The Jungle inside the Jungle: An Impression of the Peruvian Amazon

By Vincent Bax. Edited by Wendy Francesconi

The pristine, natural, and intensely green Amazonian forests have captured my interest for as long as I can remember. My second hand knowledge of tropical rain forests was built on an accumulation of books, courses, television, and of course the internet. The wait and hard work had paid off, I was finally going to experience first-hand one of the most biodiverse biomes in our planet. Within the framework of the ASSETS project, I had the opportunity to conduct research on deforestation processes in the Central Peruvian Amazon. From my home town in the Netherlands, I moved and lived in the jungle city of Pucallpa for about 8 months. Not too long ago, Pucallpa was a small settlement at the margins of the Ucayali River (a major tributary to the Amazon River). Today the city is the most important commercial port of the region. Since the 1940s, people from many different origins have migrated to Pucallpa resulting in a society of mixed cultures and traditions.

Timber extraction in Ucayali River, near Pucallpa, Peru. Picture by Wendy Francesconi.

Timber extraction in Ucayali River, near Pucallpa, Peru. Picture by Wendy Francesconi.


The lush green rain forest has rapidly been replaced by an ever growing concrete jungle. The life threatening traffic, the never ending construction work on every corner, the open air concerts and drum bands late into the evening, the beggars and vagabonds, the stray dogs and rats, all bombard and assault your senses as you attempt to stroll the door to door cemented streets. Very soon it became clear to me that Pucallpa’s multicultural population brings along a divergence of values and living standards. The fact is that not everyone subscribes to a consensus on social harmony and hygiene. This forest- agricultural frontier in the Amazon could easily be thought of as the 21st century’s “Wild West”. The ability to adapt to this harsh urban environment is an important one if one wants to reside in Pucallpa. Although life in this jungle city is far from perfect, living there enabled me to gain insight on the environmental and social problems affecting the Peruvian Amazon region.

The massive destruction of the tropical rainforests becomes painfully evident as fully loaded timber ships arrive at Pucallpa’s harbor every single day. It is well known that much of this timber is extracted illegally. However, for many reasons the government completely fails, to reduce or manage these activities. The rural areas surrounding Pucallpa and along the main highway are already completely deforested. The highly degraded environment makes it easy for you to forget that you are standing in the Amazon basin, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Along with the exploitation of the forest timber, the native wildlife is under great pressure as well. River turtles, salamanders, birds and monkeys can be bought dead, alive, and somewhere in between, at the market in Pucallpa for just a couple of Peruvian soles (less than a dollar). Though this trade is illegal and concerns many endangered species, no serious action is taken by the authorities to prevent these crimes on nature.

Far away from the chaos of Pucallpa, some indigenous communities in rural areas along the Ucayali River maintain a different way of life. I visited one Shipibo village about 5 hours from Pucallpa. Though conveniences such as piped water, electricity, etc., are lacking, and life can be very difficult from time to time, the indigenous population seems to adopt a less stressful lifestyle compared to the urban dwellers. People seem less interested in gaining monetary wealth since most of the resources they use and need are found in their immediate surroundings. Fresh fish is extracted from the river, fruits are collected in the forest, and vegetables are cultivated on small plots of land. The village is full of life surrounded by trees, birds, primates, reptiles and other wildlife. In contrast to Pucallpa, the songs and calls, earthy fresh smells, and green, blue, brown sights inspire and embrace you.

It was not obvious to me how ongoing deforestation and other environmental issues in the region are affecting this community. Hopefully, the villagers will be able to maintain their harmonious life style for a very long time. However, we know that this will probably not be the case. The desire for achieving development under the conceptual framework of western society, as the power to acquire of manufactured goods, is too heavy to counterbalance when the legacy involves centuries of undermining indigenous wisdom and culture. The most likely outcome is for migration to Pucallpa to continue to grow, strengthening the unsustainable extraction of natural resources, given that a living environment in the concrete jungle is favored over a living environment in agreement with nature.

