Biodiversity in a commercial plantation

Mico Leon

One of the things we strive for in our plantations is to retain, and hopefully increase, the biodiversity that may have been lost from the original razing of the forest.  Most plantations in Central America are/have been established on pastureland; that is land that was deforested for the establishment of cattle pasture.  Usually the process goes something like this; loggers extract precious hardwoods, opening extraction roads, campesinos (or small farmers) move in and some small-scale cultivation takes place.  These small parcels are sold legally or Illegally to larger land owners that see no value in the forest, and raze it and its biodiversity for pastureland.  In the tropics it’s almost universal that the economics of cattle operations fail and eventually these sell to large agro-industrial operations (Teak, Pine, Palm, Sugar cane, etc).  By this time these soils are severely degraded.

Responsible land-use is something that we’re passionate about.  In the end it’s about respecting the land’s potential as a refuge and as a provider, equally.  We fully recognize that a plantation of any type, even with an emphasis towards biodiversity will never fully replace the flora and fauna of a natural forest, but we do hope to greatly increase the figures (10x+) when compared to standard plantations.

All images below were taken on or near IAF plantations.

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Izabal Agro Forest’s field staff

The heart and soul of any forest operation, today I would like to honor IAF’s field staff:

Francisco Chacon Age: 26 Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Spanish Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 9 years Jobs: Prunes and takes care of the cacao. Is an all around boss. Other employment: Has worked on other farms Future plans: work on the farm, marry girlfriend Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Close to Seja, makes it easy to get to work. It’s a large farm with many different trees and there is always work available.

Francisco Chacon
Age: 26
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Spanish
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 9 years
Jobs: Prunes, grafts, and takes care of the cacao.
Other employment: Has worked on other farms
Future plans: work on the farm, marry girlfriend
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Close to Seja, makes it easy to get to work. It’s a large farm with many different trees and there is always work available.

Vicente Pan Age: 45 Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español and Kekchi Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years  Jobs: Grafting, fertilizing, prune, clearing underbrush, planting kudzu and cacao Other Employment: Vicente has worked on other Farms before Izabal Future Plans: To continue working on the Farm and live in Seja Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: A beautiful farm with a large variety of species in both flora and fauna.

Vicente Pan
Age: 45
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español and Kekchi
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years
Jobs: Grafting, fertilizing, pruning, clearing underbrush, planting kudzu and cacao
Other Employment: Vicente has worked on other Farms before Izabal
Future Plans: To continue working on the Farm and live in Seja
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: A beautiful farm with a large variety of species in both flora and fauna.

 

Conrado Rodriguez Age: 57 Place of Residence: Fronteras, Izabal Languages Spoken: Spanish Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 27 years Jobs: Supervisor field operations Other employment: has worked on other farms Future Plans: For now just continue working on Izabal Agroforest Opinion on Izabal Agroforest:The work is best here

Conrado Diaz
Age: 57
Place of Residence: Fronteras, Izabal
Languages Spoken: Spanish
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 27 years
Jobs: Supervisor field operations
Other employment: has worked on other farms
Future Plans: For now just continue working on Izabal Agroforest
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest:The work is best here

 

Name: Miguel Angel Chacon Chacon Age: 19 Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 2 months Jobs: brush control,  Other employment: worked in a carpenter’s shop Future plans: continue working and eventually marry girlfriend Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Theres a lot of different jobs to do and its closer to Seja than other farms

Name: Miguel Angel Chacon Chacon
Age: 19
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 2 months
Jobs: brush control,
Other employment: worked in a carpenter’s shop
Future plans: continue working and eventually marry girlfriend
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Lots of different jobs to do and its closer to Seja than other farms

Name: Jose Alvez Age: 22  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years Jobs: Brush control, planting seedlings, prune cacao Other Employment: Has worked on other farms Future Plans: He says he’s hoping for good luck in the future, so he can provide a nice life for himself. Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says they different plants here, and lots of different types of work to do.

Name: Jose Alvez
Age: 22
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years
Jobs: Brush control, planting seedlings, prune cacao
Other Employment: Has worked on other farms
Future Plans: He says he’s hoping for good luck in the future, so he can provide a nice life for himself.
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says they different plants here, and lots of different types of work to do.

