Bob Taylor’s – World Forestry Tour (video)

Izabal Agro-Forest recently had the privilege of hosting Bob Taylor and an impressive group of influencers in the wood business, in Guatemala.   Their visit was part of a world forestry tour that Bob Taylor has been planning for some time now, the main objective is/was to learn.  The group is planting trees in Cameroon, Hawaii, and Washington, and they wanted to see examples of forward-thinking forestry operations, in the hopes to exchange ideas and meet people with similiar visions of what the tonewood & forestry sector will look like in the future.

We spent the day reviewing our operations in Izabal, and had a great day listening and learning from this very inspiring group of individuals (listed below).  Thank you to the talented Paul Akers for documenting the visit:

If you would like information about Izabal Agro-Forest’s sustainable investments please contact us here.

1.  Bob Taylor  – Co-ower/operator Taylor Guitars, Crelicam, a Cameroonian ebony company and Paniolo Tonewoods, an Hawaiian company focused on growing several wood species, including Koa (TaylorGuitars website)
2.  Steve McMinn  – Owner and operator of Pacific Rim Tonewoods, a spruce supplier (Pacific Rim Tonewoods website)
3.  Kevin Burke  – Pacific Rim Tonewoods, primary log buyer and project manager
4.  Scott Paul  – Previously an important forest campaigner for Greenpeace,  current Natural Resource Sustainability Director for Taylor Guitars
5.  Vidal De Teresa – The is the owner and operator of Madinter Tonewoods as well as partner in Crelicam, a Cameroonian ebony company (Madinter website)
6.    Nicholas Koch  – Forester with 14 yrs experience, Forest Solutions website
7.   Paul Akers  – he is an entrepreneur, author, speaker. He is the founder and president of FastCap. Paul Akers website

Chocolate & Wine: A Common Fate?

Over the past decade the chocolate market has undergone an astonishingly fast process of “premiumization,” in some ways comparable to the segmentation of the wine market. Viticulture concepts, such as “goût de terroir,” “grand cru” and “single estate,” are increasingly bandied around to describe fine-flavor cacao beans and denominate origin. Some bar makers have gone so far as to recommend pairing their products with specific foods or spirits.

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Wooden fermentation bins, Hacienda Rio Dulce, Izabal, Guatemala

The boutique chocolate maker, To’ak, made waves with the launch of  bars retailing for over $300 a pop made from aged Ecuadorian beans replete with vintage year. Another noteworthy trend in the gourmet chocolate world is an intensified emphasis on origin. Onyx Coffee Lab recently launched its Terroir Coffee Chocolate, which combines coffee and cacao grown in the same region:

For the initial run of Terroir, Onyx has selected three distinct origins, two that will be familiar to the coffee world and one that is better known for its cacao. Their Guatemalan chocolate combines a 69% cacao grown amongst lemons, coffee, and honeybees with wash-processed Caturra and Bourbon varieties from the famed Finca La Esperanza in Huehuetenango.

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Insulation fabric to modulate temperature during fermentation, Hacienda Rio Dulce

These concepts may well be justified given cacao’s chemical complexity. Like wine, chocolate has a dazzlingly high number of chemical compounds that determine aroma and flavor (cocoa contains more than 600 flavor compounds; red wine has some 200). Compared with other industrial crops, cacao trees represent a vast genetic variability among cultivars by region. Trees’ genes interplay with the conditions in which they are grown to produce flavor: elevation, shading, rainfall, soil type, micronutrients and even endemic mycorrhizae, the fungi that colonize a plant’s roots. Proper fermentation and drying of the cacao and their subsequent transformation into chocolate tease out the bean’s full potential.