Pilot in Zomba

reblogged from


Zomba, a small city in Malawi, without traffic lights, where half of the (few) cars that drive around have a logo, and where the other 50% demonstrates the huge inequalities that exist in this country, where the university and forest research institute host some of the most amazing researchers and critical thinkers!

And where one of the large research projects managed to hire all good-quality rental cars in Zomba, so that I ended up with this …

My first (pilot) trip to Malawi is over and I have enjoyed (most of) it. The purpose of the trip was to test my surveys, which include different valuation methods, as well as develop future scenarios as part of my ESPA Fellowship research. My Fellowship is linked to the ESPA ASSETS project, which focuses on food security and nutrition.

The bit where I had to work every evening and weekend I will leave out. The bit where the printer decided to merge all words in Chichewa into a long blurb, leaving my (brilliant!) research assistants a bit confused, I will also not dwell on. And everything that I would not do according to my risk assessment but …, I cannot tell here.

Car repair in Zomba

My trip started very well. I was welcomed by Dalitso from LEAD SEA, the (very supporting!) host institution and partner in the Assets project, who not only managed to arrange everything such that I hit the ground running so fast that I almost tumbled over, but also advised me to buy candles for the occasional / regular blackout. I was almost disappointed when the candles were left untouched until well into week 3 (when I realised I didn’t have any matches).

In the four weeks that followed, there was a lot of learning, digging up experiences from previous projects, some more learning, a bit of pushing and pulling, some compromising, and various sighs of relief when methods, designed in an office in Southampton, actually worked at the foothills of Zomba Mountain!

Most enjoyable, by far, were the days out of the office, in what will be my case study villages. It is perhaps a cliche for Malawi, but respondents and participants were very patient with us, and extremely cooperative in the discussions and group exercises. Big kudo to my three research assistants, who went along with my experiments while always being super professional!

It was tough hearing people say over and over again that they lack the most basic necessities, such as safe drinking water, health care and schools – and then spending the equivalent of half their annual harvest on a rental car (see above). Or hearing about the endless promises made to these villages about nursery schools, water well improvements, agroforestry or health centers that never got any follow up – and then having to admit that you are here ‘only’ to do research.

Politics at various levels may be frustrating. During one of the field days, we ran into the household listing / census (important for fertiliser subsidy distribution, among other things). A conversation we picked up walking behind two women:

“Oh.. this village will never improve”
“What do you mean?”
“Our village headman, he is a disaster. He tried to register Williams again”
“Which Williams?”
“The one that is now in the graveyard”

The combination of expert interviews and these on the ground experiences has given me a first glimpse into the realities of poverty, inequality, agriculture and natural resource management in Malawi, and I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to come back in June!

The Hidden Spirit of the “ruined Maloca”


Maloca in the Colombian Amazon

Authors: Jenny Alexandra Angarita-Báez & Carolina Díaz-Jaramillo

Our experience in La Pedrera in the Colombian Amazon is of two worlds, one of human settlements labouring day and night on a land which constitutes their main source of subsistence, the other a magical world from which the voices of the communities’ dead ancestors, once honourable members of these settlements, all clamour and demand of their descendants that due care and attention is paid to the fragile ecosystems on which their whole existence depends.

From the depths of the village’s ruins of an ancient maloca, the continuous melodious chants of the community’s long-deceased elders could be clearly heard during the night. One of the villagers, who could not resist the call, decided to investigate and discover the source of these bewitching tunes. One night, as he crossed the maloca’s threshold, he encountered a spirit, dancing and singing in the middle of the room (dancing and chanting in the same manner villagers celebrate important occasions, e.g. the harvest season). According to tradition, confronting a spirit constitutes a dangerous challenge, so as soon as the villager saw what was taking place, he turned on his heels and fled. Not been able to hold his tongue on the matter, he immediately recounted the experience to the rest of the community, who advised him to leave well alone, but the attractions of the place overwhelmed the poor chap, who in the meantime was already planning his next trip. Putting his plan into action, he visited the haunted maloca the following day, with the firm idea of killing the spirit! On arrival, he heard the same enchanting tunes as the spirit was once more, singing and dancing in the maloca’s main room. As the villager entered and prepared to draw the weapon he was carrying, the spirit noticing his intention battered the man to death without a second thought.


