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Leaf 12: Update on Bosques Rentables

A leaf from:

This Broken Land of Promise:

A Chronicle of Conservation in the Hispaniolan Border Country

Matt and I paid a short visit to our Tree Bank program area, from August 8 to 12 — not to check on field sites, but just to sit in meetings. Of course, we always meet with people when we’re down there, but we’ve never done three days of that to the exclusion of everything else. I felt as if we were exporting a little Washington culture to the border country, but at least there were no PowerPoints.

We met with all the usual suspects. We talked for hours each day with Cosme and Manolo, the program’s Dominican Co-Directors. We visited with Franklin, our Nursery Assistant, and we had several long conversations with Yinabel, the Tree Bank’s Coordinator. We spent the better part of an afternoon with the Directiva, the Board of Directors of our local partner, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque, Los Cerezos (the Los Cerezos Forest Producers Association), which has now grown to 52 members. And of course we had a chance to say hello to numerous friends and colleagues, most of whom live in or near Los Cerezos, the little municipality where the program is based.

I had several reasons for wanting all this conversation, but in this note I will just outline the one that I consider the most important. And since each of my concerns is connected to all the rest, I’m sure that you’ll get the general picture.

By the end of July, I had become troubled about the small amount of land that the Tree Bank’s small-holder farmers had pledged this year for the program’s Bosques Rentables (Profitable Forests) project. Bosques Rentables is intended to reestablish native forest canopy on low-value pasture, and then under-plant that canopy with coffee or cacao trees. (Cacao is the little tree whose seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate.) Coffee and cacao are best grown in shade, and they can both be very profitable. In effect, the replanted forest would be making money for our farmers, and the prospect of those earnings was supposed to be an incentive for putting land into the project.

Based on earlier conversations, we had expected to recruit at least 6 acres into the project this year. (See Leaf 3.) Our complementary project, called Pino Criollo y Ganado (Native Pine and Cattle) was bringing in plenty of land — I’ll write about that another time — but halfway through the year, we had only found 2.75 more acres for Bosques Rentables, to add to the initial 4 acres that we had enrolled when we started the project last year.

You might argue that, over all, a few acres more or less for Bosques Rentables doesn’t mean much. After all, the Tree Bank as a whole now has nearly 300 acres in care and is expanding on several other fronts. But the lack of enthusiasm bothered me because I saw Bosques Rentables as our best bet, over the long term, for returning native forest canopy to much of the local landscape.

Why wasn’t the idea working better? That was the main thing that I needed to find out on this trip.

And we did find out. But it’s complicated! You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the problem is not the result of a single factor. Instead, changes in several related circumstances seem to be affecting the way that people are thinking about forest. These changes may be blocking, or at least slowing, development of the project as originally conceived. But they may also be creating opportunities for conservation that we would do well to address. We heard about three such factors.

First, cattle are a very important part of the picture. Cattle and forest almost never overlap; cattle can’t browse in forest so ranchers generally cut and burn their forest to create pasture. (Our Pino Criollo y Ganado project is creating a local exception to this rule; there is a brief description of that project in Leaf 3.) Of course, people have been raising cattle in our area for centuries, but over the past several years, interest in cattle has definitely picked up, and we are seeing more and more little herds being driven to pasture along the narrow dirt roads that knit our region together. It seems that just about every farmer in our region would now like to have a small herd, or even just a single cow. And the interest in cattle is increasing the value of pasture — actual or potential — on local farms. Hold that thought.

The cattle fad seems to have grown out of the coffee leaf-rust epidemic of 2014. The epidemic killed all of the region’s coffee trees, thereby removing a large and previously reliable source of income from many of the region’s farms. After that, who could blame the farmers for thinking about cows? It is certainly true that our farmers can do reasonably well with cattle if they have good pasture — which, in most years, most of them haven’t got. But over the long haul, in terms of net profit per unit area, coffee would probably bring in more money on most farms. A major virtue of cattle, though, is rapid returns: in less than two years, a farmer could be selling his first heifer (baby cow), whereas, with coffee, the first, very small harvests don’t come in until five years or so after planting.