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Cacao beans being prepared for fermentation, Hacienda Rio Dulce

As growers, an equally intriguing comparison can be made between the cultivation of wine grapes and cacao. A recent article published in the New York Times profiled the Jackson Family Wines company in California and the winemaker’s adoption of techniques to anticipate and mitigate the effects of climate change. Like cacao and coffee, climate change is posing an existential threat to many traditional vineyard areas with one study suggesting that global output could plummet by mid-century:

It found that the area suitable for wine production will shrink by as much as 73% by 2050 in certain parts of the globe, with high potential for stress on rivers and other freshwater ecosystems as vineyards use water to cool grapes or irrigate to compensate for rising temperatures and declining rainfall.

Wine growers are challenged by increasingly unpredictable temperature swings and more frequent dry spells. This has prompted growers to expand into new, generally cooler regions, such as Oregon. These are trends we are also contending with at Izabal Agro-Forest. Across Central America, a combination of factors has already led to the conversion of farms from coffee to cacao driven principally by climate change. Drier, warmer weather is pushing cacao cultivation up the mountain into higher elevations along Central America’s cordillera.

In Nicaragua, the ideal coffee zone is between 700 and 1,700 meters (2,297-5,577 feet) above sea level, but rising temperatures and lower rainfall will shift the range to 1,000 to 1,700 meters (3,281-5,577 feet) by 2050, according to a 2012 study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Temperatures have increased between 0.5 and 3 degrees Celsius (0.9-5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the region in the past century, and temperatures in coffee zones are expected to rise another 2.1 degrees Celsius (3.8 Fahrenheit) by 2050.

Simultaneously, the spread of roya — a type of fungal rust that affects coffee trees — is accelerating under the warmer conditions. In sum, we have much to learn from our wine-growing counterparts in Napa and Sonoma Valley largely because the threats are common.

Jackson Family Wines has adopted high-tech measures, such as sensor-activated wind machines. While these may not be cost-effective for most cacao growers, Izabal Agro-Forest uses principles of agro-forestry, most importantly, the interplanting of overstory trees. Interplanting not only provides shade, but also serves as shock absorption against heavy rains and wind while helping to retain humidity during dry periods. Izabal Agro-Forest utilizes native hardwoods with high resilience and commercial value, including, among others, big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). By producing a source of sustainable plantation mahogany, we hope eventually to relieve pressure on the species in its natural habitat, which is nearing commercial depletion.

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Interplanted native hardwoods and cacao at Hacienda Rio Dulce

Jackson Family Wines employs birds of prey by providing dozens of owl boxes and even bringing in falconers. Although controlling the population or behavioral patterns of fruit-eating birds may, at first glance, appear anti-ecological, farmers are contending with imbalances triggered by the human-induced decline of raptors and other predators. The explosion of prey populations that also happen to feed on crops can have deleterious effects on food production and even the geological landscape.

I recently became familiar with the concept of “trophic cascade,” which refers to a process in which a predator suppresses the population and/or distribution of prey. The reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park has been perhaps the most salient recent example. Researchers discovered that the flourishing wolf population altered the behavior of deer, which had become emboldened in their grazing. More than killing large numbers, the wolves drove the deer away from low-lying river areas. The retreat of the deer led to the regeneration of vegetation, which in turn reduced erosion. The return of trees and natural grasses altered the course of streams, creating habitat for beavers and other wildlife whose populations began to rebound. Perhaps Izabal Agro-Forest can draw lessons from the experience of Jackson Family Wines as its cacao stands have faced losses due to an abundance of woodpeckers. The reintroduction of raptors could be an elegant solution, although any such measures would need to occur in close collaboration with ecologists.

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Cacao cultivars, Hacienda Rio Dulce

Like many winemakers, Izabal Agro-Forest has turned to red wigglers for help. With assistance from Byo-Earth and other partners, we constructed a worm compost facility whose vermicompost has helped improve nutrient content and bio-availability to levels superior to those of inorganic fertilizers. Just as important as its nutritional content, vermicompost is a soil conditioner that improves water retention, a crucial benefit given that cacao cultivation worldwide is almost entirely rainfed and subject to increasingly dry weather conditions.

