The author Ezra Hereth is currently doing a Social Impact Storyteller – internship for Runa Foundation.
Runa is currently underway on a really cool reforestation project that I recently got the opportunity to help out with. I came along as a documentarian, capturing all the best and most unexpectedly chaotic parts of our adventure.
The project we are working on is a blend of livelihoods building for local farmers and reforestation. Our part in the process is to provide the farmers with seeds and organize government funding for the farmers. The Ecuadorian government has set up a system that pays out dividends to anyone willing to plant and care for trees on their property. Farmers make the initial investment of time and energy to plant trees and will receive yearly payments from the government based on how many hectares they are reforesting and the density of their plots. Runa is also allocating funds to ASACAPUM, a local organization dedicated to helping farmers reforest in the amazon. The farmers will cultivate the chuncho trees for about 20 years and then cut them down for their valuable timber. For those 20 years the trees help to mitigate global warming through sequestration of greenhouse gases, and benefit the environment around them by enriching soil and adding biodiversity (and canopy cover!) Once the trees are removed by the farmers to be sold, the entire process should begin again.
The seeds that we set out to obtain were of the illustrious and elusive chuncho tree. For one special week every year in March the chuncho disperses tens of thousands of its golden seeds along the forest floor. This is a trait evolved for the purpose of oversaturating ground dwelling seed eaters. Inviting them to dine on the overwhelming amount of seeds rather than thwarting them off with some kind of poison or stinging agent. There are simply too many of the leafy seeds for their would-be-predators to eat.
Our overnight reforestation excursion involved driving four hours from our headquarters into unknown territory where we
would begin our hike into the great expanse of protected Pastaza jungle at 5:30 in the morning. But first we had to get there. We enjoyed amazing scenery on our drive, a mix of open farmland and dense jungle that blocked out the electric blue sky. Along the way we even got to witness the great Antisana volcano, along with a monumental (and uncommon) view of one of the vast swaths of land covered by amazonian rainforest. It was absolutely stunning, from the tips of our toes to the limits our our eyesight existed nothing other than a sea of dark green rolling hills. We had to get out and take some pictures.
Up next came our single round bout with the treacherous brown river that blocked our road. In one corner, the undeniable heavyweight champion of the world: water. In the other: our 2003 Toyota. But the underdog came out victorious! We charged through the water with our bodies and all the biggest stones we could find piled into the flatbed. We pushed aside our liquid nemesis like a fat Insane clown posse fan at a concert.
Our celebration was short lived, it was getting dark and we had to continue. We followed a shaky, narrow road to where we thought we would be sleeping. As It turned out, we had another river to cross, but this time the truck stayed behind. Our guides told us we had to gather all our stuff and wade through the water. So we took our socks off and rolled our pants up and got moving. The sun had set about two hours ago and the sky was black, yet the use of flashlights was unnecessary as the moon was full and hovered close over our shoulders. Throughout our trek across the wide river, I attempted to get good footage of a everyone stumbling through the wet night. We were all laughing at how ridiculous the turn of events had been up to this point, but we had no idea what was in still store.
Another 30 minute march brought us to the thatched roof hut that we would call home that night. We were received by a charming family who we hung out and ate dinner with. I befriended their 19 and 20 year old sons. It is always so interesting meeting someone your own age that has had such an enormously different life experience from yourself. The coolest part is that we were still able to relate on so many levels.
The next morning we were woken up with steaming cups of guayusa and set off on our journey without much dilly-dallying. During my time in Ecuador I have acquired somewhat of an understanding and a tremendous appreciation for the rainforest, but I was much deeper now. The air was cleaner and heavier, the mud was darker with nutrients, and the forest hummed a lively morning tune- countless varieties of birds and bugs all contributed their part to the beautiful symphony. We continued to hike for hours without stopping. At the summit of an 80 degree climb up a dirty cliff face, we came across what we’d been searching for. Chuncho baby!
