Food, Farms, and Forests

Local avocado for dinner

A recent article in the NY Times “As Biofuel Demand Grows, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs” brought attention to rising crop prices in Guatemala caused by increased biofuel production in rural areas. As we read it, there were some parallels to the food security issues in Panama.

One of the reasons we started Planting Empowerment was to address the negative economic and environmental impacts created by industrial teak plantation businesses. Their MO is to buy up land previously used for small scale crop production or cattle grazing, activities that generate calories and support smallholder livelihoods.

Our Equitable Forestry model addresses the issues of displacing food crops and rising food prices in three different ways:

Intercropping food crops between our rows of trees

Nine out of the 25 hectares we have under cultivation are planted with plantains, a staple of the Panamanian diet. Growing the plantains between our natives species hardwoods not only helps increase supply of this dietary staple, but also yields cost reductions through the sharing of maintenance expenses.

Using only a portion of partners’ land for forestry

Our intention from the beginning was to use only portions of partners’ land to locate our forest plots. With our Indigenous Partner community Arimae, the plantings are located on land allocated specifically for reforestation activities in their land management plan. This leaves large amounts of land for individuals to grow staple and cash crops.

Increasing incomes from profit sharing

Finally, our community forestry partners see increased incomes through land leases payments and profit sharing. This helps to reduce the impact of rising food prices that are hitting Panamanians just as much as the Guatemalans mentioned in the article.

Forest owners and developers need to carefully consider the indirect impacts their projects have on local and international communities. We would like to see more forestry companies intercrop food crops into their projects to help maximize the benefit of their forests and strengthen food security for local communities.

Mining Debate in Panama

Watch In Panama, 'New Conquistadors' Protest Canadian Copper Mines on PBS.
See more from PBS NewsHour.

Last night there was a report on the PBS NewsHour examining Canadian mining companies operating in Panama and the environmental impact of their mines on local communities.

As part of a larger project called “The New Conquistadors”, the piece profiled a subsistence farmer in the town of Coclecito, where a mining company is expanding a large gold mine. The piece covers the negative environmental effects that the open mines are reportedly having on downstream local communities, but also the benefits that the companies are pitching to those communities: schools, health centers and roads.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report was the effect on local food production by subsistence farmers. According to the subsistence farmer interviewed, since the mining companies have been employing more and more local farmers, they have been importing more of the rice, beans, corn and coffee, that the farmers would traditionally grow themselves.

I was tempted to jump up on the soapbox—to discuss how our sustainable forestry model helps local farmers manage their land more effectively for short and long term benefits—but I’ll spare you. The mining companies are easy to go after and what we’re doing is different and doesn’t require a direct comparison.

We'll keep an eye on the mining debate in Panama, especially because it may indicate how the government will deal with indigenous land rights and environmental protection in the future.

Conservation Refugees

Members of Arimae's agricultural association looking at a map of the community's reservationTwo weeks ago the New York Times published an article featuring an Oxfam report on the forced and violent eviction of more than 20,000 Ugandans from their homes. In an effort to access the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism, in 2005 the Ugandan government granted the New Forests Company (NFC) a 50-year license to grow eucalyptus and pine for carbon credits. As seen by big financial supporters of the NFC such as the World Bank, European Investment Bank and HSBC (as well as many conservationists) this would help protect land, grow trees, capture carbon, provide needed jobs and generate almost $2 million in revenues. Everyone wins, right?

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Have your [cacao] and eat it, too

Planting Empowerment employee Liriano tends to a cacao sapling planted for the UNDP projectConventional thinking by most agronomists holds that creating a more biodiverse field or planting area ultimately reduces yields. However, a recent study entitled "Combining High Biodiversity With High Yields in Tropical Agroforests" suggests just the opposite: that increased yields and biodiversity can go hand-in-hand. The article, authored by Clough et al., examined biodiverse cacao (cocoa) plantations in Indonesia. 

Last year through the UNDP's Small Grants Program we worked with Arimae to plant cacao in some of their older tree plantations. Arimae planted some of the cacao beneath the canopy of a 10-year old mahogany stand, and the rest in a new parcel of rosewood with more sun exposure. We will be closely monitoring the differences in growth and yield between the two parcels as they mature and begin to produce.

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On "Forests vs. Food?"

On February 7th TIME magazine posted an article on their website entitled Forests Vs. Food?. The piece examines the relationship between deforestation and rising food prices.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food prices have reached record peaks this year, and are expected to keep rising. They attribute this rise to increased demand for resource-intensive products such as beef, and poor farming conditions leading to reduced yields in agriculture-producing countries.

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