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Local students visit recently-inaugurated vermiculture bins, Hacienda Rio Dulce

Our company has deployed the ancient technique of biochar which utilizes biomass converted to activated charcoal through pyrolysis. Biochar is effective at improving the fertility of acidic soils. (The majority of tropical soils tend to be acidic due to weathering and leaching, particularly after forests are cleared). There is increasing evidence that biochar promotes carbon sequestration.

Although wine grapes and cacao come from vastly different regions, they face similar threats. Growers of both are well-advised to swap notes on management techniques that enhance crop resilience and check the burgeoning threats posed by a changing climate. For die-hard chocoholics and wine connoisseurs alike, the question itself may be existential: Is a planet without wine and chocolate a planet worth living on?

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Steve Bergin of Conservation Cacao contemplating the biochemistry of fermentation, Hacienda Rio Dulce

The Ivory Coast: A case study on climate change and the chocolate we eat

The Ivory Coast has featured prominently in this year’s commodity news with reports of cocoa shipments falling far below levels of previous years. This week, Reuters reported that cocoa port arrivals dropped a dramatic 16% year-on-year since the start of the season last October. A series of recent reports have linked unseasonably dry weather to the sharp decline in grindings and exports. In particular, the Harmattan winds that blow from the Sahara southward across much of West Africa have been unforgiving to this season’s harvest. Industry expectations are for the trend to continue into the next growing season mainly due to low rainfall. Not only have volumes been affected, but quality as well with smaller average bean size and high acidity being reported. As a consequence, exporters have turned away as much as half of arriving volumes. The socioeconomic impact of this damage on the country’s smallholder producers has been extensive.

The Ivorian case is emblematic of supply-side challenges being faced worldwide by the cocoa industry. As the world’s largest producer, what happens in the Ivory Coast will have repercussions felt by chocolate consumers everywhere. This article reviews some of the proximate causes as well as the fundamental driver behind the crisis.

In June, a group of researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture published an article examining the impact of climate change in West Africa’s cocoa belt and the results are cause for dismay. The authors predict both increased precipitation and temperature extremes during the dry season. They identify the forest-savanna transition zone to be the most vulnerable, predicting 87% and 57% drops in suitable growing areas in Nigeria and Ivory Coast, respectively, by 2050.

Relative climatic suitability (in percent) for cocoa of the West Africa cocoa belt

Relative climatic suitability (in percent) for cocoa of the West Africa cocoa belt (Source: CIAT)

Although it is difficult to draw a causal link to climate change, farmers in the Ivory Coast recently reported a mass caterpillar invasion that has affected around 17,000 hectares of growing areas. (Link: video). The extent of the damage and the potential spread of the caterpillar have yet to be fully understood.

Another effect of shifting weather has been the conversion of cocoa acreage to informal mining operations as pits are torn directly into cocoa fields to extract gold. In other cases, cocoa farmers are being drawn from parched farms to the mining regions, leaving trees abandoned.

An informal miner on a cleared plot (Source: AFP)

An informal miner on a cleared plot (Source: AFP)

Against this backdrop, ethnic tensions are simmering as thousands of Ivorian refugees return to their homes only to find the farms occupied by newcomers, often from other regions, in the wake of the country’s 2010 civil war. Many settlers include migrants from neighboring countries that have also been subject to a changing climate. The government’s efforts to adjudicate disputes through the issuance of land title have been woefully inadequate; overall, land tenure remains precarious. In such legal limbo, farmers are understandably reluctant to make needed investments in their orchards.

Displacement and the resulting resource conflicts have manifested themselves in widespread squatting across the country’s remaining protected forests. Experts estimate that the Ivory Coast has lost 80% of its forested area since 1960. Forest clearance continues largely unabated and cocoa farming is pervasive on such plots. Experts believe as much as one third of the country’s cocoa may originate from protected areas.

