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One of the great things about doing fieldwork is that in addition to the focus of your visit you get to learn and see many new things. Currently I have been in Bolivia as part of a Darwin Initiative project to promote sustainable Inga based agroforest techniques with local farmers, so being in the Amazon forest, this is probably more so.

 

While introducing ourselves to one of collaborating community, Motucusal, in a cleared area of forest that serves as their meeting room we noticed a really strange phenomenon that none of us, including our hosts, had seen before. It was a small swarm of ants swirling around a small group of their own in a clockwise direction at speed (see the film below).

 

At first we thought that they could be protecting an entrance hole to their nest, or invading somebody else's nest, but on disturbing them there was no hole and they returned to what they were doing straight away. So, as far this botanist goes, it's still a complete mystery.

 

 

 

Swirling ants

 

Completely by chance the next day, visiting the community of Palacios we several swarms of tadpoles in a large lake by their village. Again it is not really clear what they are doing but it looked as if they were skimming the surface, maybe for food?

 

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A swarm of tadpoles in a lake at Palacios

 

And below is another phenomenon well known for the Amazon, white and black water rivers. Black water rivers are those where all of the water is derived from the Amazon basin itself, the water aquiring a dark tea-like colouration as a consequence of the tannins it absorbs as it filters through the leaf-litter. In a way the Amazon is a bit like am enormous tea-making facility! White water is rich in sediment derived from the weathering of the Andes and is an opaque white-coffee to orange-brown colour. This phenomenon means that wherever you are you can tell whether a river derives solely from the Amazon basin or whether it also includes water from the Andes, an incredibly powerful but simple tool for any biogeographer (which I am not). Below you can see what happens where the two mix, over several hundred metres to kilometres you get two parallel streams of dark and white water which mix very slowly. The slowness in mixing is in part because each water is at a different temperature: white water reflects more energy from the sun whilst black water absorbs it.

 

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Mixing of white and black water rivers at the head of the Orthon river

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Terry Pennington and I, together with Bolivian botanist Alejandro Araujo and Herencia Director, Juan-Fernando Reyes have spent the last few days visiting the communities that we would like to work with to guage their interest and support as part of our Darwin Initiative project. It was also an opportunity to see what species of Inga trees they have growing in the vicinity of their villages. We went to the communities of Motacusal and Palacios - about 150 km of dirt-track east of Cobija - all of which is bordered by cattle ranches. Their giant fields punctuated by the beautiful and eery, still-upright-remains of what once must have been canopy trees.

 

image 1 copy.jpgCattle pasture on Cobija-Puerto Rico road

 

In the Pando, rural communities comprising several families are granted 500 ha each communally, most of which is Brazil nut and rubber forest and some of which they clear for agriculture by slash-and-burn. This requires constant clearing as soil fertility drops rapidly. Our aim is to reduce slash-and-burn by converting exhausted pastures and cultivated land into Inga agroforest. For this to work we need to have the trust of the communities, also they have to see this as a sensible approach for them. For this reason we are working with Herencia and specifically their 'Bosque de Ninos' (Children's Forests) project. This provides us with a site that has already been set aside by communties for communal use. It means that we can work with the future generation to develop and run our demonstration plots, providing educational and project opportunties for the children, and it also places our agroforest at the heart of the community.

 

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Left: Alex introducing the Inga agroforest system. Right: Small boy with pet Agouti

 

Our presentation of the project and how we saw it integrating with their development plan was well received and we got plenty of questions. As everywhere the future of their children is paramount to them and so they were very keen for us to involve them and their teachers as much as possible. The children themselves attended the presentation and seemed very confident and happy, many brought their pets too. Including a little boy with his pet Agouti (above) and a little girl with a small pet parrot. These communities currently live from Brazil nuts which they collect in the new year. Brazil nut trees can produce 500 to 1000 capsules each a season. Wild rubber trees (Hevea brasilensis) are tapped for about six months of the year and sold as blocks of about 3 kg for about £1.40 a kilo. Finding a market for this rubber abroad that they can connect with should greatly increase their income from these trees and so the economic value of this forest.

 

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Left: Block of raw coagulated rubber. Right: Boots made from smoked rubber.

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When I joined Kew on secondment as a botanist last year I hadn't really expected to be negotiating the sourcing and planting of ca. 25,000 tree seedlings in the Bolivian Amazon. Many possibilities went through my mind, but not that one. That is what makes being a botanist so much fun! Contrary to the stereotype, you never know where your knowledge and contacts will lead you next.

