Take the twelve hour bus ride from Cusco to the small city of Puerto Maldonado, a semblance of concrete and shades of green — a town founded during the early 20th century Amazonian rubber boom, now in crescendo to industrialization and a rise in eco-tourism. Settled at the convergence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers, streets full of bustling motorcycles and loudspeakers selling bread and aguaje are the weekend home for farmers selling their produce at the mercado, and the permanent home to the remaining natives, a lot of children, and an increasing number of Andean highlanders. The local market — open aisles of stalls and small kitchens, sells everything from the common bananas, plantains, mangos, yucca, and coca, to televisions, stereos blasting the persistent floor-stomping kumbia, pirated DVDs, and machetes.
If you catch the traffic coming into the Puerto Tambopata, the main port for boat traffic up and down the rivers, you’ll see boats sunk to their brims with papayas, green plantains, zapote, copoazu, and the farmers themselves, often with their families, negotiating the ever-fluctuating prices with merchants in smocks waiting patiently.
But I’d like to think my more permanent home for the past 3 months has been 6 hours up the Tambopata, far out of earshot of the loudspeakers, engines, and dust of the port city. In fact at Camino Verde, mostly all you can hear is the abstract symphony of bird calls, insects, a sudden blessing of a short breeze, or a hard rain on the leaves — that, along with your thoughts, the thuds and slices of machetes, and your breath. Hidden behind tall stalks of river grass are three thatched buildings, the furthest one a high ceilinged, hammock-strung structure home to Mr. Robin Van Loon, who, with his humble and intuitive nature, holds the position of executive director of Camino Verde, the properly named NGO meaning “green path”. He’s a loyal companion to hundreds of acres of jungle, on which he plants and studies from.
Essentially Camino Verde is creating a Living Seed Bank, by searching endlessly for, and collecting, seeds that are uncommon, rare, or simply just un-planted (yet still harvested) in the Amazon. And as one of the most, if not the most biodiverse place on the planet, the Amazon contains as third of all living species on the planet, as Robin mentioned in his last missive — and a lot of trees. Whether medicinal, for timber, or for fruit, each tree that manages to grow from seedling to canopy is truly remarkable, and something to be respected and revered. Aiming to protect and respect the genetic diversity of the forest, which is increasingly under threat, Camino Verde also experiments with more sustainable farming methods, constantly preserves and absorbs indigenous knowledge, and provides tree seedlings to any and all willing and responsible local farmers through the Basic Agroforestry project. In other words, we plant trees.
But there’s more to it. Being conscious of the harmful effects of monoculture, especially in as volatile soil as the jungle has, Camino Verde is working to document different farming techniques, often based on indigenous practices, that begin to focus jungle agriculture for income around perennial trees like citrus, rather than on quick fix, slash and burn methods. Also conscious of the risk and burden of being a cash crop farmer, Robin maintains meaningful relationships with his neighbors, and waits to employ other sustainable income options until he himself is sure of the work, time, and economic value of each tree.
My first week, Robin, David and I built the first nursery, thereby eliminating most of the need to transport tree seedlings by boat from town (a feat I came to face on my first day in the jungle). Filling tubes with mixes of river sand, coconut fiber, and moss, I helped to plant the first thousand seeds or so to be germinated on site. Seedlings and other needy plants around the farm were fertilized with our very own diluted urine, a nutrient rich, free, and sustainable source of growth for growing plants. We also harvested BMOs, or Beneficial Microorganisms, from healthy jungle humus, or using mediums such as papaya and rice to collect the healthy bacteria. Those cultures were also strained, diluted with water, and sprayed on the eager foliage and roots of young trees. The more I lived in this way, the more I began to learn the circular dance of a sustainable life in permaculture. Later on we built a 4ft x 4ft compost bin, in addition to the one outside the kitchen, although this one was filled more intentionally, with bat dung swept from the floor of the neighboring meeting house, torch ginger leaves, bananas, scrap cardboard, and a hint of urine for healthy, rich soil in Camino Verde’s near future.
Mornings start at 6, with a break for breakfast around 10:30, and another work stretch from 1-5. My duties included weeding the cover crop around the smaller plants, cutting back banana shoots, maintaining the composts, hauling sacks of dirt for the nursery, pruning the jungle paths, pruning the teak trees, making eco-bricks, and of course collecting my urine when the time came. The truth is you never know what you will be doing, but you can rely on it feeling purposeful, and you can rely on a lot of sweat and a lot of flies. You can lay in the hammock and smile at night, or you can frown, the choice is really yours. The jungle will confront you with whatever it is you need confronted, even if you weren’t sure what it was.
A systemic staph infection and a few severed tendons later I can honestly say it was the most eye-opening and meaningful experience I’ve had in 19 years. What those days in the jungle did for me I know I still can’t fully understand, but I do know that it brought forth some serious changes in my ways of thinking, my diet, my priorities, and my ability to uncover beauty in truth in all experience. Robin taught me more than I learned in entire years of school, but what’s more important is he sowed a seed of interest inside of me, and reintroduced me to an intimacy with the Earth that I will never forget, and that will always guide my actions as a human.