Thursday, November 18, 2010

Integrated Tropical Timber Plantations

Mixed Plantations (Mahogany, Roble, Pochote) with crops

One theme we come across in our work is the idea that timber stands, especially monoculture plantations, are “bad for the environment”. While we find it a stretch that covering degraded cow pastures in carbon capturing timber species is somehow environmentally detrimental, we do see how it is not the optimum approach.
We agree that planting selected species of trees, sometimes exotics, in perfect rows is not the same as recreating a natural forest, but its better than what was there before. . . a cow pasture. These trees, even if they are pure teak stands, will protect the soil, water systems, and capture carbon. To date we can’t find a more stable environmentally sound investment.
The tropical plantation system is proven and will be an important part of the future of forestry. One of the world’s only renewable natural resources can be grown as a crop, albeit long-term. Growing wood in plantations captures carbon but also when the trees are cut down the carbon is actually stored in the form of wood which is a carbon sink. In a natural forest the trees die and actually release carbon and other gases.

Beans and 1 year old Pochote
The growth in tropical plantations has been significant in the last few decades and we see this trend continuing. The current model of pure stands of timber with manual labor used for maintenance we find inefficient. We realized this in our work when we watched our workers clean the trees with a machete and then go home and swing the machete on an empty lot to plant beans. Basically we were paying them to do something they and their neighbors do already when they plant their subsistence crops. Why not plant the beans under the trees?

SFM- What is Sustainable Forestry Management? See what wikipedia says

We feel that a truly efficient and sustainable model for timber plantations will include short term cash crops. These crops can actually add nutrients to the soil that make the trees grow faster. For example, beans fix nitrogen and in our experiences trees planted with beans grow almost twice as fast in the early years as neighboring parcels with no beans. In addition the farmers who plant the beans tend to keep the area cleaner than our workers so there is less competition from weeds which slow the growth of the trees.
Look how tall this one year old pochote is mixed with corn
In upcoming years Maderas Sostenibles aims to develop an integrated plantation model which takes advantage of this sort of symbiosis to promote biodiversity in timber plantations, increase investor return, achieve higher growth rates, teach sustainable farming practice and solve social issues such as farmers who have no land to plant subsistence crops. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti Through Reforestation

Haiti's tumultuous past has given the country the dubious title of being the poorest country in all of the Americas. Unfortunately, the title of being one of the poorest financially extends into its environmental standing as Haiti is also one of the most deforested countries in the world [the picture to the right is of the border between the Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic taken from a NASA satellite]. In an article by Beverly Bell entitled An Alternative Environmental Future for Haiti, she examines how the country's complex web of social, economical and political systems have had an adverse affect on its environment and how Haiti Survie is using reforestation as a way to revive the country in all capacities as it rebuilds after the 7.0 earthquake earlier this year.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Forestry Link Roundup: Making The Grade

Here are some of the forestry headlines we have been reading this past week. Have any thoughts? Leave them in the comments!

- The Economist's cover page and special report this week is on forests. It covers everything from the economic and social factors causing deforestation to the path of a sustainable future. [The Economist]

- An "historic milestone" in the forestry carbon market was reached this week as the first carbon credits from a land-use project were verified and issued under the Voluntary Carbon Standard. [Business Green]

- Field notes on the Symposium on Forest Governance Indicators held earlier this month were released. The two-day symposium in Stockholm gathered about 45 participants to advance the development of practical and feasible frameworks for assessing and monitoring the quality of forest governance. [PROFOR]

Friday, September 17, 2010

Who's investing in forestry and how to join the ranks

Big institutions are gaining headlines for their involvement in forestry projects. Although their incentives may vary, the end result leads to planting more trees, capturing carbon and growing communities.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article announcing the beginning of phase II of Toyota's reforestation project in the Philippines. This project is part of their Forest of Toyota initiative and its main focus is, "to create a system that combines reforestation with a means of supporting the livelihood of local communities, by providing the reforestation expertise and tree-planting techniques developed through its activities in China." Although Toyota will never see any direct financial returns on this investment (maybe just a few more potential buyers in the future), their decision to use reforestation as a means to support local communities speaks volumes of the social benefits inherent with a reforestation project.

In another recent article in the National Business Review entitled, Harvard endowment fund keen on natural resources, it highlights the University's heavy involvement in the forestry sector. While their investments in Forestry are for the sole purpose of "generating strong results to support the educational and research objectives of Harvard University", they have also found them to be, "a core strength in our portfolio, offering inflation protection, cash flow and long-term growth."

The good news here is that regardless of what your intentions are for planting trees (whether it be environmental, social, and/or financial), you do not have to be a huge multinational corporation or the richest university in the world to get involved. There are many different opportunities to invest in reforestation ranging from buying a single teak tree on a plantation in Costa Rica to owning your very own plantation.

While your investment in a project will depend on your individual initial investment amount, involvement, and risk aversion, the most bang for your buck is in establishing your very own plantation. Globalization has brought the world closer and investing directly in foreign countries is easier than ever.

