Beauty and the bean
Facing up to ecological problems in paradise...
We set off into the forest. We have been going just 15 minutes when we stop at a promontory overlooking the vertiginous valley of the Tambopata River. Here Daniel Limarche keeps a shop. Inside is a cornucopia for sale: tinned fish, rice, Coca Cola and a dozen bottles of real champagne – more trophies, no doubt, from last year’s bonanza. This must be one of the highest shops in the world (see photo on the facts page).
From here, the path descends in zigzags across the slopes of the valley. Giant trees fold over us; streams tumble with pure water; through dark, shaded air the forest animals call their warnings – a sudden sound like a large drop of water falling into a still pond, or a slowly descending, derisive jeer. Out over the valley the vulture of the Andean foothills glides patiently by.
Since we are humans, treading paths where the stones have been worn smooth by the passage of human feet, we are never quite in paradise. We cross sections where the original path has been entirely swept away, the forest replaced by tangled roots, ugly naked earth baking dry and dusty in the sunlight – giant landslides. Some of them are still moving as we cross.
It is tempting to push the ecological alarm button. We are at the headwaters of the Amazon river, an extremely sensitive environment. Four years ago I was in the Brazilian rainforest just to the north, and concern there had already been mounting for some time at the increased rate at which silt was being carried down into the Amazon Basin from the Peruvian escarpment, with unpredictable and possibly catastrophic environmental consequences throughout the region.
Blaming the coffee colonists for this looks, at first sight, like a fairly straightforward matter. They are, after all, thinning the forest, weakening the delicate structures that hold a fragile layer of fertile soil to the precipitous slopes. Coffee is, like cash crops generally, a voracious consumer of the limited nutrients in the soil. All it takes is heavy rain, of which there is plenty, and the soil erodes.
But the matter is not as simple as this. The whole of this region is, in geological terms, a very young environment, still in the process of formation. The soil of the Amazon rainforest itself derives largely from the silt eroded from these mountains; at least some erosion must take place here to replenish soil washed away by the natural action of the river system. Look to the summits, where no human has ever ventured, and you can see light-green, healing scars made by earlier landslides caused quite naturally by the action of rain or earth tremors.
What is not in doubt is that the colonists are accelerating the natural process. They know this well enough. They lose some of the fertile soil on which they rely for their very lives with every rainfall. Already, higher up the valley, they will tell you that temperatures have begun to fall as the forest thins – just as they have fallen in Brazil, and for a similar cause, which is one reason why the Brazilian coffee crop is affected by frost.
No less in doubt, however, is that it does not have to be this way. For the coffee colonists here operate, as they have always done, without any support or technical assistance of any kind. You do not have to be an expert to conclude that the most minimal precautions, such as terracing or a more informed approach to the thinning of the tree-cover, could have a disproportionately beneficial effect. The problem is that people already on the brink of survival know this is not within their means. There is no point whatever in advocating such things unless the resources are there to achieve them. Forty years of working for the conventional coffee trade has not produced these resources: no-one believes that it ever will. Could the alternative trade make a difference? There is a silent hope that it might.
With disconcerting abruptness we emerge from the dimness of the forest path into brilliant light reflected from the surface of a rough, dirt road. Mules are tethered munching pasto, their standard green fodder. On the outer lip of the road there is an arc of tin-roofed, wooden huts perched over a precipice. A line of people sit in the shade on wooden benches watching the world, the coffee, an ancient bus, a small truck sprouting people like a vase, drift by.
They call this place Punta de la Carretera, ‘end of the road’. But this is just the beginning of the long, long voyage our coffee has yet to make to meet its market.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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