Restoring Peruvian Forests for Bees

A box of little angels (angelitos). Freddy sells their honey, as well as the nutritious, yellow pollen that accumulates near the opening.

A box of little angels (angelitos). Freddy sells their honey, as well as the nutritious, yellow pollen that accumulates near the opening.

There are bee hives all over Freddy’s farm in Oxapampa, Peru. An old tree stump houses a colony of curco negro, a stingless bee native to the eastern Andes. Another species, commonly called niño de monte real, has nearly been extirpated from the area. These bees are Freddy’s livelihood, and the basis for a collaborative reforestation project with one of the world’s most diverse national parks.

Freddy is one of a handful of farmers cultivating land within the buffer zone of Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park. His family has been here since 1978 and has seen the area transform from forests full of Wattled Guans and Andean bears to eroded cow pastures and pesticide-laced rows of passion fruit.

Now some of these degraded areas are being replanted with native trees. Peru’s national park service is using sticks and carrots to create a buffer around Yanachaga-Chemillén. Law mandates that farmers working in special use areas must only do agriculture that is nature-friendly – things with trees, like shade coffee. But the park service also offers funding to farming associations to help them make the transition. In Freddy’s case, the park service provided tree seedlings, fertilizer, and transport of these to his farm, at the end of a very rough road.

Tree seedlings and an edible fruit, Solanum quitoensis, are sprouting up in this native tree plantation.

Tree seedlings and an edible fruit, Solanum quitoensis, are sprouting up in this native tree plantation.

Honey from the flowers of native trees. I tried some, and it was delicious.

Honey from the flowers of native trees. I tried some, and it was delicious.

Freddy and the national park managers see this arrangement as mutually beneficial. As we walked through his seven-year old plantation, Freddy pointed out native trees, like cedro (Cedrela sp.), and told me about the flowers they produce for his bees. At different times of the year, Freddy’s bees collect nectar and pollen from different trees. The artisanal honey he sells is well-known in Lima. These plantations also help protect the core of Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park by reducing outside influences, like domestic animals that wander into the forest.

It’s not all gravy though. Programs like the one in Alto Navarro have not been as successful everywhere. Of seven farming associations that are currently receiving funds from Yanachaga-Chemillén, three are stalled with infighting. In one case, thousands of native tree seedlings were transported to a community six hours’ drive from Oxapampa; a year later most of the seedlings still sat unplanted by the side of the road.

Within individual projects there are also compromises. One project area in Alto Navarro was planted in exotic pines – trees that are little more than wood factories. But these pines can be harvested and sold after just ten years, and in the meantime cows can graze in the understory. This short tree rotation makes it more economically attractive to plant other areas with native trees, which will not be available to harvest for much longer.

Cow grazing lush grass in an exotic pine plantation at Alto Navarro.

Cow grazing lush grass in an exotic pine plantation at Alto Navarro.

Is this ecological restoration? In one sense, no. When Freddy plants native trees, he plans to use them to make honey, and then to cut them down and sell them for timber. The area will not turn into a mature forest. But these same trees are likely reducing edge effects, like elevated wind and light, in the adjacent national park forest. Trees planted just outside the old-growth forest could increase habitat area for plants and animals that live in the forest interior. At a broader scale, the collaborations between the national park and local farming associations are also likely restoring natural capital, stocks of natural assets like soil, water, and biodiversity.

Freddy and me in a cow pasture at the edge of Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park. Freddy plans to plant native trees here in May 2015.

Freddy and me in a cow pasture at the edge of Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park. Freddy plans to plant native trees here in May 2015.