By Michael Alderson Seminario

13 August 2019 - 13:31

Carob tree
'The carob tree is the grandfather tree of the forest. It grows large, and shades other trees.' ©

JoostG used under licence and adapted from the original.

Environmental engineer Michael Alderson Seminario went surfing on the Peruvian coast, and started planting trees with a community in the dry tropical forest. 

What is a dry tropical forest?

The dry tropical forest in Peru has species that only exist in the forest, like the Peruvian Plantcutter, and vegetation like the carob tree.

The carob tree is the grandfather tree of the forest. It grows large, and shades other trees. It is threatened by rising temperatures and climate change, and that puts other species in danger.

The forest is also threatened by human intervention. People have told us that they don't like taking part in illegal logging, but they have no other income.

The forest where we are working is a coastal equatorial dry forest, so its different to the dry tropical forest in the foothills of the Andes. 

Why did you choose the dry tropical forest in Peru for your work?

In 2013, I was working in an engineering consultancy in Newcastle, in England, where I studied at Newcastle University. I travelled as part of my job, checking that large energy infrastructure complied with environmental standards.

I'm from Lima, and my mother is from Piura in the north of Peru. Some of my happiest memories are from summers in Piura, so I'm happy that I've ended up working with the community in that region. 

I took a holiday and went on a surf trip along the coast of Peru with lifelong friends, and we went to Lobitos, in Piura. There were whales, dolphins, sea turtles and sea lions. The people opened their doors to us, and we fell in love with the place.

It might sound like a cliché, but the conservationist Jacques Cousteau said 'people protect what they love'.

We wanted to do something with purpose. We realised we were in a forest that was about to disappear. One of the main ways to mitigate the effects of climate change is reforestation, so we said we'll have to plant some trees. That was 2013, and today, we've planted nearly 2,000 trees.

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How did you and the community in Lobitos start working together on reforestation?

We did an ethnographic study, with focus group interviews. Women in the community said they wanted a more active role in their community's development, so we encouraged them to be leaders of the project.

Then we went from house to house and talked with the women who live there about the micro and macro effects of reforestation. I think people appreciated the approach of dedicating time to them in their house.

The northern government donated saplings, and we taught people how to use grey water (used water from baths and dishwashing), and how to turn organic waste into compost. We planted the first trees with them, and then they were in charge.

How many people in the community got involved in planting trees? 

We started with 15 families, and that group has grown to 75. The community has planted 2,000 trees, and the biggest is over three meters tall.

The neighbours who didn't sign up at the beginning saw that their neighbours had a nice garden. Some of those people became interested, and the neighbour taught them how to plant trees.

People told us that they look after the trees with their children, and they've become closer to their neighbours.

Jack Johnson, the musician, helped us to plant trees. He and Kim Johnson run the Johnson Ohana Foundation, and invited other conservation organisations to his concert in Peru. The foundation supported our work to plant 200 trees and install an irrigation system.

We've also worked with Enel energy and the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, United States. 

How does your ecotourism project work?

We're creating ecotourism routes in virgin forests, so that visitors can safely see endangered species.

We follow a viable economic model based on ecotourism that we've seen in other parts of Peru. We've employed local guides and builders, and some families in the community turn their homes into bed and breakfasts. The local government have also offered their support for the project.

Peru is already a destination for bird tourism. Right now it's mostly local people who are visiting, and we want to promote the project internationally, as we expand those routes.

How do you keep endangered wildlife safe while tourists are visiting?

People from the local town guard their patch of forest by patrolling it during the day, and we ask tourists to stay on our designated the routes. Fires and littering are not allowed, and we have covered bins along the routes.

The endangered species are shy, so they keep their distance from visitors. Tourists would have a hard time if they tried to catch them.

We are building an information centre with more information about how to behave in the forest. 

How might someone start their own reforestation initiative? 

If you want to start an initiative like this, do it yourself first. Plant a tree where your neighbours can see it.

If you have good results, your neighbour might be interested. Then, you can tell people about it, if they don't approach you first.

I think people are inspired by action.

You can apply or nominate someone for the Study UK Alumni Awards until 28 October 2019 (15 September in selected countries). 

Michael is co-founder and Director of the non-governmental organisation Ecoswell, and a global finalist in the Study UK Alumni Awards 2018-19. Students and professionals can apply on the website for volunteer opportunities.

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