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iSUR Journal Part 2: Agroforestry

January 2, 2011

Ladder-tailed nightjar (Hydropsalis climacocerca)


El Gato is a paradise. Maybe not by the definition of wealthy Caribbean vacationers, but it is perfect for me. I woke up to find a view of the Tambopata River and watched birds from my bed through the screened wall. I saw 12 species without emerging from my sheets. We had a breakfast of fresh fruit, ripe plantains, rice, and starfruit juice.

After taking some pictures of the rooms at El Gato, Therany and I ventured up the small stream near the lodge in the peke-peke. Mr. Ramirez dropped us off at the trail to the macaw clay lick and he left a canoe for us tied to the side of the river. Therany and I walked one of the many trails at El Gato and I was amazed by the sightings –a pair of mot-mots and three blue-fronted jacamars on a branch. Therany is a tree expert, so he was constantly bending over and retrieving fruits and nuts from the ground and handing them to me, saying “smell this” or “taste this.” He’d rattle of the scientific name and I wouldn’t be listening because I was caught up in the most delicious smells. The parrots and macaws had already left the clay lick by the time we arrived, but we saw three species in the canopy – blue and yellow, red and green, and scarlet.

We spent all morning on the trails and I made up my mind to return to this location (Rick and I will be staying here for six nights in January). Mr. Ramirez served us chifa (rice with mixed vegetables served in a palm leaf). We talked with him about the history of the property – he’s owned it for over 20 years and is passionate about preserving it. He told me that it requires a lot of work and money, but he had something that would last. In Spanish he told me, “Yes, I could make more money, a lot more quickly, by selling the large trees to loggers. Or I could become a miner, but this is a labor of love and my hard work is paying off.” “Good things come to those who wait,” I told him. He nodded in agreement.

In the afternoon, Mr. Ramirez took us to visit two of his friends who also have conservation initiatives along the Tambopata River. One man has an organic fruit farm and he is practicing agroforestry In six years, he has taken a pasture and turned it into a productive, sustainable farm. He is reforesting the area with hardwood species – planting mahogany in a place where people only take it away. He proudly showed me the seedlings of ironwood and mahogany trees and told me about his hope for the future. When we arrived his family was sorting through corn. First, they rub the hard cobs on a table until the kernels fall off. Then, they sort through the kernels to remove the bad ones. And then they bag up the good kernels for the markets.

We waited for a few minutes for the owner to finish a bag of corn and then we set off into his chakra. The first striking thing about the farm is that the ground is covered in a thick green plant. He explained that this is the key to his success. The plant is a legume species that replenishes the nutrients in the soil. The soil in the tropical forest is nutrient poor and very shallow. After three years of planting, farmers typically move on to another plot, slashing and burning more forest because they have depleted the nutrients in their old fields. This legume is the solution to the problem. He plants it underneath the canopy and it covers the ground. When he is ready to plant, he clears it with machetes.

The second striking thing about his farm is the diversity. We took a circuitous route through the farm in order to see and experience all of the species. As we walked through one section he pointed to the trees –a lime for ceviche, a lime for limonade, a lime for garnish. Then came the fruits I’ve never heard of – like copazu. He pulled down ripe fruits and sliced them with his machete so we could try them. At one point I was holding half a lime, half a starfruit, half a cacao fruit, and half a copazu (and I was trying to take pictures). The cacao was my favorite. The seeds are used to make chocolate, but they are encased in an embryo of the sweetest, tangiest fruit I’d ever tasted. You suck on them like a caramel and spit them on the ground. I had a hard time asking questions when my mouth was constantly full of delicious fruit. I mostly made sounds of delight.

After our tour we spoke with him about the process and the benefits of this type of farming. He is the only person in this region of Tambopata practicing agroforestry and it’s hard to believe after you hear about his successes. He converted his traditional farm to this technique seven years ago. For him, it is significantly less work and the production is higher for the amount of input. Instead of spending all day in his fields clearing the land, he lets the legumes do the work. And, his fields are still viable after seven years (I would describe them as thriving).  He doesn’t need to move farther into the forest – he can walk right out his door to his fields. I’m going to recommend him to the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF) because I think he would be a perfect host to volunteers.

After I finished my third cup of fresh copazu juice we left for sunset at the house of Mr. Ramirez’s other friend. This gentleman is 72 years old and worked in the Rubber Boom. Now, he owns a 65-hectare piece of forest and has built a nice lookout terrace on a ridge overlooking the river. First, I have to note that for 72 years old, he looked incredible. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I checked out a man of his age. He hiked up to the ridge with us and talked with Thernay while I took pictures from the overlook. The sunset never popped, but the view was spectacular.

We returned to El Gato after sunset and spoke some more with Mr. Ramirez over a dinner of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, and fish. Peruvians use spaghetti in the most interesting ways.  I passed a restful night in my bungalow, saddened that we would be leaving at 5am the next morning.

Tambopata River at Sunset


Man Sorting Corn at Agroforestry Property


Ripe and unripe starfruit.

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