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Gardens of hope: symbiotic plantings of trees with crops are boosting harvests, healing degraded land, and making life better for these hard-working Peruvian Indians.

Can you recreate Eden?

In a remote area of central Peru, a group of determined Indians is trying. Using only organic materials and manual labor, they are reclaiming land degraded by years of misuse-replanting it with trees, orchards, native vegetables, and traditional crops. In five years, they have turned a worn-out, treeless cow pasture into an ecological garden.

Their garden gives more than food. It gives hope. It is, the Indians believe, a practical alternative for saving the Amazon rainforest, their culture, and their lives.

The forest is our mother," says Manuel Huaya. "As long as the forest exists, we can meet all our needs."

The trees that covered this site some 300 miles northeast of Lima were cut long ago. The land was burned, farmed, grazed, and repeatedly treated with herbicides and pesticides. "Even the weeds didn't want to grow here, the soil was so degraded," says Huaya, who is general coordinator of the project.

In 1985 a nationwide organization representing indigenous people, AIDESEP (the Inter-ethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian jungle), leased land outside the town of Pucallpa and began to rehabilitate it. The attempt proved so successful that the idea has expanded throughout the Peruvian Amazon and has caught the attention of Indians in other Amazon nations.

"The concept has widespread application," says Araldo Salzar, a technician working at the Pucallpa project. "It will multiply itself."


The process of rebuilding the forest must be taken step by step, Salzar cautions, beginning with the soil. At Pucallpa, the Indians were faced with latisols-heavy red clays that had been compacted by the weight of grazing cattle. Soil analysis showed a pH of 3.5-far too acidic for optimum plant growth-and revealed traces of Tordon and other chemicals.

"The soil scientists from the university said don't try," Huaya recalls. But try they did, painstakingly collecting and intermixing organic material from nearby areas. They also planted legumes and other nitrogen-fixing species as live fertilizers.

As a result, the soil's pH has increased to 5.2, Huaya reports. The soil even looks better-brown instead of red-and the human gardeners are now getting assistance from nonhuman gardeners. "You can pick up the mulch and see the worms are real happy," Huaya says, holding a handful of dark, rich earth.

Another technique for improving site conditions involved digging shallow trenches perpendicular to the slope. Rows of crops are planted between the trenches, which catch and hold runoff, making more water available for crop roots. Now the indians can maintain production yearround, even during the dry season (July and August).

So far, 11.1 acres of the 18.5-acre site have been developed with nurseries, planting beds, fish ponds, and training facilities; 4.9 acres have been reforested. The Indians also rear ducks, doves, geese, and other fowl. All these efforts-agriculture, forestry, aquaculture, and animal husbandry-are integrated in what Huaya describes as holistic management.


"The forest is a very diverse system, and the forest is our teacher," Huaya says. At Pucallpa trees grow in the vegetable garden, forests beside the production beds.

For example, erythrina, a tree with a straight, slim trunk, is used as a living post to support bean vines; it is also a nitrogen-fixer, contributing to the fertility of the soil. Neem, a member of the mahogany family, helps eliminate pests; insect eggs deposited on its leaves are rendered infertile and never develop. Fruit trees are interspersed among the tomatoes, beans, yucca, and corn; and the mini-forests the Indians have planted yield organic material that is added as needed to the vegetable beds.

Forty species of annuals and perennials are thriving at Pucallpa. "We are trying to promote the harvesting of local products high in nutritional value," Huaya explains. One example is the sacha papa, a forest "potato" that grows above ground.

Seventy-two tree species-timber, ornamental, and fruit-are used in what Huaya calls "an integrated tree project." He explains, "We avoid the word 'reforestation' because it usually implies the five or so species promoted by the government for market. We are trying to mimic a natural forest here."

No commercial fertilizers are employed. In addition to the nutrients provided by the organic mulch and nitrogen-fixing plants, the Indians brew their own fertilizer. Its main ingredients are droppings from gui (a kind of guinea pig the Indians breed and eat), ashes from their fireplaces, and various leaves.

Instead of pesticides, aromatic plants such as sacha culantro and ajon joli are grown in the garden as natural insect repellents. The water-filled trenches are stocked with guppies that eat insect eggs.

The guppies in turn are fed to the ducks, and aquatic spinach grown in the trenches is used as mulch and as food for humans and domestic birds. We get good use out of everything," Huaya says.

