Rainforests don’t really have soil. They have compost heaps.
That’s because every organism works at such a metabolic rate that if a plant isn’t growing, it is being broken down by fungi to feed another plant. If you dig a hole in the forest, you’ll pass rich compost and hit a dense yellow sub-soil within a couple of feet. This rapid nutrient cycle works perfectly when the compost heap is being continually fed by a forest. Remove the forest and you are soon left with a hard-baked clay.
That’s why slash and burn agriculture is such a major contributor to permanent forest degradation. And this kind of agriculture – often small scale, localised and unregulated – is having an increasing impact on global emissions.
The Awajún community has a secret weapon to stop this destruction: a miraculous native plant called inga. It fixes nitrogen, restores phosphorus, provides shade for crops, and yields firewood. It really is the Swiss Army knife of trees and it’s no wonder it’s now a major focus for the Awajún’s Marin Orrego and Felix Iván Mejía Pérez. The Inga Foundation, run by a remarkable man called Mike Hands, is the font of all knowledge about this incredible plant. Following a successful trip to the Inga Foundation Honduras in 2016 to discover the benefits of inga, Marin and Felix returned on an internship.
They learnt about fertilisers, how to build A-frames to work on slopes, and using pruned branches to make charcoal. Marin and Felix returned to the Awajún as experts on everything inga, ready to make a real difference. They also had a plan. In Honduras, they were introduced to some of the crops that can be grown in the shade of inga plants: maize, cocoyam, yucca, fruit, beans, tomatoes, chillies, turmeric and black pepper.
Marin and Felix were really excited about the pepper. Black pepper takes about two to three years to produce fruits but it’s well worth the wait. It’s a highly profitable plant, known as the ‘plant of gold’, and is in high demand on a national and international level. Once the pepper starts to fruit the plant can continue to do so for 25-30 years. Inga in the Awajún is one of Cool Earth’s most exciting projects and has the potential to be replicated in partnerships across Peru.
This miracle plant could be the key to thriving food gardens, less forest clearance, and livelihoods built on pepper.