Sunday, November 4, 2012

Understanding the La Pedregoza Forestry Systems

Typical Silviculture
At the Amazonia Reforestation La Pedregoza plantation we are experimenting with a number of innovative forestry systems. People often confuse or misunderstand the terminology used to describe those systems, so this article is meant to provide the reader with a better understanding of what those terms mean. The ultimate goal of eco-friendly tropical tree plantations like La Pedregoza is to either fully or partially implement some of these systems in their day to day operations.

Turmeric in Agroforestry
The first term worth defining is silviculture. The word derives from the Latin words for forest and growing, and in its modern context describes managed forestry. The term silviculture includes the controlled planting, growth, composition, maintenance and health of a forest, established for various reasons or needs. Obviously, plantation forestry is therefore silviculture. The planter determines the type of forest to be cultivated, regardless of whether the forest is being deliberately planted or is being regenerated naturally or artificially, for example after logging. The woodlot or plantation owner chooses the type of trees, their density and the planting method to suit their objectives. It should be kept in mind that silviculture is about forestry in its narrowest sense, and is not about more expanded uses.

Agroforestry garden
This brings us to the concept of agroforestry. The word is based on the idea that one can combine forestry with agriculture. Simply put, we are talking about trees on farms. The basic idea is to combine trees and shrubs with crops and with livestock. The planter combines forestry and agricultural technologies for a more varied and productive, profitable and sustainable use of the land. Three types of land use are therefore silviculture, agriculture and agroforestry. Sources like FAO (the UN’s “Food and Agriculture Organization”) and the World Bank estimate that 10% of the world’s small farmers practice some form of agroforestry, while 20% of the world’s population makes use of agroforestry products. The importance of agroforestry is best understood when one realizes that its theoretical basis is agroecology, in other words farming in an ecologically sound manner.

Agroforestry Lemon Tree
Agroforestry is all about intercropping, having two or more plant species growing in close proximity, and whenever possible interacting and providing benefits to each other. This is especially true for crops that enjoy a bit of shade, which trees can provide. The crops in turn might provide services to the trees, like weed control (water melons for example), or nitrogen fixing (beans for example). From the farmer’s perspective, this multiple use of the land often produces higher yields with lower input costs, and provides significantly more ecological diversity and services than do traditional monocultures. Agroforestry is more biodiverse, as it provides more habitats for birds, insects and other animals.

Agroforestry Ginger in Trees
The benefits of agroforestry include increased wood production, as trees now grow on farmland, with more resources for local socio-economic development, like carpentry wood and wood fuel. Soil fertility is often restored in agroforestry settings, and water quality improves due to reduced nutrient and soil runoff. The trees prevent erosion and help maintain higher water tables, making areas more drought resistant, while providing food security to poor farmers with the additional planting of fruit, nut and oil trees. The planet benefits, because agroforestry reduces deforestation pressure by providing farm-grown firewood and carpentry wood. People practicing agroforestry have also noted a reduced need for the use of insecticides or herbicides. It enhances people’s health, by providing space for the cultivation of medicinal plants. The icing on the cake is the fact that agroforestry also provides long-term carbon sequestration, which helps prevent climate change, which benefits the entire planet.

Native trees in Analog Forestry
At La Pedregoza our AmazoniaReforestation and CO2 Tropical Trees programs have added an additional dimension to pure silviculture and agroforestry. It is called Analog Forestry, which is a more biodiverse and environmentally friendly form of agroforestry. This is a practice that is gaining ground in a variety of tropical and sub-tropical locations. In Analog Forestry we employ a system of planned, managed forests whose function includes mimicking local ecologies and climax vegetation. Climax vegetation is best described as the tree and plant life that has established itself over millennia at a given location due to climate and other conditions. Old growth rainforests are examples of climax vegetation. 

Ginger in Analog Forestry

This means that the goal of Analog Forestry is to recreate as much native tree and plant life in its cultivations as possible, taking into account the dynamics of natural forest succession. Analog Forests are almost-natural forests, because they try to copy the functional and indigenous aspects of local forests as much as possible. This doesn’t mean that Analog Forests are trying to simply recreate a local ecology. They must also be able to render economic benefits. The key consideration is to first recreate local ecological conditions, before the economic values are considered. This means there is scope to mix native tree species with introduced species, and native plants, fruits and vegetables with desirable introduced ones. Each species in an Analog Forest is evaluated on the basis of its contribution to the functionality and composition of the local ecology one is trying to imitate.