Inside the maloca

As the days went by and the villager was neither seen nor heard, the other members of the community begun to express concerns on his whereabouts. One of those present volunteered to investigate the matter. It so happened, that same evening, the chants and dancing of the spirit at the ruined maloca could once more be overheard in the village, and the volunteer come “inspector”, recalling the “demons” driving to distraction his missing friend, decided to visit the ruins himself. On seen the spirit, he understood it was moaning in distress because something was holding him captive within the ruins. It was important to discover what held him chained to the place, as its destruction would guarantee its release and enable the community to live in peace once more. With this in mind, the inspector together with other community members visited the ruined maloca early the following day. In the main room, hidden under the board the spirit used to stamp his feet on while he danced, they found a collection of charmed leaves and stones held together by a liana. Gathering all these items, the little group exited the ruins and proceeded to light a fire and destroy them. The story goes nobody has heard chants of any kind in the ruins since ☺ (story heard from Don Alberto, a local storyteller).

Violence breeds failure, much more is gained through careful appraisal of our surroundings – culture as well as nature, as we stand a much better chance of success if we make an effort to understand!

Reflecting on this little story, it is clear that regardless of your geographic coordinates or your roots, societies all over the world attempt to transmit the same message to their descendants! It’s a pity their voices are drowned amidst the shouts of war and greediness that often prevail!!!!

An evening with Polly Higgins

Polly Higgins

On Thursday 6 November, 7:30 pm, James Dyke (University of Southampton) and others will be hosting Polly Higgins at the Turner Sims concert venue at the University of Southampton. 

ec•o•cide [noun] is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.

Polly has become renowned for spearheading the campaign to bring a Law of Ecocide as the 5th crime against humanity, peace and ultimately nature, to stand alongside war crimes and genocide. Polly will give a talk that, after a short break with some complimentary refreshments, will be followed by what I’m sure will be a lively panel discussion.

Tickets can be obtained from the Turner Sims website here.

Come and listen to a legend of our times and ask questions to a panel of esteemed guests, including Keith Taylor MEP.

Reminiscing on my childhood days


Juice making

Los pollitos dicen, pío, pío, pío,
cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frío.
La gallina busca el maíz y el trigo,
les da la comida y les da abrigo.
Bajo sus dos alas se están quitecitos,
y hasta el otro día duermen calentitos

Those members of the ASSETS team who took part in the project workshop in Peru between 22nd – 26th September had the good fortune to visit several of the study sites. One was several hours drive from Pucallpa in an area where oil palm plantations are rapidly replacing forest. We left this village with “la barriga llena y el corazón contento” (a full tummy and a happy heart), a well-known traditional Colombian proverb, no surprises there :-) after partaking of a fish soup (gamitana) and plantain feast served by our local host, all washed down with juice made from the fruit of local palms (aguajales). Our next stop was a community much closer to Pucallpa, which has no more access to forest resources and is suffering from severe soil degradation leading many families to leave the community to make a living elsewhere.

Arriving a little later than expected, we were slightly worried about the kind of welcome we would receive. These doubts were unfounded as on arrival, we were greeted by a very special welcoming party, none other than the community’s very own children school choir.

The children were all “full of beans” and in appreciation for the bunch of “uvas caimaronas” we shared with them on arrival, they treated us to their very own interpretation of “Los pollitos dicen”, a well-known traditional Latin-American children’s song, which I picked up during my school years in Venezuela. Who would have thought it? Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be reminiscing about my Primary school years in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon!!

The whole week gave those who attended, the modellers, the social scientists and the team members working on location in the three countries (Malawi, Colombia, Peru), an excellent opportunity to discuss the current status of the project, take stock of what has already been achieved, and the effort we need to invest, if the team hopes to achieve everything it set out in the project proposal. As I was not hampered by communication barriers, I was in the privileged position of being able to speak directly with different members of the communities that José Sanchez Choy from our local partner, IIAP, arranged for the ASSETS team to visit. The main message that I have brought home with me is their awareness of the environmental challenges confronting them. They are all prepared to make the effort required to ensure their future and that of the environment in which they live, nevertheless they made us all very aware they need to survive under especially difficult circumstances, an exploitative economic and political environment, whilst at the same time fighting a hard battle in a tough and unforgiving environment.