Name: Arnulfo Chacon Age: 34  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years Jobs: Taking care of the trees, working in the nursery, fertilizing plants  Other Employment: only worked on izabal agroforest, Future Plans: plans to just keep living and working on the farm Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says that for its size, it has a lot of different rare and special trees

Name: Arnulfo Chacon
Age: 34
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years
Jobs: Taking care of the trees, working in the nursery, fertilizing plants
Other Employment: only worked on izabal agroforest,
Future Plans: plans to just keep living and working on the farm
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says that for its size, it has a lot of different rare and special trees

Agusto Chaco Age: 60 Place of Residence: Rio Dulce Languages Spoken: Kekchi and Spanish Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: more than 20 years Jobs: maintain the garden, mow the grass, clean Other employment: worked on other farms when he was much younger Future plans: might take some time to go travel Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: There are more animals here, snakes, insects, etc

Agusto Chocoj
Age: 60
Place of Residence: Rio Dulce
Languages Spoken: Kekchi and Spanish
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: more than 20 years
Jobs: maintain the garden, mow the grass, clean
Other employment: worked on other farms when he was much younger
Future plans: might take some time to go travel
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: There are more animals here, snakes, insects, etc

Name: Adelso Yavani Age: 20  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 Years Jobs: Brush control, planting trees, trimming cacao Other Employment: Worked as campesino on other farms Future Plans: His plans for the future are to keep working and save money so he can have a good life ahead of him.  Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: this farm is better because it has more trees and animals

Name: Adelso Yavani
Age: 20
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 Years
Jobs: Brush control, planting trees, trimming cacao
Other Employment: Worked as campesino on other farms
Future Plans: His plans for the future are to keep working and save money so he can have a good life ahead of him.
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: this farm is better because it has more trees and animals

Name: Victor Manuel Ramirez Age: 40  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years Jobs: Grafting, Brush Control, looking after the trees  Other Employment: Has worked on other farms Future Plans: No plans as of yet Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: The woods they grow here are different, they are rare woods that not a lot of other people grow

Name: Victor Manuel Ramirez
Age: 40
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years
Jobs: Grafting, Brush Control, looking after the trees
Other Employment: Has worked on other farms
Future Plans: No plans as of yet
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: The woods they grow here are different, they are rare woods that not a lot of other people grow

Pending are: Juan Castillo, Victor Castillo, Javier Sosa, Marta Estrada, Juan Tiul, Luis Chacon y Rigo Chacon.

Gracias hermanos.

Thank you to Jasper Lyons & Jack Betz for photographing and interviewing IAF staff members.

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

 

Real Mitigation

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I recently attended an latin-american expo-conference for the mining industry and its providers.  I was there because one of the company’s I am consulting with has been contracted by an important nickel and gold mining company to manage a few of its environmental restoration projects;  Most countries have laws that stipulate environmental mitigation for damage caused by mining operations.   The quality of compensation varies wildly of course and is too often conducted so as to reach the minimum requirement and with little long-term environmental or social fore-sight.

I took a taxi to the event and when I told the driver where I was going, he chuckled a bit and said verbatim “Oh you’re against the Indians”.  Wow, what a sad perception the mining (& hydroelectric) industry has set for itself.  Not that I was surprised, by simply perusing the web for mining news, there always seems to be an indigenous resistance going on, particularly in the Americas.  As someone with a lifelong affinity for the forest and the people that live in the forest, I am almost unequivocally opposed to mining operations that cross a certain threshold of environmental, and of course social, damage.  However, I understand the need.  I drive a car, I have a mobile phone, those minerals are useful and an essential part of my daily life.  Socially responsible mining, with universally accepted standards, must become the norm.  Since it is difficult to imagine an end to all mining activities I would like to see is a better mechanism for protecting mitigation forests.  Simply plantings a few trees is not enough, there must be a critical discussion made about the cause of deforestation and what we can do to create real, perpetual, environmental compensation.  The problem with reforestation is that if it is done in an area that was once deforested (which is normally the case), it tends to be threatened for the same reasons that it was originally deforested.

In the tropics, reforested areas need value to be conserved, whether through tourism, carbon sequestration, or for timber, (yes timber);  Planted conservation forests (with the exception of National Parks) need to managed and designed by both environmentalists and economists.  My theory is that it is possible to manage and protect a forest through either low-impact harvesting or by allocating a small percentage of that forest to intensive commercial reforestation and logging.  The revenue from either of these can be used to conserve and protect the greater forest, possibly through a foundation.  Ideally, the forest could be even expanded through the acquisition of adjoining lands.  Additionally a system like this could/would create a sustainable source of jobs and income for local communities.

If the mining industry and other environmental offenders can create real mitigation programs that are perpetual and realistic perhaps they can reduce some of the stigma that they have been given.

