretty soon, the cattle appeared on the other side of the pasture. Daniel had the foresight to bring a bucket of bran and spoiled bananas, and some of the bolder cows began approaching us to see if they could get a snack.

The cows

"Hello, we're here for the bananas"

"So, um, about those bananas...?"

"Do we have to beg?"

Mmm... bananas

When introducing us to his cattle, Daniel began by giving us some history about cattle in the Amazon. Cows are not native to the Americas. They were first brought here by the Spanish, many centuries ago. Over time, a variety of feral "criollo" cattle developed, living in the savannas of Bolivia's lowlands. These cattle are well-adapted to the environment, but not necessarily very productive for meat or milk.

Daniel's criollo cow

The more recently introduced "Green Revolution" type cattle is an Indian breed called Brahman cattle, which were developed as draft animals. They are well-adapted to the tropics and very meaty. Daniel and Sheila are attempting to mix some criollo genes and Brahman genes together with a red European variety of cattle that produces a lot of milk. As you can see, they have a Brahman bull, and they breed him with a European mother, who produces a lot of milk for the calf. All of the milk goes to the calves, who grow faster than calves on neighboring farms.

The Brahman bull

One of the more European cows... looks like it might be a Jersey

The cows eat a diet of almost entirely pasture grass, but they also get any fruit from the farm that spoils and a little bit of bran "to keep 'em friendly" (and oh boy were they friendly... they were practically begging like dogs). Daniel's mom, who was visiting, said her favorite was watching them eat mangoes, which they throw up in the air and drop to make them juicy. When mangoes are in season, Daniel says he feeds them to the cows "by the bucketful."

Finishing the last of the grain that Daniel dumped on the ground

Each of the cows have names. As he was feeding them, Daniel rattled of the names of each cow... Barbara, Marta, Henry and Harvey (born on the same day), FedEx... one named after a Bolivian classical guitar player... one (the bull) named after a tennis star... There was a baby bull, two days old, and Daniel asked if we wanted to name him. One member of our group shouted out "Chad!" (her boyfriend's name), so now there's a baby Bolivian bull named Chad.

Awww... babies!

Daniel practices rotational grazing with old fashioned wooden fences (not electrical fences, as you would often see in the U.S.). The cows have been snacking on this pasture for nearly long enough, and now they will move on to a fresh paddock. This pasture will be allowed to recover for several weeks before the cows return. If he notices that the pasture looks bad, he'll cull a cow or two, so that the pasture is never overgrazed.

As you can see, the pastures are dotted with shade trees, some of which produce fruit. Daniel pointed out a large fig tree, saying that during fig season, the cows spend an awful lot of time under that tree. The tree, he said, acts as a nutrient pump, bringing up nutrients from far below the surface of the soil with its deep roots, and then the cows return those nutrients to the upper layers of the soil when they eat the figs and poop.

Pasture with lots of trees

The fig tree

In addition to capturing carbon - Daniel estimates that with his deep-rooted pasture grasses and his trees, his pasture contains five to ten times as much carbon as the tree-free pasture of his neighbor - the trees also serve to give the cows shade. Even the breeds that are well-adapted to the tropics love the shade, and Daniel pointed out that shade is wonderful for milk production. Milk production is a heat-generation activity, and a cow who does not have shade will produce less milk. Even though Daniel is not in the dairy business, it's the high milk production of his mama cows that allow his calves to grow quickly, so he can receive good prices for them at a young age.

All in all, Daniel's got 25 head of cattle, together with 7 cows he manages for his neighbor (all of the cows stay together, even though they belong to different owners). He also manages a pasture for his next door neighbor, along with his own pasture. This property, as mentioned before, is a total of 25 hectares (just under 62 acres), but it is split between forest and pasture, and I do not know how many hectares there are of each.

While we were in the pasture, Daniel pointed to the vegetation at the pasture's edge, telling us that it was evidence that the area had flooded. They chose this location for pasture because the flooding made it a bad location for forest species (which would die in a flood). And they got lucky. This area was rich in water and it stayed green throughout the entire dry season.

The vegetation here is what grows back after a flood

With such success on this pasture, Daniel and Sheila decided to see if they could replicate their good fortune on another part of the property. Daniel showed us a different area of pasture and said that the cows would only stay here for one, maybe two days, and then they'd "go on strike." The water made a BIG difference in the first pasture area we saw, and other pastures with poor soil and less water did not do as well.

As we walked through the pasture, we came to a motacu palm, a variety of palm tree we had encountered on our day with San Miguel del Bala. The tree has a number of different uses, one of which is an edible fruit. Daniel told us his cattle and horses like to eat these fruit, and so does he. "A bad one will taste like cardboard," he said, "But a good one will taste like a ripe avocado." I thought it tasted okay, but its orange color makes it a bit of a tease. It looks much more similar to mango than it tastes. I'll write more about the motacu in the next diary too.

The flower and flower cover of the motacu. The people of San Miguel del Bala burn these covers and use them for coca chewing, in a way that I will explain in a future diary.

Peeling the motacu fruit

A peeled motacu fruit