Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 7, Part 1 - Agroforestry in the Rainforest

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 first diary covers just one of Daniel's three projects, his agroforestry system.

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 bought 2 adjacent properties totaling 25 hectares (61.8 acres) and, since 1998, they have been operating the area as a farm. The farm is divided into two distinct parts - an agroforestry experiment and what Daniel calls "high carbon cattle ranching." (I've introduced Daniel and Sheila in previous diaries, but Daniel's an American who was raised in Bolivia by missionary parents, and Sheila, his wife, is from Scotland. Both have PhDs in soil science.)

While we were on the way there, Daniel wanted to show us a few things. Our cars pulled over to look at various things once or twice, and then our way was cut off by road construction. Then, suddenly, Daniel drove his car right off the road, into the jungle. Sheila followed and, after a minute or two, got stuck in the mud. I was in her car, thinking Daniel was nuts. What the heck was he trying to show us and why couldn't we park near the road and just walk?

Sheila got her car unstuck (man that woman can drive!) and followed Daniel a little further into the jungle. Then both cars stopped and we got out. It did not look like we were anywhere spectacular, to justify our off-road adventure. Then Daniel introduced us to his farm. That crazy trek through the jungle? That was his driveway, if you can call it that. And actually, although the trail we drove on doesn't look like much, it's actually an old cattle trail that was used to drive cattle from the Amazon to more populous areas of Bolivia where they would be consumed long before there were roads here.

An old cattle trail pre-dating the roads in this part of Bolivia. Now this is the road to Daniel's farm

Daniel and Sheila parked their cars, and we followed on foot. Then they introduced us to their two employees, two Tacana-speaking indigenous men who know the forest inside and out. Even though Daniel's the one who owns the land and signs the paychecks, Daniel has an enormous amount of respect for these men and for their intricate, detailed knowledge of every single plant and animal in the forest. Daniel says if he has an idea and it doesn't make sense to them, he automatically knows it won't work.

The experts on this farm. I love the Wisconsin shirt!

A few of the most painful residents of the farm - which Daniel called "terrestrial wasps" - introduced themselves next. I believe they are actually bullet ants, and they can deliver the most painful sting known to man. The name "bullet" implies the pain is like being shot. The source of all wisdom, Wikipedia, says that they are called hormiga venticuatro in Spanish, referring to the 24 hours that the sting will hurt for.

Bullet ant (in the center, under the plant stem... I wasn't about to mess with this guy in order to get him to pose for the picture)

With everyone warned about the ants, Daniel went back to describing his farm. The entire area had been slashed and burned several times in the decades before he bought the farm. All of the forest is secondary bush fallow. The first thing they did when they bought it was inventory the forest. In areas where they found a high regeneration of useful species, they kept the forest. In areas where they found low regeneration of useful species, they made pastures. As a result, the pastures are relatively small areas separated by forest.

Daniel told us we would see an agroforestry system in Sapecho (the next day) which was done by Germans. He and Sheila had roughly adopted this system, or what he called a "creole" version of it. What is very important to note is that the soils on the farm are absolute crap. Daniel said that if you ranked soil on a scale of 1-10, with Iowa being a 10, the soils in Sapecho were a 7, the soils near the river in San Miguel del Bala were a 5, and his farm's soil were all 1's and 2's. ("It's inert," he said of the sand that made up his soils, "You could practically do hydroponics in it.")

Once Daniel, Sheila, and their staff had completed their forest inventory, they thinned but did not burn the forest areas. They left the useful species alive and then filled the area in with more useful species that were not there in the first place. He tried to make good use of vertical space, filling his bottom level with pineapple, the middle level with various types of palms, and the top level with lumber species. Today, there are 27 types of fruit (mostly Amazonian fruit) that grow here, along with 25-26 lumber species.

Our first stop was a cacao tree. Daniel has a number of cacao trees, all "creole, local, Amazonian" varieties of cacao that were planted from seed. Daniel referred to them as landraces. The trees are 11 years old, and they produce about three to four pods per year (i.e. NOT MUCH). The trees are erratic in flowering and pollination. Typically, they harvest cacao between the months of December and February.

A cacao tree

Next up were the pineapple. These were also planted 11 years ago. They grow and produce pineapple, about half of which is infested with fruit flies. They feed those to the cows, allowing them to profit from the fruit fly-infested pineapples even though they cannot sell them.


