From Deforesting to Reforesting

Teak Plantation
Teak planted around mother trees
Finca Leola, Costa Rica

Editor’s Note: Around the world, expanding human settlements replace forest. Often this expansion is thoughtless, causing forests to be replaced first with farms, then when the earth is too spent to support farming, with pastureland, and when the land is too exhausted even for grazing, with deserts. Though it sounds simplistic, this aptly describes the process of desertification, a process that has claimed millions of square kilometers around the world in the last fifty years.

It is common to hear about desertification, but not often is a system explained for running the process of desertification in reverse. None-the-less, when unsustainable rates of land use are replaced with over-sustainable rates of land use, the reverse is possible. In the following story, written by the owners of a tree-plantation in Costa Rica, a recipe for profitable reforestation is explained.

By replacing pasture with a tree plantation along the fringes of forest remnants, the plantation trees can be harvested profitably, while leaving significant stands of native trees intact. As one area is profitably converted to forest, the operation can move to new marginal pastureland, and perform the same conversion back to forest. Given the demand for forest products worldwide, combined with the abundance of available land too depleted to support livestock, and you have a profitable formula for new forests.
- Ed “Redwood” Ring

In spite of what we’ve done, no matter how much noise we make about it, we are not slowing down deforestation. It keeps escalating. To explain why, as I have come to understand things since moving to Costa Rica to do reforestation, let me start by telling a story. It could be set in almost any country in the tropics.

There was a farmer in a place where there was land for the taking. All that was necessary was to go out and clear the forest and plant a crop. He worked very hard, as cutting down the trees was backbreaking and the climate was hot and humid. Often he and his neighbors would just burn the trees. They weren’t all that valuable, since the jungle went on seemingly forever. Life was a struggle, with the poor farmer on one side and the animals and plants of the forest on the other.

The farmer had a big family with many sons and daughters, and of course, so did his neighbors. When his sons grew up, well, there was always the forest where they could go and carve out their own farms, adding to the land that their father would leave them. Eventually, as chainsaws and other power equipment came into use, the work became easier, but it still was very hard. It did make it possible for the farmer’s descendents to clear more land much quicker. Also, people started offering to buy the trees, producing added income. They were not paying what the trees were worth, but to the family, it represented a great deal of money.

Later, large logging companies formed that created roads and rapidly cleared the forest. The expanding family only had to go to a piece of cleared land and start a farm. Often they would use it to graze cattle year-round, raising cheap beef for richer countries of the world where the grass dies off every winter.

After several generations, the forests had noticeably shrunk, and there was no more free land. Now, whatever lands a family owned were divided among the offspring, but the families were still large. Even though the few remaining forests were protected by law, families living around them poached wood during the night to provide for their needs. Things were very hard, but the worst was to come.

Landslide from Deforestation
Deforested Hillsides Cannot Hold the Rains

A major hurricane swept through the area, bringing strong winds and an incredible amount of water. In the past, the forest had buffered the wind and helped lessen the impact of the flooding so that even though crops might be lost, few people died. The roots of the trees held the soil in place and slowed down the rush of water – but now the forest was gone.

With the land bared of trees, thousands died in the floods and landslides. The farmer could not have known, but when he started clearing the land for his farm, he was setting events in place that would wipe out his lineage. Because he did not understand all that trees do, he removed their protection from his family.

The outcome of this story is based on what happened in badly deforested Haiti during September 2004. Although we don’t have to worry about hurricanes in our inland location in Costa Rica, the country has seen its share of homes and buildings wiped out by mudslides, and some people have been buried in them.

You may never have cut down a tree, so you may feel that you haven’t contributed to deforestation. How much harm could you personally have caused by your use of nonrenewable wood products and the amount of carbon you send out into the atmosphere? Not that much, really. But multiply yourself by billions, and the forests cannot keep up. The harsh reality is that they are not keeping up.

To illustrate the point, look at the photo below that I took in our neighborhood. It’s a line of leaf-cutter ants. They aren’t very big, but all tropical gardeners dread them. Leaf-cutters harvest leaves and take them back to their mound to cultivate into the fungi that they eat. You can tell where they’ve been, because they cut a swath through any grassy area along their trail and leave the plants bare where they do their harvesting. Many a gardener has left his place for a couple of days and come back to find his vegetable plantings wiped out. No single one of them does very much damage, but as a colony, they devastate a large area.

Leafcutter Ants
Leaf Cutter Ants – No single ant does much damage

The world population is much like the leaf-cutters. Each one of us singly does very little damage. The office where I am writing this is paneled in hardwood. To panel the entire house we live in, the builder used probably three good-size trees. Not really much of an issue, if it weren’t for our sheer numbers. Just in Costa Rica, since WW II, the population has gone from 800,000 to more than four million.

