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Tropical botany researcher

8 Posts tagged with the conservation tag
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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.

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Since September 2012 Anaité López (Instituto Nacional de Bosques, Guatemala), Tim Marks (Millennium Seed Bank) and Wolfgang Stuppy (Millennium Seed Bank, do visit his amazing blog) have been working at the Millennium Seed Bank to develop a long-term storage protocol for the seed of the Maya Nut tree (Brosimum alicastrum).

 

This is important because Maya Nut is a significant famine food for the rural poor in northern Central America and is being actively used in reforestation projects as it is fast growing and relatively tolerant of disturbance.  At the moment, however, it is not possible to store the seed for more than a couple of weeks making it very difficult to deploy seed as and when it is needed outside of the fruiting season.

 

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Left: Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) fruit - Fruit as it is when still on the tree

 

Right: Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) seed - Seed once stripped of the fleshy outer layer by bats or birds (left), with both papery coverings removed (centre), with only the outer of the two papery covering removed (right)

 

The work involved collecting about 5,000 seeds from Maya Nut forests in the Peten of north eastern Guatemala. The seed was then shipped to the Millennium Seed Bank by courier where it was unpacked and studied by Anaité who had flown over from Guatemala for six weeks to undertake the work under the supervision of Tim Marks and Hugh Pritchard, specialists in seed research and storage. This was an opportunity for her to take back the skills and knowledge that she had learnt to Guatemala. The work has been funded by Defra through the Darwin Initiative (project 18-010) and is taking place incollaboration with the Maya Nut Institute.

 

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A batch of Maya Nut seeds being germinated following controlled storage. Image courtesy of Anaité López.

 

Our plan was to devise a regime of cooling and drying the seed that would enable it to be cryogenically stored (frozen) and so stored for many years. To do this we needed to identify the best rate at which to drop the temperature and humidity whilst keeping the seed viable. This involved storing the seed at different temperatures and humidities and taking a batch out and germinating it every month.

 

Given that this seed does not survive for long in the wild and that it is protected by two very thin, papery coverings (see above) we expected it to be very prone to dessication and so sensitive to low humidity. In fact we found quite the reverse. Six months later we are still germinating seed that has retained most of its moisture after having being stored in a dessicant for all this time!

 

In order to understand how this could happen we contacted seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy, world expert on seed morphology. He made the following images of sections through the seed which show a thin but dense layer of cells that control waterloss from the seed:

 

 

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Section through Maya Nut seed showing the dark outer layer that might reduce water loss. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Stuppy.

 

So we now have a partial explanation as to how the seeds can show such remarkable tolerance to drying out. It does, however beg two questions:

 

  1. Why do seeds not survive under the conditions of the forest floor?
  2. Why would a tropical tree that grows in the humid tropics develop such a remarkable resistance to drying out?

 

To be continued maybe...

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It has been a while since my last post, but here's some news I'd like to announce:

 

Darwin Initiative project 20-021 - Forest Futures: Livelihoods and sustainable forest management in Bolivian Amazon

 

Who we are

We are a team of scientists, development workers and businesses in Bolivia and the UK lead by The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and comprising the Bolivian NGO, Herencia, the Noel Kempf Mercado Natural History Museum in Santa Cruz, Bolivia and the Edinburgh based company Freeworld Trading, together with a number of subsidiary partners who include brazil nut harvesters, rural communities and regional universities.

 

Where we are working

We are working in the Pando Department of the Bolivian Amazon an area of tropical rain forest that is rich in biodiversity and an important source of brazil nuts:

 

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Project area and communities currently engaged in our project (click images to see the full size version)

 

Why we are working there?

Poverty drives the unsustainable use of forested landscapes as it is difficult and impractical for people to sacrifice their immediate and basic needs for the long-term benefits of sustainable agriculture. 69% of the forest-dependent population of the Pando are unable to satisfy these basic needs and 34% of them live in extreme poverty.

 

This combined with immigration to Amazonia, driven by economic, political and environmental factors, has placed increasing pressure on the tropical forests there. The Pando forests are important as they support a large forest-dependent population, are a significant source of biodiversity and ecosystem services and constitute important buffers for the eastern Andean catchments from predicted impacts of climate-change.

 

Losing these forest will not only lead to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, it will also reduce Bolivia’s ability to meet its Millennium Development Goals and increase vulnerability to climate change among the rural poor. This work is funded by the Darwin Initiative (Award 20-021).

