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.