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Food in the forest

Los Nietos - an amazonian food forest.


For 3 months the chakra lay dormant waiting for us. The clearing work was done in November 2015 on lands of our neighbor. It was not that we have no land for planting. Rather, we are guardians of primary forest and our neighbour's once agricultural land is more ecologically suitable for food forests. (In Peruvian Spanish chakra means a cleared space used for growing food).

The first time I saw the land, I gulped. As if the jungle was creeping back in, the wild-plants were growing again, and there was a lot of woody debris to navigate. The task of planting our Food Forest was going to be tough. We would place over 300 plants with 32 different species of fruit, vegetable, flower, medicine, bean, dye and fiber bearing plants in a span of just 2 weeks.

Come rain, shine or insect, the foundations for a food forest would be born.

To be charged with so much life is not something we took lightly. The ecological toll for clearing land, as well as the life of all the baby trees is serious business. I thought the rainy season would pass fast this year. El Niño always brings unpredictable weather, especially in Peru – droughts here, floods there. Our part of the amazon is wet in February, but the last strong el Niño year rains were short and there was drought. This year I worried we were too late to plant the trees.

But we set-up carefully. Not only do we use ecological principles and design practices, but we also welcomed a group of volunteer professionals to help us plant.

Our volunteers Hannah, Vince and GaChing arrived first, followed by Shane. Along with these volunteers, local workers were busy helping to remove leftover woody debris so we could walk unencumbered through the plot. Our food forest is about a ½ hectare, which sounds big. It is actually “human-sized”, manageable with just a few pairs of hands and lots of sweat.

Ecologically we planned this food forest to manage soil. Forest soil in the Amazon is tricky and has a fertility that deceives. Voracious growth of plants, abundant water and beating sun are not all that they seem: nutrition for growth is locked up in the plants themselves and only released in a complicated cycle of decay. Here a cleared area has a couple of years of fertility, but if you don't protect and build soils, a farm will fail or require chemical inputs. No thanks.

When we cleared, we didn't burn. High oxygen burning, common to this part of the amazon, releases vital minerals like a big bang, and scorches all bacteria and fungal networks that help with nutrient cycling. When rain comes the nutrients are washed away, leaving empty sands and clays, and no top-soil to grow life.

As we cleared we left green-plant material on top of the soil right where it lay. The idea of this "green mulch" is to slowly decompose and maintain water in the soil. When the powerful Equatorial sun comes after the rainy season, we hope it will do just that.

We also utilized woody material. We have made hugelkulture-like beds of large sticks that over the next several years will decompose with termite action. Under the weight of green material that we will place there these piles will become a repository for black soil... one day at least - we just have to be patient. How patient? We are not sure. It's a theoretical experiment we are basing on the black- organic rich soils (Tierra del monte) that are found around decaying tree logs in the jungle. These wood piles also provide spaces for small creatures to set up home.We did not pile all of our woody material because there was a lot of it. Some of it was burned in small piles, and the ash we saved and put in our aging compost pile with local Guinea pig manure, goat manure, and humanure. In a year this will be lunch for the hungry tropical trees.

Then we got busy planning. Vince, a soil expert, helped us map the soil at the chakra. We found there was mostly suitable soil, but quickly ran into a challenge – nearly half of the chakra was water-logged for part of the year, meaning that most species would wither and die from too much water. The question was whether to make a canal and try to remove water. In the end we decided to favor the water as it is. We planted palm fruits to mimic the watery palm groves found throughout the jungle, and would plant other local water-loving species, too. Nature knows, just follow.

Dealing with so much organic matter is an important task in the jungle soil cycle - this photo demonstrates the types of soil management we chose.

the soil found at one of the soil test sites - sandy-clay loam with topsoil -- better than we thought.

Don Ancelmo piles wood. a lot of wood! The wood is from fast-growing colonizer species (mostly cecropia), which began to grow after our neighbour left his cleared land fallow.

An aguajal is a natural wet place where palms rich with fruit grow.

