Magazine article American Forests

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

Magazine article American Forests

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

Article excerpt

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."

START WITH THE SOIL

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.

ALL TOGETHER, ALL NATURAL

"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. …

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