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.
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?