We were ready to find the plants - Sourcing plants is no problem here as this region is garden central! We visited the local reforestation organization ARBIO to get advice and find plants – frijol de palo (a nitrogen fixing bean tree), moringa (the superfood salad green) and the tasty fruit trees cacao and copoazu (a local relative of cacao!). Luckily through our talks, we learned it may actually be (weather cooperating) the perfect time to plant. We hope for rain.Then we went to the local market and found even more trees and shrubs. Achiote for red dye and smudging… well-known fruits like avocado, starfruit, pineapple, mango, passionfruit, lemon and orange... as well as local fruit specialities like anona (DELICOUS!), araza, casharana, bread fruit, vitamin-c rich camu camu, and the cheesy flavoured noni fruit, which is very healthy. We also found flowers like toé, and medicinal plants like coca, tobacco, turmeric, ginger and lemon grass.

Bananas travel upriver with us from Puerto Arturo

Claudio helps transport some of the plants we found - others we will start from seed and cutting.

A jungle style nursery helps shield seedlings from the harsh sun.

Meanwhile we visited our neighbours, and in the native community of Puerto Arturo we found yuca and bananas. Mariluz, Canto Luz staff, helped us find two types of wild taro root – this delicious tuber in the araceae family is boiled and becomes starchy just like a potato. We also were able to plant local varieties of cucumber and pumpkin.

Our favourite addition to our plant list however was planted by a wild-gardener. Imagine our surprise when in the middle of the chakra we found papaya growing! Who did it? It turns out the tayra, a wild weasel relative and omnivore, has a taste for ripe papaya, and while roaming the Amazonian countryside it defecates papaya seed from its previous meals! This happened through our chakra evidently, and we hope it will come again and again and again.

The Tayra - a wild species that loves papaya, and is not endangered.

When we were ready to start the planting we put up a tent to protect the tools and compost. The compost was a mix of gathered forest soil collected from a rotting log, and types of manure and charcoal. We were ready to plant. Using our tree map we staked out the tree locations, planning for their eventual height, canopy size and maturation time.

But it had not rained for nearly a week.

The work was so hot, and we agreed that even by starting work in the early morning we couldn’t imagine putting new plants into soil under such hot sun. The thought made us all take a swig of water and ponder hard. The best plan was to start in the evening.

It was a good choice - Imagine the joy of beginning work hours before sunset when all of the sudden a gentle, cool rain begins. The new plants shone brilliant green, especially while we sang songs for them as they entered the ground.

We finished planting 3 days later in perfect timing because each day it rained. The rain allowed our freshly dug plants to drink, and set their roots in. Throughout the days, they each seemed perky with hydration, and some of the banana plants even started sending out leaves.

A compost mix - used to topdress fresh plantings.

A finished map of the chakra (just missing the yuca).

Our jungle tool shed protects the compost from rain and sun.

hannah and vince mark plant locations and bring mulch for new plantings.

Rain makes everything seem more connected.

a demonstration of our complete planting method: sapote with mulch, compost top dressing and a stake to mark its placement, to prevent us losing it when the jungle starts to grow again.

Now that we have finished planting, our next steps will be to continually care for this chakra until the plants age and plan other activities in relation to this work.

The day before we finished all our work we made an Andean despacho with the help of Juan's father and Q'ero nation resident Lorenzo. When Lorenzo asked what we named the chakra, I told him, "se llama Los Nietos - it´is called the grandchildren", and then I recalled a conversation I had with a neighbour. The neighbor asked why we did not plant faster growing food crops like rice or corn, and instead fruit trees that could take years to produce well. The reality is a fruit tree project is one for future generations. Of course we expect to eat from it, but the best years will be down the road. "Los Nietos" is quite literally for the grandchildren - both human and animal.

So, here is to food that feeds the future, and also to many more years of good work in this chakra! We hope you can come visit. The papaya should still be giving fruit in a few months... but you may have to share with the tayra!


This post was published in March of 2016, just after we finished the work. We are happy to report that so much has grown and flourished. Almost all the plants have survived nearly two dry seasons, however two nonis, a moringa, the avocado, and all the granadillas died. We nearly had a forest fire, but the rain came just in the nick of time, and somehow cows arrived from nearly 3km away, and ate one banana before we chased them off. The chakra has a lot of wood and medicinal "volunteers", that is plants who grow on their own accord. We have produced tomatoes, bananas, cucumbers, papaya, moringa, chili peppers, lemon grass, squash and some medicinal herbs. It looks like all is going well, and the rainy season is coming again.

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