Then he showed us a Brazil nut tree. I think I've got the right picture here, and if so, as you can see, the tree is TINY. This tree is nine years old. Daniel said he does not know of a single case where a Brazil nut tree was planted and then actually produced, but he's going to keep waiting and hoping. Brazil nut trees are incredibly long-lived, and Bolivia is actually the top producer of Brazil nuts. A certain type of orchid is required in order to achieve pollination of Brazil nut trees, because the insect that pollinates Brazil nuts requires the orchid to reproduce.

A 9 year old Brazil nut tree

The next plant we saw was a peach palm. We saw this - and I mentioned it - in San Miguel del Bala, but not we got a better view. I was disappointed that there were no ripe fruits, which I would love to try, but we did get a different kind of snack. Peach palm is one of a few varieties of palm that puts up multiple shoots, which means that you can harvest heart of palm from a peach palm without killing the tree.

A peach palm tree. The large stump is the part that already was cut down for the heart of palm, and the new shoots are the same tree, still growing.

At this point, one of the Tacana men cut down a nearby palm tree, one that did not put up more than one shoot. Daniel explained that this was not a desirable trait and so they did not want that tree to reproduce. I took a series of pictures, and as you can see, harvesting heart of palm is an awful lot of work. And it takes a lot of tree to get very little food.

The tree

With the tree down, he cut off a section near the top of it.

Then he began stripping away layers of bark:

You can see that at the very end, he handed the heart of palm to Daniel, who then cut off tastes of it for each of us to try. It tasted fine, but not great. For all of the work involved in harvesting it, and considering that often harvesting heart of palm means killing a tree, I probably would never choose to eat heart of palm unless I was starving and I had to eat it to survive. The Tacana men told us that the heart of palm canning factories pay about 1.5 Bolivianos per heart of palm ($.22).

Daniel showed us several other species: acai, 8 varieties of bananas, 2 varieties of plantain, a dead pacay tree (a.k.a. ice cream bean), and more. Pacay, Daniel said, is a species that arrives early in succession. It grows quickly and dies. It's a legume, which means it can fix nitrogen into the soil, making it desirable in coffee and cacao production. (Coffee and cacao grow under a shade canopy, so a tall leguminous tree can do double duty providing both shade and nutrients. And pacay, of course, comes with the additional benefit of producing an edible fruit.)

Acai palm

A dead pacay tree with fungi growing on it

There was one species that produces a soft material that kind of resembles cotton. Daniel said they used to use it to stuff mattresses.

The cotton-like substance

You can see the seed within the cottony stuff

Then Daniel pointed out a 10-year-old mahogany tree that he planted. It was tall but extremely thin. Daniel is still monitoring all of his various lumber species to see if it's more valuable to grow a slow-growing but highly valuable tree like mahogany, or a faster-growing tree with wood that is only worth a fraction of what mahogany wood is worth.

10 year old mahogany

A view of the base of the mahogany tree

Then Daniel pointed out a bushy area in the background. He said that his entire farm looks like that for about 9-10 months out of the year. Once a year, he and his staff do maintenance, clearing less desirable species from the undergrowth and making sure that the desirable species have room to grow. He said that they particularly do this for the shorter trees (like cacao), but once a tall tree like the mahogany (above) reaches a height where its leaves have enough light, they tend to leave the undergrowth around the bottom.

An area with the undergrowth cleared out

An enormous beetle walking on a machete blade

After learning about Daniel's agroforestry system, we moved on to see his cattle. Daniel does what he calls "high carbon cattle ranching," meaning that he keeps a high amount of carbon in the ecosystem. I will write about the cattle - and Daniel's other property, which I will leave as a surprise - in a future diary.

The cattle

We came back to the forest after seeing the cattle, and ran into a cupuaçu tree, a tree that is similar to cacao that produces a fruit (we drank cupuaçu juice at San Miguel del Bala). The tree was supposed to begin producing after 3 years, and Daniel's 10 year old tree was not really producing yet.

Cupuaçu tree

Cupuaçu blossom

The last thing we saw was a majo palm, a slow growing palm tree that produces chocolate colored berries that are good to mix with water and then use as a drink or an ice cream flavoring.

Majo palm berry

Majo palm

Last, we went back to a little structure (not quite a house because it didn't have sides) where Daniel and Sheila served us homegrown and homemade tamarind juice and brownies made from their own wild cacao. And THAT was, without a doubt, the single best moment during my entire trip to Bolivia.

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