17 Aug The History of Rios’ Rainforest Restoration Program
From Adventure Tourism to Rainforest Restoration
It was only about six years after founding our adventure tourism company in 1985 that we began our reforestation program. Rios Tropicales started out in 1989 with the practical decision to buy some property for our overnight trips. We had been camping on Anibal Obando’s property for about three years. His self-sufficient farm included sugar cane, pineapples, cattle, corn, rice and several other products. Every day, Anibal, Doña Dina and their 15 kids would hike up from their home in El Tigre to harvest and care for this property. While their property was (and is!) spectacularly beautiful, it’s very rugged, steep terrain. Not exactly ideal for any of their farming endeavors!
When we ran the Rainforest Festival for project RAFT in 1991, we decided the timing was perfect to make Anibal an offer to purchase his 100-acre farm. However, we had a special clause to our deal: we would hire him and his family to care for our future property. Suddenly, we were landowners!
Our first order of business was showing the Obando kids how to collect seeds from the local forest, build a nursery for the seeds, and then grow the trees that would eventually be planted in areas previously deforested for subsistence farming. The kids were our first active participants in reforesting their former property. Pretty cool, we think.
By 1992, we had planted more than 500 trees (the growth period is very fast in our primary rainforest!), mainly caobilla and laurel. Then, a funny thing happened: the neighbors started approaching us to buy their properties because they heard we wanted more land for conservation. Since the terrain was quite rugged and difficult to deforest anyway, it wasn’t long until we purchased our second property, about 250 acres just downriver from the 100 acres we bought from the Obando family.
Ramping Up the Reforestation
After the first two purchases, we really started gathering momentum. In 1994, we used the profits from our first store selling specialized adventure sports gear to purchase property being deforested at the end of the road to El Tigre, a local community. We immediately began reforesting with a number of native species that were in danger of extinction. Not only were we saving rainforest, we were gathering support! The next couple of chunks of primary rainforest were purchased by groups of friends whom we encouraged to join in our mission of saving the rainforest. They knew we were conservationists and were excited to participate. Turns out, they weren’t the only ones!
A Reunion Leads to a Powerful Union
Our founder and president, Rafael Gallo, attended his 20-year reunion with the Tenth Street Paddlers at the University of Tennessee in 1999. These were the very same friends who introduced him to the rivers of the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee and initiated Rafa’s river-running odyssey. Of course, when they heard about our conservation efforts, they wanted in. With their help, we purchased a 90-acre farm adjacent to the others. However, this purchase added a new twist: it was one-third forest and the rest was pasture. We decided to reforest it with more than 1,000 dypterix panamensis trees as well as other local species. All the trees were fast growing so we could re-establish the water sheds. In addition, we decided to add sustainable farming to our mix, with some grass-fed cattle and sheep.
By 2005, we planted three acres of bamboo (guadua angustifolia) and dendrocalamus asper. Both of these fast-growing native species will soon be harvested and used to build cabins at our award-winning ecolodge in the Pacuare Basin. Naturally, we’ll be reforesting everything we use!
Extending Our Conservation
Once we got into sustainable farming and grass-fed cattle, we realized the need for more land for production and sustainable development that would support the upkeep of the rest of the rainforest. Rafael teamed with partner Jimmy Nixon for their largest purchase to date: 300 acres of pasture and another 300 in secondary and primary forest. By 2008, we began to restore the 300 acres of pasture to its original forest with the planting of our first 5,000 trees. In 2025, we expect to have all 300 acres of pasture reforested.