Growing forests and livelihoods with help from Man and Nature
by Richard Joyce
Marcela Gutierrez, Paso Pacífico’s agronomist, has been eagerly awaiting the rainy conditions that will allow planting of thousands of trees in the Paso del Istmo. “Because of El Niño, the rains are coming later this year, so we might plant in early July.” With a degree from EARTH University in Costa Rica and ample experience working in her native Nicaragua, Marcela is leading the effort to restore forests in focused watersheds, by helping communities adopt agroforestry systems that are both biodiverse and economically productive.
Several years ago, in a project called Return to Forest, Paso Pacífico reforested over 4 square kilometers of land with more than 250,000 trees. With the generous support of French non-profit Man and Nature, Paso Pacífico is building off this success to plant thousands of more trees in the La Flor and Ostayo watersheds.
Planting trees is not a new activity in the region. In fact, plantations of eucalyptus and teak cover many hectares of land in the Ostayo watershed. However, the damaging effects of such plantations make them less than ideal models for reforestation projects. Tree plantations may reduce the demand for timber harvested from wild forests, but they consist of non-native species that secrete compounds preventing the growth of other plants, making monocultures the rule. Despite their canopy cover, tree plantations can have a barren appearance. Eucalyptus trees are very “thirsty,” drawing large quantities of groundwater from the soil, and teak trees shed their leaves near the end of the dry season, exposing the soil to both desiccation and erosion
Still, in order to be successful in the long term, reforestation efforts must address the economic pressures that drive land-use patterns in the first place. This means that, in addition to providing societal benefits like water services, carbon capture and wildlife habitat, forests must contribute to their owners’ livelihoods. Marcela is working with farmers to creatively design agroforestry systems that are valuable for both business opportunities and biodiversity.
Plant a forest in the garden, plant a garden in the forest
The agroforestry systems being put into practice by Marcela and the landowners who she works with are designed to provide streams of economic benefit over time as the forest comes back. Banana plantings shade tree seedlings, offering a quick harvest while helping young trees survive the dry season. Five different farmers currently receive seeds and technical support from Paso Pacifico to grow roselle (hibiscus tea), which can sell for up to 10 times the price of corn and 5 times the price of beans. Chia is another crop grown among the young trees.
The trees to be planted comprise a mix of over 15 dry forest species with a variety of uses and benefits. The fast growing madero negro (also known as “quick stick”) will soon yield posts and firewood, while the wood of various timber species (mahogany, guapinol, Spanish cedar) can be harvested in a decade or two.
This year, farmers will plant a large number of bálsamo trees (Balsam of Peru). Actually native to Central America (not Peru), these trees will produce a steady supply of cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented resins to sell to the fragrance and pharmaceutical industries. Like tapping sugar maples for syrup, harvesting bálsamo resin produces a high-value product while respecting the integrity and diversity of the forest.
Other trees, such as Maya nut, Panama tree and hog plums, are meant always to remain, and are planted specifically for wildlife—offering fruits to black-handed spider monkeys, leaves for howler monkeys, and nesting cavities for Yellow-naped Amazon parrots and spiny-tailed iguanas.
Marcela feels especially inspired and motivated by Guillermina Bustos, a landowner in Tortuga who has wanted to plant trees for many years.
“She is reforesting more land than any other farmer, about 8 acres; and next year she will plant more. Her love for the forest is such that she isn’t interested in intercropping; what she cares about are the trees and is willing to hire workers to tend the saplings.”
For her, seeing animals in the forest and knowing that there is water in the La Flor River are reward enough.