On Site with the Tree Bank
1. Ridge after Ridge
Some very good news: the Tree Bank is scaling up successfully. It’s growing rapidly, and it’s definitely doing what it’s supposed to do, as we saw during a recent visit to our program area. This presentation shows what we found. I’ve included 10 pictures, each with an extended and somewhat digressive caption. There are a few videos as well. The presentation is meant to give you a close-up view of the Tree Bank’s work. It doesn’t assume much prior knowledge, so even if you’ve just heard of the program, most of what follows should still make sense.
Just a little preliminary context: the Tree Bank Hispaniola is an agroforestry program that works near a section of the Dominican Republic / Haiti border, on the Dominican side. The program is meant to boost the incomes of small-holder farmers while conserving the forest fragments that remain on their lands. It was founded in 2006, as a partnership between the Sangha and a local farmers’ association, which we incorporated in 2010. As of January 2020, between 70 and 75 farms were participating.
My name is Chris Bright. I’m the Sangha’s president and one of the Tree Bank’s founders. I took all but one of these photos in January 2020, during a staff visit to Los Cerezos, the little municipality where the program is based. (The photo that I didn’t take is the second one — a satellite aerial.)
OK, here we go! With this first picture, I welcome you to Los Cerezos. We’re in hill country, in the far southern reach of Dajabón province. We’re standing on a ridge, looking southwest towards Haiti, which is maybe five miles off. In the foreground, you can see the mixed broadleaf and conifer cover that is typical of the region’s mid-slope vegetation. Here’s it’s mostly conifer because we’re well up-slope. There’s just one dominant conifer: the picturesqe and endangered Hispaniolan pine (Pinus occidentalis). More on that species later. In the valleys below, along the streams, the forest is broadleaf.
Out in the distance, you can see the barren slopes of eastern Haiti. The trees are mostly gone from those mountains and the soils are very thin. Here on the Dominican side, we still have lots of forest fragments to propagate from, and adequate soils for planting.
The border may be a stronger barrier for trees than it is for people. In our region, there is no border wall or barrier, so people can just walk across it, or ford the Río Libon, depending on where they’re crossing. The cross-border traffic is almost entirely Haitian, and there are many Haitian migrants here in Los Cerezos. Most of them are men, who work as laborers on local farms (including Tree Bank projects). When there’s no work, many of them return to their families in Haiti. They go back and forth, on foot, often covering dozens of miles with each trip. It’s a hard life that they live, and a dangerous one. There’s no security in eastern Haiti, and not much on this side of the border either.
2. The View from Above
From that mountain ridge, our program region looks pretty good, right? But unfortunately, when it comes to forest, there’s actually less there than meets the eye. This is a satellite photograph of our region. The photo covers about 60 square miles and dates from January 2016. Winter is the dry season and, as you can see, the herbaceous vegetation is mostly parched. That makes it easier to see how much forest remains.
The reddish areas in the photo are exposed or lightly vegetated soil. The light green areas are mostly pasture, and the dark green is mostly tree cover — but much of that tree cover is not forest. Instead, it’s plantings of alien pine or growth of various other alien tree species — mango, acacia, Calliandra calothyrsus (a nasty invasive tree in the bean family), and so on. I would estimate that native forest covers well under a quarter of the area that you see here. Our area is a forest biome, but it has lost most of its native canopy, and what remains is fragile and disintegrating.
3. The Tree Bank Nursery
We’re back on the ground, and visiting our nursery. The Tree Bank nursery produces native trees from local, wild seed. This is “local ecotype” stock, as at our DC-area nursery. In addition to the natives, we produce two little understory trees that are, or could be, economic giants in our region: coffee and cacao. (Cacao is the tree whose seeds are used to produce cocoa and chocolate.) Both coffee and cacao are high-value shade crops. Although there are cultivars of both species that are bred to grow in full sun, the cultivars that we work with — and the ones that our farmers prefer — do poorly in direct light. They have to be grown under tree canopy. So if a farmer can underplant a forest fragment with cacao or coffee, and if he or she knows how to manage the planting, then that fragment could become a source of revenue. In this way, the little trees can protect the big trees that shade them: the forest can make money without being cut.
4. Agustina’s Credit Reserve
If you want to conserve forest in a landscape that is mostly owned by small-holder farmers, what should your top priority be? It should not be planting trees. Instead, you should start by trying to conserve the established forest. An acre of natural, native forest has far greater ecological value than even many acres of tree seedlings. So established forests should come first, but how do you protect them when they’re privately held? The key is to work with the owners to develop a conservation incentive — some sort of arrangement that rewards farmers for not cutting or burning their forests. And in my opinion, the arrangements that work best are those that put money in farmers’ pockets.
