The Amazon's Most Durable Timber?

 The Camino Verde team plus volunteers harvesting canelón branches and leaves in 2016.

The Camino Verde team plus volunteers harvesting canelón branches and leaves in 2016.

Amazon Red Hot

“Smell this.”  Farmer and forest savant Javier Huinga hands me a piece of bark he carefully slashed from the dark brown column of a forest giant.  He smiles and nods knowingly as my face lights up from the scent – somewhere in the same aromatic solar system as cinnamon, spicy-sweet and pleasantly woody; the comparison that immediately comes to mind is to the candy Red Hots.  Javier suggests I taste the bark and it’s sweet, like stevia.  “This is how my grandfather stayed healthy.  And for construction there’s nothing better, without a doubt.”  

The year is 2012 and we’re making new friends.  I had known Huinga for years, but not the tree.  We came to Javier’s farm and brazil nut forest concession – essentially a large swath of wild rainforest of which he’s the legal guardian – to see an example of a species known to science as Aniba canelilla and to locals as canelón (roughly, “wild cinnamon”).  Though I’d heard of the tree for years, I’d only had the pleasure a handful of times before.  This individual was the largest I’d seen, over a meter in diameter. “Most of the neighbors have cleared theirs out already, for wood.  Others end up killing the tree accidentally by peeling off too much of the bark for tea.”

With us was doctor of ecology Campbell Plowden, a close friend and collaborator to Camino Verde, a specialist in non-timber forest products or things you can get from trees without killing them.  He had lived with the Tembe Indians of Brazil and studied their use of a multitude of plants for food, for medicine, for dyes, for crafts, and for construction.  Now he had come to Tambopata to see firsthand the non-timber forest products familiar to locals in this neck of the woods, distinct from those found in the Amazonian heartland of Brazil several thousand miles away. 

Campbell and I asked Javier how the rich smelling tree was used as medicine and heard a laundry list of common and chronic complaints. “This keeps you strong; it’s good for the cold, pain in the joints, body aches.  Or if you’re getting the flu.  And the best thing is you can drink it every day as a tea. No special diet required.”  Used as a health tonic for longer than we can know, canelón is also a favored flavor supplement added to coca leaves to sweeten the chew.  So it may perhaps come as a surprise that this revered therapeutic herb is also one of the Amazon’s peerless timbers.

 Many Amazonian dwellings only last as long as their stilts. 

Many Amazonian dwellings only last as long as their stilts. 

The rainforest’s most durable tree?

“It has no expiration date, no age limit.  The elementary school at Chonta [a community neaby] is made out of canelón.  That was built when I was a boy.”  Javier goes on to tell us a few of the salient features of the wood – golden yellow, beautifully figured, hard as rock, and resistant to all manner of rot.  Could it be that the rich aromatic compounds are part of what makes the wood so durable?

In the rainforest they say that a house only lasts as long as its feet.  To thwart rising waters, to avoid unwanted animal guests ranging from snakes to ants, and to enjoy a relative measure of dryness amidst so much humidity, jungle houses tend to be up on stilts.  For stability, the posts are sunk into the ground, usually to three or four feet of depth.  In rainforest soil there are few kinds of wood that can last more than a matter of months in contact with the wet, fungal, termite-laden soil.  Those timbers that can last are in an elite class for density and durability.  

In Tambopata, canelón is considered the best timber for in-the-ground post wood.  Period. Sober-minded non-exaggerators I’ve met from the area consistently give figures of 40 years or more for the durability of the timber in the soil. Ship the wood anywhere else – where it’s drier, where it’s cooler, where microbial life is less aggressive – and the useful life ostensibly extends into the hundreds of years.

 Huinga and the author visiting a canelón tree in 2012.

Huinga and the author visiting a canelón tree in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the excellent timber means canelón is sought out and now over-exploited. In one of the Earth’s most species-rich forests, a thousand kinds of trees can share a square mile of clay, each with its own suite of specialized ecological functions, each necessary to the forest in its own way.  Individual canelón trees are few and far between, and we don’t fully comprehend what the recent gaps in the population map mean for the species’ future, or the forest’s.  What happens to animals that rely on canelón fruits for food?  What happens to pollination and other forms of interaction among individual trees now artificially distanced from one another?  Our visit to the tree raised these questions and others, until Javier snapped us out of our rumination with a welcome dose of humor. 

“The best thing about having your house made out of canelón is that whenever you want tea, you just scrape off a piece of the wall and put it on to boil.”  Campbell and I erupted in appreciative laughter, but Javier’s smile was cryptic and slightly ironic.  “No, seriously,” he said.

As we prepared to leave the massive elder behind, Javier noticed something among the leaf litter. A few strokes of his machete later and he was handing me a small seedling. The offhand remark he made next was a poignant commentary on the fragility of mega-abundant ecosystems. “This is one of the babies. I don’t know why there are so few of them out in the forest, but the fact is you don’t find almost any.”

 Dr. Campbell Plowden in Loreto, Peru in 2014. Photo thanks to Andrew Schwarz.

Dr. Campbell Plowden in Loreto, Peru in 2014. Photo thanks to Andrew Schwarz.

Scent logic

Campbell and I visited Javier as part of a broader exploration of the aromatic trees of the Peruvian Amazon. Astute readers may remember another tree from canelón's genus, Aniba rosaeodora, or Brazilian rosewood.  Inspired by the great demand for the now-endangered rosewood in the perfume industry, we were looking for other relatives that could offer similarly promising aromas.  The Lauraceae family is known for its rich-smelling members which include cinnamon, bay laurel, and camphor.  Their aromatic phytochemicals are part of an ancient anatomy of self-protection, and in addition to Lauraceae countless tree species use scented compounds to stay healthy, hence good timber.  Some of these compounds help us stay healthy too, hence medicine. 