I can’t but hope that we deliver and can’t thank enough José, Gisella, Martha, Cecilia, Lisseth, Ingrid, Carla and Madeleine for their hospitality and professionalism!!!

Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition - The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014

view original FAO post
read SOFI 2014 in brief
read full SOFI 2014 report

MDG target to halve proportion of world’s hungry still within reach by end of 2015

A worker weeding in a nursery in Back Kan, Viet Nam (c)FAO

16 September 2014, Rome – About 805 million people in the world, or one in nine, suffer from hunger, according to a new UN report released today.

The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI 2014) confirmed a positive trend which has seen the number of hungry people decline globally by more than 100 million over the last decade and by 209 million since 1990-92. The report is published annually by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

The overall trend in hunger reduction in developing countries means that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of undernourished people by 2015 is within reach, “if appropriate and immediate efforts are stepped up,” the report said. To date, 63 developing countries have reached the MDG target, and six more are on track to reach it by 2015.

“This is proof that we can win the war against hunger and should inspire countries to move forward, with the assistance of the international community as needed,” the heads of FAO, IFAD and WFP, José Graziano da Silva, Kanayo F. Nwanze and Ertharin Cousin, wrote in their foreword to the report.

They stressed that “accelerated, substantial and sustainable hunger reduction is possible with the requisite political commitment,” and that “this has to be well informed by sound understanding of national challenges, relevant policy options, broad participation and lessons from other experiences.”

SOFI 2014 noted how access to food has improved rapidly and significantly in countries that have experienced overall economic progress, notably in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. Access to food has also improved in Southern Asia and Latin America, but mainly in countries with adequate safety nets and other forms of social protection including for the rural poor.

Hunger reduction has accelerated, but some lag behind

Despite significant progress overall, several regions and sub-regions continue to lag behind. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than one in four people remain chronically undernourished, while Asia, the world’s most populous region, is also home to the majority of the hungry – 526 million people.

Latin America and the Caribbean have made the greatest overall strides in increasing food security. Meanwhile Oceania has accomplished only a modest improvement (1.7 percent decline) in the prevalence of undernourishment, which stood at 14.0 percent in 2012-14, and has actually seen the number of its hungry increase since 1990-92.

The agency heads noted that of the 63 countries which have reached the MDG target, 25 have also achieved the more ambitious World Food Summit (WFS) target of halving the number of undernourished people by 2015. However, the report indicated that time has run out on reaching the WFS target at the global level.

Creating an enabling environment through coordinated actions

With the number of undernourished people remaining “unacceptably high”, the agency heads stressed the need to renew the political commitment to tackle hunger and to transform it into concrete actions. In this context, the heads of FAO, IFAD and WFP welcomed the pledge at the 2014 African Union summit in June to end hunger on the continent by 2025.

“Food insecurity and malnutrition are complex problems that cannot be solved by one sector or stakeholder alone, but need to be tackled in a coordinated way,” they added, calling on governments to work closely with the private sector and civil society.

The FAO, IFAD and WFP report specifies that hunger eradication requires establishing an enabling environment and an integrated approach. Such an approach includes public and private investments to increase agricultural productivity; access to land, services, technologies and markets; and measures to promote rural development and social protection for the most vulnerable, including strengthening their resilience to conflicts and natural disasters. The report also emphasizes the importance of specific nutrition programmes, particularly to address micronutrient deficiencies of mothers and children under five.

Case studies

This year’s report includes seven case studies – Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malawi and Yemen – that highlight some of the ways that countries tackle hunger and how external events may influence their capacity to deliver on achieving food security and nutrition objectives. The countries were chosen because of their political, economic – particularly in the agricultural sector – diversities, and cultural differences.

Bolivia, for example, has created institutions to involve a range of stakeholders, particularly previously marginalized indigenous people.

