For over 20 years, the unsung botanists and agroforestry experts of the Jatun Sacha Foundation field station in Amazonian Ecuador have been using local rainforests as a living laboratory for experimental forestry and restoration. I’ve been creating a series of images in which I hope to convey how Jatun Sacha has built a stronger community as well. Local lowland Quichua have several start-up industries going now, including the manufacture of Panama hats from common understory and forest edge plants such as Heliconia and Bromelia.
A major threat to the forests of the upper Napo river basin are the continued practices of unscrupulous middlemen. Many of them representing foreign interests, drivers from the capital city will drive for hours and right down to the water’s edge. At remote ports like Puente Arajuno and others, this is where local men emerge from the forest, arriving on self-made rafts of endangered hardwoods. The rough-hewn planked are lashed together with rope or vines. The men are paid by the tree, a cut-rate five to 20 dollars depending on the species. All of the resources found within a single tree – nuts, seeds, fibers, flowers, resins, chemicals and habitats for the largely arboreal wildlife of the rainforest, are lost. There just aren’t enough government inspectors to prevent it – or they’re paid to issue fraudulent permits. The endangered hardwoods are positioned in the truck, sandwiched between the planks of more common trees. Tree poaching is big business, and leads to large-scale forest loss.
All the men on the raft want is a paycheck. Jatun Sacha has reduced the illegal harvesting by introducing a new, sustainable economy. In their Seed Purchase Program, local communities get cold hard cash if they collect the seeds of rare and economically valuable trees from the rainforest . Lowland Quichua and mestizos living in the rainforest are in a unique position to quickly harvest the seeds and plant them before forest floor rodents like the agouti and the paca carry them off. Sharing results from their own experimental reforestry plots, the Jatun Sacha specialists host workshops where families can learn how best to create tree nurseries on their own lands.