Friday, August 26, 2011

Competition for land in the Rio San Juan area


Global Green Carbon has been working in the Rio San Juan region of Nicaragua since 2009. Our Project Development Forester has recently spent 6 weeks in the region, and the below is his account of the pressures on local farmers to convert their landholdings to unsustainable monocultures of exotic species, and our unique solution to this problem.

Farmers in El Castillo district along the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua, bordering the Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve, have historically been faced with a lack of infrastructure and political instability. Over the years this lack of accessibility and stability has worked to reduce farmers’ choices in how to use their land, as there was little access to capital, and transport to markets was difficult. In the past, land use decisions were easy, deforestation followed by cattle or grain crops were the only options. Due to this productivity was low, and the area has remained among the poorest in Nicaragua, with few opportunities for the local population. Recently, as the land base shrinks and families grow, pressure on farmers to make more money per hectare has been increasing. Another recent development is the improvement of infrastructure, thereby creating easier market access, which in turn has increased the interest of foreign companies. This all cycles back as additional motivating factors of deforestation on the remaining tracts of forest in and around the Indio-Maíz Reserve. Farmers in the area now have more choices on how to use their land, and the region is facing a critical turning point.

The high annual rains and tropical climate of the region are perfect for perennial crops of which currently a few dominate; Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis), Gmelina (Gmelina arborea), and various fruiting trees such as cacao and timber trees of both native and exotic origin. Palm oil corporations generally buy land from people, and then offer factory work after the land is purchased. This is especially attractive to farmers with large plots of land, which when sold pays out well. But typically the one-off payments they receive are not well spent, and the farmers may follow on by creating a new farm in virgin forest, near or in the Indio Maíz Reserve, the further advances the “agricultural frontier”. The problem of palm oil is not only the promotion of a monoculture (a biological desert) but the drainage and deforestation also involved. It is not easy to get permission to deforest land as a palm oil company, but it is easy to stipulate that the farmer clears his/her land before the final transaction. This leads to expanding palm oil plantations taking the place of primary and secondary forest bordering the Indio Maíz Reserve.

The issue of drainage especially affects the farmers who do not sell out to the palm oil plantations. It is common practice of palm oil plantations to dig large trenches and allow water to flow out of the plantation reducing flood damage to the palms, however this is not beneficial to the areas hydrology and detrimental to neighboring farmers. The farmers who remain owners of their land surrounded by Palm oil plantations are often left with an impossible task of dealing with the erosion and flooding from the plantations. In one case witnessed by GGC a farmer’s access to his fields was severely limited by waist deep floodwaters which, before the palm oil plantations were drained, only measured a few inches deep. This further promotes expansion of the plantations and single ownership of large tracts of land by large corporations, with little regard for biodiversity, ecological value or sustainability.

As well as Palm oil often farmers are approached with the choice to plant Gmelina, a fast growing tropical tree from India. Plantations just a few years old can be seen throughout the district where there is good road access. Currently there are few mature stands in the region but farmers’ acceptance of the crop is growing along with the trees. Though the sale of the land is not required in the case of Gmelina farmers, they are persuaded into planting an unsustainable mono-culture of an exotic species to maximize short-term profitability, leaving the land all but barren of pre-existing biological diversity. The fast growth of the tree and the relatively quick profits (for trees) also persuades many farmers into deforesting existing forest cover on their land and converting it to this plantation. Indeed, despite this being illegal for a company to promote in Nicaragua, this does seem to be positively encouraged (it is not illegal for farmers to clear their own land of trees). The rapid growth of the tree with a turn-around of as little as 10 years is very attractive when viewed in the short-term. Though the Gmelina offers reforestation and can be argued as being beneficial to protecting forest resources in some cases, we believe the negative effects of it being grown as a monoculture outweigh its benefit, but the difficulty is providing the funds and expertise to the local communities so they can earn more money from a sustainable land-use.

African Palm Oil and Gmelina crops are expanding the spread of deforestation in the area and threatening the isolation of the Indio-Maiz Biosphere Reserve. Many farmers have portions of their land set aside as forest, but this has been decreasing as the years continue and families grow. In spite of growing families and economic pressure some farmers have opted not to sell their land, and are planting native tree species. When asked why, farmers often quote biodiversity as a key factor in their decision, along with erosion and water protection as additional reasons. Allowing more farmers to make this choice comes down to short-term economics and returns from crops. As in most places people in El Castillo can’t afford to make the 25 yr investment needed with native hardwoods on their land without returns in the midterm. That is why short-term profits need to be integrated with long-term goals. Agroforestry systems and plantations mimicking natural forest are some of the best options for farmers in the region looking to maintain ecosystem services without sacrificing economically.

Global Green Carbon is pioneering an innovative model in the area with its Rio San Juan Project http://www.globalgreencarbon.com/projects/nicaragua-rio-san-juan, which will create more profit for farmers while also increasing biodiversity and tree cover with overall local and global environment benefits. This is based around plantations combining a mix of native precious hardwood species with agroforestry crops such as cacao, with the vision that these timber plantations will be managed in perpetuity. Mixed native timber plantation, managed according to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) http://www.fsc.org/national_standards.html, have been shown to support almost as much biodiversity as natural forest, while additionally providing a constant long-term income to the local farmers and a sustainable timber supply. GGC’s method of combating deforestation is to make the current degraded land and deforested land of farmers more profitable while supplying the logging industry with quality ethically sourced timber. This ultimately reduces the pressure on natural forests.

Farmers, in partnership with Global Green Carbon, are now using green investments to develop a win-win option combining agroforestry with sustainable native timber plantations which generate not only timber revenues but also carbon revenues. The farmers acceptance of this new view of land-use is the key to protecting the Indio Maíz biosphere reserve, the largest tract of primary forest in Nicaragua.