The Tree Bank uses credit to do this. Credit is essential for just about any kind of business, including farming. But small-holders usually cannot get loans that are large enough to make a difference, at a rate that they can afford. That’s true just about everywhere in the developing world. The Tree Bank offers participating farmers low-cost loans in exchange for “Credit Reserves” — conservation easements over high-quality forest on their lands. This Forest Credit facility is by far the Tree Bank’s most popular service, and it’s the one that conserves the most forest. In 2019, we lent $33,380 to 52 farms in exchange for easements over 318 acres of forest. Most farmers use the credit to buy fertilizer and seed; sometimes they use it to buy a heifer (a young cow). We’re not a conventional bank, so we don’t expect to make a profit off this lending. But even so, community pressure keeps our default rate very low. People often pay their loans back late, but in eight years of lending, I think we’ve only ever had one default.
In this photo, you can see one of these Credit Reserves. This one belongs to Agustina Aquino Martinez. Like most of the reserves, Agustina’s is riparian — it encloses a stream — so there’s some protection here for both land and water. The aquatic aspect is increasingly important because deforestation is drying out our region, to the detriment of both wildlife and the farms. (There are no aquifers in our region, so there aren’t any wells or irrigation.) We have to do a better job of conserving the region’s surface waters, and conserving riparian forest is an important part of that.
Agustina’s reserve gives you a pretty good sense for what these places look like. They’re usually riparian; they’re usually on steep slopes that would be difficult to farm, and the cover is mature, diverse, and structurally complicated. To give you an even better sense for the place, I made a video — a 360-degree pan with my camera — from approximately the spot where I took this photo.
Now a word about my videos. They’re pretty bad. The Sundance Festival has not been in touch. But I think in this context, that they could still be useful. Have you ever studied a photo and found yourself wondering what’s out of frame? The videos are meant to answer that question. Here’s the one for Agustina’s reserve.
5. Ramón’s Restored Coffee Grove
Much of our remnant forest is not as natural as Agustina’s reserve. Much of it looks like the forest shown here. Can you see the differences? This is a working forest — a coffee grove that belongs to Ramón Solis Alcántara. This forest is not riparian. Its natural understory has been mostly replaced with little coffee trees (the dark green, shrubby growth on the right). And its canopy, while native, has been modified: some limbs have been trimmed off the big trees to allow more light to reach the coffee below.
The ecological value of high-canopy shade-coffee groves is considerable — but not as great as the value of our Credit Reserves. We don’t lend money for coffee groves, but we do subsidize the planting and maintenance of such places. (I’ve written a little about these planting and maintenance costs in the captions to photos 7 and 8.)
Ramón’s coffee was planted a couple of years ago, as part of our effort to recover from the DR’s coffee leaf-rust epidemic that culminated in 2015. The epidemic killed virtually all of the coffee trees in our region, and that jeopardized the forest canopy in places like this because the forests were no longer making money for the farms. Without that profit, logging begins to look attractive again. That’s why we are growing and planting rust-resistant coffee trees as fast as we can. Since the epidemic, we have planted tens of thousands of coffee seedlings on local farms.
Most of our farmers are highly skilled at managing their coffee. Ramón’s grove is a beautiful example of this. The little coffee trees are really happy, but no fertilizer or pesticide is used on them. Competing growth is periodically cut away, and there’s just about exactly the right amount of shade. One aspect of this regimen that we are trying to change: we are trying to persuade people to plant their coffee a little looser so that there will be more room for native-tree saplings, to perpetuate the canopy. Sometimes we plant these saplings ourselves, and sometimes the seedlings of the big trees just volunteer.
I really don’t know how much area we have in restored coffee groves, but I think that it’s still less than 100 acres. I’m constantly trying to get clear area numbers from our Dominican colleagues, but generally without success. This numeric informality used to bother me, but now I think that it may be helping us. There is considerable demand to get into the program, so we should keep barriers to entry as low as possible. A person should be able to join and start replanting his or her coffee right away — and leave the paperwork for later!
6. Andrea’s Cacao Planting
As we have worked to recover from the coffee leaf rust, we have been encouraging people to diversify their groves by including cacao, were there is appropriate soil and light. Like coffee, cacao has been grown in our region for generations, but mostly on a small scale. Yet cacao has much to offer. Matt, our Conservation Manager, tells me that Dominican cacao is highly regarded in the US and Europe, so these plantings should be valuable additions in their own right, even as they create a more stable revenue base than could be achieved with coffee alone. And since cacao needs less light than coffee, it requires less modification of the forest canopy.
Andrea Contreras has bought into our cacao rationale, and you can see some of her little cacao trees in this photo on the right. Some people plant cacao here and there throughout their groves; others, like Andrea, plant it on the periphery — which is fine with us, since that means that they will need to plant additional tree cover. That will definitely have to happen here. This cacao is in too much light — way too much light!
