Reforestation Efforts

At a local level in Central America, small-scale initiatives for reforestation abound. Schools, universities, local civil society organisations and NGOs, church groups, solidarity groups – so many of them promote their own small reforestation schemes in their own locality. It makes good copy for local and national newspapers and other media outlets as well as reflecting well on the group that initiates and promotes it. It is not right to be disparaging or cynical about such initiatives – it is appropriate that we should all get involved in such efforts and in local terms they can make a genuine difference to water quality, soil conservation, biodiversity, the air we breathe, the general wellbeing of our local environments, and they reflect an overall human desire to work for the good of the planet; but set alongside the national rates of deforestation and the rampant corruption and flouting of laws by the timber industry, in total, it is sad to say, these efforts are relatively minor.

On a larger scale, however, from reputation and from the figures for deforestation rates given earlier in this chapter, one Central American country, Costa Rica, stands out as having turned deforestation into reforestation. The following paragraphs examine whether the reputation is deserved.

Figure 6.1 in the book illustrates Costa Rica’s achievement, but we need to ask how this has come about, especially given that Costa Rican environmentalists and conservationists were as vociferous in their protests about deforestation in the country during the 1990s and 2000s as they had been in the 1980s.

Throughout the late 1990s, various environmental and conservation organisations complained that the 1996 Forestry Law actually opened up several loopholes for loggers, rather than closing them.[i] Following a campaign of protest against deforestation caused by timber company Stone Forestal, three leaders of the campaign (Óscar Fallos, María del Mar Cordero and Jaime Bustamente) lost their lives in a fire. A few months later, David Maradiaga – like the other three, a member of the Ecologists’ Association of Costa Rica (AECO) – died in suspicious circumstances. Gerardo Quirós, a member of the Association for the Preservation of Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS) was killed by loggers in Sarapiquí because of his constant denunciations of illegal logging. Jorge Aguilar, another member of APREFLOFAS, was also killed.[ii]

Regular denunciations and protestations by environmentalists some may say are to be expected regardless of what is happening on the ground, but others in Costa Rica were certainly concerned that the reality of deforestation on the ground was being falsely converted into an undeserved reputation for reforestation in the media. In May 1998, the journal Mesoamerica reported that government information that Costa Rica had experienced a net gain in forest cover had been met with denunciations of then-Environment Minister René Castro’s pronouncements on the grounds that he had downplayed ecologically essential information and had “incorporated unreliable figures that allowed him to distort the facts.”[iii] Specifically, “Castro factored in 126,884 acres of deciduous forest that had not shown up on previous [satellite] images, and 32,500 acres of newly reforested land, which enabled him to report a net gain.”[iv] It is also worth noting that the 1996 Forestry Law allows a reforested site to be re-logged after only fifteen years, despite the fact that some tree species take over 100 years to mature.

A year later, an article by Tracy Solum in the same journal reported that:

The logging industry has played a major role in the deterioration of Costa Rica’s forest cover. There are logging operations in most parts of the country and in many areas, such as the Osa Peninsula, operations are being carried out illegally. A new Forestry Law was approved in ’96 that many critics claim has facilitated access for logging companies to Costa Rica’s few remaining unprotected primary forests.[v]

The Central America branch of the Freshwater Action Network (FANCA) offered an opinion in 2010 on how the administration of Oscar Arias (from 2006 to 2010) had managed to continue the conversion of Costa Rica’s deforestation into its image of reforestation and environmental protection: “While the government publicises its campaign for extensive tree planting (mostly limited to exotic species planted in monocultures by lumber companies), aerial photographs of the pineapple expansion show the massive elimination of forested areas, even in protected river zones.”[vi] This supports other evidence from a year earlier cited in the Costa Rican Semanario Universidad which suggested that former forest areas had been invaded during the 2000s by agricultural plantations for crops such as pineapple, banana and coffee.[vii]

Also in 2010, Pablo Síbar Síbar, a member of the Térraba indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, interviewed specifically for this book, explained his community’s experience of the Costa Rican version of deforestation thus:

We went to prison because our town has been devastated by the loggers and because there was one last forest of 40 hectares remaining and we did not want them to cut it down, but the Ministry of the Environment (MINAE) and the National Indigenous Commission (CONAI) had given permission; and we were put in prison because we blocked the road in what was indigenous territory.[viii]

The evidence cited here is limited in what it proves, and as already remarked above, cynics might question whether protesting environmentalists have a sufficiently broad view of the overall picture; but even those in government do not deny that Costa Rica’s reforestation figures depend heavily on the inclusion of single species tree plantations. There is mounting scientific consensus that, whilst tree plantations may store carbon, they also tend to severely restrict the diversity of biological life.

