Offering Bolivian coca growers legal alternatives
FAO's 'Big Tree' project promotes timber harvesting, other cash crops
23 January 2004, Mapajo, Bolivia -- David Cruz delicately guides the roaring bandsaw through the massive tree trunk, carving out a hefty plank. A group of teenage boys stands watching. As Cruz reaches the end of his three-metre run, they step forward to lift the heavy plank and carry it away to a growing stack.
Not such an uncommon forest scene, one might think. But this well-equipped sawmill lies deep in Bolivia's Amazon rain forest, in the heart of Chapare - a region best known for growing coca leaf, the prime ingredient of cocaine.
The area known as the Cochabamba Tropic, which includes the Chapare region, is home to some 35 000 campesino families. Most of these farmers are former miners, who moved down from Bolivia's high plains in the 1980s and found growing coca leaf the best way to earn a living.
For food, they would slash and burn clearings in the forest and plant rice and other subsistence crops. Some 300 000 hectares of primary forest have been lost in this way since the 1980s.
The sawmill at the remote village of Mapajo was set up under a US$3 million a year project run by FAO to persuade coca growers to turn to legal ways of earning a living. Known as Jatun Sach'a ("Big Tree" in the local Quechua indigenous language), the project is part of the Bolivian Government's alternative development programme. Key donors include the US Agency for International Development, working through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and UNODC itself.
Back in 1997, Project Manager Greg Minnick began the laborious process of persuading the people of Cochabamba Tropic to change course. "I pointed out to them that in order to clear a space to grow a rice crop worth perhaps US$300, they were destroying timber worth $3 000. That got their attention."
Patiently, Minnick and his national staff of qualified foresters persuaded small landowners to come together in producer associations so that forest management plans could be prepared. These plans involved taking a tree-by-tree inventory of the forest, and deciding which trees could be felled and extracted, and which should be left behind so that the forest renews itself and its rich biological diversity is preserved.
David Cruz is 1 of 25 small farmers in the Mapajo association. They had to put up working capital to pay for having the bandsaw on loan, as well as a tractor to bring the logs out of the forest; to build the sawmill and pay the wages of those who work in the forest. The project has provided technical assistance, training, advice on business matters, bookkeeping, price information and marketing contacts.
When the Mapajo group started, the nearest track for vehicles ended 12 kilometres away -- now they have a well-maintained road running right past the sawmill thanks to the project. Over the past five years they have built up markets for trees that previously had no value, such as the Ochoo (Hura crepitans) being cut into planks today; and these days the middlemen pay them cash up front.
In the old days, families around here used to earn approximately $2 000 annually from coca leaf, which can be harvested three times a year. Now their share in the timber business is bringing them a dividend of around $900 for three or four months' work in the dry season. The rest of the year, Chapare's massive rainfall -- five metres a year in places -- makes working the forest impossible.
Carrot and stick
"Alternative development models will never provide these farmers a dollar for dollar alternative. But it does offer them the chance to transform their lives," says Minnick.
He stresses that the carrot of alternative development needs to be linked with the stick of law enforcement. All the same, the proof lies in the measurable results of the alternative development campaign: the area of land under coca cultivation has fallen from some 45 000 hectares to around 4 000; the value of timber extracted from the forest has risen dramatically; and increasingly farmers are planting alternative cash crops.
At the same time, harvesting timber in a planned and controlled way means that primary forest is being preserved, with all the positive effects for biological diversity and environmental protection that that implies. Logging and forest management practices follow the very strict technical standards for sustainable forest management established in Bolivia and the project activities have been developed in close collaboration with and under the supervision of the Bolivian forest authorities.
As part of its agro-forestry component, the Jatun Sach'a project is encouraging production of five tree crops: rubber, coffee, cacao, camu camu and achiote (annato).
Camu camu (Myrciaria dubia) is a remarkable fruit, native to the Amazon ecosystem. Sized between a cherry and a plum, it contains extraordinarily high levels of vitamin C -- between 30 and 60 times as much as found, for example, in citrus fruit such as lemon. It is used to prepare soft drinks, tea or preserves and shows great promise as a new earner for the people of the Cochabamba Tropic.
Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a fast-growing tree that produces an intense natural red colorant, known as bixina, in the covering of its seeds. This is used in the production of soft drinks, dairy and other food products, textiles and cosmetics. The achiote farmers in the Cochabamba Tropic, who have also organized themselves into a producers' association, are finding an apparently insatiable demand for their product, for domestic consumption in Bolivia and export in the region.
"All of these tree crops are quick growing, relatively easy to tend, and work well in an integrated agro-forestry system," says Minnick. They are planted under the shade of taller forest trees, and in turn they give shade to seasonal food crops at ground level.
"Our job in the project has been to open up the opportunities, and, crucially, to identify and remove constraints," he adds. "For example, in the case of Achiote, we found a bottleneck in getting the seeds out of the husks by hand. By introducing simple mills, we were able to overcome that."
No quick fix
Around 7 000 families in Chapare are now organized in some 250 producer associations. These in turn are grouped in Unions, which are starting to take over some of the functions of the project -- running tree nurseries and seed production, for example, or managing the loans of sawmill equipment through a non-profit foundation that has been established.
In ways like this, the project hopes to work itself out of a job. And David Cruz is confident: "At Mapajo, we will certainly continue after the project ends," he emphasized. "Being able to sell our timber has made a big difference to our lives."
But Minnick warns: "There are no quick-fix solutions. At least a generation may need to pass before the economic and social transformation of this illegal coca-growing area is complete. Much has been accomplished, but much more still needs to be done to consolidate these achievements and provide alternative livelihoods for all the people of the Cochabamba Tropic."
Chief, News and Multimedia
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