May 03, 2012
An Eco-Ola permaculture plot with yuca, beans, sacha inchi, bananas, charapitas, herba luisa, and moringa in the Peruvian Amazon.
The situation can be even worse in landscapes that have been completely deforested and subsequently degraded by poor land management. Rural small-holders may suffer from poor soils, which hurt yields and increase dependence on expensive fertilizers and other chemical inputs. Lack of profitability may cause some to move to urban areas or seek jobs on cattle ranches and industrial farms. Others may follow the forest frontier, clearing land for short-term use before moving deeper into rainforest areas. The approach is inherently unsustainable.
This wasn't always the case. Ancient Amazonians utilized methodologies like permaculture and terra preta (biochar) to farm while enriching soils and even enhancing biodiversity.
A group in Peru is now working to embrace elements of this lost approach and in the process reduce small-holder deforestation, restore the quality of degraded tropical soil, and diversify and strengthen rural livelihoods. Eco Ola, a Peru-based organization founded by William Park and Carla Noain, has developed a community training center in the Peruvian Amazon to train people to learn how to improve soil in a polyculture/agroforestry system. Permaculture essentially mimics the form and structure of a natural forest, with a diverse array of species including a canopy of timber and fruit trees; an understory of cacao, bananas and species; and a shrub layer of herbs, legumes, and peppers. Eco Ola also runs a small non-wood forest products venture with indigenous communities.
William talked about his work in a May 2012 interview with mongabay.com.
Mongabay.com: What led to your interest in Amazonian products?
William Park drinking from a liana or woody vine.
Mongabay.com: What products are you working with?
Farmers in the Amazon have used mounds and circles to cultivate crops since pre-Columbian times. Eco-Ola says it does the same thing, calling the mounds swales and the circles, banana circles.
Mongabay.com: Who are your local partners? Are you working with campesinos or indigenous people?
William Park, Eco Ola: We are working with a community an hour outside of Iquitos. The wife of our partner is a member of the Yagua community and is the first generation removed from isolation in the primary jungle. Others in the community were displaced from the mountains during the Fujimori years and are the first generation in the region. We have to be careful not to foster divisions in the community, everyone living there is equally important. I have become friends with some tribal groups over the years but we are moving very carefully to insure our interactions are beneficial and that they understand what we are doing and are eager participants. The visitor/training center is a key part of this process.
Mongabay.com: A study published in Nature in 1989 concluded that forest products from the Amazon were not only economically viable but far outperformed other commodities. But subsequent research cast doubt on those claims, noting transportation costs, transaction costs, and lack of markets for such products. What have you found? Can forest products be viable? What is key to making them so?
Boat used to bring product to Eco Ola's processing facility.
Forest products are very viable. Let me be clear that I don't consider anything produced in a monoculture plantation to be a forest product. Our vision is to use the knowledge of the local communities to harvest the appropriate amount of bark, root, leaf, resin, or stems from trees in the primary jungle in lieu of cutting trees down. The timing has to be right to make sure the product is potent. This depends on the time of year, time of day, location of the tree...etc. Once the raw material is sourced in this way then the communities have to be involved in the processing to make sure the value chain is sustainable as well. We have made a lot of progress on in this area but we have not developed it as much as the agroforestry parts of our work. The challenge is that so many companies tout themselves as "working with the communities" but they have no operations in the Amazon whatsoever and they purchase by-products of the timber mills for cheap from disreputable brokers in Lima. Their costs are low and they make large profits, but the end products are low in quality hurting the future growth of the market. Once consumers understand how these products can be produced with the communities and see how effective they are the market will grow as the demand for effective natural products is enormous.
Mongabay.com: The acai market is often touted as an example of a large-scale sustainable forest product (often by murky multi-level marketing schemes that promote acai in the U.S.), but there are some indications that this might not be completely accurate. What does it take to ensure large-scale product is sustainable?
William Park, Eco Ola: I'm not aware of any acai that is grown in an agroforestry system but I'm not an expert on acai. From an ecological perspective a large monoculture palm plantation is the same whether it's producing fruit pulp or oil. However, I do believe that the acai boom is helping with economic development of the rural poor in Brasil and is a huge improvement compared to transgenic soy disasters.
Carla Noain (right) laying out swales on contour.
Mongabay.com: What are your biggest challenges?
William Park, Eco Ola:
The other challenge is green-washing. I see so many companies from Monsanto to McDonalds using their great relationships with farmers to market their products. Many small distributors use brokers and sourcing agents to get their materials. They have no legal entity or operations in Peru. They are able to cut costs by having collectors go around and rip off small farmers and then claim they are working with farmers. This is one reason we are interested in having people come to see for themselves how we are integrated with our farmers.
Mongabay.com: Where can people buy your products?
William Park, Eco Ola: We are currently selling our products in bulk but we are starting to offer retail products. If anyone is interested in our products you can join our mailing list or follow us on Facebook. If you would like try all of our products please join us in July for the jungle adventure/permaculture course.