Hi, I’m Martin, and I have just returned home following the completion of my internship with RUNA Foundation in agroforestry and forest conservation. I undertook this internship after graduating from my master’s in environmental change and international development at the University of Sheffield, whereby, agroforestry was central to a lot of my research. Thus, I thought it was only logical to continue in this field, and when the opportunity arose I grabbed it with both hands. Having never experienced South American environments and culture, I was enticed to begin my work here. I sought a 4 week long internship with RUNA Foundation as I was compelled by their projects that I preliminary read about. I was also driven to gain more work experience and advance my understanding of forestry environments, whilst, simultaneously, utilising my existing knowledge and skillset to make positive impacts on communities.
In general, the internship enabled for much insightful learning, something you rarely get at university. RUNA Foundation’s approach of integrating you into communities was clear straight away, as on the first day we were sent into Archidona and Tena to search for a number of key landmarks and locations (from which I am still awaiting my prize from being in the team first to finish). You were hardly alone, as interns normally worked in groups, a characteristic I frequently enjoyed. Work wise, I found the balance between office and field work highly apposite, being that it requires more than one approach of thinking and keeps tasks variable. Which I think is paramount when working 30+ hour weeks. Another attractive characteristic of the RUNA internship I appreciated was the staff, principally Andy and Mika who were easy-going and easy to talk to, as well as my supervisor Ian who was cool and extensively knowledgeable on forests. I particularly appreciated being invited along to lunches and nights out, as it inferred to me that we were valued interns, whilst, additionally, provided an opportunity to get to know them outside work which is a rarity in most intern-based programs. The intern house was a certain highlight, being very spacious and homely. A river was only meters from the porch which I used to shower in, and there are many beautiful spots where you can be alone with your thoughts for reflecting. My favourite feature was the communal cooking, as I enjoyed doing tasks with one another for each other and cooking a variety of dishes.
In the office and field, my intern group undertook a number of tasks. These entailed: expanding the tree nursery at Runa Casa, fetching over 1000 Chuncho seeds for planting, contributing to natural resource management plans, helping develop a sampling strategy measuring biodiversity in guayusa agroforestry systems, designing and administering research surveys concerning restoration and reforestation and producing monitoring reports. Thereby, I got to undertake a range of projects at the forefront of RUNA’s work, and in some experience first-hand the impacts on communities which helped me comprehend the approaches RUNA were utilising to empower farmers and conserve the environment. Moreover, as much of the work was integral for RUNA, I felt a lot of accountability invested in us, therefore reflecting the responsibility you receive. A specific highlight was interacting with a renowned Yale university professor, Professor Florencia Montagnini, as we debated potential plant biodiversity sampling methods for our agroforestry and guayusa study.
In particular, the Mushullacta restoration and reforestation research was of certain importance and enjoyment. Mushullacta is a community located on the border of Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park, and homes a total population of approximately 250 people. RUNA is working with ASACAPUM (Association Agro-Turismo Casa Del Puma) by providing technical and financial support to help establish commercial forestry plantations on smallholder farms, with the present project targeting the establishment of ¼ hectares of Chuncho trees (Cedrelingo canteniformis) within different chakras. Farmers are incentivised with yearly payments from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture, which are dependable on numbers planted, both in space and density.
RUNA encourage Chuncho reforestation for their favourable characteristics, entailing rapid growth rates and great value within forestry financial markets. Thus, the development of a sustainable timber market would provide long-term financial benefits for the farmers, whilst simultaneously adding land value, an essentiality when protecting environments located within conservation buffer zone boundaries. Moreover, this strengthens environmental sustainability by improving carbon sequestration, biodiversity, soil nutrient cycles and micro-climate water cycles. Commencing in 2016, the project’s trees will be cut in 20 years. Between then, RUNA will monitor yearly progress to pinpoint the aspects requiring strengthening. Our intern group were fortunate to be the first to undertake this challenge.
We designed the appropriate surveying methods to gather the data necessitated from 6 random plots to understand if plantations could be established in a cost-effective manner, and into existing land management practices. This involved: 1) semi-structured interviews regarding themes of Chuncho maintenance, mortality rates, crop patterns, pests, disease, and fertilizer application, and 2) quantitative and qualitative surveying regarding Chuncho height and condition (rated 1-5), shade coverage, slope gradient and climber presence. To administer these methods, we embarked on an early morning excursion to Mushullacta.
The expedition entailed a slow meandering 2/3 hour bus ride up the mountains through stunning scenery of dense rainforest jungle. Near the top, we were treated to a spectacular view of Volcan Sumaco with a background of blue empty sky that stretched out for infinity. On our arrival, we were greeted by a welcoming and excited family that would be our hosts for the night. Initially, I found it difficult to introduce myself, being limited in Spanish and having been exhausted by the early start and long(ish) journey I took a backseat to assimilate the situation. However, after an icy cup of guayusa, a revitalised Martin integrated himself into the conversation, which if I remember correctly actually entailed Swiss chocolate (not my expertise).
Following the duration spent familiarising ourselves with our home and hosts, we embarked on surveying our first farm. For every farm, we were required to collect data for permanent plots and non-permanent plots for representative sampling, and additionally interview the host farmer focusing on the mentioned themes.
