Where forest conservation and opportunity meet

  • Robin Van Loon is founder of Camino Verde in Peru, an organization working to go above and beyond sustainable agro-economics in favor of regenerative agro-economics.
  • The Tambopata Region of the Peruvian Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet where new species are still being discovered. It’s home to species of trees used and nurtured by Camino Verde for profit and forest health.
  • The vision of Robin Van Loon and his team at Camino Verde: see the forest for the trees, and you’ll find a way to preserve both for generations to come.

In the Tambopata Region of the Peruvian Amazon, Manuel Huinga collects bright red seeds from the ground below a massive wild cinnamon tree, known locally as canelón. As Camino Verde’s forestry coordinator and field technician, Manuel is developing the organization’s conservation protocol for canelón, which involves both planting seedlings and sustainably harvesting the tree’s leaves and branches for essential oil production.

This work is deeply meaningful for Huinga. “I feel really passionate about it. This is a tree my father loves, and his father used. It’s an emblematic tree of our region and could be an important product for people here, something they could harvest without destroying the trees. It’s also a new precedent – forestry legislation in Peru doesn’t address management plans for essential oils. So we’ll get in on the ground floor, and make sure that production of canelón is synonymous with conservation of forests.”

Canelón’s rot-resistant wood (due to its high abundance of aromatic compounds) has made it a prime target for illegal timber extraction – for that reason, it’s rare to find seedlings in the forest. Along with dozens of other endangered species, Camino Verde grows canelón seedlings in their nurseries for future planting into forests that were once clear-cut for agriculture, ranching, and gold mining. Seedlings are also donated to local farmers to plant into their agroforestry systems.

Seeds from a canelon tree which will be planted into one of the nurseries at Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.

Camino Verde has been doing this work since 2006, when Robin Van Loon founded the organization on the belief that forest conservation begins with local farmers. Since then, he and his team have collaborated with farmers to diversify their revenue sources to include a range of non-timber forest products such as essential oils, all toward the ultimate goal of incentivizing the protection of the trees which provide the products.

Van Loon hopes to eventually convince the Peruvian government to create concessions for canelón, and other essential oil producing trees such as Moena (Endlicheria krukovii), that could otherwise be felled for timber.

“Where we need conservationists the most is in the tropics, and specifically, farmers in the tropics. Farmers could save us all,” Van Loon says. “And farmers here can’t just do things out of the goodness of their hearts, they need a monetary incentive.”

Mongabay spoke with Robin Van Loon to learn more about Camino Verde’s plan to produce essential oils in the service of rainforest conservation.

Mongabay: What was your motivation for establishing Camino Verde?

Robin Van Loon (RVL): I’ve always loved plants. After living in the Peruvian Amazon for several years, I was fascinated by the unique crops there, the valuable timbers, and powerful medicines known extensively by local people. I was also struck by the speed of loss of those trees in the wild and the scarcity of concerted efforts to restore or sustainably manage the most valuable species.

Everywhere I went I asked people about seeds of different familiar trees – the wood your house is built out of, for example. For many species, the seeds and the growth habits of the trees were unfamiliar to local people, and efforts to reforest the native species few and far between.

Initially, the need that Camino Verde sought to address was to simply start planting the Amazonian trees being lost the fastest, to find seeds from the most rare and endangered species, to learn how to propagate an expanding pallet of native species exploited on local markets for timber and non-timber forest products.

Today our reforestation center is home to over 400 species of trees, many of which are already producing seed for future planting efforts. Our site includes 20 hectares (50 acres) of formerly deforested areas that have been planted back with trees and 100 hectares (250 acres) of stunning primary rainforest where we go to harvest seeds.

Mongabay: Why did you choose the Tambopata region for Camino Verde? What are the biggest threats to forests in this region?

An agroforestry system at Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.
An agroforestry system at Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Heather D’Angelo.

RVL: The Tambopata area is unique in a number of ways. New organisms are still discovered regularly – and a square kilometer of rainforest here holds as many species of trees as are in all of Europe. Home to some large protected areas and nearly peerless biodiversity; it’s inherently an appropriate place to host a biodiversity-focused reforestation center.

