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

 

My Hormigo Guitar

Hormigo Guitar IAF 3

My new Hormigo guitar, built by Taylor Guitars, wood (back & sides) from Izabal Agro Forest

I started playing the guitar when I was 14 years old.  When my Dad bought me my first classical guitar, a Yamaha G-230 (that I still have!) from black market guitars in San Francisco I was thrilled.  I remember looking at the mahogany back, wondering about the workmanship and incredible quality of the wood.  21 years later I commissioned my first custom-made guitar.  The idea, from the beginning was to use woods grown on our farm, initially I thought we would use some of our plantation Mahogany or Rosewood, but my Dad suggested we do something more experimental.  “Why not Hormigo?” he said.  Hormigo, Platymiscium dimorphandrum, is a rich gold and brown tropical hardwood, what was intriguing about his idea however is that in Guatemala it is considered the finest tonewood for marimbas.  Naturally then, we thought it would make a good guitar.

With the decision made, we had a piece cut with our Hudson bandsaw, and sent it over to my friend Chris Cosgrove, wood buyer for Taylor guitars in California.  I gave them the specifications and a few weeks later we received this beauty in the mail.    The tone is beautiful and rich, and I’ll let the images speak to the quality of the finish.

For more information about our tonewood plantation please visit: izabalagroforest.com

Hormigo Guitar IAF 1

Hormigo body and sides, mahogany neck, spruce soundboard, with Cocobolo inlay

Hormigo Guitar IAF 2

Using the sapwood adds to the natural beauty of the Hormigo grain.

Hormigo Guitar IAF 4

The first of many instruments to be made from lumber sustainably grown lumber at Izabal Agro-Forest

Hormigo Guitar IAF 5

Hormigo grain, Platymiscium spp.

Hormigo Guitar IAF 7

The front of the guitar was made from Norther Spruce, however the inlay around the sound hole was made from Cocobolo

Thank you to all the good folks over at Taylor guitars.

Thank you to all the good folks over at Taylor guitars.

Hormigo-made marimba

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

Standard forestry vs agroforestry

Cacao in Cocobolo grove: Izabal Agro-Forest

Cacao in Cocobolo grove: Izabal Agro-Forest

Over the years I’ve had many conversations about the benefits and so-called disadvantages of agro-forestry, and I’ve found that people with a forestry pedigree tend to be skeptical.  The question always comes down to whether or not there is a financial or biological burden when double cropping land.  It’s understandable, as a forester you probably want to prioritize tree silviculture, so the idea that you may have to adjust your method so that the other crop coexist in a healthy way is a no-go for some managers.  To be clear, there are sacrifices.  In a monoculture your management is 100% oriented around the success of one species, there are no other considerations.  For example, you can plant your trees as intensively as possible, (1100+ trees per hectare), personnel can focus on one set of skills, and possibly there are other considerations.

But of course I see this from a different perspective, first and foremost I see agro-forestry in terms of risk mitigation.

Timber, agriculture, cacao, livestock, apples, papayas, they all have risks; the most common are disease, fire, natural disaster and market volatility, a farmers life is full of ups and downs.  Trust me I know.  But rarely do these risks affect crops in the same way, whereas fire may wipe out a forest floor crop like cacao, only a concentrated extremely intense fire could kill a hardwood tree.  Similarly, diseases, common in fruits and vegetables rarely affect trees in the same way, particularly hardwoods.  Market prices for any commodity will see good years and bad, but rarely across the whole spectrum.  And  unlike fruit crops, you don’t necessarily have to harvest your timber trees if there is a market lull, you can wait the bad prices out (and in the meantime they continue to grow!).  It has been been said before, as long as the sun shines and rain falls, trees grow.

The biggest disadvantage with timber investment is the long, (sometimes very long) wait it takes a tree to grow to a good, harvestable size.  For tropical hardwoods the time-frame is usually estimated between 20 and 30 years, depending on the species of course.  But therein also lies the beauty of the symbiotic relationship that a forest floor crop (like cacao or coffee) and a longterm tree crop:  One provides you the cash-flow to continue operations and receive income, the other functions as the life-jacket that provides a low-risk and historically reliable investment.

There are other factors as well of course:  A poly-culture will look and function more like a natural forest than a standard monoculture.    Agro-forestry is more likely to provide consistent, long-term, employment to community members, there are at least two streams of revenue and I should also mention that in a world where high-quality land capable of producing food is extremely limited, it’s just the right thing to do!

Mahogany & cacaogrove on my farm, Izabal Agro-Forest

Mahogany & cacaogrove on my farm, Izabal Agro-Forest

Hardwood trees with cacao understory - izabalagroforest.com

Hardwood trees with cacao understory – izabalagroforest.com

An old story

Embera girls holding cacao pods

Embera girls holding cacao pods

Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of hype about where the Cacao market is heading.  Huge investments are being raised in response to rising demand.  And its true the outlook is good, especially considering the growing premium market and untapped Asian markets that have barely begun consuming chocolate.  60% of the world is Asian so, there’s reason to be optimistic.  But…  I’m seeing a tendency toward the mistakes of the past.

