Two resources for native species reforestation in Panama


A couple of years ago the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) published a “how to” guide to reforestation using native species in Panama in hardcover. They recently released the publication in digital form. This report summarizes the findings of STRI’s effort to identify commercially viable native timber species and increase adoption of these species among farmers and forestry project promoters.  

STRI researchers also released another paper that looks at mixed native species plantations’ growth rates for 5 species: yellow wood (Terminalia Amazonia), rosewood (Dalbergia Retusa), spiny cedar (Pachira Quinata), espave sp. (Anacardium Excelsum), and tropical oak (Tabebuia rosea). This paper is relevant to us because all 5 species are present in our plantations (the espave and tropical oak occur naturally). Interestingly, the study finds that each of the species yielded more biomass when planted together (mixed plantations) than when they were planted as monocultures. The yellow wood did best--something we’ve seen anecdotally in PE’s plantations.

We were happy to see that for the most part our plantations implemented all of the best practice guidance now catalogued in this new guide.

Panama, and especially the Darién, desperately need more native species restoration, so we are pleased about these two new resources. All of the species Planting Empowerment planted in our mixed native species plantations are considered in one or both of these resources, and we will continue to measure our plantations and share the results so that others can learn from our experience.

Our operations are open to the public, so if you’re ever going to be in Panama or visiting the Darien, just send us a note and we can arrange for a tour.

Tree nurseries in Panama - our experience

Women sorting saplings for the 2012 planting in Arimae

Women sorting saplings for the 2012 planting in Arimae

We recently read about a new 1 million unit tree nursery the Panamanian government set up to provide seedlings for the reforestation of the Azuero province. The nursery is part of a pledge announced last year by MiAmbiente to reforest 1 million hectares of land in Panama.

The lack of details in the article open up broader questions about how Panamanian government is executing on its pledge, but we are most interested in who will be buying the seedlings, where they will be planted, and how they will be cared for.

We had the opportunity a few years ago to set up and manage a 6,000 seedling nursery with our community partners in Arimae, and learned a few things that might offer context on this effort.

  1. There is low demand from the ranchers and farmers for the seedlings - even if given away for free.

  2. Most Panamanian farmers/ranchers are familiar with a number of native species and are adept at collecting and growing seedlings by themselves.

  3. There are a number of commercial nurseries that can produce significant amounts of seedlings for reforestation - even native species.

  4. Nurseries can be expensive to sustain and haven’t had great success in being run by the Panamanian government.

The first year of our nursery was successful because the nursery had a committed buyer: Planting Empowerment purchased the majority of the seedlings and the community used the rest for a community rosewood (cocobolo) plantation. Sources of seeds for the nursery were scouted by our forest technician at the time - Jose Deago - who happened to be Panama’s leading expert on the topic.

The first year was also the nursery’s best year. The next year, production fell by half after we adjusted down our planting. Additional buyers for the seedlings were non-existent, even though the seedlings were high quality, adapted to local conditions (local seed sourced) and produced using the tray/tube system instead of the heavier plastic bags. Community members were interested in free seedlings, but not willing to pay the $.50/seedling costs to make the nursery sustainable. The community dismantled the nursery in the 3rd year.

Our other experiences with tree nurseries demonstrate that it’s a tough business and you really have to know what quality you’re going to get. For one of our first farms planted in 2008 we sourced some of the seedlings from a government nursery. About half of seedlings were high quality, but the rest were unusable because they were at least a year old and too mature to be planted out. For subsequent plantings, we purchased seedlings from some of the many commercial nurseries that supply the large plantation companies and the nursery at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (which has subsequently closed, too).

We wish this new project by the government success because Panama needs reforestation and nurseries will need to produce the seedlings for a portion of this. We are also supportive of the native species focus of the reforestation effort. However, we hope the government might learn from past initiatives, and Planting Empowerment’s experiences, in order to make their investments in reforestation more economically viable.