Brazil‘s Zero Hunger programme, which placed achievement of food security at the centre of the government’s agenda, is at the heart of progress that led the country to achieve both the MDG and WFS targets. Current programmes to eradicate extreme poverty in the country build on the approach of linking policies for family farming with social protection in a highly inclusive manner.

Haiti, where more than half the population is chronically undernourished, is still struggling to recover from the effects of the devastating 2010 earthquake. The report notes how the country has adopted a national programme to strengthen livelihoods and improve agricultural productivity by supporting small family farmers’ access to inputs and services.

Indonesia has adopted legal frameworks and established institutions to improve food security and nutrition. Its policy coordination mechanism involves ministries, NGOs and community leaders. Measures address a wide range of challenges from agricultural productivity growth to nutritious and safe diets.

Madagascar is emerging from a political crisis and is resuming relationships with international development partners aimed at tackling poverty and malnutrition. It is also working in partnership to build resilience to shocks and climate hazards, including cyclones, droughts and locust invasions, which often afflict the island nation.

Malawi has reached the MDG hunger target, thanks to a strong and persistent commitment to boost maize production. However, malnutrition remains a challenge – 50 percent of children under five are stunted and 12.8 percent are underweight. To address the issue, the government is promoting community-based nutrition interventions to diversify production to include legumes, milk, fisheries and aquaculture, for healthier diets, and to improve incomes at the household level.

Conflict, economic downturn, low agricultural productivity and poverty have made Yemen one of the most food-insecure countries in the world. Besides restoring political security and economic stability, the government aims to reduce hunger by one-third by 2015 and to make 90 percent of the population food-secure by 2020. It also aims to reduce the current critical rates of child malnutrition by at least one percentage point per year.

The findings and recommendations of SOFI 2014 will be discussed by governments, civil society, and private sector representatives at the 13-18 October meeting of the Committee on World Food Security, at FAO headquarters in Rome.

The report will also be a focus of the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome from 19-21 November, which FAO is jointly organizing with the World Health Organization. This high-level intergovernmental meeting seeks, at a global level, renewed political commitment to combat malnutrition with the overall goal of improving diets and raising nutrition levels.

Sustainable development must be doughnut-shaped

By James Dyke, University of Southampton; John Dearing, University of Southampton, and Peter Langdon, University of Southampton

Is it possible for humans to fulfil their needs without also destroying the environment? It’s a question we need to find an answer to soon, as the world’s poorer regions demand the same perks that come with development.

On one hand, people need to consume some of a region’s resources so that those living there can drink clean water, grow nutritious food and get access to health services and education. But such consumption comes with unavoidable impacts. If these impacts increase beyond a region’s ability to continue to provide services such as water, pollination, soil stabilisation and climate regulation then the process of development can actually hinder rather than improve people’s welfare and well-being.

Striking the right balance is tricky and requires a new way of defining places that are both environmentally safe and socially just. Over the past two years, working with an international group of scientists, we have developed such a definition of safe and just operating spaces.

In doing so we have tackled the tension that often exists in low-income regions between raising standards of living and keeping environmental impacts within bounds that allow the environment to supply vital services. The findings of our research have been published this month in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Such a formula must factor in everything humans need for themselves and all of their impact on the environment. While environmental impacts and human needs can be loosely grouped together, they don’t necessarily exert pressure in the same direction – think of how demand for more jobs differs from better health, for instance. This calls for a more rounded idea of a safe and just space, where human needs exert an outward pressure and environmental boundaries constrain humanity.

Think of it as a doughnut:

Can we stay within the doughnut? Defining a safe and just space for humanity.
Kate Raworth, Oxford Environmental Change Institute

If we wish to help people out of poverty then we must remain within the doughnut – the safe and just space – where people are above a social foundation in which they have what they need, but are not exceeding environmental ceilings by stressing nature beyond breaking point.

Defining a safe and just space

In order for our approach to have practical use, we needed to show how to define both social foundations and environmental ceilings for a particular region.

