- Panama is racing to restore 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of forest by 2025 to meet its carbon emissions reduction targets under the Paris climate agreement. The nation’s public and private sectors have embarked on various forest restoration and reforestation efforts to meet that goal.
- The government is currently financially incentivizing teak plantations, an industry that proponents say is a win-win for the economy and environment, but which critics say pushes out native tree species, reduces biodiversity, and can indirectly even contribute to further deforestation.
- A long-running research project overseen by the Smithsonian Institute is studying agroforestry and other innovative techniques to help determine which ones offer the best ecological, social and economic silviculture outcomes.
- Included in this groundbreaking work is research into restoring tropical forests on land degraded by cattle, efforts to improve forest hydrology, and silviculture techniques that could replace teak with other more eco-friendly high value trees.
COLÓN, Panama — Roughly 3 million years ago, a land mass arose from the ocean creating an isthmus connecting what is now North and South America. At the heart of that land bridge today is the country of Panama, which boasts greater bird diversity than any other Central American nation, but whose rainforests are being impacted by urbanization and cattle ranching, resulting in deforestation and drinking water contamination.
This combination of conflicting factors has attracted a variety of reforestation efforts, including forest restoration research that embrace agroecology and other sustainable silviculture methods, along with more economically lucrative forestry ventures that focus on the establishment of tree plantations — especially the growing of exotic teak.
The Agua Salud project
One scientific initiative located in the mountains of the Panama Canal watershed is the Agua Salud project, a 700-hectare (1,730-acre) long-term study site where researchers aim to quantify the ecological, social and economic services provided by tropical rainforests.
The project’s director, Jefferson Hall is a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, where he is exploring a variety of innovative land management strategies that could ultimately be used to restore and maintain ecosystem services across the tropics in response to global change.
The Agua Salud project focuses its research and monitoring on both naturally regenerating secondary forest and on planted forest. As he describes it, Hall’s trademarked approach dubbed “Smart Reforestation” requires the “planting of the right species, at the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons, and rebooting forests in areas with infertile land.”
As defined on its webpage, Smart Reforestation “is the process by which land is managed to maximize the flow of different goods and services for the benefit of multiple stakeholders in response to global change.” The concept emphasizes intelligent use of tree species to promote ecological restoration and practical agroforestry (the planned integration of native trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to generate environmental, economic and social benefits).
This multi-pronged reforestation research approach is also intended to reduce the negative impacts of unsustainable land use. Smart Reforestation looks to document the attributes of certain species of trees, especially measuring their capacity to restore lands degraded by cattle, to enhance carbon and water storage, and support healthy nutrient cycles within restored native forests and tree plantations.
“We probably [are conducting] the largest secondary forest study in the tropics,” Hall told Mongabay in a video call. “We have been studying naturally regenerating forests when you remove cattle off of the land… We have 54 sites and 108 plots that we have been following for over 10 years. We have [more than] 1.1 million data points where we have been tracking trees.” Using a biomass equation they created, the researchers say they can accurately calculate how much carbon their growing forests can sequester over time.
Data gathered at Agua Salud about reforestation with native species, carbon sequestration, biodiversity restoration, and disease ecology is meant to inform policy reform and decision-making throughout the tropics, with the goal of positively impacting people’s lives and livelihoods. Those goals are especially important for Panama, which has committed to a voluntary target of restoring 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of forest by 2025 under the Paris climate agreement.
“If we encourage people to take cattle off the land and pay the farmers a carbon payment based on the accrual rate,… and then we plant high-value timber species so they end up with a well-stocked secondary forest, [the result] will be a multiple-use forest that will enhance ground[water] infiltration, mitigate floods, [and enhance] biomass storage for carbon for combating climate change.” Hall said. “Then, over time, the people will be able to harvest the trees,”
Making teak more eco-friendly?
The Agua Salud project is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Panama City. Flanking the rough road leading into it are vast plots of teak growing in plantations. These exotic trees may seem out of place here, given that teak is native to Southeast Asia. But Hall and his research team want to see if this non-native has the potential to be productive not only economically but also ecologically.
Teak plantations are springing up across Panama due to a litany of factors: This Asian hardwood has high commercial value in boatbuilding and luxury furniture making, and the forestry industry wants to cultivate it in places with similar climates to Southeast Asia due to the depletion of natural stands there, and because of political insecurity in Myanmar.
