Second chances: The science and art of Osa restoration

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Andrea Johnson

 Is a forestry and conservation professional based out of San José.

It’s easy to feel like the planet is falling apart. It pretty much is. Runaway climate change and its impacts are upon us, and deforestation – illegal and legal – is a huge contributor to the problem. This fall, a study of forest wilderness areas found that we’ve lost 30% of the Amazon, 14% of the Congo Basin and 12% of Southeast Asia in just the last twenty years[1] to industrial agriculture and other side effects of “progress”. A new study by Harvard and Columbia researchers found that massive forest fires in Indonesia last year caused the premature deaths of 100,300 people.[2]

But in the midst of this rack and ruin there is a wonderful truth about forests: they can grow back. In fact, in the tropics, they can grow pretty darn fast . . . if people and politicians create the right conditions. And regenerating landscapes suck enormous amounts of CO2 from the air:  good analysis of the data shows that while up to 30% of annual global CO2 emissions nowadays come from losing forests, reforestation of all kinds helps to sequester approximately 20% of those same emissions back into vegetation.[3] Not only that, but forest restoration generates jobs and contributes to greener economies.

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Over the last five years, an ambitious scientific, political and citizen momentum has been building around the possibility of restoring huge areas of the deforested tropics. The “Bonn Challenge,” signed by world leaders in 2011 and endorsed by the UN in 2014, now has governments from 31 countries committed to restoring 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.[4] In our region, “Initiative 20×20” is attempting to restore at least 20 million hectares in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020.[5]

Costa Rica is a poster child for these initiatives, of course, as one of the few countries in the world to halt and reverse its deforestation trajectory with a mixture of tax incentives, ecosystem service payments and reduced ranching subsidies.  We have more tree cover in Costa Rica than we did in 1986. This is true even in Osa: a 2015 analysis of remote sensing images shows that after diminishing for years, forest area in Osa has increased over 10% since 1998 – largely due to the abandonment of cattle pastures.[6] And we should be proud that one of the world’s leading experts in forest restoration, Dr. Robin Chazdon, learned her stuff in Costa Rica. Today she’s the founder of an important network of restoration professionals[7] and has a long-standing project measuring carbon capture and forest change in the Osa.[8]

Forest restoration is both a science and an art. What grows back after a blazing fire, or decades of cattle grazing or intensive agriculture, will not magically look like the primeval jungle of majestic arboreal giants found in the deepest corners of Corcovado (although it’s important to remember that much of that dense forest around Sirena most-visited by tourists was, itself, pasture and agricultural field only 40 years ago). The species and structure in any given secondary forest are dependent on many factors that converge as it grows.[9]

Likewise, there are diverse approaches to restoration that range from “hand-plant every single tree in a diverse species mix attempting to replicate the ‘original’ forest” to “do nothing, watch it grow back”.  Land use history, proximity to existing forest patches (seed sources), poject objectives, and of course budget…all these factors are part of the decision-making equation

So is love.

I am a forester and conservation professional. I moved to Costa Rica in 2012 from Washington DC, an urban jungle I had begun to find more hostile to thriving than anything the green expanses of Osa could throw at me.  In DC, I spent years working for an NGO to fight illegal logging and related trade. We lobbied for laws that make it a crime for American companies to buy wood products from illegal sources (The US Lacey Act of 2008[10]) and documented rampant corruption and massive illegality in countries like Peru, Madagascar, Honduras, Russia, and China.[11] Before that, I studied orangutans in a national park in Indonesian Borneo, where the forest was literally being logged out from under me. So when I first moved to Osa and saw what counted for illegal logging here, I thought to myself: This place is a success story!

I soon learned that the problems here are real and complex. But I’d long since fallen in love with the peninsula and decided I wanted to add my grain of sand in a more long-term way.  In November 2015 I signed the sales agreement for 12 hectares of abandoned cattle pasture in San Miguel de Cañaza and have set about bringing this little piece of land back to life. It’s a scorching expanse of 2-meter-tall grass hummocks sloping steeply down to the Rio Barrigones, with a view of the Golfo Dulce if I stand on my tiptoes at the highest fence line. In its current denuded state, the lack of shade makes it semi-hostile to most living things. I love it so much.

I’m still refining many details of the restoration plan, but my goal is to use a mixture of approaches in the different micro-sites across the finca. In some areas we are planting trees in dense rows, like a classic plantation. In others we are encouraging tree seedlings that emerged naturally and clearing weeds and grass to reduce competition or transplanting them to better growth sites.  In the steepest areas, we’ll focus on targeted planting to reduce erosion and create perches for birds and bats, which disperse tons of seeds as they eat and poop.

