Deforestation has taken a great toll across large parts of the Amazon as the global human footprint rapidly expands. Reversing this decline requires a strategy that is as diverse as the causes of forest loss, and we are employing a number of strategies to restore the Amazon in southeastern Peru.
Our reforestation strategy is three-fold. First, we are planting thousands of native trees that will one day provide food and shelter for wildlife, store carbon to mitigate climate change, and rebuild a healthy Amazonian food web. Second, we maintain experimental plots to test best practices in agroforestry and demonstrate how others can manage the land in a way that is productive but also protects biodiversity and the ecosystem services that the rainforest provides. And third, we are working with our local community to protect and restore more than 25,000 acres of natural forest used for the sustainable harvest of Brazil nuts, a rare win-win for people and nature in the Amazon.
The Brazil Nut Corridor Project
The so-called ‘Brazil Nut Corridor’ comprises more than one million hectares of mature rainforest in southeastern Peru that is dominated by Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) trees and other tropical
hardwood species. Brazil nuts grow at such densities in this area that the extraction of their nuts from
natural forest is economically viable. As a result, the Peruvian government has designated most of this area as extractive reserves—'concessions', as they're called in Peru—for the sustainable harvest of Brazil nuts, where the clearing of forest and other destructive activities are forbidden.
The bulk of Brazil nut concessions lies strategically between major protected areas of global significance, forming an important link between conservation units that are otherwise becoming increasingly isolated by forest clearing at their peripheries. As the ASA has shown through its research and monitoring projects, these areas are also themselves important biodiversity areas. Concessions, which typically range in size from 500 to 2,000 hectares, are privately managed by concessionaires, most of whom are descendants of the region’s first colonists of the modern era. Thus, Brazil nuts are essentially the only economically scalable yet sustainable non-timber forest product not only in the Amazon, but in all of the world’s tropics, and their extraction represents a rare win-win situation for both people and nature.
Our Brazil Nut Corridor Project aims to secure the long-term viability of this important regional activity, both in ecological and economic terms.
The Brazil Nut Corridor in SE Peru serves as an important forested link between major regional protected areas, including Manu National Park and the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru, as well as reserves in neighboring Bolivia.
A Brazil nut harvester, known locally as a 'castañero', gathers nuts in Peru's Madre de Dios region. This is the Amazon's most important non-timber forest product and an important focus of our conservation strategy in SE Peru.
A Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) at Finca Las Piedras. These are among the Amazon's largest trees and, over the course of hundreds of years, can grow to heights of 50 meters or more.
Maintain the sustainability of the Brazil nut harvest
Decades of overharvest and a near total lack of replacement planting means that, as large trees die of old age, new trees are not growing in their place, threatening the long-term survival of Brazil nut forests in SE Peru. As the harvest diminishes, the value placed on these forests declines and pressure will mount, in turn, to convert them to other land uses.
We are working with local Brazil nut concessionaires to plant young trees within their concessions, both by producing young Brazil nuts in our shadehouses at Finca Las Piedras and by training the concessionaires in silvicultural best practices to ensure they are able to carry out this important work themselves.
Improve local livelihoods
A declining harvest over time will also bring economic decline, so reversing this trend benefits the families and communities that depend on the forest. If the long-term survival of the Brazil Nut Corridor is assured, then so too is a way of life in SE Peru that goes back generations.
Secure the Brazil Nut Corridor
Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that the Brazil Nut Corridor remains intact. This will ensure the protection of more than one million hectares of biodiverse rainforest, guarantee the survival of the region's most significant sustainable livelihood, and help retain connectivity between important protected areas and across the rest of SE Peru's increasingly fragmented forest landscape.
Restoration at Finca Las Piedras
Restoring the Amazon means planting trees—lots of them. We are restoring the rainforest at Finca Las Piedras by planting native species that are threatened with unsustainable logging elsewhere, and we're doing it in a way that rebuilds a healthy, functioning ecosystem that will provide for the needs of both people and wildlife.
