On The Ground With Chaikuni’s Permaculture Team
Last year was one of evolution and growth for the Chaikuni Institute’s permaculture project. It was filled with diverse challenges requiring innovative solutions that have led to many beneficial lessons and positive changes being carried forward to the new season of early 2016.
The Chaikuni Permaculture Team
May 2015 marked the conclusion of Project Coordinator and dear friend Nick Boyce’s contribution to the permaculture project. For the past two years, the project was fortunate to benefit from Nick’s immense passion for plants, global sustainable community development, and holistic permaculture design. Fueled by Nick’s contagious enthusiasm and bold vision, the project team built a strong foundation for the ‘chakra’ garden that now serves as a unique alternative model to the highly popular slash-and-burn technique used in tropical rainforest environments.
The team also successfully incorporated the first ayahuasca vines into our agroforestry systems and planted many additional trees. The team extends their deep gratitude to Nick for his significant contributions to the project and remains inspired by the deep heart and dedication he poured into his work.
We have also been blessed with the presence of Michal Chochol as a founding member of the Chaikuni Institute since we first took root in January 2013. Michal has also been part of the team at the traditional Amazonian healing center and our sister organization, the Temple of the Way of Light since 2011. And for the last four years, Michal has combined his great passion for tropical rainforest ecosystems and sustainable design with a spirit of vibrant courage and determination. Michal has led the revision, refinement and improved functionality of many existing projects over the years. He has been working closely with our team of seven ‘biologos’ – local plant experts and farmers who we are both learning from and who are also receiving training in permaculture through the implementation and maintenance of a wide variety of projects across our grounds.
This season the team also incorporated our first-ever foreign interns into the permaculture project. It proved to be a challenging initiative and led the team to question the true sustainability of our program. While working through this challenge, we found ourselves motivated to redirect our focus into using local resources, and dedicated a large portion of our time to establishing contacts with Iquitos-based organizations including: IIAP (the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute) and the Agricultural Department of UNAP (Peruvian Amazon National University).
We also began recruiting local engineers. At the beginning of 2016, we welcomed Silvia del Aguila Reyna in the role of Forestry Engineer. Silvia brings a wealth of past experience implementing social projects. She derives her interest in sustainable development from the ancient agricultural wisdom of her ancestors that was passed on to her at a young age by her mother. You can read more about Silvia in our official welcome blog here, or on the biography page.
In January 2016, the team was also fortunate to welcome Colombian civil engineer Daniel Londoño, who stayed with us as part of a work exchange for several months. Daniel’s life passion is working with one of the most highly functional plants available in the tropics, vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides). Daniel helped us incorporate vetiver into our ecosystems and established a nursery for its future propagation. It was an extremely inspiring opportunity to host Daniel and witness his work. He’s provided significant motivation and encouragement to our team to honor the magic and versatility of this significant and fascinating plant.
Learning from Nature
During the 2015 season, we became aware that we needed to transition from the method we had been using to work with our land. In 2016, we implemented a new system, scheduling our working activities in relation to the moon cycle calendar. The relationship between the moon, water and nutrient flow within plants was initially discovered by indigenous people from all over the world and used as agricultural knowledge for millennia. Although this knowledge is not as commonly recognized in today’s society, this ancient wisdom maintains its own enthusiasts amongst local Peruvian farmers. The permaculture team remains deeply grateful to all those who have continued to pass down and share this knowledge through numerous generations and also through our projects.
A fundamental principle of permaculture is to “observe and interact”. Working in accordance with this, our projects are constantly evolving and responding to the feedback nature provides on a daily basis. One of the biggest changes we faced last year was to incorporate chickens onto our land. Apart from providing a nourishing source of protein (meat and eggs), chickens are also incredibly hard workers. By continually digging through dirt in search of any edible creatures and by eliminating weeds and pests, they lighten the soil and contribute copious amounts of extremely fertile manure.
With the addition of chickens on site, we were further inspired to review and improve our strategy related to staple crop production. Crops are now planted on a monthly basis in plots of land previously prepared by the chickens, utilizing the method commonly known as ‘chicken tractor’. We were able to incorporate this strategy with support from our nitrogen-fixing plants and a generous layer of mulch (a type of material spread over the surface of soil as a covering to help retain moisture, suppress weeds and improve the soil’s fertility). Thus, we are preventing nutrient loss from the soil and creating an alternative to the commonly used, although non-sustainable, slash-and-burn technique. We look forward to these improvements producing a monthly stable harvest beginning this October.
The chickens also play a role in contributing to our agroforestry systems. In addition to the food they provide, they also help to fertilize the forest floor and clean it from weeds, while simultaneously preparing it for planting perennial peanut (Arachis pintoi). This nitrogen-fixing ground cover creates a dense carpet underneath our fruit trees, supporting them with nutrients and suppressing all unnecessary weeds. This plant doesn’t grow very high and so requires almost no maintenance, thus enhancing the efficiency and exemplary nature of our agroforestry model.
The end of the year marked the purchase of our first beehive. While cleaning the forest for their yuca (manihot esculenta), locals and farmers often find wild beehives in the trunks of the trees that they cut. In the past, they would have most commonly harvested the honey, causing irreversible damage to the hive. As a team, our goal is to inspire our neighboring farmers to switch to employing a more sustainable beekeeping practice that would not only save the life of this insect, which is integral to the functionality of the ecosystem, but also provide a regular source of income to the beekeepers.
As we continue to incorporate the use of animals into our projects, we are happy to announce the expansion of our churro (Pomacea maculata) breeding areas with two new ponds. This large aquatic snail provides a great source of protein and is relatively easy to produce. It propagates in broad quantities and the only food it requires are the leaves taken from a few particular plant species, which are easily and readily available in abundant quantities. The breading of churro showcases an accessible and creative example for dynamic use of aquatic areas, commonly found as part of local farmland property.
Sustainable Ayahuasca Production
Due to increasing consumption of the ayahuasca brew, the use of its two main ingredients –the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna leaf (Psychotria viridis) – has grown significantly over the past few years. One of the core projects of the Chaikuni Institute is to identify and implement a sustainable method to produce these two plants locally as part of our agroforestry ecosystem. During last season in 2015, we planted 80 new chacruna plants and improved conditions for our ayahuasca plants so they could grow in a more supportive environment. Since 2014, we have planted over 1 000 ayahuasca vines. Our mission is to continue to invest time and energy to develop a model of sustainable ayahuasca and chacruna production with the belief that it could significantly contribute to reforestation of degraded areas while also acting as a source of revenue for local farmers.
Since the inception of the permaculture team and our projects, and after four years of much trial and error, we feel more and more confident to mindfully share our experiences and lessons with a wider and diverse audience. For example, as part of our medicinal plants mini-pilot project, we encouraged a few farmers from three villages bordering our land to grow the plants required for floral bath rituals to be purchased from the Temple by the Way of Light. We invited them to our nursery to share plant propagation techniques, provided a few plant samplings to facilitate and initiate growing their own plant crops, and visited the participants’ crops to share our experiences in the cultivation of medicinal plants.
This project successfully resulted in two participants, Don Marcelo and Doña Inez, establishing themselves as permanent floral-bath plant suppliers to the Temple, providing them the opportunity to increase their monthly income and become active contributors to their community. It is truly inspiring to offer and exchange experiences and sustainable farming techniques and best practices with locals from the surrounding communities. Our continual focus, as we move forward, is to build, strengthen, enrich and grow these relationships through the work of our projects.