In Peru's Amazonian region, Víctor Zambrano is demonstrating that deforested areas with depleted soils can be recovered and put to sustainable, economically viable and environmentally sound use. He is disseminating the approaches that he has developed through an organization that provides information and other services to rural associations and farm families throughout the region.
The New Idea
Víctor Zambrano's central idea is that, with proper techniques and effective management, poor jungle soils can be successfully and sustainably exploited without damaging the ecosystem. He is convinced, as well, that deforested areas and depleted soils can be recovered and yield diversified and sustainable crops grown while the recovery process is under way. He also believes that the introduction of vegetation with the specific aim of attracting animals can help restore natural ecological balances long disrupted by indiscriminate and nonsustainable land use practices.Víctor is demonstrating those several notions in an experimental operation that includes a reforested area (in which indigenous species and fruit trees with commercial potential are intermixed), plots for annual cultivation of vegetable crops, small restored lakes with newly introduced fish populations and an area of mixed vegetation that is designed to foster the return of native birds and animals. His methodology includes careful experimentation, testing and analysis to determine the land use patterns that will protect the ecosystem while optimizing yields and profits from the cultivation and sale of produce and natural resources.
Hundreds of thousands of acres in South America's Amazon basin have been clear-cut by loggers, made infertile by subsistence farmers using slash-and-burn methods and/or over-grazed by cattle ranchers. In the Madre de Dios Department of Peru alone, more than half of the area that was covered with trees a generation ago has been deforested. Sadly, moreover, much of that land is now abandoned, its jungle soils depleted of nutrients after only a few years of agricultural use. And sadly, too, the rich and diverse array of flora and fauna that such lands once hosted has been severely reduced in the process. Many species have already disappeared, and many others are threatened with imminent extinction. The tragedy of the ravaging of jungle lands is compounded by the fact that, even in economic terms, the benefits, if any, are usually of very short duration. Individual loggers and miners sometimes earn short-term gains from snatch-and-spoil extraction methods, but they seldom achieve sustained earnings over the longer run. And subsistence farmers who employ slash-and-burn techniques are generally driven to a semi-nomadic existence at the margins of society.The reclaiming of the immense tracts of land that have thus been devastated and the restoration of the indigenous flora that have somehow survived but are under increasing peril pose an immensely difficult challenge. And because much of the land in question is inhabited by poor people struggling for survival, the challenge is even more vexing and acute.
Rising to that challenge, Víctor is developing new land use strategies and production systems and techniques that restore such lands, produce crops and income in the near term for their inhabitants and offer the prospect of sustained production and earnings over the longer term. His "laboratory" for the creation, testing and demonstration of the needed approaches is an experimental operation on his own land, and his dissemination vehicle is a network of rural associations and farm families.On a portion of the five-hectare plot that he is using for his experimental operation, Víctor has reintroduced trees, alternating indigenous species with fruit trees with near-term income potential. In another section, he is experimenting with vegetable cultivation, testing various species both for their effects on soil nutrients and their productivity and earnings prospects. He is also restoring two small lakes in the experimental area and investigating possibilities for fish production, and he has reserved a small section of the plot for wildlife habitat.Víctor plans to expand the scale of his experimental operation. But even at its present scale, it has already succeeded in demonstrating that, within four years, land that was virtually devoid of nutrients can be restored and put to use in the sustainable production of food crops. It is also attracting numerous visitors–environmentalists, agronomists, farmers and public officials (President Alberto Fujimori among them)–who are eager to learn about his techniques, and their accomplishments and exceptional promise.Although such visits play an important role in acquainting people with his work, Víctor's primary vehicle for disseminating information on successful agricultural and land use techniques is the Departmental Agrarian Federation of Madre de Dios, a network of more than 100 organizations and 5,000 farm families dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices in the Amazonian region. Since 1992, Víctor has served as the Federation's secretary general, and the Federation has become one of the most powerful nongovernmental agriculture organizations in Peru. In addition to the information and technical assistance that it provides to its members and the lobbying activities that it undertakes, the Federation encourages and assists its members to engage in their own experimental and testing work. At Víctor's urging, the Federation is also a member of the Association of Amazonian Extractive Workers, through which it is in contact with groups contending with similar issues in nearby Brazil and Bolivia.
Víctor's parents were among the first settlers of Peru's Madre de Dios Department, a hot and humid area on the Amazon side of the Andes, far from the country's oceanside capital. As a young child growing up in that region and running shoeless in its forests, Víctor developed an abiding fondness for his natural surroundings.His strong attachment to nature and an outdoor life, and to the mountains and jungles of his native region, persisted during his first career as an officer in the Peruvian Navy. Accordingly, at the end of his navy assignment, he returned to Madre de Dios after a 24- year absence.To his great dismay, much of what he had so fondly remembered had disappeared over that period. The virgin forests of his childhood days had been ravaged, the mountains were completely stripped of trees, and the plants and animals that had once surrounded his house were gone. The pristine natural richness of the Madre de Dios of his childhood had given way to impoverished and depleted pastures and croplands. Víctor was profoundly moved, and it was then and there that he vowed to discover a way to restore the lost soils and make it possible for the flora and fauna to return.Since his return to Madre de Dios, Víctor has worked tirelessly to develop and disseminate information on sustainable agricultural techniques. In addition to his work as the Foundation's secretary general, Víctor has regularly participated in the activities of farmers' and ranchers' organizations, served on expert panels, organized seminars on sustainable agricultural techniques and appeared on radio and television. His counsel has also been frequently sought by international development agencies and environmental groups, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and Conservation International. In his capacity at the Foundation, Víctor has also recently entered into an agreement with a Bolivian Ashoka Fellow, Rosa María Ruiz, for the management of environmental reserves straddling Bolivia's border with Peru. Through the experimental work in which he is now engaged, and through his many other activities, Víctor is becoming an increasingly powerful and effective voice for restorative and sustainable production practices on fragile jungle soils.