And everything the Indians use is obtained locally. They rely on traditional seed sources rather than buying expensive hybrid seed. They've built a thatched-roofed shelter where they germinate seeds in trays made of hollowed logs. Nursery beds for bare-root seedlings are framed with logs and lined with plantain leaves. Containerized seedlings are grown not in plastic bags or cylinders but in hollowed-out cross-sections of plantain, palm, and bamboo trunks.

The goal is self-sufficiency, and the methods developed at Pucallpa seem to be working. "This land has been in production five years and still hasn't reached its potential," notes Jorge Saene, field supervisor. "Every year the harvests are bigger and bigger."

"The mere fact that they have been able to bring degraded lands into production has wide-ranging implications," says Bruce Cabarle, a World resources Institute forester who visited the project during a recent summit meeting of Indians and environmentalists (see "An Alliance for Humanity" on page 58). "As more and more area is deforested, we're going to have more and more degraded lands the world over."


The Pucallpa project is also a training center. Families come to live, work, and learn for 90 days and then return to their own communities to plant gardens and teach their neighbors. AIDESEP has 22 regional federations as members, and each federation selects families to send for training. AIDESEP has established five new demonstration projects throughout the Peruvian Amazon, so training is expected to accelerate.

The model developed at Pucallpa can be done either communally or by a single family," says Raul Casanto, an AIDESEP representative. One alternative the Indians are proposing is the charca redonda, or circular parcel. Essentially, this scheme entails concentric circles of land management, with the family vegetable garden in the center, semi-annual crops such as corn and yucca in the second ring, fruit and palm trees in the third ring, and forest trees on the periphery.

"The basic idea is to have forest on either side of the parcel so that the nutrients and organic materials can come into the system and serve as a self-sufficient fertilizing mechanism," Huaya explains.

The Pucallpa project was inspired by a small organic garden planted by a local hospital to help overcome nutrition problems. Production rates were so good AIDESEP decided to try the concept on a larger scale and sought and received financial support from two German church groups, Christian Aid and Bread for the World. Initially, the Indians had the help of a few foreign technical advisors, but now the project is run entirely by indigenous people, many of whom, like Huaya, have formal training in agronomy and forestry.

"In this way, without a big capital investment and without high-tech equipment, we can reach our goals: nutrition for the people and renewal of the soil," says Evaristo Nugkuag, one of the founders of AIDESEP. "We believe we should sustain the forest, we should sustain our territories-without destruction, without chemicals, in a rational and integral way."


In Iquitos, Peru, at the headwaters of the Amazon, Indian and environmental leaders met last May to discuss environmental leaders met last May to discuss how they could work together to save a rainforest that i disappearing at the rate of 50 to 100 acres a minute.

For all of us here, conservation is a concern, Evaristo Nugkuag said in opening the conference, but for the indigenous peoples it is vital . . . because the forest is not a resource for us, it is life itself.

Nugkuag is president of COICA, the organization that convened this historic summit. The acronym stands for Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indigenas de la Cuenca Amazonica (the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Peoples' Organizations of the Amazon Basin).

Founded in 1984, COICA is composed of national Indian organizations of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, and thus represents 1.2 million indigenous people. COICA demands that indigenous people be included in decisions about the future of their homeland.

Attending the Iquitos summit were representatives of a dozen environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth. The first two days, participants visited projects like the gardens at Pucallpa where the Indians are rehabilitating deforested, degraded land.

"We use the forest, but we use it in a rational way, said Nugkuag, voicing a theme that would be reiterated many times.

In a session on national parks, Indians from several nations told how lumber and oil companies are sometimes given concessions but Indians are barred from using the areas for traditional purposes. The much- touted debt-for-nature swaps also drew criticism, and COICA suggested as an alternative that such swaps provide for Indian stewardship of Indian territories. In the end, a coordinating committee was formed to provide a structure for continuing cooperation.

During a moving closing ceremony, all participants signed the Iquitos Declaration," which pledges the signatories to continue working "as an Indigenous and Environmentalist Alliance for an Amazon for Humanity. " The declaration states in part, We consider that the recognition of territories for indigenous peoples, to develop programs of management and conservation, is an essential alternative for the future of the Amazon.
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Title Annotation:includes related information in COICA - Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indigenas de la Cuenca Amazonica
Author:Lora, Mary Elaine
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:The ornery Osage orange.
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