Our First Rosewood Harvest

 Taking the waterways to rosewood reforestation plots. 

Taking the waterways to rosewood reforestation plots. 

The canoe glides among lianas like mythic serpents and under gray-trunked titans.  Insects stare back at us from seasonal perches on branches backdropped with multicolored lichens, their homes when the Amazon's waters run its banks. A white hot sun filters through the canopy and I watch the flashing progressions of light and dark on my companions’ faces, their expert hands adjusting paddle and pole and bringing the boat to a comfortable stop at our trailhead.  Moving on foot, we share laughter as our path is submerged once more; our gum boots fill with water for the fourth time of the day. 

The commute to work for the rosewood farmers of the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo involves such ordinary tribulations as these, flooded paths, wandering serpents, yet another opportunity to read the forest. Before long we emerge from the thick secondary growth of an old purma (fallow farm) into a clearing where we discover a well-tended garden.  Rimmed by the gorgeous chaos of the forest, this garden is a sanctuary for one particular kind of tree, pushed to within a thread of extinction but now cared for, cared about, accompanied closely in its growth as it was once aggressively sought out for its monetary value. 

The tree is Brazilian rosewood.  And the garden is now three years old.  We have pruning shears and saws and we begin by trimming away dead branches, then go on to harvest some of the bottommost live ones.  Shortly a sugar sack is filled with branches and leaves.  In a half hour, working in teams of three and four, we’ve pruned the whole grove, a hundred trees yielding their first harvest, just a branch or two or three from each tree. Tomorrow, these leaves and side branches will be chipped and then distilled, yielding an essential oil that made fortunes for perfumers several decades ago but now is increasingly hard to find.  

 Rosewood farmer David collects essential oil from the distillation. 

Rosewood farmer David collects essential oil from the distillation. 

Once, whole rosewood trees were ripped up from the forest loam, as even the roots contain the precious linalool-rich aromatic oil.  Now, we prune the trees according to old forestry techniques, in order to improve their health and growth. Our modest harvest is of branches that the tree would soon shuck off anyway.  The result of these careful prunings is also esthetically pleasing— the trees look beautiful.  

David, one of the Bora guardians of the Brillo Nuevo rosewoods, put it well:

“It’s amazing to see how much better my rosewood trees looked after removing some dead wood and a few lower branches with leaves we can distill.  I suppose this is science, but it feels more like a kind of art I can practice to shape and care for my trees.  Some of them will eventually produce seeds we use to plant more of these beautiful trees all around our community.” 

For three years, five families in Brillo Nuevo have taken on the care of over 500 rosewood trees. Modest as this scale may seem, it’s the first step in a broader vision to use rosewood as an economic motor to help sustain conservation-compatible activities in the Amazon. And this harvest means that finally our friends in Brillo Nuevo can receive the first fruits of their labor. Our harvest yields just a few hundred milliliters of the precious oil, but these early adopters have seen what the future can hold.  The biggest of the trees give impressive yields, with a branch or two weighing kilos, and in another year or two these rosewood groves will be able to sustain ongoing harvests on a monthly basis. 

Though it’s still early in the productive life of the trees, the rosewood stewards at Brillo Nuevo have reason for optimism.  It’s unusual to find sources of income that are also amenable to traditional, sustainable land use strategies, and rosewood is one.  As Oscar said, “Our goal isn’t to create big plantations of rosewood trees.  The Bora have an old tradition of planting many kinds of trees together to produce fruits, fibers and medicines.  It’s great that we can now include valuable rosewood trees in this mix.”  

For those of you who have followed the rosewood story through our project reports, thanks for accompanying us thus far.  This first harvest is a culmination of years of effort on the part of the rosewood team.  And it is also the beginning of a new chapter.  I hope you will continue to follow us on this journey.  We couldn’t do it without you. 

 Weighing pruned branches to be used for distillation of essential oil.

Weighing pruned branches to be used for distillation of essential oil.

This isn't the only recent episode from this chapter of the rosewood tale.  Nor is Camino Verde the story's only author by any means. In addition to our allies in Brillo Nuevo, it's been my privilege to work with and enjoy the friendship of the fine people of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology (CACE). It is their careful, longterm relationship building that allows our joint efforts in rosewood to be successful in communities like Brillo Nuevo.