So just to keep their options open, farmers may be reluctant to plant trees where, someday, they might be able to pasture a couple of cows. Never mind that those pastures are usually sparse, and that Los Cerezos is home to some of the scrawniest cattle that I, at least, have ever seen. And these are beef cattle! There is no dairy production in our project area. Los Cerezos is way up in the hills, and the locals will tell you that, despite the 90+ degree heat of an August afternoon, it’s too cool for dairy cattle up there. (I refrain from mentioning the enormous and far cooler Swiss dairy industry. The actual problem seems to be the local pasturage — it’s nowhere near rich enough to support dairy. But I digress.)

A second factor that could affect Bosques Rentables: the government has placed a total ban on the logging of a species of pine, pino criollo (native pine). Usually called Hispaniolan pine in English (Pinus occidentalis), this large, native tree is endemic to the island — that is, it grows naturally nowhere else. It’s primarily an upland species; it likes the mountain ridges, where it often forms extensive stands. It looks a little like our eastern white pine (P. strobus) except that its needles are shorter and its branches are sort of gnarly and scraggly. Its timber is valuable. In our region, it’s the only native species that still exists in wild stands large enough to make commercial logging attractive. It’s also listed as endangered by the IUCN. Those big stands are deceptive: you can see the pine on practically every ridge, but what you can’t see is how small those stands are compared to what they used to be, just a couple of decades ago. The pine’s populations are collapsing.

The cutting of this pine has been regulated by the government for years. Farmers who owned a stand and wanted to log it would have to get a permit from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, called “Medio Ambiente” (“environment”). Obtaining such a permit usually took some time and a Medio-Ambiente official would designate which stems to cut and which to leave. (Clear-cutting was not permitted.) But a few months ago, the permitting ended. No more logging pino criollo. And this is not just pro forma regulation. The government is using an effective enforcement mechanism: these trees are big, so farmers can’t mill the timber themselves; they have to contract with sawmills, and the government knows where all the sawmills are. In the Dominican Republic, all sawmills must be licensed and all of them are inspected. Any mill caught processing pino criollo without papers — or now, processing it at all — is shut down permanently. The Dominican government has its share of faults, but on this matter, to judge from what the locals have to say, it is not putting up with any nonsense.

The Tree Bank is growing pino criollo from local, wild seed, and we’re trying to help save it by reestablishing stands. That’s what our Pino Criollo y Ganado project is for. As you might expect, we are enthusiastic supporters of the logging ban. But as with many important and generally beneficial policies, there can be downsides, and we’re hearing that the ban on pino criollo may be putting more pressure on the remaining broad-leaf forest fragments. These are downslope from the pino criollo, along rivers and streams, on slopes that are generally too steep to farm. Although these fragments don’t contain large stands of any single species, there are still plenty of large individual trees within them. They aren’t pino criollo and the sawmills are happy to take them. So the rate of deforestation, after having leveled off (at least according to government statistics), may be picking up again, even though, in our region, there really isn’t all that much left to cut.

Hence Manolo’s enthusiastic refrains during our meetings. “Oh yes, there were a couple of really big such-and-such over on so-and-so’s land. You should have seen!” I’m kind of glad that I had not. (Of course, Manolo doesn’t approve of the logging — but when he speaks, he does like to make sure that you’re there with him.)

Again, we approve of the ban — but we also think that we need to help manage some of the consequences.

So there you have two factors: cattle may be reducing interest in tree-planting on open ground, and the pino criollo logging ban may be increasing pressure on remaining forest.

A third factor that could affect Bosques Rentables is the change in attitudes towards the loss of coffee. Before the rust epidemic, many of the surviving forest fragments used to shelter coffee groves. In effect, coffee money kept the loggers away. Only a fool would trade a reliable, life-time source of income for a one-time timber sale.

But things are different now that the coffee is gone. The forest is no longer paying for itself. That’s why we’re doing our best to put the coffee groves back, and to add cacao groves as well, where conditions permit. The Tree Bank nurseries are producing thousands of coffee and cacao seedlings every year, and these are available for free to all of our farmers.