Indigenous land rights protester

Open pit mining is cheap, productive, and highly damaging to the environment

Embera protesters in Panama

Taylor Guitars

Finished Taylor Guitars

Finished Taylor Guitars

We visit home, California, a couple times a year.  While here we bask in the fresh food, family fun and general goodness that is the Bay Area.  It also gives me an opportunity to visit with the wood workers and craftsmen that consume the hardwoods we work so hard to cultivate and protect in the tropics.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Taylor Guitar facilities in Southern California.  Taylor is a world class acoustic guitar producer that has become one of the leading proponents of sustainable hardwood sourcing.  They use Genuine Mahogany, Cocobolo, Sapele, Koa, Rosewood, Ebony and other species for their guitar components.  After a substantial number of processes, including milling, drying, sanding, laser cutting, treating, sealing and more, the incredible aesthetic potential of these woods is revealed in spectacular fashion.  The shapes, patterns, color and luster were a vivid reminder of why these woods have been sought and traded for so long.

My host was Chris Cosgrove, wood buyer for Taylor Guitars.  He, better than most, understands the finite nature of these endangered woods (most are cites appendix I or II listed) and we’ve been discussing long-term sourcing solutions for their instruments.  To the company’s credit, they work with responsible suppliers and concessions and do their best to buy from sustainable sources.  Recently they’ve invested in a concession and mill in Cameroon, a move that was risky but possibly necessary to secure the medium term availability of precious hardwoods, particularly ebony (Diospyros crassiflora).

Taylor’s Spring Limited Edition Granadillo and Ebony Guitars

Since I’ve always been a huge fan of Mahogany and its viability as plantation species we spent quite a bit of time discussing its qualities and availability.  In their warehouses we saw Mahogany from Fiji, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.  (Only the Fijean lumber is plantation sourced, however Fijian politics and bureaucracy have severely limited its viability.)  Tropical Mahogany is one of the most important tonewood species, used by generations of instrument makers for its workability and balanced tonewood qualities:

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Genuine Mahogany (darker boards) at the Taylor facilities

In general most tropical tonewoods are sourced from natural (non-plantation) forests, which means of course that they are being depleted without being replaced.  Species like Cocobolo and American Rosewood are already difficult to acquire and must be extracted from isolated forests, which even if purchased legally (bought through a concession) will be subject to less oversight.  (see National Geographic’s recent issue on Mahogany for the many problems with concessions: June 2013)  Essentially there is and will continue to be a need for plantation tonewoods, even moreso in the next decade when the concessions dry up.  Musicians and lute makers alike would do well to consider the future of their craft and consider and support the only viable, not to mention sustainable, solution for their longterm raw material needs: meaning an international tonewood reserve & plantation needs to be established and supported as soon as possible.

A few photos from my visit:

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CoastEcoTimber

Corotu

Last week I visited Coast Eco-Timber’s new storefont in Panama City.  The founder, Alana Husby, is a fellow West Coast Canadian and fifth generation logger.  Like me, her grandfathers worked during a time of (seemingly) endless forests and timber abundance… that landscape of course has changed quite a bit and the timber/forest industry has had to change with it.  Alana has made that adjustment beautifully.  A few years ago she embarked on what she calls the most “challenging and unusual project yet, underwater logging in Panama.  When a concession in Panama’s Lake Bayano (owned by the Kuna Madugandi Tribe) was brought to her attention the fit between past and present came into alignment. Working with the indigenous tribe as well as her team of skilled divers and sawmill staff, CoastEcoTimber is delving deep to recover timber that has lay preserved in the underwater jungles of Panama since 1979”  In this way they provide their customers with spectacular historic wood.

It was great to see, firsthand, the beautiful pieces they are extracting from the lake.  Most of the species they seem to be finding are “lesser” known, at least in the international market but long used by woodworkers in Central America.  To my delight many of these species are the very ones slowly gaining acceptance as plantation woods (see pic below).  A few of these are: Zapatero (Hieronima alchorneoides), Amarillo (Terminalia amazonia), Almendro (Dipteryx oleifera), Cedro Amargo (Cedrela odorata) and others.  By offering these woods, (successfully) Coast Eco Timber is validating what we, native species planters, have believed for so long: that these woods are beautiful, workable and will one day fulfill a demand.