For defining social foundations, we built on the work of the economist Kate Raworth who synthesised nationally and internationally agreed minimum living standards. Meeting these minimums means moving into the “doughnut zone”.

Now you see it, now you don’t. Air pollution in Beijing.

But this zone is of course constrained by impact on nature and we propose four different types of environmental ceiling – cross any of the points below and you’ve escaped the doughnut and are into unsustainable territory.

The red line is a limit that is deemed unacceptable to go beyond. A good example is air pollution. The Beijing skyline disappearing behind thick clouds of smog is producing iconic images of the environmental impacts of development in China. What is deemed an acceptable level of air pollution varies from country to country.

The runaway can be explained with a cycling metaphor. Zooming downhill on a bike can be a thrilling experience. Unfortunately, fun can quickly turn to terror if you realise that your brakes are not slowing you down and in fact you are going faster and faster. Continual over-fishing of certain species on coral reefs can produce a series of rapidly unfolding disruptions to the entire system that quickly get out of hand and lead to the collapse of the reef.

The tipping point is how close to a critical transition a system may be. A good example here is the sudden change in water quality in a lake that within weeks can go from a seemingly healthy system with clear water and teeming with fish, to green and clogged with suffocating algae. Moving the system back to the clear-water state can be as challenging as putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The early warning signal can be best explained with another cycling metaphor. Your brakes may be able to handle very steep slopes but you may be unfortunate to experience a speed wobble where the front wheel begins to oscillate. These wobbles can feed back on themselves until the entire bike starts shaking from side to side. In such situations you slow down either gradually by applying the brakes or much more suddenly by getting thrown off the bike and sliding across the road. But there is hope that for some systems we may be able to detect these oscillations in time to be able to reduce our impacts. Consequently, detecting early warning signals themselves can be considered as a threshold that we should be wary of.

Can we stay within the green zone? Four types of environmental ceiling.
Dearing et al Global Environmental Change 2014.

Putting it into practice

Two of our co-authors Rong Wang and Ke Zhang analysed environmental and socio-economic data to help define the social foundations and environmental ceilings for two case-study regions in China: Shucheng County and Erhai Lake.

In both regions, intense agricultural development since 1960 has reduced poverty, but at significant environmental cost. The regional doughnut for Shucheng County shows that water quality, air quality and sediment quality have breached the environmental ceiling while access to clean water, sanitation and education is well below the social foundation.

The Shucheng County region in China is well outside any safe and just operating space.
Dearing et al (2014) Global Environmental Change.

Identifying such environmental ceilings is of little use if we simply power on past them. We hope that our integrated approach will lead to sustainable strategies that are based on a better understanding of the ecosystems that we all ultimately depend upon.

We may not be able to completely avoid all environmental impacts associated with poverty alleviation – we cannot have our cake and eat it – but we can try to ensure as many people as possible enjoy living within the doughnut.

The Conversation
John Dearing received funding from Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme (ESPA) (grant reference EIRG-2011-166).

Peter Langdon receives funding from Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme (ESPA) (grant reference EIRG-2011-166).

James Dyke does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment

The new improved, interactive Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment (TESSA) was launched this week at the 7th Annual Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Costa Rica and is now available online.

For an introduction to TESSA have a look at the presentation by BirdLife Internationals Jenny Birch through SGA Network (

To learn more about TESSA please have a look at TESSA: A toolkit for rapid assessment of ecosystem services at sites of biodiversity conservation importance (Ecosystem Services, Volume 5, September 2013, Pages 51–57).

How to engage with participants in field research

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“Your aim in communicating effectively with communities is to build mutual trust and improve the buy-in that will sustain your research project, as well as making the experience as beneficial to the community as possible.”

This and many others experiences are shared by Obidimma Ezezika on the SciDevNet website. Obidimma is the CEO of the African Centre for Innovation and Leadership Development and an adjunct Lecturer at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.

Top aspects: How to engage with communities in field research

  1. Focus on trust
  2. Engage early
  3. Listen and learn
  4. Get to know your participants
  5. Use the right communication methods
  6. Get informed consent
  7. Communication should not end with the research

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