But some of the farmers feel as if they got burned by the rust epidemic. Coffee had been part of the local landscape and culture for generations; no one, as far as I know, was expecting its sudden and complete disappearance. There is still plenty of interest in coffee, but it’s not hard to understand why some people might be uncertain about how much land and labor they want to invest in coffee all over again. Cattle might seem like a better bet.

We see this as a legitimate concern and we’re doing our best to address it. We’re propagating coffee from several, different blight-resistant strains. That variety will foster blight resistance and genetic diversity within the coffee itself. We are also discouraging the planting of understory coffee monocultures. Instead, we are asking our farmers to plant some of their understory with cacao, where that’s appropriate, instead of coffee. (Of course we are propagating cacao from several different strains as well.) And we are developing guidelines that require space in the plantings for native tree saplings and other native understory plants. These measures won’t prevent outbreaks of disease, but they should greatly reduce the ecological and economic damage of those outbreaks.

To sum up:

1. The prospect of cattle is discouraging tree-planting in areas that could be used for pasture.

2. The ban on the logging of pino criollo may be increasing pressure on broadleaf forest fragments.

3. The loss of coffee has removed the most important economic rationale for maintaining many of those fragments.

* * * * *

Obviously, saving the established forest fragments must take precedence over the replanting of open ground. Our Forest Credit project is focused on those fragments, and is thus far protecting about 195 acres of them. (See Leaf 6.) But Forest Credit is designed to protect more or less natural forest; it doesn’t include the coffee-grove canopies. And I don’t think that it would be wise to extend Forest Credit to the coffee canopies because that would tend to devalue the natural forest.

This is where Bosques Rentables can help.

In our meetings, we agreed that Bosques Rentables could be broadened to include the restoration of the old coffee groves, by offering the same incentive package that the project offers for planting open ground. (The incentive consists of payments for planting and for cutting away competing vegetation, and, of course, free trees.) In return, participating farmers would have to agree to rules aimed at perpetuating the native canopy — no cutting native canopy trees, allowing space for native saplings, and so forth. And there would be a crucial added requirement: farmers would also have to plant a buffer of native tree seedlings along the edge of their coffee canopy. We will specify a minimum width for the buffer, and a minimum number of native tree species. The buffer will allow us to extend the canopy somewhat, and increase the native-tree diversity of the fragment.

We developed a three-part strategy for expanding Bosques Rentables:

1. Improve tree production at the Tree Bank nurseries — for both native species and for coffee and cocoa. We are really going to need a lot of trees to drive this expansion. We just hired two more people to work with Franklin at our main nursery, so we’re on our way. I’ll write about this another time.

2. Put a lot of care into the current Bosques Rentables sites, to show people what the program can do. We have seven such sites and we hope to make them showcases for the program. We are not going to retreat from the program’s original objective — on the contrary, we’re going to try to make that objective as attractive as possible, while adding the new option.

3. Open the program up to reestablishing the old coffee groves, as described above.

That’s it! I wouldn’t call the current situation an emergency but I do think that the sooner we act, the better. I remember talking with Cosme and Matt during a visit last year, when we were checking on a set of new field sites. One of these was a coffee planting partly under established forest — the sort of thing that we’re now considering on a much larger scale. We had funded this planting but I was uneasy about it. I said that I didn’t like having to spend money planting into established forest; I thought that we ought to be going in the other direction, that is, out from the forest, planting trees on open ground.

“Ah huh,” Cosme nodded. “Sure, we can do that, but you have to understand that people here don’t think like you. If the forest isn’t used . . . .” He didn’t finish his thought. He just shook his head and looked away.

I’ll keep you posted.

“This Broken Land of Promise” is my attempt to describe and interpret our Tree Bank Hispaniola program. I welcome your comments and questions. Please write me in the comment box below or email me at

About quotations: I try to quote people as accurately as I can, but conversations sometimes occur in distracting circumstances, and my memory is far from perfect. An additional complication when quoting our Dominican colleagues and friends: these people speak only Spanish, so our conversations with them are always in that language. For the most part, translating these exchanges is not difficult, but sometimes a literal rendering would make for poor English; in such cases, my aim is to capture the speaker’s tone and meaning, rather than his exact wording.

— Chris Bright

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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