“We thought this was lost ground”
"Traditionally, this was waste land," says Debbie Eraly, while she points at a young forest, "Now is the future." We are in Lomerío, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where a year ago the Chiquitano's started a fascinating reforestation project.
For centuries, the Chiquitano community followed a certain working process to exploit new farmlands: the slash and burn technique. They choose a hectare of forest and burn it. During one or two years, they grow crops and when the soil is exhausted, the cycle repeats on another plot.
"According to their tradition, they never use the same plot," explains Debbie, project officer of BOS+. "In in their eyes the forest is immeasurably large, with those few small hectares seemingly negligible. Meanwhile, we know that every tree counts, so we are looking for ways to restore forest, but also to improve the well-being of these communities."
From 'burned' to reforestation
The 'we' in this story are the local organization IBIF and BOS+, with financial support of the Flemish Tropical Forest Fund. Together with the Bolivian Chiquitano's, they investigate ways to restore the lost forest.
"A mentality change is especially needed," says Debbie. "They really thought that this was lost ground. Empty. Exhausted. But they are particularly surprised when theye see new trees growing that will produce valuable wood for their children and grandchildren in the long term." In a short period of time the initial scepticism took place for enthusiasm. They see that it is possible, says the project manager, who is pleased to see that the enthusiasm is furiously infectious: "People tell it forth."
A new Bolivian law obliges farmers to replant 10% of the farmland per occupied piece of land. Thanks to this measure, the Chiquitano's are rewarded for their efforts. Because in the meantime, they grow enough young trees to sell them to other farmers. The tree nursery were established due to this project and the managers were trained. Some of them collect seeds themselves to grow more trees, an advantage, because those seeds are adapted to the local conditions, and that can benefit the survival rate.
The trees are primarily planted on the old fields and on sites that were cut down, to provide a variety of tree species there. These dismissed grounds now appear to be worth some money and the forest also thrives from this.
Habits don't die fast
"Of course, we would prefer the Chiquitano communities to burn less woods," says Debbie Eraly, but she does not see that happening immediately. "Century-old traditions do not just change overnight." To that end, we must first find some pioneers that dare to do it, so they can prove that there are better alternatives.
It would certainly be worthwhile to ensure that the same plots can stay productive for a longer time, through agroforestry systems and organic fertilization. So no, we won't change those habits tomorrow. But in the meanwhile we are transforming waste land in new forest.