 

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Slash and burn agriculture in the Bolivia Amazon. Image: Bente Klitgaard, 2010

What we plan to do

By September 2016 we plan to mitigate the threats to the tropical forest of the Pando by supporting the development of sustainable practices that reduce forest conversion, coupled with increasing the awareness of how forests reduce poverty and provide ecosystem services amongst the population and government of the Pando.

 

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Ingaagroforest: we are planning to establish similar agricultural systems on abandoned or exhausted pasture in Bolivia. Image from Honduras, courtesy of the Inga foundation.

 

Specifically, we aim to establish Inga tree-based agriculture on degraded cattle pasture, diversify the number of non-timber forest products that can be sustainably extracted from the Pando’s forests and exported, and raise awareness amongst local rural and urban communities and government as to the economic value of their forests and the role that they do and can play in reducing poverty and providing ecosystem services.

 

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Tonya Lander (Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum) has just completed her analyses of the population structure of the Maya Nut tree (Brosimum alicastrum). The results are based on the use of genetic markers and are really interesting. They tell us something about not only the history of this species but how best the species can be managed. This is important because Maya Nut is a significant famine food for the rural poor in northern Central America and is being actively used in reforestation projects as it is fast growing and relatively tolerant of disturbance. The work has been funded by Defra through the Darwin Initiative (project 18-010).

 

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Brosimum alicastrum forest in Mexico

 

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Female flower of Brosimum alicastrum

 

The tree is relatively common throught Central America and South America north of the Amazon. The markers that we have used are from the chlroroplast and nuclear ribosome genomes of the plant and were collected from 34 populations across Central and South America. Many of the samples were collected by the women who harvest the Maya Nut. which provided us with the opportunity to connect rural communities with scientists the other side of the World.

 

Tonya's results provide evidence for distinct northern and southern genetic types (Figure 1), and possibly for Atlantic and Pacific genetic types (Figure 2). These results still need to be tested for statistical significance but will help to clarify whether B. alicastrum fits into the broadly recognized historical pattern of retreat into the Amazon basin during the last glacial maximum followed by post-glacial expansion north into Central America. Each grouping represents a potential land race or ecotype and if confirmed will represent the framework within which seeds can deployed for reforestation.Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. Five distinct sub-groups of Brosimum alicastrum:  (1) Peru (dark pink), (2)Panama (bright pink), (3) ‘Southern’: Brazil,  Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Cuba, Mexico  (light blue), (4) Costa Rica (dark blue), and (5) ‘Northern’: El  Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico (pale pink)


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Figure 2. Three distinct sub-groups of Brosimum alicastrum : (1) ‘Pacific’, from Peru to Cuba (dark pink), (2) Panama and Costa Rica (light blue), and (3) ‘Atlantic’, from Brazil to Mexico (dark blue)
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I have just spent a week collecting samples of Brosimum alicastrum (Maya Nut) with colleague Tonya Lander in Panama. It was a bit scary at first as we were not sure that we would find it, or recognise it in the field. Although it is relatively common, tropical forests have a lot more different species of tree than you would find at home. It is not uncommon to find over 100 species of tree in a 100 m x 100 m patch of forest. Fortunately the leaves have quite distinctive venation (see below) and we were able to collect samples from most of the places that we went to.

 

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Tonya and I are documenting geographical patterns in the populations of this tree across Central and South America with the aim of making reforestation with this species sustainable. We were especially keen to collect samples from both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts as further north in Mexico there appear to be physical differences in the bark and branching between these coasts. This involved a lot of driving, over 1,500 km and at one site in the Pacific province of Los Santos, avoiding a large number of crocodiles that were basking on the river bank close to which our tree was growing. Although to be fair to them they seem a lot more scared of us than we were of them!

 

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I have just finished doing a videoconference with a group of schools who will be following our field trip to the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica next week. It was really fun and as usual we had some very good (and difficult) questions.

 

The plan is that we will share our scientific field work, which to be honest is one of the must fun parts of our work at the Museum, with the public and a pre-arranged group of schools. We will be running Nature Live sessions from the forest using an Inmarsat video satellite link, which will let us talk to visitors in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

As well as blogging about the trip we'll also be answering the questions of teachers and school children who have been invited to sign-up for our schools link. If you know any teachers who might want to get involved and get access then please get them to contact Grace from the Museum's Learning Programme by email (videoconferencing@nhm.ac.uk).

 

So, we leave here Monday morning and by Wednesday we should be collecting our first moss, lichen, algae and plant specimens!

 

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