Raleo in Arimae

Over the past few weeks we have been working with the community of Arimae to do a raleo, or thinning, of their community-owned native timber. The community has about 15 hectares of native species trees, including mahogany, spanish cedar, and spanish oak that hadn't been thinned or properly maintained. Through an offtake agreement with a local indigenous-operated sawmill, we're helping the community sell some of the commercially viable trees. As you can see, this is a very manual process--no fancy machinery, just hard work.

Native Panama Tree Species Propagation Guide

Guide to propagating native tree species of Panama
Guide to propagating native tree species of Panama

Cover artwork for the Native Species Propagation GuidePlanting Empowerment employees Liriano Opua, Yen Dogirama, and Mateo Johnson recently attended the release of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Guide to Propagating 120 Native Tree Species of Panama. One of the co-authors of the book is Jose Deago, who guided us for several years in planting and maintaining our mixed native species forestry plots.

The book is a great resource for those interested in advancing the adoption native species forestry, and also those interested in investing in tropical woods. Producing native species saplings requires understanding and optimizing the variables of soil chemistry, watering, and shading. The right balance is required for the saplings to be transplanted successfully and achieve optimal growth.

We’re proud to be purchasing some of our native species saplings directly from the nursery of our Indigenous partner community Arimae. Through a grant from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme, Liriano and Yen facilitated the construction of the nursery and the equipment to raise the saplings. Read the full case study about the project. They manage the nursery on behalf of the entire community and source most of the seed from the community’s forest preserve.

We used saplings produced in Arimae’s nursery for the first as part of our five hectare June 2012 planting (photos). While not scientifically conclusive, Liriano reports that the saplings produced in Arimae’s nursery have the highest survival and growth rates. Liriano and Yen left the conference with signed copies of the book, and are and be able to reference the book in the future.

Reforestation Strategies in Land Occupied by Foreign Grasses

A worker in Nuevo Paraiso clears brush with a machete prior to plantingIn some areas where we have reforested, the land had been previously planted with non-native grasses as fodder for cattle. We recently read a Mongabay post about restoring land previously planted with non-native grass through cultivating timber and other crops.

The paper, “Responses of transplanted native tree species to invasive alien grass removals in an abandoned cattle pasture in the Lacandon region, Mexico” by Román-Dañobeytia et al., found that successful reforestation on these lands is possible using natives species, but without continued suppression of the non-native grasses, high mortality rates may occur depending on the tree species.

Our experience confirms this finding. Whether it’s aggressive non-native grasses or just thick undergrowth, our native tropical hardwoods require frequent suppression competition to ensure low mortality rates. As the trees grow taller and start to shade out the undergrowth beneath them, suppression of competition becomes less important because the trees no longer need to compete for sunlight.

One practice used in the study to suppress the non-native grasses was burning the land before planting. Smallholders use slash and burn practices like this in the region where we work, but we decided to only clear the undergrowth and grasses with machetes before planting. When exercised in a controlled manner, the burning can return nutrients to the soil and reduce competition for the young trees, but the frequent rains in Panama erode away a lot of the nutrient-rich topsoil. Therefore, when we prepare land for planting our trees, we simply let the cleared undergrowth decompose in place and add its nutrients more gradually.

We’ve seen that certain species we planted compete better with the non-native grasses. Dalbergia retusa, in Panama called Cocobolo, has done the best with mortality and growth in our plantations with the aggressive non-native grass. It grows quickly, naturally bifurcates, and also fixes nitrogen, which gives it the ability to compete with the grasses while also recuperating the soils.

None of the native species in the study overlap with the species we plant, nor is the non-native grass the same, so a direct comparison with the study isn’t possible. However, we have found that, as in the study, suppression of non-native grasses is necessary for minimizing mortality rates. Additionally, the authors point out the need for maintaining the grasses during the dry season to reduce the drying out of the soil, something we have experienced, too.

We hope that researchers continue to pursue studies on this. Reforestation was the focus of the International Society of Tropical Foresters’ conference, held at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where we presented earlier this spring.

If you’re interested in learning more about reforestation using native species and its challenges, you can listen to the recorded conference presentations. Additionally, you can find more academic papers on the subject, especially about Panama, on our Studies and Analysis page.