 

Terry Pennington, Bente Klitgaard and myself are now in the Bolivian Amazon as part of a Kew Garden's Darwin Initiative project to reduce pressure on the incredibly biodiverse forests of the Bolivian Amazon, amongst the richest in Amazonia.

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The opening of new roads - an initiative by the Bolivian Government to give land to the landless rural poor of the Andes - and pressure on the land from Brazil are important threats to the future of much of the forest. Devising approaches to agriculture and forest use, and raising awareness of the economic and ecological value of these forests are tools that can reduce and mitigate some of these threats.

 

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View from the air of the Cobija area of the Bolivian Amazon.

 

As part of this aim we plan to introduce a very old but largely abandoned type of agroforest farming based on a group of trees in the bean family known as Inga. These trees grow very quickly (3m in the first year) and are able to tolerate very damaged and degraded soils such as those found in cattle farms or abandoned soya or pineapple plantations. These forms of farming are very profitable in the short-term but soon exhaust the ancient soils often found in the tropics and on which the tropical forest grows.

 

The result is that a farmer or agribusiness needs to clear forest on a regular basis to maintain an economic yield and leaves degraded pasture, a kind of grassy desert, in its wake. What we are aiming to do is provide a technique whereby farmers can restore this exhausted land to productivity, for growing food, fruit trees, cash crops, timber or even fodder and at the same time obtain a plentiful supply of fuelwood for cooking. This is known as Inga agroforest.

 

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Left: A two-year old Inga tree near Cobija. Right: Inga fruit with seeds below (click images to see them full size)
Inga has a pod within which are seeds (green) covered in a white, fluffy, very sweet and juicy flesh. The tree is commonly grown for its fruit but also has tremendous potential for the restoration of degraded land in Latin America, as it is very fast growing and tolerant of damaged soils.

 

The Inga agroforest approach involves planting dense alleys of Inga seedlings spaced several metres apart and letting them grow for 2 years, by which time they are about 6 metres tall (see photo above). Then all their branches are removed and a crop of beans, cassava, maize, Cacao or whatever is wanted is planted.

 

The Inga branches grow back very quickly and need to be cut every 6 months, providing a valuable source of fuel wood for cooking. The key to this system is that once the Inga trees are about 6 metres tall their side branches meet and so completely cover the alley, thereby suppressing weeds. And, just as importantly, they generate a rich leaf-litter that forms the basis of a nutritious soil for whatever crop is to be planted subsequently.

 

So far we have identified a number of trees that could act as sources of seed from three or four species, including one community that could probably provide all of the seed that we need, a good sign for our first day out in the field!

 

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Inga fruit with its seeds exposed to show their covering of edible white flesh.

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Terry Pennington, world expert on Inga trees, and I arrived in Cobija in the Bolivian Amazon after almost two days travelling from London. We seem to have tracked down the English summer that never was and are rapidly getting used to the warm temperatures and high humidity. Cobija is a small town on the Brazilian border with a population of ca. 55,000.

 

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The town of Cobija in the Bolivian Amazon

 

It lives mainly from cross-border trade in Brazil nuts. It is the capital of the Departamento de Pando region of Bolivia and I was last here in 1988 when I participated in an undergraduate expedition organized by Terry’s son. It was quite emotional to be back after so long and I was really surprised at how little it has changed since then.

 

We have come here to meet our main partners - the local communities of Palacios, San José and Motacusal and Herencia - to revise and fine-tune our proposal so as to ensure that it remains viable and succeeds. No mean feat when you think that we are planning to plant 25,000 trees over the next two years and that we have yet to source seed.

 

Juan-Fernando Reyes of Herencia will be our main partner on the agroforest side of the project and has been working in the Pando for 16 years. The communities we are working with are mainly Brazil nut harvesters and the one that we are thinking of working with comprises migrants from the Andes.

 

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Juan Fernando Reyes and Toby Pennington in the Herencia Offices

 

One of the reasons for this project is the very recent and rapid colonisation of the Bolivian Amazon by landless Andean farmers. As you can imagine, a farmer who is used to farming at 3,000 m elevation in the grassland dominated Andes will struggle when faced with a 50 m high tropical forest close to sea-level. Finding farming techniques that are not too destructive and relatively simple will help support their successful integration.