Starting the Restoration Process: Notes on Planning and Hope

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Andrea Johnson

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


MEDIO AMBIENTE


“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” ― Warren Buffett

aj-and-carlos-at-fincaTrees are truly the greatest metaphors for just about everything there is, and for the rest there are oceans and fútbol.   But I’m entirely literal about shade these days.  Right now, for me and Finca Las Tijeretas, trees aren’t just happy symbols for a good stock-market investment or accents for yoga sessions: they are things I want to get planted during the next rainy season.

And that, my friends, requires planning.

In the first few months after buying this property last November, I would visit mostly just for the pleasure of wandering around with a stupid grin at the notion that I’d turned my bank account inside out for a 12-hectare sunstroke-inducing degraded cattle pasture.  Oh, the possibilities . . . !  I would schlep to the top fence line and stare out at the Golfo Dulce, imagining myself in this very spot sharing gin-and-tonics on the breezy deck of my energy-efficient eco home while endangered birds flitted through the biodynamic gardens to a diverse native forest below.

Eventually I wiped that grin off my face and got to work putting that fantasy in motion. Here are a few reflections on the early planning process.

  1. If you don’t know where you’re going….

In farm management, as in most aspects of life, it helps to have goals. When I say I want to restore my abused little patch of paradise, what do I actually mean?

I could be working towards a strictly ecological outcome: recreation of approximately the ‘same forest’ that was here before farmers and ranchers began to cut it down in the mid-1900s. This would require that I determine the species composition of that forest and attempt to replicate the complex dynamics of succession to ensure climax species find their way into the understory of appropriate secondary species and take many other similar steps.

Alternatively, I could be working towards a strictly economic outcome. In Costa Rica, the term “reforestation” is often applied to single-species plantations of exotic trees like teak, melina, pine and eucalyptus. The country’s remarkable increase in ‘forest cover’ over the last 30 years (from 21% at its nadir to over 50% today) is, in fact, less a story of forests per se than of the incentivized spread of such plantations. I don’t consider a timber monoculture to be the same thing as a forest: the former is a crop with very long rotations, while the latter is a diverse and complex system of ecological processes.  However, we needn’t disparage plantations either:  they sequester carbon, reduce soil erosion, host some types of wildlife and generate economic returns for the local economy.

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In practice, I have multiple interconnected goals for Finca Las Tijeretas:

  • Ecological restoration: First of all, I want to start repairing the damage caused by decades of cattle grazing. I also want to create excellent habitat through planting bird- , bat- and mammal- friendly tree species.
  • Revenues: I work for non-profits! I can’t afford to ignore economics. This means integrating timber trees into the plan.  Also, I will use an agroforestry approach, mixing annual crops and multipurpose trees. This approach generates income earlier than timber, and helps me to apply for optimal FONAFIFO payments.
  • Learning: I want the finca to be a place where neighbors, schoolchildren and visitors can come and learn about small-scale restoration and agroforestry and see examples of emblematic local trees and how we measure how well the trees grow, what birds and mammals come back, and how the soil changes over time.
  • Living and hosting: Someday I will build a structure to live here myself, to host guests, retreats, who knows. I’ll want to have shade and fruit trees nearby, I’ll want to preserve views of the gulf. I will need parking and both water and electrical power systems.

Each goal implies different trees and management strategies. I divided my little finca into 15 sectors that help me plan for these objectives on a spatial basis. In Sector Tortola, flat and accessible, I’m going to experiment with native timbers and teak. In Sector Sotocaballo, a steep slope hanging above the internal road, I’m planting hundreds of trees which are great for soil stabilization.

 In Sector Astronium, adjacent to my neighbor’s young secondary forest, we planted species like Inga golfodulcensis, Miconia minutifloria, Cupania ferruginea, and jorco (Garcinia intermedia) whose fruits and seeds will entice monkeys and other mammals across the fence and gradually deeper into the finca. And in Sector Balsa, a central zone with excellent viewing angles from above, we’re planting trees popular with birds like fruta dorada and aguacatillos.

Ok.  So once you think you know what you want to do, it’s time for a reality check.

  1. If you don’t know where you stand…

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” ― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

It’s great to have goals. It’s even greater if your goals are grounded in reality. I would love to be a professional singer, but the truth is that outside of my shower, I sound like a scarlet macaw.

So:  what’s the lay of the land?  What are my assets and what are my constraints? Two basic aspects are climate and soil. You may love—andoo wish to replicate—those Nicoya dry forest landscapes, but the truth is that pochote and guanacaste trees really aren’t happy in Osa.  It rains almost 5000 mm a year here!  That’s a TON of rain; not all trees can take that much.

I took a sample for analysis to UCR’s excellent soils lab, which confirmed that my soil (like most soils in Osa) is eroded, acidic, full of iron and almost devoid of potassium. What does that mean for my trees? If I want things to grow well I should budget in some fertilizer and an extra dose of calcium that helps neutralize the acidity. I should use lots of soil conservation measures to preserve what organic topsoil I have remaining and allow it to rebuild over time.

Lest you get overexcited, there’s the matter of your financial landscape too. Nurseries require up-front investment in supplies, seeds and labor to germinate and grow baby trees. If you seek returns from timber, or from agroforestry systems like shade-grown cacao, you’ll have to prune, weed, monitor, harvest. The most recent literature on large-scale ecological restoration shows clearly that letting regeneration take a natural course—with a few strategic assists early on—isfar less expensive, IF if your goal is simply to return degraded lands to forest.

  1. the best-laid plans….

“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”  ― Robert Frost

Planting trees is like extreme farming.  It requires you to read the weather forecast 20+ years out. At that scale, there are thousands of unknowns. What can we predict? The government’s climate change models show that Osa will experience longer dry seasons and wetter rainy seasons.  It’s only getting more extreme.

There’s something humbling about planting a tiny seedling, knowing that by the time it’s full grown the world will be a different place. You can only do your best, buffering against likely changes and encountering others you never suspected. I try to accept that a not-inconsiderable number of the trees I’m planting won’t last that long, whether due to drought or floods or leaf-cutter ants or fungus or something else entirely. Change, loss, transformation:  these are the only certainties.

  1. Hope is not a Plan, but a Plan is an Act of Hope

I was working on this article when the results of the US election exploded into our collective reality.  As someone who believes that climate change is real—especially so for people in the Osa and around the world facing new weather patterns, rising oceans, prolonged droughts, deadly storms, glacial water shortages—I felt a twinge of despair once the election results came in.

Thankfully, the practice of restoration planning is a hopeful activity by definition. It requires me to have a vision of the future as something worthwhile.  What and who will be here in 20, 30 years, where I’ll want to build structures, when and how I’ll harvest timber, what trails and access roads I need for logging or visiting school groups, how we’ll get water and electricity, what cocktails we’ll enjoy from the porch while watching the tijeretas swoop and glide below . . ..

Beyond that, I find hope in the idea this little experiment is being multiplied in a thousand corners of the world, that your children and grandchildren will see this as a time when we began, collectively, to say: enough! Oops, yeah, sorry kids, we kind of made a mess of things . . . but in the end we still cared enough to try to fix it.

 

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