We arrived at a very hot and unshaded farm, where we adopted the efficient and logical approach of delegating the tasks. 2 would survey the planted Chuncho, whilst the other interviewed. Being a less confident Spanish speaker, it was a no brainer what I was doing. I fought back countless branches and avoided uncountable spider webs to reach the first plot. I noted the measurements, whilst, my partner Romain measured. It wasn’t long before we lost sight of one another through the dense chakra vegetation, and it converted to a shouting challenge across the farm. In some cases it got more challenging, as Chunchos became exceedingly tall meaning that we resorted to improvising with a long stick to measure it accurately. Nonetheless, we completed the first farm without incident.
A well welcomed lunch break was received from the host family. We were cooked a delicious array of fish, vegetables, rice and aji (which was quickly becoming my favourite sauce), as well as of course all the guayusa we could drink. Following lunch, I reflected on the morning progress and what the Chuncho appeared to indicate thus far, whilst the other interns entertained themselves with a mini volley ball game using a lemon. I concluded that Chuncho’s exposed to more sunlight appeared to have grown substantially more, and be in a healthier condition. However, there was still many more Chuncho to be surveyed.
Shortly after, we ventured to our next farm, invigorated and refreshed from the lunch. As we travelled deeper into the chakra it became clearer our task was only going to get tougher. Multiple local workers were needed to hack away at the dense vegetation characterising this farm, whilst we concentrated on keeping our balance against steep, slippery and muddy terrain. We endured a long tough afternoon, probably the toughest of my entire internship, as we took successive turns slipping and cursing as we either tripped into the mud, were bitten by insects or were stabbed by painful plant spikes. In particular, I received 8 excruciating Chonta tree spikes through my wellies, which I cautiously picked out to avoid splinters, although with little success. The only safe haven was shade from the dense forest, which helped combat the prevailing sweat patches engulfing my shirt. Having worked in the tropical forests of Sub-Sahara Africa, I could safely state that each forest brings their own individual and unique challenges to humans who endeavour to venture into them.
To say that we were relieved once we escaped the prickly, branchy and muddy clutches of that charka is an understatement. Everyone was dying to bathe to mitigate the stickiness that had encapsulated our bodies from the exacerbating humidity, and, luckily, our prayers were answered when we were informed of the river situated nearby. Regardless of the uneven sharp-ended riverbed, I star-fished in the shallow depths and let the gentle current cleanse me of my odour, sunburn and filth built up throughout the day. It was then I realised how hungry the afternoon work had made me.
Fortunately, another delicious Ecuadorian delicacy was served not long following our return, and within minutes my stomach was contented and ready to rest along with the remainder of my body. Post dinner entertainment encompassed a somewhat basic but different and interesting style. Never have I ever seen such an assortment of ‘magic’ tricks you can do with string. I found myself spellbound along with the children at the tricks the host family were able to demonstrate, especially when the father seemed to be able to reattach the broken string he had before cut. A certain humorous point in the evening came when they challenged me and Romain to free ourselves after being tied together, without using our legs to step out. After about 15 minutes of struggling and unsuccessful attempts at innovative approaches we conceded defeat, however not without providing sufficient entertainment for those observing as the below picture exemplifies.
Having once been a child often refusing to go to bed early, the sight of a neatly arranged comfortable bed in the corner of the room at about 8:30pm was well received, and we all got our heads down for the night. The following morning we were awoke by the prevailing noise of the community roosters. Breakfast was served, and before we knew it we were heading to the third and final farm. Fortuitously, this chakra was less vegetated and situated on flat terrain. We quickly got organised and moving, and made the appropriate measurements and conducted the interview before the day even began to get warm.
It was time to say our goodbyes, although the other interns would be back my shorter internship meant that I would likely not. Therefore, my goodbye felt real. Shortly, we were back on the twisty journey back down the spectacular landscape, although, this time, we got a closer view due to our bus breaking down. I laid down in the leafy shade of the trees, and shut my eyes eager to hear another bus engine approaching in the distance over the sound of churping birds. It was approximately 20-30 minutes before another passed that was heading to Archidona. Once back, a river shower and some tranquil hammock reflection time couldn’t come quick enough.
In the office the next morning we were informed that we must produce a report detailing our rationale, methods conducted and results. I’m not ashamed to admit that my inner geek was thrilled, as we had collected so much data I was intent to organise to see if it would produce the trends I predicted. Moreover, the report was of paramount importance, as results and responses described will distinguish whether a third disbursement for contract between RUNA and ASCAPUM (an integral project parter) will occur. So secretly, I was relishing this task. I felt that this epitomised the responsibility and trust RUNA invest in us interns, with this being of particular significance.
For those interested, our findings revealed that generally: plots well shaded yielded taller and better conditioned Chuncho, plot slope influenced height but only between the datasets of low-mid, low-high, low-none and mid-high gradients, pests primarily targeted Chuncho leaves, climber presence was not an issue (only found 2 in whole of dataset) and that there was a 90% survival rate. Regarding interviews, farmers articulated that it generally took up to 3 months planting Chuncho, and that they were intercropped with yucca and would be beneficial to their other crops in the long term. However, it was expressed that maintenance was strenuous as not enough support was provided during the program management phase, and there was also vulnerability to fungus and ant pests. Regardless, all said they would recommend the Chuncho program to other farmers. Thereby, overall, I felt that during our 2 day excavation we had collected some valuable information for RUNA.
To summarise the internship in three words, I would describe it as challenging, cultural and rewarding. The chance to make a first-hand impact on Amazonian communities does not come along often, and I would encourage anybody interested in gaining experience in this field or a willingness to visit the amazon to apply. Thank you to all the other interns and staff for making this such an enjoyable experience, and I am looking forward to hearing how the Chuncho and agroforestry projects continue.