Burnt cocoa farm in a protected area (Source: Reuters)

Burnt cocoa farm in a protected area (Source: Reuters)

This has pitted human livelihoods against the survival of endangered species, including the pygmy hippopotamus and chimpanzees, endemic to these forests. Taking a more muscular approach, authorities forcibly evicted thousands cocoa farmers from these lands. The removal of over 50,000 people from Mont Peko National Park alone may take 10,000 tons of cocoa off the market in short order and is likely to further inflame tensions. Human rights groups have raised the alarm that the evictions have been linked to the illegal destruction of homes, intimidation, extortion and even murder.

Taken together, these factors paint a picture of long-term secular decline that will not be easily resolved by a year or two of plentiful rainfall. Even more concerning is that these trends are not unique to the Ivory Coast. Recent weather patterns attributed to El Niño have adversely affected production from Brazil to Indonesia. While laudable, private and public sectors efforts to combat the effects of climate change would seem to fall short given the magnitude of the problem.

One of the recommendations posed by the CIAT researchers is the adoption of agroforestry systems: “…in view of the relatively high rainfalls and short dry season in this area, the conditions for managing the projected increase in maximum temperatures through the systematic use of shade are particularly good. Cocoa could be grown here in multi-strata agroforests under a canopy of useful trees creating their own microclimate…” (Source: CIAT) Such systems are effective in buffering temperature extremes, modulating humidity, and reducing erosion caused by heavy rainfall. They are also intensive in their capture of carbon dioxide. While cocoa may be the proverbial canary in the mine, agroforestry systems, including those that produce cocoa, will undoubtedly play a role in any serious response to a changing climate.

Update – 15 Sept. 2016

Today, the Wall St. Journal published an article entitled “Cocoa Production Could Be Devastated by Climate Change, Experts Warn,” drawing attention to the potential impact of climate change on cocoa production worldwide. Genetic diversity and the development of new varieties drawn from a broader gene pool is cited as an important part of the response:

“To make cocoa crops more resilient, the industry needs a greater long-term focus on genetic diversity, which will allow plants to better withstand and adapt to changes in climate, said  Brigitte Laliberté an expert on cocoa genetic resources at Biodiversity International, a global research-for-development organization. Genetic diversity in the West African region is low, she said, and while a focus on better agricultural methods can help yields in the short term, in the long term there must be better research and funding for breeding more resilient varieties, she said.”

The lack of genetic diversity makes African cocoa inherently more vulnerable to pests and disease that can be spawned by changes in humidity and temperature vis-a-vis Latin America cocoa farms whose natural genetic pool is more diverse. This point certainly underscores the importance of avoiding monoculture around a handful of clonal selections; embracing endemic varieties; and employing agroforestry systems to enhance the species’ natural resilience.

Update – 16 Sept. 2016

Outcries have mounted over the government’s handling of the Mont Peko evictions with Human Rights Watch issuing a scathing statement:

“International law protects anyone who occupies land from forced evictions that either do not provide adequate notice or do not respect the dignity and rights of those affected, regardless of whether they occupy the land legally.”

Now homeless, thousands of former squatters have been driven into neighboring villages that lack the resources to accommodate them.

Bloomberg reported today that the impending cocoa shortage is likely to worsen over the remainder of the current season and into the next. By one measure (stockpiles-to-grindings), the market is at its tightest in 30 years with cocoa butter in particularly short supply. The head of Olam International’s cocoa division (the company is the world’s 3rd largest processor) stated:

“The light crop has just been a disaster in Ivory Coast and the Indonesian crop has been much smaller than we thought… We are seeing acute shortages in Asia, acute shortages in America, acute shortages in Africa… You are not really going to catch up with that deficit until the latter part of next year. And for that, you are going to need not only good main crops, but above-normal mid-crops.”

Heading into the peak Halloween and Christmas demand period, it seems likely that the scarcity will be felt by consumers and producers alike.

 

 

Pay your cacao farmer well!

Cocoa beans from a Theobroma cacao tree

Cocoa beans from a Theobroma cacao tree

There is a troublesome trend in the farm world; small farmers are throwing in the towel and big farms are getting bigger.  Naturally, these massive operations have effects on the environment, food costs, human health, communities, and more.