Photographs of Alana’s salvaged wood:

zapatero

Cedro Espino

Quira stump

Plantation Amarillo:

Plantation Amarillo - Las Lajas, Panama

For more info on CoastEcoTimber click here

 

 

An energy crisis

Late rains have caused an energy crisis in Panama.  Hydroelectric generators, as with most tropical economies, are this country’s main source of energy; so when weather patterns don’t hold up, the whole system falters: Schools have been closed, A/C prohibited during certain times of the day, public offices have shortened business hours, and rolling blackouts may follow.  People are angry.  A national group of engineers has demanded a government plan for alternative energy, parents are confused and don’t know what to do with their children, and in cattle country, ranchers are demanding subsidies for feed, the problem has affected everyone.

Deforestation means reduced evapotranspiration (evaporation of plants and soil) resulting in both a decrease in rainfall and changing annual rainfall patterns with unusually dry conditions

In a recent newspaper article describing the predicament, the ranchers complain of climate change, expressing frustration at their parched fields and demand government action.  The problem, however, lies at their feet and looking for a bail-out is like sweeping dust under the rug.  Long-term watershed management has to be a part of the conversation.

Latin America’s #1 driver of deforestation is the cattle frontier. Photo credit: Andy Berry

In other words THE essential ingredient for your operation (water), be it agriculture, forestry or ranching is directly dependent on natural forests.  We can assume this (water cycle) process, can happen elsewhere, but there is significant evidence that suggests forests have an effect on precipitation in their immediate area.  (See TED talk ‘How to Restore A Rainforest’.)

There is simply NO conversation about the effects of deforestation on the water cycle.  Trees, brush and spores play an integral cycle in the tropical water cycle.  But because more pasture, means more cattle and more meat, (and therefore money) cattle ranchers will generally clear as much land as possible.  Right to the edges of their land.  It is no secret that the vast majority of deforestation in Central America is driven by the cattle frontier.    The process goes something like this:

1. Sell family plot

2. With the money, buy cheap land in remote areas (usually tree covered)

3.  Extract and sell all and any valuable lumber on property

4.  Burn

5.  Apply herbicide

6.  Introduce/establish hardy exotic grass for pasture

7.  Truck in cattle

8.  Make 2, maybe 3% annual profit

There’s a saying here: “A cattle farmer lives poor and dies rich”.  This isn’t because cattle eventually become profitable, it’s because of land-value appreciation.  And its true, cattle ranchers occasionally end-up owing significant real-estate.  Recently, while pitching an environmental restoration project to a cattle ranching association, a colleague of mine posed the question: what would your land be worth without water?  Unanimously, they all agreed that it would be worth close to nothing.  Interestingly they all understood, from firsthand experience no-doubt, that forested areas have more water and more rain.  The idea then is to convince them that if they can each allocate a small percentage of their holdings to conservation, particularly along waterways, that there is tangible economic upside.  I wrote about this concept in an earlier post.  Its an uphill battle I’m sure, but based on the receptive conversation I think these situations do make people reconsider their role climate change .   Conversation about drought, particularly in the tropics, must include reforestation and conservation.  Governments would do well to incentivize cattle operations that conserve forested areas or employ forward thinking silvo-pastoral systems instead of exacerbating the problem by buying them transported feed, or subsidizing beef.

Our impact over time

In the end our goal is to improve the way we manage our finite natural resources and offer alternatives to unsustainable land management practices.  I recently came across these Google earth animated Gifs that demonstrate the profound changes “development” can have on different landscapes, (these are not unique and are simply examples of common themes).

1. The effects of urbanization in the Amazon, (areas that have remained green are protected):

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2. This image demonstrates the establishment of industrial crops in the Saudi Arabian desert (water/energy deficiency):

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 3. Lake Urmia in Iran, used for Salt extraction.   Today there are proposals for accelerating this process since restoring the lake would be expensive:

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California REDD

 

On January 1st my homestate of California launched its long-awaited cap-and-trade program, establishing a limit on greenhouse-gas emissions.  These limits are slowly reduced over time, meaning that at some point the emissions should reach levels from two decades ago.  Its an exciting and important moment for carbon programs, like REDD+, not only because of the California factor (The US’s most populous state and the ninth biggest economy in the world) but because other states may follow suit, assuming of course that things pan out correctly.  “California is a big economy, and it is very diverse, like the U.S. as a whole,” says Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which is overseeing the cap-and-trade system. “If it can work in California, it can work in the U.S.”

Assuming other jurisdictions will participate in offset generation, we could see an impact on conservation efforts and reforestation in Latin America.  There’s quite a bit of work ahead, with many actors, but so far there seems to be pointed-effort.  A recent article published in ‘Ecosystem Marketplace‘, discusses the California REDD program which seeks to bring international REDD+ credits to the state’s program:

Link to article