Today, that business strategy strongly includes Panama, where commercial monoculture teak plantations are incentivized under the government’s green investment visa program: A minimum investment of $100,000 in a teak plantation makes a foreign investor eligible for expedited Panamanian residency (with the possibility of citizenship after five years), and also offers tax-exempt financial incentives. The Panamanian government also certifies the private money pumped into teak cultivation projects as “green investments,” resulting in a bias in favor of teak as a reforestation species.
Teak better than gold
Jeff Duda is one of the founding members of Panama Teak Forestry (PTF), a company that owns more than 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of teak plantation. So valuable is teak, says the PTF website in its pitch to potential investors, that the tree is comparable to gold.
“Teak has a couple great advantages that gold does not have,” Duda said in a recent interview. “When you hold [ownership of] a teak plantation, each year you have more teak assets as the trees always grow in all economic conditions. The process of growing teak (even with an economic monoculture) does contribute to biodiversity, rejuvenates the soil and sequesters carbon which is a big contrast to mining for gold.”
The company grows teak in monocultures primarily to boost returns on investment. Duda reiterates this point when asked about the viability of integrating agroforestry systems into teak plantations, featuring a mix of tree species: “From an economic standpoint, we look at maximizing the sustainable production of teak. Teak, similar to pine forests and many others, tends to grow best as a purely teak forest and there is not an economically viable mixture of trees within a teak forest.”
The trouble with teak
Some in Panama are skeptical of this focus on teak monoculture, questioning just how ecologically sound it is to dedicate vast areas to a single exotic tree species. In the country’s east, a Capuchin Franciscan priest named Wally Kasuboski has been fighting since 1988 to protect key watersheds, which he says are threatened by the clearing of the region’s mountainous rainforests — that includes concerns over their replacement by teak plantations.
Kasuboski’s foundation and church sit just off the Pan-American highway in a part of the country where corruption runs high, a region that sometimes goes weeks in the dry season without freshwater. To ease that problem, he operates two major drinking water systems that collect mountain rainfall, then deliver freshwater downhill via pipes to communities along the Pan-American Highway, serving some 35,000 people.
But today, he says, these locally vital watersheds are under threat from deforestation and encroachment by farmers into forest reserves managed by committees made up of local stakeholders.
Kasuboski explains that teak plantations don’t cycle as much moisture into the atmosphere as native tree species do. As a result, Panama’s climate has gotten drier. “The program on reforestation is great,” he says of the national push to grow more trees, “but you need to plant native varieties,” not incentivize exotic tree plantations, such as teak.
There’s also an indirect relationship between teak plantations and deforestation, he warns. Much of the clearing of primary forest in Panama is for cattle pasture, with ranchers often getting bank loans to carry out this activity. Many then go on to sell the cleared land to teak companies that offer large sums to turn grazing land into tree plantations. And since the government incentives teak farming, critics say, the disappearance of Panama’s rainforests is being funded in part by foreign investors, albeit in an indirect way.
There are other, highly valuable, native tree species that could be successfully cultivated on Panama’s teak plantations, said Hall. Among them is Guatemalan rosewood (Dalbergia tucurensis), an endangered species whose wood is prized for making high-end guitars, and which can fetch a price of $17,000 per ton.
“At Agua Salud we [are doing] an experiment with enrichment planting, where we are [introducing other] high-value timber trees into poorly performing teak plantations and showing that you can convert these plantations into something even more valuable,” Hall explained.
Beyond that, the diversity of landscapes represented in the Agua Salud project — a rich mosaic of long-term experimental plots within secondary forests, pastureland, native species habitat, invasive grassland, teak and native tree plantations, shade coffee groves, and subsistence farms — enhance hydrology, improving dry season water flow and offering flood mitigation in wet times.
“The [Smart Reforestation] process looks at how fast you can restore these areas,” Hall said, “and research is finding that you can [get good results] at a very rapid rate, which is really great.”
As Panama rushes to cut greenhouse gas emissions and meet its Paris reforestation goal, the many projects being trialed at Agua Salud are offering a range of environmental solutions that could one day be scaled up to reforest vulnerable tropical regions around the world, while also providing the greatest ecological, social and economic benefits.
Colin Sytsma is a writer and the director and producer of the documentary video From Mass to the Mountain, chronicling Wally Kasuboski’s life mission to preserve the Panama rainforest.
Banner image: Jefferson Hall and community visitors at a weir in Agua Salud, Panama.
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