This year we had an experience that made this trend personal.  To be honest, we’ve had an awful harvest when we didn’t expect it.   As a medium scale operation, the income that our harvests bring can be a critical element to our financial sustainability.    We want to do things right, and that costs money.

Last November when our “winter” harvest usually comes in we had a series of weather phenomenons that threw a big fat wrench into our cacao efforts.  Climate change for us, has felt very real this year.  In fact we estimate a 70% decrease in production when compared to last year.  Thankfully we have good clients and we’re diversified; for example we’ve been able to sell lumber and services to make up the difference, but what about the small farmer?  How does one who already lives marginally cope with these situations?  Does he/she give up to go work for the industrial farms?

Most Cocoa farmers, the majority of whom live in West Africa, live in poverty.  In Guatemala, where most of the cocoa is grown by cooperatives, the socio-economic situation is not bad, but its still marginal.

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For the poor farmer that eeks out an existence and is burdened with the risks of climate change and commodity prices, something has to change.  And part of that is to address the value chain and to recognize that we can pay our farmers a little bit more given all of the warmth and goodness that chocolate brings us.

Recently Izabal Agro-Forest conducted a market study for cocoa and found that a substantial increase in the commodity price for cocoa who would have almost no price effect on the consumer, which is crazy!  What the message here?: Let us pay our farmers more:

Andrew Miller (of IAF & Big Leaf) comments:

“Higher cocoa prices need not result in proportionally higher chocolate prices as cocoa represents just 5% of the retail price (see table below). Even if this percentage were to double to 10% in 2020, as projected by Euromonitor, chocolate prices could remain roughly flat.”

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Small to medium sized chocolate makers generally understand that quality and social sustainability are critical elements of supporting good quality cacao and its farmers.  We just need the industrial guys to catch on.

Pay your farmer well!

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The Final Warning Bell

In Brazil deforestation repesents 70% of the country’s carbon emissions (photo courtesy of the WWF)

The final warning bell has been rung by a UN Climate Change report.  The ongoing destruction of the remaining tropical rain forests and the advance of the pine beetle into the extreme north has contributed to 1/5th of the carbon being delivered into our precious atmosphere, much more than all the motorized vehicles, ships and factories on the planet.  Agriculture is the main polluter and negative factor in this equation.  Here in Guatemala, just to mention an example, at certain times of the year, the burning of the cane fields on the Pacific coast, is enough to darken the sky and cause an ash fall of choking dimensions in nearby communities.

The question is why has forestry not been able to play a more important and sustainable role in mitigating climate change?  One obvious reply is that the global public is kept in the dark by a disinterested media, passive educators and politicians looking only as far as the next vote.

But then what about reforestation companies and the forest investment companies?  Why are they not playing a greater role in the sequestration of carbon and so the salvation of our planet as we know it.  Again the answer is painful:  enormous areas covered by mono-cultures of short term tree crops for mainly pulp or biomass using species (e.g. Pine,Eucaliptus or Melina) that are most often foreign to the tropics with negative effects on the soil.  Sustainable agroforestry is one answer.  India has just passed more progressive legislation that removes many of the bureaucratic restrictions on the planting and use of new forests by farmers,that is expected to increase the forest cover there by millions of hectares.  Both investors, forestry companies and governments need to pay more attention to native forest species for lumber and food while considering the infinite possibilities of sub-canopy planting.

In addition, especially Universities should be playing an important role in environmentally correct reforestation and habitat recovery, but sadly most often their endowment funds invest in mono-cultures and doubtful short term returns, while their scientists preach another story.  It is a dysfunction that every responsible citizen and especially foresters need to urgently correct before we are obligated to send a flotilla of arks to Bangladesh, a country that lies almost entirely at sea level.

– Richard Bronson

Palm monoculture

Palm monoculture in Guatemala

Agrforestry parcel, IAF, Guatemala