Native Latex Tree in Analog Forestry
La Pedregoza is a member of the InternationalAnalog Forestry Network (IAFN). The network has members around the planet who are able to contribute ideas, experiences and advice for others within the network. No one starts with an Analog Forest. It is an eco-system that is designed, planned, implemented and managed over a period of time, one that may take decades; much like a natural forest may take decades to mature. The vision is to have a forest that provides ecological, economic, social and environmental benefits that go well beyond silviculture or agroforestry. The use of non-native species, other than food crops, is carefully considered and weighed to address the needs of local biodiversity. This long term vision means that Analog Forests generally sequester carbon for longer periods than do plantation forests. Mixing a large number of species in the design reduces the economic risks that exist in cases where there is reliance on just one or two species. At La Pedregoza our long term commitment and vision is to slowly turn every area into Analog Forest for maximum ecological and biodiversity benefits, while still enjoying financial sustainability.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Cashew Nuts and Fruits

By Dexter B. Dombro
One year old cashew tree.
One of the biggest concerns for investors in reforestation projects is the long time it takes for trees to be ready to harvest. Ten to twenty years without cash flow is a very scary proposition for most people.  One solution is agroforestry, with cash flow crops planted inside the tree plantation, or to raise sheep, which can feed and fertilize around the trees. Another option is to plant fruit trees that offer some cash flow.  It is this latter option that offers some amazing opportunities to tropical tree plantation owners.  Specifically, let me talk about the opportunities that come from the cultivation of cashew trees (Anacardium occidentale).

3 year old cashew trees. Note the spacing.
The cashew tree is native to the Orinoco River basin, perfectly adapted to poor acidic soils, high rainfall (above 2,000 mm or 79” a year), a dry season with no or little rain, and open savannah conditions with intense sunshine when first planted. Cashew trees are now cultivated in many equatorial regions of the world, such as India, Mozambique and Brazil. At Amazonia Reforestation in Vichada, Colombia, they plant cashew trees that have been grafted, using local roots, but enhanced fruit bearing stems. The cultivation is usually done in grids of 12m by 12m or 40’ by 40’, resulting in approximately 60 trees per hectare (25 trees per acre). The trees naturally develop an umbrella shaped canopy that radiates some 6 meters or 20’ around from the tree trunk, hence the spacing. It allows the tree to bear a maximum amount of fruits and therefore nuts, and makes picking of the fruits and nuts easier.

Two year old cashew tree.
As with any tree in poor soils, the addition of organic material, such as cattle or chicken manure or compost will greatly enhance fruit production. In Colombia’s plains the addition of coffee plantation fertilizer (17-6-18-2) has been found to work well. While the tree is not a fast growing tree, it starts producing fruit after its third year, and by year five is considered to be producing at a commercial rate. Commercial plantations expect to have 35 years of good productivity before production declines, and the trees need to be replaced.

Nut and fruit form soon after flowering.
Production will average 1 ton of cashew nuts per hectare for 35 years. The world price for cashew nuts ranges between $7,000 USD to $8,000 USD per metric ton FOB plantation gate. A plantation with 100 hectares of cashew trees in marginal soils can therefore look forward to some $750,000 USD in annual cash flow just from the nuts. But it gets better! Each nut grows on the end of the cashew fruit. The fruits have a gross weight that on average is 8 times greater than the nut. That means there is 8 tons of fruit per hectare. The fruit can be processed as pulp for juices, as dried fruit or as an extract for natural cough syrups.

