By Natalya Stanko
We’ve all heard the statistic: One football field of rainforest is cleared every second. But have we considered who is doing the cutting? We picture loggers or ranchers branded with corporate labels, or maybe we don’t dare let ourselves think about it at all, lest it be linked to us.
Dr. Dennis del Castillo Torres, an agronomist by training and conservationist by experience, pictures his parents. Torres grew up in a village in the rainforest of San Martin Province, Peru with 17 brothers and sisters. His parents used slash and burn agriculture, which is the cutting and burning of forests to create fields. “Environmentally, it was devastating,“ says Torres. “But it was also an economic necessity for us.”
Torres, 61, now works to provide new economic opportunities for rural Peruvians, so they don’t have to choose between providing for their families and conserving their forest. Torres is the former president of the governmental Peruvian Amazon Research Institute, or IIAP, and the current director of its Terrestrial Research Program (PROBOSQUES). IIAP operates the Jenaro Herrera Research Station, a natural laboratory in Loreto Province where the Center has conducted most of its copal research since 2006.
Before joining IIAP, Torres worked with the United States Agency for International Development (AID), the World Bank, and the European Commission. He has lived in Madagascar, West Africa and Bolivia.
Torres got one chance to go to school, and he took it. On a recommendation of a priest passing through his village, Torres applied for a highly competitive scholarship to attend college in the United States. And he got it. First, he headed to Washington D.C. for one year to learn English. In 1984 he earned his PhD in soil science from Mississippi State University.
Torres traveled the world, learned French, Malagasy, and Kreole, and raised four children. And then, ten years ago, he went home. “Peru, the forest, this is my place,” says Torres. He is currently studying carbon sequestration, or the capacity of forests to store carbon gasses. Climate change — and the gasses that contribute to it — Torres’ greatest environmental concern.
He’s also studying alternate ways to harvest aguaje, a popular palm fruit with a scaly shell, large seed, and thin orange-yellow pulp. The city of Iquitos, the marketplace of the Peruvian forest, consumes two tons of aguaje per day. The fruit is used in many beverages and foods, especially ice cream.
Most aguaje is currently harvested by chopping down the tree. IIAP is encouraging harvesters to climb the trees instead. It’s also breeding shorter aguaje trees that will produce more accessible fruits in fewer years. (See IIAP video about aguaje). Torres says that it’s essential for Peruvians to start exporting products with added value, rather than just raw materials. That’s why the Center’s project to develop copal and other non-timber forest products has potential, he says.