"There is nothing more tragic than seeing families suffer in swathes of wasted, burnt land," says Alfonso Carrasco. As the South American regional director for the UK development charity, Practical Action, Carrasco has responsibility for a programme that aims to reverse deforestation currently taking place on a massive scale in the tropical rainforests - known as the cloud forests - of Peru. Over the last seven years, the charity has trained 5,000 Peruvian and Ecuadorian farmers to practise a form of agroforestry known as layer farming, safeguarding 100,000 hectares of forest and transforming agricultural productivity.
In August 2012, research to investigate the drivers of deforestation round the world found that clearing of land for agriculture is responsible for as much as 80 per cent of lost tree cover. Subsistence farming carried out by poor families is one of the key components, and the situation in Peru's cloud forests is typical of many: "The farming communities we train do not have the skills or simple technology required to make a sustainable and productive living," says Carrasco. "Trees are slashed and burnt to make way for crops like corn and cocoa, robbing the soil of its nutrients and forcing families to abandon the land after each harvest."
Farming in layers
The layer farming technique aims to combine short, medium and long term gains for farmers, creating a farming system that produces food from year one and generates long term, sustainable income from cash crops, while also protecting the forest environment. Instead of clearing of land for agriculture, the system is based on farmers growing crops beneath the forest canopy, in a series of five layers which complement and support each other.
The first layer is a crop such as cassava, which provides food and an income for the first few years. The second layer consists of coffee plants, which take four years to fruit, but then provide good quality coffee beans, which fetch a good price at market. The coffee plants are protected from the sun by the third layer, consisting of banana plants or laurel, which offer fruit or timber. Above that, is a layer of the native Inga tree which provides additional shade and also produce edible seeds, rich in minerals. As well as providing food and shade, leaf-fall from the Inga trees enriches the soil and keeps it fertile. They take four years to reach a height of ten metres. Finally, Cedar trees are grown up to 40 metres tall. They are planted for the long-term and provide shade and protection in addition to a supply of timber for future generations
In San Francisco de Asis, in the Cajamarca region of Peru, 57 year old Catalino Chanta Neyra, known locally as Don Cata, has been leading efforts in his community to adopt the layer system. "We have been trained, which is why we know how to work in an organized manner. They gave me some tubes so that I could sow laurel seeds. They taught me how to take care of the seedlings. I used to plant trees too closely together, so they would wither. Now I even have a fumigator and pruning shears and I know how to prepare organic fertilizers to preserve the earth."
Beyond the benefits Don Cata has seen on his own land, he is also excited that increasing numbers of local people are following his lead. "The nicest thing is that I am not the only one benefiting. My friends in San Francisco de Asis are also managing a community plot. It is looking beautiful and besides, the community is united and that is good for everyone," he says. Answering a call from a coffee buyer on his mobile phone, he smiles: "They want five quintals for the end of the month," he tells his partner.
Paulos Carlos Hurtado, who lives in Namballe district on the edge of the rainforest, is another local champion for replanting. In less that two years he, his wife and children have planted more than 1,000 laurel, romerillo and latero trees on their land. He has also formed an environmental association with others in his community, which has recently bought a plot and planted a further 500 trees. "My life has changed a lot since 2006," he says. "Before that, I had no idea about reforestation. Moreover, even though I had a plot, I never imagined that it could be so fruitful. It is all very different now."
Leaving a legacy
Paulo and his family are hoping that as time goes by, the entire settlement will be involved in reforestation, converting all of their land into agro-forestry plots. They are aware that they will not see all the fruit of their labour, but are serious about leaving a legacy and encouraging the conservation of native species. "There are timber species among these trees, but cedar for example will produce raw material in 100 years," he says. "I would never have been interested in planting these before, but although I will not reap the benefits of this work, the entire community will and maybe even the whole country, which is why my young children are already aware of the importance of reforestation. That knowledge makes me feel better."