We didn’t realize it then, but it was a momentous week.  Just days later we experimented with distillation of another related species, Endlicheria krukovi, a tree known in Tambopata as moena alcanforada in reference to its camphor-like scent.  We confirmed the presence of essential oils in this tree (not all rich-smelling plants have oils as the scent vehicle), which would become our first product.  And without too much fanfare, I planted out the fragile canelón seedling Javier had given me at Camino Verde’s Living Seed Bank.

Over the years since, we’ve experimented with the essential oils of over a dozen other species, planted hundreds of rosewood, thousands of moena alcanforada, and brought several of our partner farmers into the fold of distillation technicians.  Campbell and I have brought rosewood reforestation to native communities and I’ve marveled at the importance of his ongoing research related to other aromatic trees of the Amazon such as copal. Years on, Javier’s canelón seedling from the forest floor is now taller than me.  It has been a journey.  How all that came to be is too cool not to share. 

 The canelón seedling recovered by Huinga in 2012 now grows tall at the Camino Verde reforestation center.

The canelón seedling recovered by Huinga in 2012 now grows tall at the Camino Verde reforestation center.

Propagation generations

Not long after our visit to Javier, his eldest son Manuel joined the Camino Verde team.  A forestry student at the local university, Manuel was born and raised on the Tambopata River and was immersed in forest knowledge from his earliest memories.  Manuel is a plant lover plain and simple. Green thumb is an understatement.  To this day he often leaves the comforts of home behind to plunge into the rainforest for days at a time. His mission? To find seeds of trees that are being lost before they’re even properly understood.  As our Forestry Coordinator and field technician, Manuel has propagated literally hundreds of species of trees that are little studied and whose behavior in the nursery and in a cultivated setting isn’t well documented.  

The point is to find trees that offer non-timber forest products that can incentivize the protection of forests, just as the destructive activities of today are market-driven.  To use the very factors that fuel deforestation as an impetus to plant trees. Canelón checks off a lot of the boxes: it is otherwise killed for timber, known and valued locally, rich in essential oil, and well, delicious. We have just sent off samples of the essential oil for analysis to confirm that this product is edible, non-toxic, and therapeutic.  If so, Camino Verde will help create a market for this novel oil while planting more of the trees.  

 An excursion to harvest canelón seeds and seedlings in 2016.

An excursion to harvest canelón seeds and seedlings in 2016.

On the forefront of our work with canelón is Manuel Huinga.  Next year his thesis for university will focus on studying a wild population of the trees in order to develop a sustainable harvest methodology that includes planting more of the trees, as well as a modest selective harvest of leaves and branches from some trees for essential oil production.  “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.”

While our emphasis to date has been on production of essential oils from trees we plant, as is the case with our moena alcanforada oil, Manuel’s work will focus on wild harvest, straight from the natural forest.  Like his father Javier, many small farmers and landowners in Tambopata hold forest concessions – large areas of mostly intact jungle from which to harvest specific products.  Hundreds of brazil nut concessions exist that give families harvesting rights for the wild brazil nut trees within a given area, sometimes hundreds or thousands of acres.  

Over half the region’s population draws some of its income from brazil nut concessions. Complimentary management plans allow concession holders to extract other forest resources, if done thoughtfully and carefully.  Essential oils could represent a valuable supplementary income to concession holders, who are typically only as effective at protecting their forests from poachers and illegal lumberjacks as they are economically prosperous. Amazonian farmers whose basic needs are reliably being met are some of the best conservationists the world has. Giving them the tools to make a living in ways that preserve and even regenerate the forest has big implications.

 A Camino Verde volunteer climbs a young canelón tree to harvest branches and leaves.

A Camino Verde volunteer climbs a young canelón tree to harvest branches and leaves.

The canelón test run, in real time

Sometimes these things just happen that way.  About a year ago Manuel and I were approached by Elber Herrera, a neighbor who lives a few short miles from the Living Seed Bank along the Tambopata River.  He complained that his brazil nut concession wasn’t as productive as it used to be, that rising taxes and other costs associated with managing the concession meant little time and energy available for anything but the most basic monitoring of the area. The result, he said, was illegal logging and hunting.  

“How can I protect the 3,000 acres of rainforest the government’s entrusted me with all by myself? I need capital to do it. What else can I do in addition to harvesting the nuts? My concession is big but has few brazil nut trees, and the harvest only barely covers the cost of hauling the nuts from deep in the forest.”  Herrera said he didn’t want to resort to timber extraction to pay the bills, that he’s seen too many of his neighbors and family members come to regret the over-exploitation of valuable species and the squandering of forest resources.  So he finds himself asking a question that is all too common: “How can I keep my forest in good shape when I have to eat?”  

Despite the low density of brazil nut trees, the splendid coincidence is that Herrera’s forest is remarkably rich in canelón.  So, that university thesis that Manuel is doing? He’ll be doing it here.  The road map to follow is easy to imagine. Repopulate the forest with more canelón. Create and put into effect a sustainable harvest methodology. Get the corresponding government offices to give the harvest plan the green light. Try to sell the essential oil.  If we’re able to hit all these bases, the model is replicable both in terms of other concession holders and in terms of other aromatic species of trees.  We want to do it right, and then help others to do it too. 

We all look for signs that we’re on the right track.  Just days after our preliminary conversations about the concession, Manuel was out in Herrera’s forest and for the first time ever found canelón seeds. That same week an adult tree offered us a huge fallen branch and we were able to distill samples of the oil without even picking up a pruning saw.  In the nonhuman language of the forest, this feels like a pretty clear affirmation. 

 Canelón seeds harvested in 2016.

Canelón seeds harvested in 2016.

Robin Van Loon