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I will play around and experiment, apply the increasing body of research now being published by researchers from Costa Rica and around the world. Here are the key principles I’m using:

  • Diverse native species, local sources: For me, one important goal of restoration in Osa is ensuring a connected matrix of forest habitat that can support the native wildlife, whether we’re talking peccaries and jaguars that need large territories, migratory birds or rare endemic amphibians. In an intricate rainforest ecosystem, many animals are highly adapted to specific niches; take out a tree species and you probably eliminate several types of insects and co-evolved plants too. I am thus using almost entirely native tree species. I’m also attempting to source my seedlings from the Peninsula whenever possible, since these seeds are from trees that have survived strong natural selection processes to thrive here.
  • Build on local knowledge: I read books and articles and google nerdy things like “common caterpillar pest cristóbal trees,” but I’ve learned the most from Osa residents. I was blessed to receive some invaluable tree IDs and early advice from Reinaldo Aguilar, the world’s leading expert on Osa’s flora. Osa Conservation was kind enough to donate some hard-to-find seedlings and information on caring for them. Most important, my assistant, Carlos Granados, provides constant input as well as labor. In a lifetime as farmer, logger and hunter, he knows the practical things I don’t, and he’s become a partner in this project. Okay, so we want to plant manglillo (Aspidospermum spruceanum)? He knows a trail por ahí with the best seed tree to collect from. We want to attract songbirds to this section? Here’s a list of trees and shrubs that make the birds crazy. Oh and by the way, Andrea, those tracks under the mamón trees? A tapir passing by.
  • Minimize chemical inputs: I’m not categorically against the application of pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, nor judicious fertilizing…but ethically, I don’t want this process of restoration to be about control and domination over the land. I plan to seek biological controls and remedies wherever possible and resign myself to the reality that some trees will get eaten. Everything eats everything else around here! Nature is good at self-correcting if you don’t artificially reduce her complexity by the strategic and poisonous removal of one species from the system.
  • Restoration should be economically viable: Both for me and for residents of the Osa. What does this means in practice? My vision is to have a ‘working forest’, one that can be sustainably logged for generations. I’m thus planting a lot of native species that are good timber – cristóbal, cedro maría, guapinol, surá, pilón, manglillo, cedro– and I plan to manage them well and log them in 20 or 30 years’ time. And, yes, I will also be planting some teak trees, which are totally exotic (brought over from Southeast Asia) and violate that first principle, because they grow fast and sell well.

Another example: I’m working with Osa Birds and the community of Dos Brazos to establish a native plant nursery that will supply trees to me and other Osa neighbors by 2017, and generate income for the community in the process.

  • Monitor and document changes, successes and failures: I tag and keep track of all the trees we’re planting in a database that could be used down the line to analyze mortality, growth rates and much more as well as document a baseline to show to MINAET, should I ever wish to harvest, that these trees were planted I collaboratewith Osa Birds to conduct bird monitoring surveys that will help track the effects of restoration on avian populations.  And I have established monitoring points throughout the finca where I take pictures every six months.

A career in tropical forest conservation has taught me this: we can’t only care about the vast, horizon-less wilderness areas. Back in 2005, Dr. Campbell Webb, a botanist who began his career working at the same devastated park in Indonesia that I did, wrote an important piece in the professional journal Conservation Biology about this vision. The patches, the secondary forest, even the degraded abandoned ranchlands, they must be part of the narrative. He wrote: “let us treasure them, rather than seeing them as the dregs”.

Restoration is a science, an art . . . and a relationship of hope with specific places that we love. I firmly believe that durable conservation is about love stories. We fight to protect and restore the places that give our hearts their contours, whether these are the communities we grew up in or the ones we’ve been lucky enough to find. We sink into fear and negativity without that connection to keep us inspired. I have days where I read too much internet news about climate disasters and scary technologies and want nothing other than to curl up on my couch to drink merlot as the End Times arrive. What gets me out of that space?

Thinking about what to do next on the finca.

[1] Watson et al.: “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets”http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)30993-9 /

[2] http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/9/094023

[3] http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/15/hl-compact.htm

[4] http://www.bonnchallenge.org/

[5] http://www.wri.org/our-work/project/initiative-20×20

[6] Algeet-Abarquero, N., A. Sánchez-Azofeifa, J. Bonatti and M. Marchamalo.  2015. Land cover dynamics in Osa Region, Costa Rica: Secondary forest is here to stay. Regional Environmental Change 15(7): 1461-1472.  At: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-014-0714-9

[7] ( http://partners-rcn.org/)

[8] http://hydrodictyon.eeb.uconn.edu/people/chazdon/

[9] See the excellent Second Growth: Tropical Forest Regeneration in an Age of Deforestation by Robin Chazdon.

[10] http://eia-global.org/lacey/

[11] www.eia-global.org

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