Typical fruit with nut at end.
The fruit juice has 5 times more vitamin C per glass than does orange juice (262 mg of Vitamin C per 100 ml of juice), and the pulp has ready markets for industrial and medicinal uses. If that isn’t of interest to you, the fruit can also be fermented into a wine, or distilled into liquor (feni) that is popular in places like India, where demand for feni greatly exceeds available supply. There are other uses for the tree, not the least of it being the eventual harvest and sale of the timber once it has used up its productive life and the tree needs to be replanted. This should give the reader an idea of just one example of the many possible cash flow solutions that exist in tropical forestry settings. At Amazonia Reforestation and CO2 Tropical Trees this is also a socio-economic development process that offers local people opportunities.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Collecting Native Tree Seeds

Bertoldo looking for Sassafras trees.
Reforestation / afforestation efforts often involve planting trees that have a proven history of commercial success, fast growth and ease of cultivation. This copies the same pattern that has seen biodiversity in crops decline around the world, as most agriculture revolves around a limited number of species. At La Pedregoza one of our objectives is to practice multispecies cultivation that includes native trees. The importance of this is obvious when one visits large teak plantations in Costa Rica, as they are usually devoid of insects, birds and local wildlife, because teak is a tree from south Asia that is not part of local niche habitats.

How do I get up this Sassafras?
At La Pedregoza we rapidly focused in on the vast variety of native tree species to be found in the Orinoco River basin of Vichada, Colombia. Many of these trees have exotic qualities, be that wood, termite resistance, fruits, nuts, oils, resins or natural medicines. We soon discovered that some native trees appear to be fast growing, but that there is virtually no data available on seed germination, propagation, planting methods or best cultivation practices. During this process we learned that many species of native trees are listed in the red books of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered, vulnerable or threatened.

Acosmium nitens test cultivation.
Amazonia Reforestation and CO2 Tropical Trees programs at La Pedregoza are based on a desire to preserve biodiversity on our planet. Some 90% of terrestrial biodiversity lives in forests. Many of those animals are niche dependent, for example everyone learns in school about Koala bears needing eucalyptus trees and giant Pandas depending on bamboo forests. At La Pedregoza we have birds, amphibians and mammals that depend on certain types of native trees for food, shelter and nesting areas.  Planting native tree species soon became not just an objective for our reforestation efforts and for our Reserva Natural La Pedregoza, but a passion.

Bertoldo climbing Salivón tree.
Due to our wet and dry seasons we are able to collect most of our native tree seeds in the second half of the dry season and the early part of the wet season. Most trees flower in the first half of the dry season, so the best time for us to collect most native tree seeds is predictable. This does not mean it is an easy process. Monkeys, macaws, parrots and ants compete with us for the fruits and seeds of several trees that are on the endangered list. Once the rains start we experience flooding in the rainforest, with seeds falling into the water and washing away. Climbing the trees can be dangerous, as many seeds can only be found high in the rainforest canopy. This makes the seed collection process expensive, time consuming and often disappointing when seeds have already been lost.
Endangered Ocotea cymbarum seeds.
This March and April of 2012 our foreman, Bertoldo Aldana, our plantation administrator, Oscar Forero Azabache, and I were able to collect native trees seeds from a variety of species. Some of what we collected includes 3000 Congrio seeds (Acosmium nitens), 1100 endangered Sassafras seeds (Ocotea cymbarum), 6000 Saladillo blanco (Vochysia obscura), 1200 latex producing Pendare or Salivón seeds (Parahancornia oblonga), 800 threatened latex producing Madroño seeds (Rheedia madrunno), and several hundred Moriche palm seeds (Mauritia flexuosa) to plant for use by local indigenous artisans. 

Extracting Salivón seeds from fruits.
Once the seeds are collected various things happen. First off we maintain a photographic record of the seeds and their appearance for future reference. Next we do various experimental germination trays, so see what works best (direct in soil, soaked for 24 or 48 hours, fired to crack seed cover, rubbing sand paper on germination end of seed etc.). This data is of course recorded. Once the seeds sprout we transfer them to planting bags containing soil that has been treated for bacteria and fungi.  Usually larger than normal planting bags are used, because we do not fully understand the type of early root system these native trees produce, so that is something we monitor. The seedlings are then placed in the tree nursery where we observe their early growth. This is usually an indication of root development as well, which in turn lets us determine how soon the seedling can be transferred to the open field. While in the nursery the seedlings are provided with some shade, but we try to remove the shade once growth starts, so that the little trees can better withstand the conditions they will encounter once planted in the field.