But I don’t know if it’s really accurate to say we chose Tambopata for those reasons. More importantly, this is the place we love. I fell in love with the Amazon as an outsider, and it made all the difference to encounter dedicated people from the area – some of whom now make up the Camino Verde team – who adore their home and want to see the native trees they’ve known their whole lives thriving rather than disappearing.

Many of the biggest threats to our area are the same as for tropical forests throughout the world – agriculture, cattle ranching, monoculture plantations such as oil palm, and timber harvest are a threat to biodiversity and valuable species. In our area we have the additional ecological harm done by gold mining, which is a more unique, endemic factor than the others.

With the completion of the Interoceanic Highway connecting Brazil and Peru from coast to coast, new access to markets for agricultural products (such as Andean cities that can’t produce their own bananas) has meant the rapid loss of a lot of forest along the road. This is especially true for papaya cultivation.

Though historically the region has been isolated by a lack of reliable roads, that is now a thing of the past, and we can expect to see an acceleration of deforestation in the region, as has been the case in essentially every comparable region on the planet after receiving road access. It suddenly becomes profitable to exploit resources that previously couldn’t be reached cost-effectively.

Robin Van Loon walks through the primary forest protected by Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.
Robin Van Loon walks through the primary forest protected by Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.

Mongabay: What kinds of conservation solutions have you seen implemented in this region? What works, in your opinion? What doesn’t?

RVL: Tambopata and the broader Madre de Dios region have benefited from a variety of effective ongoing conservation and regeneration initiatives on different scales. The National Parks, National Reserves, Native Communities, and Communal Reserve areas account for around half of the region’s territory. In addition, extensive forest tracts are protected in perpetuity – at least by law, if not in practice – as forestry concessions, on long-term lease from the government to family owners who are allowed to sustainably harvest Brazil nuts and other products from the forest.

A robust eco-tourism industry in the area gives traffic, funding, and awareness to the protected areas and has some political weight resulting from its importance to the region’s economy.

A variety of initiatives exist – of which Camino Verde is just one – that have encountered ways to make the conservation and regeneration of the Amazonian rainforest not just sustainable but profitable, so people will actually do it. By people I mean the people who live here in the Amazon: smallholder farmers, members of native communities, merchants, businessmen, NGOs, government project developers – we want everybody to get involved in regenerating the Amazon, and not just because of a sense of charity.

We have also seen a variety of shortsighted and poorly planned interventions that didn’t turn out to be solutions. Curiously, when it comes to agricultural outreach in the region, the number one fail point for projects is a lack of connectivity to markets. “Here, plant this.” But then harvest time comes and there’s nobody to sell your product to. So as a result most of the effective examples of regenerative agriculture work in the region have made a point to help farmers sell their goods. That tends to be an important ingredient.

Mongabay: When did you establish Camino Verde? What were some of the early challenges you faced back then?

RVL: In 2006, I started the farm that would become the Camino Verde Baltimori Reforestation Center, which was our main site but increasingly not our only focus. The organization was incorporated in Massachusetts in 2007 and obtained non-profit status in the US in 2008 and in Peru in 2015 (our sister organization here is called Camino Verde Tambopata).

Early on, we grappled with the lack of knowledge about native Amazonian tree species. Clearly, we are inheritors of a tradition of agroforestry mastery in the Amazon, and I could name dozens of species of trees for which no other informational resource was necessary besides the good common sense and vast practical knowledge of local farmers.

But a lack of familiarity with the seeds, seedlings, and/or growth habits of rare species combined with a total lack of practical technical literature on many key and endangered trees meant we were often operating in the dark and making mistakes – which is the best teacher. I learned to plant trees by digging holes with a machete, so I know all about making mistakes. Sometimes we learned the hard way how not to combine different species in our mixed agroforestry systems.

At the time, the whole enterprise appeared utterly bone-headed to my pragmatic neighbors, who saw reforestation as something unfamiliar and therefore risky. But the trees got to growing and we always adopted a non-pedantic outreach policy in which the trees get to speak for themselves. Now some of the guys who laughed at their crazy gringuito neighbor are planting trees from our nurseries.