Although Cacao is originally from the Amazon basin, it was most famously consumed by the Mayans in Southern Mexico, and Central America.  Today most of it is grown in Western Africa and consumed in the North America and Europe.  These are huge mono-cultures stretching across thousands of kilometers.  Countries like Ghana and Madagascar seem to be providing a steady supply of good quality fruit, but others have struggled and the cacao industry is rife with problems, political and biological.  Once again we’re seeing this industrial tendency to do things as big and as cheap as possible, leveraging economies of scale to the bitter end.

Broadly speaking, mono-cultures by their very nature are more susceptible to disease and insect attacks, which makes organic or low impact agriculture very very difficult.  Throughout cacao’s industrial history, we’ve seen huge single year drops in production due to out of control diseases.  They also tend to be one dimensional in that if you have a biological disaster or the market tanks, that’s it, your financial model breaks. Its one of the many reasons I’ve been a proponent of agroforestry for so long, I just can’t wait until we see it at an impact scale.

I’ve seen proposals for industrial projects throughout Latin America and its really just a repeat of the past, basically the attitude is: let’s take the latest, hottest commodity and plant it to the end of the horizon.  When I see these, I can’t help but wonder what kind of technical advice these proposals are based on?  Why aren’t these proposals more diversified?  What are the environmental and social impacts?

A productive cacao tree is sensitive, requires consistent phytosanitation and silviculture; basically it is generally susceptible to biological risk.  In my opinion an industrial cacao plantation should not exceed 200 hectares and larger projects would do well to geographically separate farms.   There’s a reason most of the world’s cacao is grown by small scale farmers, its never worked as an industrial crop.  Cacao fund managers should carefully assess management teams and conduct thorough feasibility studies, or they might see an old story repeat itself.   Don’t get me wrong, I think cacao is wonderful and has huge upside, I’m actually planting a lot of it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the accepted (institutional) model can be improved.

(Click images for a higher resolution view)

My farm's tri-level approach to cacao cultivation

My farm’s tri-level approach to cacao cultivation

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A shoot grafted with heirloom stock in our nursery

Young Mahogany and cacao mixed species stand

Young Mahogany and cacao mixed species stand

Diseased Cacao tree, location not cited

Ah monoculture…

Cacao supply by country

TCHO’s cacao

Tcho's dark chocolate form Ecuador

Tcho’s dark chocolate form Ecuador

While in California my wife and I dropped in on family friend Brad Kintzer, chief chocolate maker at Tcho in San Francisco.  Not only does Brad have the sweetest job title I can think of, he also works for a company that has developed an innovative relationship with its cacao producers.

Most of the world’s chocolate, at least 90%, is made of cacao grown by micro producers, meaning farmers with two hectares or less.  Many of these small farmers are organized into cooperatives.  In a sense this is great, but because you’re dealing with so many individuals there has been a historical lack of consistency in product.  Cooperatives can have any number of members, in Mexico and Central America my very broad estimate is that these average about 500 members.  Presumably in Western Africa and South America cooperatives are just as big or bigger.  So controlling individual practices and processes to attain uniformity of quality and flavor has been one of the major challenges of selective chocolate makers.  Moreover most cacao producers have never tasted the chocolate made from their own beans.

Tcho’s solution, and it’s a good one, has been to create a program that is dedicated to creating a direct partnership with their growers (tchosource).  Tcho provides the tools, training, genetic advisory and education to its buyers, empowering them to “improve their livelihoods and hone their craft”.  By doing so they provide the company with the high quality beans that enable the company to create excellent chocolate.  Its created a mutually beneficial relationship that stokes vested interest and a sustainable relationship in both the financial and social sense.
One of the more interesting components of the program is the use of “flavor labs”.  These are essentially small, affordable chocolate factories designed to quickly make chocolate and analyze the quality of a batch of beans.  And because the quality of the beans are directly affected by its growers and cultivators, Tcho’s major coop partners are supplied with their own “flavor labs”.  These field labs are essentially identical to the lab used in Tcho’s San Francisco headquarters.  And for the producers to really take advantage of this system, (and to facilitate communication), sensory training is provided to their producers around the world.

I found the concept so important that we’ve decided to invest in a flavor lab for our own cacao plantation.  The thought is that we’ll be more equipped to produce consistent & flavorful beans for our own purposes and also give local growers access to the equipment.  In the end we want chocolate to garner the same respect, in terms of attention to origin, genetics and process as that of wine or cheese and Tcho’s efforts are a big step in that direction.
Molly chatting with Tcho chocolate maker, Zohara.

Molly chatting with Tcho chocolate maker, Zohara.

Cacao bean cross section

Cacao bean cross section

Brad, Jefe de los Chocolates

Brad, Jefe de los Chocolates

Finished chocolate bar, yummy

Finished chocolate bar, yummy

View near factory

View near factory

On my last trip to the Darien I stopped in on this girl's family, whom have had cacao trees around their houses as long as they can remember

On my last trip to the Darien I stopped in on this girl’s family, they’ve cultivated the cacao around their home for as long as they can remember.

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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Taylor Guitars 016  Taylor Guitars 018  Taylor Guitars 020  Taylor Guitars 022

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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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