Furthermore, there are now enough examples of community destruction and disharmony caused by the creation of such plantations for us at the very least to question the wisdom of cultivating single species tree plantations. And if more cause for concern is needed, then a considerable amount of recent research appears to show that plantations created for the production of agrofuels (such as palm oil) actually release more carbon in the process of that production than they store. Brian Tokar, for instance, reports on two 2008 studies from Princeton University and the University of Minnesota “which showed that industrial biofuels are often net contributors to global warming.”[ix]

Regardless of Costa Rica’s record on reforestation, it seems appropriate in this section to give the reader a sample of the small-scale reforestation efforts being made around Central America.

Chico Peña, a member of the Salvadoran NGO COMUS (United Communities of Usulután), noted that the population in most of the department of Usulután

during and after the war became dependent on farming, on maize and beans to live; and that’s the reason why there is deforestation in the zone. The campesino’s way of life with farming is one in which you can’t live by trees. You have to fell the trees in order to sow the maize.[x]

This small-scale deforestation has been a major challenge for COMUS, and in their efforts to counter it they have had to be realistic and to promote a mixture of trees and food crops rather than simply saying “Don’t fell”. Techniques such as live fences, partly forested areas that can also be used for grazing (silvopastoralism), coffee shaded with larger trees, and fruit orchards are all part of their reforestation promotional programme with the campesino families with whom they work.

In Nicaragua, the Federation of Secondary School Students, the July 19th Sandinista Youth, and authorities from the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR) and the Ministry of the Environment (MARENA) launched a National Reforestation Campaign in 2010 with the goal of planting 1.5 million trees. The Campaign depends on the voluntary help of school students, and many schools have created ‘Ecology Brigades’ to carry out the work and to work on other environmental issues.[xi] Additionally, a number of schools and local government authorities have initiated their own reforestation campaigns independent of the national campaign.

In Panama, the International Development Research Centre is working with groups of the Kuna and Emberá-Wounaan indigenous peoples to restore plant biodiversity in parts of the Darién region. Many parts of the region are being cleared to make way for cash crops and groups of these two peoples are losing species which have been important to their culture and survival for many generations. The project aims to maintain and enhance the local peoples’ traditional knowledge and use of the identified species with sustainable management policies.[xii]

The reforestation projects just described are only a minute sample of so many such projects in Central America. They are extremely worthy and worthwhile and as already noted, they make a difference. But their effect so far has done little to halt the rampant deforestation carried out by other sectors of society.

[i] Guillermo Escofet (19 September 1997) ‘FUNDECOR: Turning Theory into Practice’, Tico Times, San José, p.7.
[ii] Michelle Soto (14 June 2010) ‘’Luchar con la vida’, Revista Perfil, Tibás, Costa Rica.
[iii] Mesoamerica (May 1998) ‘Costa Rica: Deforestation Debate Unresolved’, Mesoamerica, San José, Costa Rica, p. 11.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Tracy Solum (April 1999) ‘Costa Rica’s Conservationist Image, a Myth?’, Mesoamerica, San José, Costa Rica, pp. 7-9.
[vi] Fresh Water Action Network – Central America (FANCA) (2010) ‘FANCA members sign testimony to the Arias administration’s destructive environmental policy’, FANCA, (accessed 08.04.10).
[vii] Semanario Universidad (2009) ‘País debe seguir incentivando recuperación forestal’, Semanario Universidad, San José, Costa Rica, 3 de junio 2009.
[viii] Pablo Síbar Síbar (11 August 2010) Interviewed specifically for this book by Martin Mowforth, San José, Costa Rica.
[ix] Brian Tokar (September 2009) ‘Toward Climate Justice: Can we turn back from the abyss?’, Zmag, (accessed 09.09.09).
[x] Chico Peña (26 July 2010) and other members of COMUS interviewed specifically for this book, San Francisco Javier, El Salvador.
[xi] Nicaragua News (29 June 2010) ‘Reforestation in Nicaragua’, Nicaragua Network.
[xii] International Development Research Centre (IDRC) (2011) ‘Plant Biodiversity of the Embera and Kuna People of Darien’, IDRC, Canada, (accessed 26.05.11).