We quickly got to work stuffing large handfuls of the abundant seeds into our bags. We kneeled and scuttled along the ground for about an hour without stopping. I couldn’t help but think about all the times I’ve observed leaf cutter ants as they relentlessly trek back and forth in the name of some leaf, and wondered what we might have looked like to the birds.
It lightly rained during our hike back, sprinkling our heads with refreshing droplets of jungle scented water. But with the rain the mud worsened. In many spots we were past our shins in mud that reluctantly released our boots with each tug forward. Our pace on the way back was faster, we were ready to get back and rest!
After our eight hour hike we had a total of ten minutes to sit down. I didn’t even bother kicking off my shoes because lunch waited for us on the other side of the river we crossed the night before, you remember the one right? Well I didn’t recognize it. The river had completely changed with the influx of rain, apparently there had been a torrential storm upstream. The chuncho farmers had a canoe but they said there was no way we were getting across in it with all of our cargo. But maaaybe, the cargo could get across without us. That’s right, we had to swim across. After waking up in the wee hours of the morning and an unremitting trudge through swamps of mud, we had to swim across this river. But of all the challenges we had faced over the past 36 hours, this was my goliath. I have had some bad experiences with water in the past. Believe me when I say I know the power behind 3000 cubic feet of water barreling down per second can be misleading at first glance. As everyone else crossed without much difficulty, the lapping waved taunted me. I was the last one to take the plunge, and boy you should have seen me! I was like Michael Phelps out there, I think I kicked harder than I ever have in my life. It was exhilarating! As soon as I got to the other side I wanted to turn back and do it again. Everyone made it across safely, but we were short on time. For all the adrenaline that pumped through me, if I had gone back I probably would have been stuck there. My muscles burned from day’s relentless, arduous movement.
We had a delicious lunch with the family and my two pals showed me their pet monkey and turtles. We laughed and exchanged stories, and by the end of the afternoon I had many new friends. As we left, the large extended family implored us to come back, there were many hands to shake.
On our drive back all went well, though there was a bit of tension in the cabin of the truck. Everyone was speculating about whether the river we had crossed the night before would indeed be crossable again. When we pulled up to the river bed we knew immediately. It wasn’t gonna happen.
We debated for a while as the light left the sky. It was decided that the best course of action would be to poke around a bit and see what we were really working with. Low and behold, we found a walking bridge not far from where we were- and a taxi was parked on the other side. Only problem is that it was empty, eerily abandoned on the side of the river. We devised a plan. We would bring our car back to a small community and hire someone to drive it to Archidona when the river permitted. Then we would ferry all our gear across the swinging wooden bridge and hope that this taxi driver showed up sometime soon.
He did show up but with 10 people he was taking into town. So one of us rode with him to ensure that he’d come back for us. It was a 45 minute drive to the nearest town, so we had some time to think. It actually wasn’t as excruciating as you would think, we were exposed to the rain and cold without a good place to sit, but it’s always the people you’re with that make anything fun. The never failing enthusiasm and humor of our Finnish media whizz, Matti, kept everyone in good spirits.
When we finally saw the faint glow of headlights rumbling down our forgotten little road we jumped and waved and shouted.
Since we were free from the responsibility of bringing back the car we elected to take a faster route home. It may not come as a surprise that this route involved crossing another river. Our taxi brought us to a river where we had to unload our gear and load it back onto a motorized canoe. The canoe ride was calm and quiet. I closed my eyes and let the cool night air whisk across my face. For those few minutes of serenity I was between worlds, wanting nothing more than to get home and sleep but sad that our journey was coming to an end.
I will never take bridges for granted again.
Our truck was delivered to the office safely the following day, and our chuncho project is going ahead as planned! Our hard fought seeds have been sent to community nurseries where they will be cared for over the next few months. Once the trees become ready to be planted farmers will collect them and begin the important work of reforesting their land.
As operation chuncho moves forward expect more updates to come! Will our little trees wither or weather the storm? Find out next time.
Social Impact Storyteller -intern