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

The value of conservation within an investment scheme pt 1

I am a firm believer in the protection and establishment of conservation zones in a plantation setting.  Aside from the nice dose of karmic energy that you are sure to receive, conserving natural forest stands can yield tangible benefits to your project.   These areas may function as small habitats and essential sources of food to local wildlife, which will no doubt add to your farm experience.  The aesthetic value too, is surely a consideration.  That said, I want to discuss the commercial value of conservation zones.

In Central America a typical farm might have between 5% and 25% of its total land area classified as natural forest.  Since these forests usually represent a reduction of the productive area, they are usually reduced to small areas of difficult topography, or along waterways; most are threatened.  There are, however, good reasons to protect and indeed expand natural forest areas in your project.  The first function is that of a buffer zone.  For example conservation areas bordering riparian or agriculture zones can function as a natural shield by reducing the threat of disease and pests (depending where you operate).  Similarly they’ll form natural barriers against wind and livestock, reducing risk and the possibility of damage.  With its well-established shade, a secondary natural forest may prevent the spread of invasive species like introduced grasses and therefore suppress the negative impacts that these may have on sensitive ecosystems and your plantation.

Simply put a well-balanced plantation system will see reduced forest diseases and insect outbreaks.

Rainforests make water.  The California Academy of Sciences puts it well: Since water vapor needs something to condense upon, airborne particles become the seeds of liquid droplets in fog, mist and clouds. With examination, the researchers found that tiny grains of potassium salts are the basis of raindrops in the Amazon.  The salts are not generated by soot or the nearby Atlantic Ocean, but by the living things in the rainforest. Fungal spores seem to be one of the biggest contributors. In other words, the forest itself is causing the rain.  In other words THE essential ingredient for your plantation, is directly dependent on natural forests.  We can assume this process occurs 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’.

Erosion control too, and the preservation of topsoil, around or near your plantation, particularly in the early years, will reduce run-off and preserve land area.  For example, natural vegetation will keep banks from falling into waterways or embankments.  The restoration and protection of forest wetlands and mangroves may effectively cleanse and filter water pollution and other wastewater management challenges.  The upsides are extensive..

Natural forest have monetary value too. The carbon-credit market for example, while developing as a platform, shows great promise.  Most people I know, even those that don’t directly invest or promote the carbon market believe it to be a fundamental instrument in giving natural forest more value.  This is a big issue so we’ll talk about it more at a later date, but I believe once the world’s financial woes settle down, the carbon market will see quick maturation.

Important also, particularly in the tropics, is the natural seedbank you are protecting.  Even in secondary forests, it is likely you will find genetic material for your native species plantings.  Additionally, these will be naturally adapted to the area in which you operate.

One of the obvious advantages is the potential upside for tourism and real-estate you are creating.  Those forests, often ignored even if they are protected, offer opportunities for nature trails, bird watching and more.  In Costa Rica I know of several plantation projects that were once considered strictly farmland (with no particular tourism potential) that today play host to lovely establishments.  I recently visited an old hotel in Bocas del Toro, Panama set in an abandoned cacao farm.  The owners thoughtfully removed exotic species, cleaned the understory, promoted the growth of native flowers and plants and built several lovely cabañas whilst reviving the cacao operation and conducting limited reforestation.  They’re booked solid.  A project that promotes responsible tourism, while functioning as a productive farm is a compelling prospect.  Highest and best use, means thinking outside of the box and envisioning land-use for all of its potentials.

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Last month we visited la Loma Jungle Lodge in Panama

My final thought: In the end natural forests are beautiful, provide eco-system services and should be respected.  That in itself is enough, don’t you think?