In situations like this, sometimes we plant banana as a kind of quick shade. Banana takes less than a year to grow, it’s valuable in its own right, and it can be chopped out once a tree canopy has begun to form.
Here’s another video. It shows Katherine, our Development Manager, and Matt — “Mateo,” as the locals call him — pulverizing roasted cacao beans, or at least attempting to do so. One of our Dominican colleagues, Olivo Bienvenido Recio, is the village cacao aficionado. We were at Olivo’s house, as he and his wife, Maria Elauteria, were preparing fresh cocoa for us to drink. It was amazingly good.
7. Lucío’s “Profitable Forest”
OK, so we use Forest Credit to protect high quality, more-or-less natural forest fragments. We support coffee and cacao plantings under remnant canopy that is in reasonably good condition but too disturbed to qualify for credit. We also purchased some land outright, when we created a 45-acre reserve to protect a stream and create space for experimental plantings. (We transferred ownership of this land to our Dominican partner organization, under an agreement that requires conservation. The reserve isn’t covered in this presentation.)
But that still leaves the most common scenario of all: complete deforestation.
Virtually all the farms in our region include parcels of low-value cropland or pasture; such places could become much more profitable if they were restored to native canopy and underplanted with coffee or cocoa. That’s the vision at least! And in keeping with that vision, rather than the current reality, we call these sites “Bosques Rentables” or “Profitable Forests.”
You can see one of these places here. This is the Profitable Forest of Lucío Liriano Guerrero. It was first planted in 2016. Before that, it was a bean field. Beans are among the most common annual crops in our region — and throughout Central America — but local yields are low, as are farm-gate prices, and fertilizer is essential (and expensive). It’s often barely worth the trouble to plant; in some years, farmers lose money on their bean harvest. Coffee and cacao are hardly fool-proof but over the long term, they are likely to be a better bet.
Deforestation for planting annual crops may no longer make much economic sense in our region. But there’s also an economic barrier to restoring forest. Our sites are generally too disturbed and too dominated by invasive brush to grow back to forest on their own. But planting even an acre or two of trees is a lot of work, and farmers are going to need help chopping out brush and putting in the trees. On some sites, they even have to plow after chopping. Once the trees are in, the weeds will have to be chopped back from time to time, for several years after planting, and more trees will have to be added to replace the seedlings that die. All that labor costs a lot more than most of our people can afford, so we pick up the tab. Free trees and free labor allow us to make a pretty convincing case for restoration!
Lucío’s was among our first Profitable Forest plantings. When we started work on this site, our nursery wasn’t producing anywhere near enough native-tree seedlings to cover the land being brought into care, so our initial plantings were much sparser than our current ones. We will likely do some additional stocking of Lucío’s site.
This site covers only about three-quarters of an acre, which is typical for a Profitable Forest, at least thus far. We do have some that are larger but I don’t think there are any that are over two acres. I think that we’ll probably see enrollments of larger sites when the coffee and cacao sales pick up, over the next five years or so. But even an acre or two can make a big difference in this landscape, especially when the site borders an established forest fragment, or connects several fragments together. Such connections are essential because most fragments are now too small to serve as long-term refuges for all the plants and animals that currently live in them.
8. Bobi’s New Profitable Forest
To get a sense for how much effort goes into these Profitable Forest sites, take a look at this one. This site belongs to Manuel Tejada, known to one and all as “Bobi.” (I don’t know why. Dominicans often have unusual nicknames.) This site was cleared and planted for the first time last fall. In the photo, Cosme (at left) and Manolo are pointing out tree seedlings for me to photograph. (Cosme and Manolo are the Tree Bank’s two Co-Directors.) The site is mostly bare earth because the weeds have just recently been chopped out of it for the second time. The chopping is back-breaking work and, ideally, it should be done two or three times a year on all of our Profitable Forest sites for the first few years. If the sites are neglected, then the weeds out-compete the tree seedlings for water, light, and nutrient, and the trees die. We learned this the hard way!
Of course, some of the seedlings die anyway, so in addition to the chopping, the sites tend to absorb substantial quantities of additional seedlings before things begin to stabilize, maybe four or five years out from the initial planting.
You might think of forest regeneration as a natural process — and indeed it is, on healthy sites. But those are not the sites that require our attention! In places like Bobi’s field, the ecology of renewal has broken down, and we’re trying to reassemble it by investing hours and hours of labor in it. Our people collect the tree seed, grow the seedlings at the nursery, prepare and plant our various sites, chop out the sites at regular intervals, and replant where necessary, until the saplings are safely above the weeds. And all that labor has to be paid — not volunteer — because we have to be sure that people actually do it.
9. Vidal’s New Native-Pine Planting.
Here’s another new planting, but of a very different type. Those little tufts