The Center’s founder, ethnobotanist Campbell Plowden, is a longtime defender of the rainforest and forest dwelling people and is a member of the Camino Verde board of directors. In our research, in our ecological restoration work, and in our aromatic essential oil development, CACE has been present.  You can expect to continue to see more of them in our missives in the future, as our collaboration deepens and grows.

More chapters in the book of rosewood

Another place where our work together with CACE is growing is in the community of Tamshiyacu, Loreto, Peru.  This is the home of Miguel and Celestina, a remarkable couple of jungle farmers who for 12 years have cared for a robust population of rosewood trees.  Planted out in agro-forestry systems, mixed with brazil nut trees, exotic fruits, pineapples, and even timber trees, the work of decades is evident in these beautiful food forests.  

 Celestina expertly guides the canoe through the forest.

Celestina expertly guides the canoe through the forest.

To get to their farm, it was back to the boats. Flooded rivers carried our dugout canoe through bayou-like wetlands that conceal acres and acres of subsistence farms underwater for several months of the year.  High, dry ground is where most perennial (tree) farms are kept, as many of the Amazon’s trees would be killed quickly in standing water – counterintuitive, as other trees are so well adapted to the flood waters.  As we walked to the farm, Miguel explained to me something of their history, and Celestina chimed in with a story that was as poignant as it is familiar.

“None of our children like to be on the farm, and agriculture isn’t something you can fake. If you don’t like farming you won’t do it well. So it makes us sad some that our kids won’t carry on afterwards with it, but what are you going to do if they don’t want to?”  She went on to list the professions and current residences of their children. The list included Lima and Iquitos as well as Tamshiyacu, but even the kids who had stayed close to home turned their back on the farm, associating it with old-fashioned hardship, backward cultural prerogatives, and marginalization. 

And yet being out on their land felt anything but marginalizing.  A vibrant ecosystem of economically productive trees rose up before us. As we joked and shared stories about the origins of the trees, what happened the year certain ones were planted, and why Miguel had chosen not to aggressively prune his rosewood trees as some neighbors had been doing, we gingerly filled baskets with fruits with no name in English: umarí, charichuelo, aguaje, and more.

 Don Miguel carefully prunes his 12-year old rosewood trees. Well-timed pruning can actually improve the health of trees rather than harm them. 

Don Miguel carefully prunes his 12-year old rosewood trees. Well-timed pruning can actually improve the health of trees rather than harm them. 

Finally our attention returned to the rosewoods. Drawing from 12 year old trees, we were able to harvest around a hundred pounds of branches and leaves from just 5 of their 60 trees.  Miguel was pleased to learn that his agro-forest can sustain a modest but continual harvest of material for essential oil distillation— a supplement to their income that was particularly welcome as it is compatible with the health of their farm. Celestina spoke effusively at the end of the day:

“Other people in Tamshiyacu have rosewood trees and now are learning to cut back the trees to a stump to sell the material for just 1 or 2 soles a kilo.  But the pruning techniques we’ve learned today are totally different— and we love it. Cutting away dead branches and pruning just a few branches per tree leaves the trees looking healthy and happy. We like to feel like we’re helping our trees grow rather than destroying them.”

The goodwill shared by Miguel and Celestina culminated in an agreement to continue to work with Camino Verde and CACE.  The work plan includes continuing distillations of rosewood material to provide income to the family while allowing us to refine our knowledge of the production process. Meanwhile, we are actively pursuing necessary bureaucratic channels, so that by the end of the year we’ll be able to legally sell the oil of this endangered, CITES-controlled species. With Miguel and Celestina, we’ll continue to go over tree care best practices and optimistically await the date when their trees start to produce seed so that we can plant more.

We left Tamshiyacu with many hopeful solutions in mind, and also some questions.  In the face of precipitous urbanization, who will manage the farms of the Amazon when Miguel and Celestina’s generation passes on?  Who will model the dignity and importance of the farmer to younger generations immersed in the jagged star constellation of technology, progress, and catastrophic cultural transformation?

 The rosewood farmers of Brillo Nuevo with Campbell Plowden (top center) and the author.

The rosewood farmers of Brillo Nuevo with Campbell Plowden (top center) and the author.


Photo thanks to Campbell Plowden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology.

Robin Van Loon