Reforestation and Carbon Credits

Rainforest Tree

Rainforest TreeGeoff McCabe
geoff@tropisphere.com
December 30, 2009

Reforestation and Carbon Credits are two very different things, but related. Some companies are buying old-growth forest/jungle and claim that by protecting it, then it’s creating a certain amount of carbon intake and oxygen production. But, from what I’ve read, it seems that an old growth forest actually reaches a point where it gives off as much carbon as it takes in, because although it’s continually sucking in carbon to make new leaves, branches, etc, there’s always an equivalent amount of leaves, branches, and falling trees that are rotting and giving the carbon back into the atmosphere. To some extent, some carbon can be sequestered into the soil if there’s a net gain of topsoil.

So the point is that the best way to create a carbon sink is to buy a piece of cattle field and plant hardwood trees. This will definitely take in a lot of carbon, not only in the growth of the trees, but building up of topsoil. Planting the trees protects the soil from rain erosion, so there’s two ways to take in carbon.

Some people plant Teak or Melina trees, which aren’t very ecological. Teak poisons the soil by acidifying it. Melina is a very aggressive spreader that starts growing everywhere nearby. Neither is a native species, and they are generally planted in monocultures, making it difficult for rainforest animals to live in a teak or melina plantation. Yet, they both grow very quickly, and when harvested correctly, few or no poisons are required when building with them to protect them from bugs. They also take in a lot of carbon, and generally when they’re harvested, then more will be planted in their place, to take in more carbon. Some of that carbon goes back into the atmosphere as the sawdust and scraps from producing wood construction materials eventually ends up in a rotting pile somewhere, but much also goes into furniture and homes, which theoretically will last for decades or centuries. So it’s a trade-off.

The best way to reforest then is to plant a mixed variety of native hardwood trees, which more closely simulate the primary jungle that your seedlings hope to one day grow to be. We encourage also a mix of fruit trees to provide extra food for the jungle animals, and we especially like Ylang Ylang, which is not a native species, but it’s great in that it has fruit all year, which helps out the bird and animal population by acting as a continual source of food… a natural bird feeder. Another important species is aguacatillo… the native avacado tree that is one of the few trees that has fruit containing lots of oils. This tree is nearly extinct in the area. You can find more information, and a place to buy all the tree seedlings very expensively at Rainsong Wildlife Sanctuary (www.rainsongsanctuary.com).

Doing this type of reforestation can be more than just sticking trees in the ground and walking away. Trees should be planted early in the rainy season (May or June) to insure that their roots can grow deep enough to reach enough water to survive the dry season (December-April). It helps to dig an extra deep hole and putting in manure and rich black soil in the hole to encourage the roots to grow deeper more easily. Some trees can be gobbled up by cows, deer, or other animals and may need to be protected, either by fencing the whole property, or with individual cages. Hardwood trees, which grow relatively slowly, can also easily be out-competed for height (and thus sunlight) by opportunistic soft wood trees such as Balsa, which can grow 30 feet tall in a year and have huge umbrella-type leaves to take in all the sunlight. So hand-chopping the invaders may be necessary at first.

Re-creating a native jungle filled with rare hardwoods can be a life’s work. There are people in Montezuma who have worked hard at this, such as Michael and Elizabeth, who worked almost 20 years to restore a cattle field to hardwoods. Now part of their legacy is a fair-sized grove of cocobolo trees, one of the hardest and rarest species, that are large enough to survive indefinitely and are even producing many seedlings. People who I know who have worked on recreating a hardwood forest have described the incredible satisfaction they have when they start seeing monkeys and other animals moving onto their land and taking up residence there.

About carbon credits in general, I don’t know exactly how it works. The markets for this are in Europe, not in the U.S. (yet). Generally, our part of Costa Rica isn’t the best place for it because the land is relatively expensive. The best area is where land is really cheap… on the Caribbean side and in other less-desirable areas. The Costa Rican government also has a program that pays land owners to reforest or at least to let it grow back on its own… it’s not a lot of money, but for farmers with 100 hectares or more, it can add up to enough to live on without working much. It’s a unique program in the world and has been very successful. As a result, Costa Rica is the only country in Central America, and one of the few in the world, whose forests are actually getting larger every year (the U.S. forests are also covering more area every year.)