Reforest the Tropics Helps Low-Income Farmers in Costa Rica

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PRINCETON, New Jersey — Reforest the Tropics (RTT) is a U.S. nonprofit that operates on the ground in Costa Rica. Its mission is simple: “We plant trees,” Jay Stella, a member of RTT’s board of directors, told The Borgen Project in an interview. The goal is to create permanent forests in Costa Rica that benefit both the environment and the landowner.

Forests in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has historically been rich in forests. In the 1940s, 75% of the country was covered in dense rainforests. With a growing demand for timber post-World War II, by 1987, up to half of these forests were gone. In an effort to reverse this, the government put into place many reforestation programs and made deforestation illegal without permission. Now, almost 60% of the land is forest again.

Part of this is thanks to the efforts of Reforest the Tropics. Since its founding in 1996, RTT has planted 356 hectares of forest, which is about 665 football fields worth of trees. That represents 16 distinct landowners who have engaged in a 25-year forestry contract with RTT. But, the impact is farther-reaching than just those 16 farmers. Greg Powell, the executive director of RTT, told The Borgen Project that RTT creates the equivalent of one full-time position for every 15 hectares planted but also requires many more short-term workers during the initial stages of planting. Most of these workers come from the local community.

The Benefits of Reforestation

“Reforestation represents an opportunity for struggling farms,” says Powell. Whether it be through improving soil quality, reducing food insecurity or providing a direct source of income for farmers, reforestation is a proven method of poverty reduction. The forests planted by RTT are no exception. In addition to the environmental effects that benefit the entire community, the forests provide an avenue of commercial income for the farmers who own them.

However, forests take a long time to grow, which is why many low-income farmers in Costa Rica choose to raise cattle instead of investing in reforestation. RTT is changing this though. “Until now, there has never been a biodiverse, mixed-species model that can provide the necessary economic incentives for the long-term,” says Powell. The income RTT generates through its partnerships with private farms, typically located in low-income rural areas, outcompetes the income generated through cattle farming on the same amount of land.

The First 5 Years

RTT helps low-income farmers offset the lack of first-year gain through payments for ecological services (PES). PES is a way to keep farmers engaged in the forest and compensate for the lack of immediate monetary gain. Of the $8,500 put up by a sponsor to plant one hectare of forest, “the first $3,000 goes to the farmer, which gives them income over the first five years,” according to Stella. This ratio remains the same for every new hectare of forest.

After the first five years, the farmer can begin to thin the forest. Thinnings happen approximately every five years after that. In the mixed-species model promoted by RTT, farmers plant a variety of native hardwoods and various eucalypts as income crops. All of the timber harvested belongs to the farmer. Over the 25 years that the forest is under contract, Stella estimates the 15-20% of forest that is harvested each time “goes from about 40% of usable commercial lumber to about 80%,” which represents a growing source of income for the farmer as time goes on. RTT plants shade-tolerant species under the existing canopy and allows for natural regeneration of native trees to keep the forest populated and productive for the long-term.

Skills and Training

RTT also provides training for its farmers on management techniques and general land administration. “We are not only providing new skills and knowledge through our forestry training, we are doing so in a unique and novel way,” says Powell. “RTT’s forestry model is unique in the world. Our planting matrix, management techniques, results and goals for the project are not seen elsewhere.” Farmworkers gain valuable skills that enhance their competitiveness in the labor market over the 25-year contract. This can help them bring in additional income and increase the economic benefits of their forests.

The Impact of Reforest the Tropics

The impact of Reforest the Tropics goes beyond just the individual farmer. “We have worked with 16 distinct farms in Costa Rica,” said Powell. “These farms, their workers and surrounding communities have all benefited. Reforestation has a number of ancillary benefits. Reforestation improves local water and air quality. It also creates habitats for more fauna species. Additionally, reforestation generates recreational and ecotourism opportunities.

All of these benefits represent ways for the low-income rural communities to lift themselves out of poverty. The forests create habitats for endangered animals and promote biodiversity, which in turn boosts the ecotourism industry. Ecotourism represents about 3% of Costa Rica’s GDP, generating about $1.4 billion a year. Better water and air quality means that the impoverished spend less on medical bills due to conditions caused by unclean water and air. Trees release nutrients into the soil that improve agricultural practices, which increases income and reduces food insecurity for subsistence farmers.

Reforest the Tropics has undoubtedly improved the lives of low-income farmers in rural Costa Rica. In the future, RTT hopes to bring the model and all of its benefits to countries throughout the tropics.

Brooklyn Quallen
Photo: Flickr

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