Saladillo blanco sprouting table.
Native trees pose special problems for us at La Pedregoza, because in Vichada’s Orinoco River basin many of these trees are adapted to inundation forest and low lying area conditions. That means they may require annual flooding. It is hard to do soil preparation in low lying areas, as the soil may be very wet and soft, making mechanical soil preparation difficult. It also affects how we apply lime to balance soil pH, fertilizer and organic material, as flooding may wash those substances away before the tree can make use of them. Part of what we do is to plant native trees in both low lying areas, and in areas with better drainage. For example, even though Congrio (Acosmium nitens) typically grows in the inundation forest, we have experienced better growth results with this species in less humid areas, than in low-lying inundation areas. Once again all of this data is collected and tracked.

Ripe Acosmium nitens seed pods.
Our long term goal to become a seed bank for native tree species is shared with the Omacha Foundation and with Europe’s Tree-Nation. Our common goal is to conserve species that are endangered, vulnerable or threatened. It is our believe that if we can commercialize those species, by providing access to seeds, germination and planting instructions and information on growth expectations and carbon sequestration, then other plantations will start to cultivate these species. That will reduce or remove the pressure those species experience in natural forests, reduce illegal logging and allow for the species to recover over time. Commercializing a species may appear to some to be an unwelcome development, but it is a process that is most likely to prevent a species’ extinction and to have an impact on maintaining and conserving biodiversity.

Congrio seeds are like apple seeds.
Dexter B. Dombro is one of the founders of Amazonia Reforestation, CO2 Tropical Trees and of the Reserva Natural La Pedregoza in Vichada, Colombia. La Pedregoza is one of the featured plantations within Tree-Nation. Dexter is a member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and is dedicated to biodiversity conservation in the Orinoco River basin. The La Pedregoza plantation was founded in 2007.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Saladillo blanco – a promising native tree!

Saladillo blanco seeds
For the 2012 planting season Amazonia Reforestation is planting 5 hectares of Vochysia obscura of the Vochysiaceae family at its La Pedregoza plantation. Known locally as Saladillo blanco this tropical tree has many of the characteristics foresters look for. It is fast growing to harvestable maturity (10 to 15 years). It can be planted in marginal soils with high pH content. It does well in low lying areas subject to inundation, allowing for the economic use of areas that do not have good drainage. Best of all, it has a trunk that grows straight and tall, producing fine wood with great commercial acceptance.

Saladillo blanco flowers
The seeds can be collected from wild trees, providing foresters with the opportunity to select the trees with the best apparent genetics. Unlike some other native tree species, the seeds are abundant and do not attract as many animals and birds, making their collection easier. Foresters generally select from which trees they wish to collect seeds when the trees have their bright yellow flowers during the dry season in the Orinoco River basin. The flowers make the trees easy to distinguish and mark for later seed collection activities. The show of flowers also allows the forester to determine just how abundant seed production will be in each tree.

Sprouting tables are used in the tree nursery, with high germination rates observed for the Saladillo blanco. Once the sprout is thumb tall it is transplanted into a planting bag filled with treated soil and placed in the nursery. Like many other tropical trees Vochysia obscura sets deep roots, so forestry engineers determine when the sapling is ready to be transplanted into the field. While the seedlings are in the nursery plantation tractors prepare the soil, deep plowing to a depth of 75 cm (30 inches), which allows the root to go deep quickly. At planting in moist areas tree planters add lime and special forestry fertilizer for best growth results.

Saladillo blanco tree
Thanks to their straight trunks, these trees reach 20 m (65 feet) in height and some 55 cm (22 inches) in diameter at breast height when they are ready to be harvested. The tree has been planted as an ornamental, but finds its greatest use as cut lumber and as wood for handicrafts, which explains its folkloric history in the llanos orientales or great plains of eastern Colombia. Several authors have recommended this tree for reforestation and afforestation projects, including Luis Enrique Acero Duarte in his “Plantas Utiles de la Cuenca del Orinoco” or “Useful Plants of the Orinoco River basin”.