Partnerships, Fruit Trees, and Land Restoration in the Peruvian Amazon, with James Kaechele

In his capacity as Arborist for the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, James Kaechele demonstrated how to properly plant a limón sutil tree (Citrus aurantifolia) to a community in the Peruvian Amazon.

All Photos Courtesy James Kaechele & Fruit Tree Planting Foundation

What skills does an urban forester use when planting trees on disturbed land along an Amazon River tributary? “All of them,” says New York Tree Trust Director and Council Executive Committee Member James Kaechele. In early December, 2019, Kaechele, also a consulting arborist for the Pittsburgh-based international charity Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF), went with a team of staff and volunteers to the Loreta Region of Peru to plant 6,000 fruit trees in five Amazon River communities.

“As urban foresters, our job is equal parts plants and people,” Kaechele says. “We’re uniquely positioned to coordinate both the arboricultural and human aspects of a project like this. The land-use questions are the same; the site assessment process is the same; tree planting techniques are the same; you have to address any concerns people have—for example, the worry that some have about whether a tree will fall on their house—it’s the same skills that I use in the work I do with street trees and residents in NYC.” Furthermore, the land along the Amazon River is often severely degraded and in need of restoration, just like in the tree beds, parks, and natural areas of NYC—just degraded for different reasons.

Six thousand fruit trees were transported to communities by boat on The Amazon Queen.

For this planting trip, FTPF partnered with the local nonprofit Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment (CONAPAC) to bring twenty different species of fruit trees, with the goal of promoting conservation efforts by planting more trees in areas that are vulnerable to deforestation from cattle farming. Assistance with marketing efforts are also underway so that harvest will provide both nutrition and revenue for families whose income is often less than fifty U.S. dollars a month.

Herds of cattle are a familiar scene along the Amazon River. Amazonian rainforest should be home to sloths and other native creatures, but it is often cleared for animal agriculture.

Tree species were selected by community members based on those they knew would have the greatest value to them while being most suitable to the environment. These trees included açaí, aguaje, cacao, camu camu, coconut, lime, mandarin, and copoazu. The trees were only planted on existing agricultural lands, and no other trees were removed at any point in the process.

Financial support for the project came from the NYC-based Juice Generation and the nonprofit A Well-Fed World.

Students from Urco Mirano welcome FTPF volunteers to their community.

How did you get connected with the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF)?

James Kaechele: I was looking for some opportunities to go see tree planting in other places. I think it would be easy in NYC to say “We have the most well-funded and arguably the largest-scale urban forestry program in the country, we’re out in front with all the answers, so I’ll just stay here where we’ve got it all figured out.” But I believe that the only way you stay sharp in this field is by talking with other people and sharing methods; otherwise, you get complacent and do the same things over and over again.

So at the beginning of 2019, I wanted to go visit other cities and see what’s going on in the larger world of tree planting. FTPF was looking for a program arborist on a part-time basis to lend expertise to them as an organization and to organize fruit tree planting efforts in diverse communities across the U.S. and worldwide. I love people, plants, and travel, and this organization fuses all three. They planted more than 80,000 fruit trees in five countries in 2019 alone, finding locations where the orchards will make the most impact. In 2019, I went to five cities domestically and made two international trips with FTPF.

Amazonian rainforest cleared for cattle.

How did the tree planting trip to Peru come about?

JK: We went there because the Amazon rainforest is the largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world and houses at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity. In Peru, the rainforest is home to many proud indigenous peoples who live along the edges of the Amazon River and its tributaries. The historical forces of colonization and the Amazon Rubber Boom (most feverous from 1879 to 1912) had an astounding/devastating effect, with many of these folks changing the way they had sustainably lived for thousands of years.

We have all heard about the logging of large trees for timber and the clear-cutting of the land for raising cattle. The riparian corridor there has been highly disturbed, with consequences very similar for a cattle pasture 100 feet (30.5 m) from the Amazon River as they are for an empty lot in Brooklyn. In both cases, it’s disturbed land that needs repair so it can provide maximum benefits to people. The soil along the Amazon River is predominantly high in clay, which is why the River is brown—because of all the sediment washing into it from what used to be forest.

A large lupuna tree (Ceiba pentandra)—this one is likely to be over 150 years old—is a rare find. “We were unsure why this tree was spared the saw, but we were thankful,” says James Kaechele. “The forest here should be dominated by these trees.”

Currently in Peru, the folks who live in the Amazon rainforest are among the poorest in the country. Where they live is only accessible by boat, and they mostly practice subsistence living. They fish in the river water polluted by mineral extraction, they hunt wildlife for food and money, and they raise cattle and harvest timber to support their families. Organizations like FTPF help communities move towards a more sustainable way to make a living that also restores ecological function to critical rainforest land. Fortunately, communities in the region we went to have built a trusting relationship with CONAPAC, so it was natural for FTPF to partner with CONAPAC.

Mountain apple (Syzygium malaccense) is arranged for sale in the community of Indiana along the Amazon River. This is just one of many fruit trees that folks rely on for food and income.

Please tell us about the week.