Mongabay: Why did you choose to incorporate essential oils into your conservation strategy?

Founder of Camino Verde, Robin Van Loon, holding a leaf from a Moena tree. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.
Founder of Camino Verde, Robin Van Loon, holding a leaf from a Moena tree. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.

RVL: We became interested in essential oils as a sort of next-level value-added non-timber forest product that could be obtained from plants familiar and unfamiliar. I say “next-level” because distillation is beyond the traditional local repertoire for processing farm products; however, the technology is pretty straightforward and also ancient.

We had heard about people experimenting with lemongrass and that sort of thing and it sounded intriguing, but what really sparked my interest was learning about Brazilian rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora), a tree that was once pushed to the brink of extinction by perfume houses working with Chanel and Dior. It’s such a bizarre story, and an unexpected vector for deforestation of the Amazon. I got the bug and started trying to track down rosewood seed trees. In the end it took me eight years to find some.

In searching for those seeds, we kept having close calls and false alarms – we would discover something we thought was rosewood but then turned out to be some close relative that smelled nice, but different. And at some point the light bulb went off: if there’s a market for rosewood oil, maybe there could be a market for these other related species, which coincidentally all tend to be cut down for their beautiful timber. Rosewood itself is one of the best woods for guitars.

Our efforts to plant rosewood’s finest smelling relatives are ongoing and so far have included over a dozen species from the same family; they are all planted at our reforestation center. But the focal point has been Moena Alcanfor, of which we planted 550 trees in 2010. Its fresh green tea-like scent has now found its way into natural soaps, body products, and fragrance in the US and Peru. We hope to continue to build a market for Moena Alcanfor essential oil so we can plant more of these trees. This year over 1,000 trees were planted on lands owned by three of our partner farmers.

With agro-ecology as our lens and methodology, we have shifted our thinking from sustainable to regenerative. We want to regenerate the biodiversity of the forests in a way that regenerates economies and human vibrancy. Essential oils are mysterious, and one of the things I love about them is that they really transport you. So it’s pretty cool to also be offering a sensorial link to the Amazon. You smell what these trees smell like.

Don Juan, Camino Verde's head distiller and caretaker of the Moena groves. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.
Don Juan, Camino Verde’s head distiller and caretaker of the Moena groves. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya.

Mongabay: Does Camino Verde collaborate with any other organizations?

RVL: For years, we have worked closely with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, an organization with a similar purpose based in Loreto, Peru. Our mission is dramatically enhanced by the work of the Wake Forest University-affiliated Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA), to whom we provide tree seedlings for efforts to reforest degraded gold-mining areas. The Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP) has helped us improve our tree nurseries for over a decade. Other collaborator organizations and companies to whom we owe a great deal include la Asociación de Agricultura Ecológica, EcoDely, Shiwi, Pacha Soap, and the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA). There are many others.

Mongabay: How many people are employed at Camino Verde? What do they do?

RVL: The Camino Verde team currently includes 11 full time staff including me. The team operates two nurseries producing over 50,000 seedlings a year, over 100 species of trees. Our team plants thousands of trees each year at our reforestation sites and with our partner farmers. And they constantly school me on the uses of a million plants. Our main reforestation center and our primary forestry nursery each have their own amazing coordinator, two of who are my favorite people in the world. My colleague, Ursula, is the administrative director and mother bear of the family. Gratitude is a constant with such amazing people to work with.

Mongabay: What is your advice to other organizations that want to try incorporating essential oils into their conservation strategies?

RVL: Plant the trees! Don’t just harvest from wild sources.

Editor’s note: Heather D’Angelo is founder of Carta, a perfume line with a new scent which uses Moena Alcanfor sourced from Camino Verde. Read more about the partnership here.

Banner image:  Founder of Camino Verde, Robin Van Loon, holding a leaf from a Moena tree. Photo courtesy Shahrzade Ehya. 

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