Iquitos is a massive city nestled in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. The largest city in the world that is not accessible by roads, it is at once a part of the forest, with cayman and bush meat appearing on local restaurant menus, and part of the modern world – it was easily one of the most polluted cities we visited in our whole trip and the buzzing hum of motor rickshaws is audible at all hours.
Most tourists pass through Iquitos as a jumping off point to visiting the Amazon rather than the city – but actually it can now take up to a day long boat ride from the city to reach the forest. The area surrounding the town has been cut and populated and is really only a shell of the wilderness that most people imagine as the Amazon. The deforestation has come from cutting wood for fuel in the city, but also simply as an attempt to open land for agriculture, to feed farmers in the countryside just as much as urbanites. To stop deforestation in the Amazon – a priority for any plan to fight climate change or preserve biodiversity – we have to change the way people in the Amazon grow their (and, given how much deforestation comes to produce meat for westerners, our) food.
Fortunately, this is just what COPASIMOL and Latitud Sur are doing right now.
The key to their approach is a perennial climbing vine called sacha inchi. The plant is indigenous to the Amazon, and was long known to locals, even having been cultivated by the Incas up in the Andes. Sacha inchi is renowned for its nutritive properties, the only plant known to contain all three essential omega fatty acids – Omega 3, 6, and 9. Most importantly, it can grow along trellises and be pressed easily into oil – and then sold for a high price.
What makes the work of COPASIMOL and Latitud Sur so different though is not just the cultivation of sacha inchi, but the integrating of the plant into integrated fields grown as permaculture-style food forests that provide for a families food and economic needs through a year-long harvest. Banana, yucca, corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes – all a grown organically for a family’s subsistence in a rotation that revolves around the perennial sacha inchi plants, the heart of a family’s economic survival. The new system means that families manage to grow all that they need to survive, without having to cut down more tracts of forest and open new land to the slash and burn cultivation that has ruled in the past.
The ideas behind the project are clear and straightforward – and frankly transformative. We’ve seen the parcels growing green and thick where previously only desert would have come in. While the system is still being perfected, the harvest improves each year and more families in the area sign on to become members of COPASIMOL and to start planting sacha inchi.
It’s impressive work, and a great sign of hope for the future of the whole planet.