The "Amazon Man" Wants to Save Colombia's Peasants

PHOTO: At a sustainable farm in the Colombian Amazon, Bayanira Yara inspects a new crop of lemons. Bayaniras farm, which grows a dozen different fruits, is part of a project to promote sustainable agriculture in the region.

Inside the Colombian Amazon in a remote region next to the Peruvian border there are thousands of hectares of pasture. It used to be a rainforest, like much of this region known as El Putumayo. But this particular area was cut down in the '90s to grow coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. Then U.S.-backed aerial fumigations took place, and the coca plantations became a big patch of grass.

Next to that big patch of grass, there is a small farm that grows all types of crops from camu-camu to borojó. It seems to be an idyllic spot in the Amazon countryside. But it wasn't always like that. "I inherited this land from my father," recalled Beyanira Yara, a 40-year-old indigenous farmer. "It was all jungle and I wanted to cultivate the land."

So she built a mud house and worked the land with no expertise or technique, which made her work neither efficient nor profitable.

The modest cottage in which Bayanira Yara lives is surrounded by forest and Amazonian plants.

"Then the Amazon Man came to visit and saw that our farm was the more diverse one," Yara said. "He told us he would change our lifestyle," and he did.

Heraldo Vallejo, commonly known here as the Amazon Man, is a 56-year-old former government consultant who has dedicated his life to promoting sustainable agriculture in the Amazon rainforest.

With the help of Colombia's National System of Protected Areas, he converted Yara's farm into a sustainable and productive one. He taught her what to grow and how to build her own compost. He helped her install a vine system to grow fruit, he built her a stove to cook, and he covered her dirt floor house with a concrete one.

Vallejo is doing this because he wants to help local farmers to emerge from the harsh conditions that force them to grow coca leaf for a living. He also promotes sustainable agriculture because he opposes the solution that is most commonly offered to local farmers by the Colombian government, which is to grow large extensions of just one cash crop, like coca or African palm.

Heraldo Vallejo, aka "The Amazon Man," has devoted much of his life to the promotion of sustainable agriculture in the rainforest.

Large extensions of the same plants are not viable, according to Vallejo, because the plants end up fighting each other for the nutrients in the soil and eventually there are no nutrients left.

Vallejo, who was born in Putumayo, says that in the rainforest the only sustainable way to grow the land is through Polyculture – using multiple crops in the same area – since rainforest soil is poor in nutrients and the plants need to obtain them from other plants. "To achieve a successful sustainable agriculture we need to understand the nature of our soil," explained Vallejo. "If we are to grow a banana tree, we need to grow around it other plants that will provide it nutrients."

However, the government sees planting only specific cash crops as an opportunity for economic growth and foreign investment. In fact, the National Development Plan of President Juan Manuel Santos, calls for the planting of six million hectares of cash crops like African Palm, Rubber and soy in large extensions. If you put it together, this area of "monocrops" would be almost as large as West Virginia.

And the environmental risks of planting large extensions of one crop are widely known. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), large extensions of the same crop are more vulnerable to any epidemic outbreak, more dependent on pesticides and they cause soil erosion.

A typical scene in Colombia's Putumayo region. This area of the country is mostly covered by rainforest.

The Amazon Man tried to warn the government about these scientific problems, but he has been largely ignored. That led him to quit his previous job in the regional environmental institute, where he used to work as a consultant. He found a new calling in a farmers' movement called the Tenacious Families.

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