Spanish cedar or cedro (Cedrela odorata) is a commercially important species native to SE Peru and one of many we are planting at Finca Las Piedras. It has been logged nearly to extinction across most of its range in the Amazon.
ASA staff members with a freshly planted big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). One of the world's most prized timbers, this species has been logged to commercial extinction in SE Peru. It is now protected at Finca Las Piedras.
Protect endangered species
Unsustainable logging of prized tropical hardwoods for the international market is driving many species to the brink of extinction across the Amazon. We are planting species such as Spanish cedar, big-leaf mahogany, and ironwood, among many others, to restore their populations and secure their future.
Create wildlife corridors
Tree clearing in the Amazon leaves behind a patchwork of rainforest fragments that are too small on their own to sustain healthy populations of wildlife. We are working to reconnect forest fragments so that plants and animals are able to disperse again aross the landscape and keep the rainforest functioning.
Deforestation is one of the most important contributors to global climate change. That's because trees store lots of carbon, and nowhere is the carbon storage potential of trees greater than in the Amazon. Planting trees here is one of the best ways we can mitigate the impacts of climate change, as Amazonian trees grow large and store their carbon for hundreds of years, keeping it out of the atmosphere and helping to restore balance to the global climate.
One reason that the cycle of deforestation continues in the Amazon is that farming practices are often inefficient and poorly adapted to the region's relatively infertile tropical soils. Cash crop monocultures grown for local and regional markets can be profitable in the short term, but they require heavy chemical inputs and quickly exhaust the soil. These challenges are typically overcome by continually moving into new areas to take advantage of the slightly richer soil of recently cleared forest.
An alternative to this cycle of deforestation is agroforestry, which is essentially growing trees as crops or, at the very least, incorporating them into fields for a variety of benefits they provide. Diverse agroforestry systems have many advantages over traditional monocultures—reduced chemical inputs and soil depletion, increased productivity in the long-term, and diversified income are just a few. Perhaps most importantly, if managed properly, an agroforestry-based economy can help break the stubborn cycle of deforestation in the Amazon.
We are conducting research into agroforestry best practices at Finca Las Piedras. Research topics include the selection of optimal local varieties of tree crop species, the development of productive agroforestry systems, and studies of safer alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, among others. Our research focuses on practical solutions that can be adopted quickly and widely by our local farmers in SE Peru.
Cacao (Theobroma cacao), the seeds of which are used in chocolate making, is native to the Amazon.
Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) are planted among cacao and Inga edulis trees, creating a diverse agroforestry system that provides different harvestable products throughout the year.
Biochar is essentially charcoal that is incorporated into the soil for use in agriculture or agroforestry.
Agroforestry research plots
Cacao-Brazil nut agroforestry system
This system combines two important Amazonian natives—Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) trees and cacao (Theobroma cacao), the nuts of which are used to make chocolate. Planting these species together has many benefits for both people and the environment. Cacao begins to produce fruit at only several years and is harvested throughout the year, providing relatively quick and steady income to farmers. Brazil nuts grow more slowly but, once they begin to produce fruit, the earnings from their harvest grow each year. The system achieves this all while protecting rather than degrading the soil, and is a stable land cover that is vastly more friendly to biodiversity than typical local monocrop agriculture.
Inga-copoazu agroforestry system
Copoazu (Theobroma grandiflorum) is a relative of T. cacao whose pulp is commonly used to make juices and ice cream in SE Peru. The species has great market potential beyond the region, although local production is currently limited. Our experimental plot contains rows of copoazu interspersed with rows of Inga edulis—a technique known as alley cropping—which is a fast-growing native in the bean family that enriches the soil while shading out invasive African cattle grass and other weeds. The plot is also testing the effectiveness of biochar as an enhancement to the soil. Biochar was once used by indigenous Amazonians to make fertile farmland out of poor tropical soils. The technique is not commonly used today but has great potential to increase agricultural productivity without the cost and detrimental impacts of heavy chemical use.