Friday, December 18, 2009

Why plant native tree species?

Orinoco basin rain forest
Several people have asked me what value there is in growing native tree species instead of common plantation species. At first blush common plantation species lend themselves to a quick turn around and a fast buck. The question obviously ignores the environmental impact of not conserving native tropical tree species, the loss of which would be disastrous to our common genetic heritage on this planet. There seems to be no shortage of people who are happy in the shallow end of the gene pool. Those of us engaged in tropical tree afforestation and reforestation efforts initially grow common plantation species like Acacia mangium because they fix nitrogen in infertile and depleted soils, but we always have an eye on the native tree species that have evolved to make the most of their environment. Many native trees offer not only exquisite wood with excellent commercial potential, but also a myriad of other wonderful by-products that are of great benefit to humans and animals alike.

Capybara between trees
Since most wildlife is niche dependent, native tree species are part of the habitat that sustains that niche. The fruits, nuts and seeds of numerous native tree species sustain endangered and other wildlife and insects. There loss is not just a disaster for the trees, but also for the animals that depend on them. However, by commercializing various native tree species, we are able to expand habitat for endangered wildlife, as well as reap an almost endless list of other benefits and by-products, not to mention their valuable cyclical harvest and the replanting of those trees for wood and fuel. It is this use of native tree species that often supports the concept of community forest. So what are some of the other benefits besides wood, fuel and charcoal?

Saladillo tree leading into gallery forest
This is not an exhaustive list, but many of the tropical native tree species that Amazonia Reforestation works with provide directly or indirectly a large variety of natural medicines, cures and treatments, for both humans and domesticated animals. The trees or their saps can be used to make effective natural insecticides and pesticides, tannins for curing leather, soaps that are environmentally friendly, tonics and fermented drinks, sugars and syrups, chewing gums and candies. They can provide renewable roofing products, ropes and woven materials for textiles, baskets, mats and other uses. Many native tree species provide an amazing array of dyes and colors used in cosmetics, paints, foods and folkloric art. Their fruits, nuts and seeds feed people and animals, but also find use in jewelry, musical instruments, kitchenware, decorations and more. Some produce gums and resins for glues, tars, boat building, sealants and other everyday uses. Their leaves and twigs often provide fodder for domestic animals, or they can act as living fence posts, wind breaks and erosion controllers.

Perhaps one of the most popular uses is shade, not just in villages and around homes, but to protect crops that would otherwise suffer from too much direct sunlight. The concept of agro-forestry is all about growing food crops between native trees adapted to local environments. Needless to say there is also the benefit of carbon sequestration, something virtually every tropical tree is very good at doing. Think about that the next time you rev up your SUV! Programs like CO2 Tropical Trees, designed to help consumers make their car carbon neutral by planting tropical trees, don't care what tropical trees they plant as long as they sequester carbon effectively and quickly. I could keep on going, but I think you get the idea.

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