JK: FTPF operates globally and is based in Pittsburgh, PA where FTPF TreeEO and Co-creator Cem Akin lives. Twelve of us went to these five communities in Peru. Our volunteers ranged in age from 11 to 75; the core group was affiliated with Tree Pittsburgh.

We flew into the Peruvian city of Iquitos, which is the largest city in the world unreachable by road; you can only fly there or take a boat. From Iquitos, we took a boat two hours upriver to communities along the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon River. Along the way, we saw the forested edges—forests that are regrowth after clear-cutting, where the trees are, at best, 40 to 50 years old—and then the cattle clear-cut areas. We saw erosion everywhere.

FTPF educator Hector Montenegro encourages students to learn about trees using all their senses.

We were in Peru for a week; the middle five days is when we distributed and planted 1200 trees a day. We were on the move, always by boat. The communities knew we were coming and they were super prepared for us. We had a program with the kids in schools when we first arrived so while that was happening, I was out scouting places to plant. I found myself asking the same questions in each community like, “Does livestock walk through here?” and “Is this area next to the school where the kids play soccer?” It was rapid site assessment to avoid high-use areas and otherwise site the trees in the most appropriate place. I’d have 30 minutes in each place to sort out what was going where.

After community planting, residents nominated by their neighbors received trees to plant on their own terrain.

Each day we’d do a planting demo to start and then the indigenous communities and volunteers planted trees, sometimes in the pouring rain or blistering heat, undeterred. At the end of each day, we had 200 trees left for distribution for folks to take back to their farm plots and terrain for their own economic use. (CONAPAC had organized communities ahead of time to nominate families in each community that should receive the trees.)

We planted at this time of year because it was the beginning of the wet season, so we knew there’d be natural rainfall on our side; folks in the communities are also providing supplemental water from the Napo River. For mulch, tree planters used crumpled dried banana leaves—everyone has banana trees growing everywhere—and sticks, a combination that worked very well. The fruit trees in some planting locations needed protection from livestock browsing, so folks were really ingenious about creating a barrier of sticks, stacked up in the manner of split rail fences, around young trees.

Nurseryman Pedro Paucaraja explains his production methods, including his grafting of citrus. Paucaraja was commissioned to grow all the plant material for FTPF to donate to the communities involved in this trip.

The nurseryman who grew the trees is local to Iquitos and will be providing support and guidance for the first year after planting. CONAPAC is facilitating the connections for locals to sell the fruit via companies in Iquitos. I expect much of the fruit will be floated up the river, processed and frozen, then exported around the world (açaí bowl, anyone?) We visited orchards from last year’s projects, and survival rate is over 90 percent! Plants grow fast in the rainforest; most of these fruit trees will produce fruit in two years. Orchard recipients are highly motivated, as they see the orchards contributing significantly to their family’s health and wellbeing.

“Young people are inspired to plant fruit trees because they love eating fresh fruit!” Kaechele says.

There is a big and visible push in the local school curriculum to highlight the value of the Amazon’s biodiversity. Kids now are talking about what their ancestors focused on—stewardship of the land.

Anything else you want to share?

JK: The aguaje tree (Mauritia flexuosa), source of popular food and supplement products in North America, originate in the Amazon region. The fruit on mature trees is produced high up in the canopy, and to efficiently (but not sustainably) harvest it on the naturally occurring trees in the rainforest, folks were cutting trees down. A tree that was once abundant in the rainforest dwindled in numbers. Sustainable aguaje is possible with orchards, and when the tree gets tall, with some planning, it is possible for tree climbers to harvest the fruit.

Behind this copoazu tree (Theobroma grandiflorum) planted in 2018 are James Kaechele, FTPF Programs Manager Lizzy Rainey, and FTPF TreeEO Cem Akin.

I also wanted to mention copoazu (Theobroma grandiflorum), a relative of chocolate whose fruit looks like chocolate but you eat the nut as a roasted seed with juicy pulp. Copoazu will start to flower at the end of the second year after planting. Things grow fast in the Amazon, as moisture’s abundant and the climate allows plants to grow year-round. Some of the citrus plants that FTPF and partners planted a year prior already had flowers on them when we were there in early December, 2019. ♦

About the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation

The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (FTPF) is an international nonprofit charity dedicated to planting fruitful trees and plants to alleviate world hunger, combat global warming, strengthen communities, and improve the surrounding air, soil, and water. FTPF programs strategically donate orchards where the harvest will best serve communities for generations, at places such as public schools, city parks, low-income neighborhoods, Native American reservations, and international hunger relief sites. FTPF’s unique mission, which has been featured in major publications across the country, benefits the environment, human health, and community involvement—all at once!

About CONAPAC

CONAPAC, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment, is an NGO in Loreto, Peru that builds education and social development projects with rural communities who agree to conserve the rainforest. They currently work with 54 communities, serving over 5000 people, including 3000 children. Their projects include economic development through agribusiness training, annual conservation education workshops for 200+ school teachers, construction of water filtration towers, sustainable living workshops for community leaders, operation of afterschool programs for children, and more.

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