With time, labor and land being the biggest factors that determine the profitability of a plantation, we have established opportunities to invest in fast growing tropical hardwoods in Nicaragua where the land and labor costs are less than neighboring countries. Tropical species such as Teak, Mahogany and Spanish Cedar, which thrive here, have shorter growth cycles and higher market values than the hardwoods of the northern hemisphere. The tropical climate and fertile soils promote faster tree growth, and the social benefits are greatly needed. To learn more about our forestry investments and Nicaragua, visit our website (

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Wood: Nature's only renewable building material

The 3 R's of green building are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. While these three factors are very important for finite materials such as metals, cement and plastics (an oil byproduct), a larger emphasis needs to be placed on Renewable. This month's feature in the Continuing Education Center section of Architectural Center titled Wood Rates: How Wood Products Stack Up in Green Building Systems explores wood's full potential as a sustainable building material and the advantages of using it over other non renewable materials. Below are some of the article's main points:

- Wood is an abundant, affordable and renewable natural resource, and when sourced from well-managed forests, it can be environmentally benign, as well.

- Strength for strength, wood uses less energy to produce than concrete or steel.

- Timber that ends up as wood products for use in buildings actually stores carbon over the life of the building.

- Wood’s inherent environmental merits include its material efficiency related to its combined thermal mass, as well as its water resistance, structural integrity and finish quality.

- Clean wood waste is easily recyclable. Add to these attributes the fact that wood can offer habitat restoration and eco-system well-being, support for local economies and contribution to carbon neutral/positive building.

- Wood’s natural beauty and warmth have a positive effect in any application and have been shown to generate improved productivity and performance in schools, offices and better patient outcomes in hospitals.

The key to this article is that the wood is harvested from well managed sources. While this holds true in countries like the United States where the volume of hardwoods in American forests today is 90 percent larger than it was 50 years ago, an added emphasis must be placed on restocking the forest in countries where agriculture has devastated its once abundant forest stock. Reforesting these spent cow pastures would offer a green answer by growing a steady supply of renewable building resources where the rainforest once dominated.

In addition to increasing the supply of sustainable hardwood products, consumers and builders alike must do its part by demanding certified wood products. On this note, we are happy to report that the new Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena recently achieved Gold LEED status and received high marks for its use of certified wood (see article).

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Deforestation Misconception - The cause of rainforest deforestation is not logging

We here at Maderas Sostenibles were excited to learn of an effort to replace the tropical hardwood planks on the Brooklyn Bridge from a sustainable forest planted in its name. According to the Brooklyn Bridge Forest's website,

"Rather than a substitute material (like recycled plastic or chemically treated softwood), we propose an innovative strategy to use ethically sourced hardwood. A dedicated Brooklyn Bridge Forest will be endowed by sponsors like you, and managed and harvested in a way that surpasses even the strictest Forest Stewardship Council standards. This sustainable forest (in a yet to be chosen location) will ensure that the Promenade boardwalk has the wood it needs for centuries to come, and that the global environment has a new and powerful ally in the people of New York City and the friends of the Brooklyn Bridge."

Because of the maintenance required for its extensive boardwalk systems and parks, New York City is one of the largest purchasers of tropical hardwood in North America. With good reason, environmentalists Rainforest of New York and New York Climate Action Group have given the city an abundance of heat on this issue and have called for the immediate cease of the tropical hardwoods used.

So when this sustainable forest project was proposed in the NYtimes to provide the tropical hardwood needed to replace the 11,000 planks used in the Brooklyn bridge in a socially and environmentally responsible way, we were surprised to see the same negative responses and quickly reminded of the misconceptions surrounding the forestry industry.

What most people don’t understand is that the forest is not clear cut by loggers. Loggers remove at most 10 species out of the rainforest which normally has 40-50 species. Furthermore, they only remove mature trees and leave behind the smaller trees which serve for future stock.

The rainforest is mostly cleared by agriculture, namely cattle farmers, who have no alternative but to cut down forest without having to take out any kind of permit or solicit change of land use. Logging access roads often provide access to these poor farmers and speeds up deforestation if the loggers leave once they are done logging. If the area is managed and controlled, the cattle ranchers are not allowed to come in after the loggers to clear cut and the forest continues regenerating.

Any project that aims to preserve forest as a perpetual source of wood is a project that is truly fighting global warming because it ensures that for at least one area the land use will not change. Helping indigenous groups defend their large boundaries from cattle ranchers is a perfect example of how to prevent deforestation.

Logging must be controlled and forests must be managed in a sustainable way. A healthy sustainable forestry industry in a rainforest area provides alternatives to cattle ranching which is the easiest way for impoverished people in rainforest areas to make a living. Most importantly it puts a value on standing forest.

The answer is not as simple as saying “Stop buying tropical wood and you stop rainforest degradation”. This would remove the value from the forest and thus it becomes worth more to its owner as a pasture and we have seen it happen first hand here in Nicaragua. If there is no permission to use wood a cattle farmer will cut down trees which produce wood and burn them to put in pasture.

The answer lies in protection, management, and creating alternatives to cattle farming. Understanding the complex socio economic forces which cause deforestation is the first step to solving them. Encouraging the planting of trees in the tropics, the use of this renewable resource, and the preservation of forest is essential to combating the deforestation caused by agriculture. We are going to need more projects like the Brooklyn Bridge Forest, but in order to gain support, we must get past the misconceptions surrounding forestry practices.