In the early 1970s, in the small town of San Miguel where our partner grew up, a mill was built. It used a stream to turn the wheel. Now, it looks silly and sad. There’s the mill, with a wheel that doesn’t even come close to touching the water. In fact, there isn’t enough flow of water in the stream to turn the wheel, even if it did touch. I assure you, they did not build a mill where there was not enough water, but today, because of the loss of the forest, the stream is less than half its former size.

Living in the northeastern United States, I was far removed from seeing such effects of deforestation. Go look down any street and visualize it as dense forest. It probably once was, but how often do you think about it? I know I didn’t. Years ago, we lived in a very cold part of the United States. We needed to heat our home, which had a wood stove. For us to heat the home with oil would have run about 200 dollars per month, or most of our income. So, a friend offered to let us cut wood on his property. For two summers, I cut about 8 cords of wood and split it so that we could heat our house. Besides the cost of hauling the wood and the fuel for the chainsaw, the wood was free for the taking, and I never worried about taking it.

Now, living in Costa Rica, I hear constantly about landslides and floods and see a lot of muddy rivers due to severe runoff. When I see waterways that come from headwaters still surrounded by forest, the rivers and streams are crystal clear. We have a river on Finca Leola, and whether it is clear or dirty does not depend solely on what we do on the plantation, but what our neighbors upstream are doing also. Costa Rica has enacted laws that no tree may be cut within 50 meters of a stream or river. But with 25% of wood harvested here being done so illegally, the waterways are being further compromised. Believe it or not, Costa Rica, where much of the climate is rainforest, is having problems supplying drinking water.

Deforested Land Washing Away
When trees are gone, the land washes away

The damage to the hillsides and waterways in places like Haiti and Costa Rica may be the most visible results of deforestation, but the worldwide impact of population growth is staggering. Even though the rate may be slowing down, it still is projected to reach 9 billion people. At least 7.2 million hectares (18 million acres) of ancient forest are already being cut each year to provide things like flooring, underlay, paneling, furniture, and cabinetry.

There are other, lower-profile yet global areas of impact. One online discussion group for shipbuilders was trying to come up with a suitable wood they could use that isn’t endangered. Their conclusion? It’s impossible to be a shipbuilder and be “green.” Then there are the miles and miles of coastal boardwalks, traditionally made from a tropical hardwood tree sometimes called ipe. Rainforest species grow scattered, not in stands, so to get to just one ipe and harvest it typically requires leveling as much as an acre of forest.

If you live an average lifestyle in the USA, the amount of carbon dioxide you produce per year is 40,000 pounds, according to the EPA. This is an accumulation of all the activities in your life, not just breathing. The bulk of it is from using fossil fuels to generate electricity and run your car. The US “ant colony” of 5% of the world’s population is responsible for 25% of the carbon dioxide released in the world. Carbon dioxide has to be tied back up (sequestered) somehow, and we’ve already reached the point where the shrinking forests can’t do the job. Yet in 1990, 100 acres per minute of forest were being cut down, and by 2004, that figure rose to 149 acres per minute.

To the farmer in my opening story, the forest seemed inexhaustible, encroaching. But nothing on this earth is inexhaustible. Only about half the world’s original forests are left.

Overhead View of Pastureland and Remnant Forest
Ready to reforest: Pastureland with
forest to 50 meters from river; also
some large (mother) trees in fields.

It doesn’t take very long to cut down a tree, but it takes decades to replace it. Reforestation is not happening fast enough. And other than in national parks and forest preserves, it is not normally a long-term proposition. The reason is that, eventually, the owner of reforested land will have to sell it or pass it on, and it may go to someone who doesn’t feel that conservation and reforestation are all that important. Trees often outlive people, and someone may eventually yield to the temptation to harvest them unless they are protected somehow.

In Costa Rica, until only about 15 years ago, you could secure free land by improving it. The easiest way to improve the land was to chop down the forest. The forest was considered wasted or unused land. In fact, Costa Rica had to pass laws to prevent squatters from having the right to take over land that was being allocated for reforestation, because it seemed to them to be neglected.

Our goal on the Finca Leola S.A. tree plantation is to move back in the other direction: to go from pasture to perpetual forest, with a plantation as the first cycle, or interim step. Returning farmland to forest takes creative thinking for those of us with limited resources. We have a two-phase plan: taking pasture to plantation, then plantation to perpetual forest. The first phase will pay for the second, and the second phase will pay to maintain itself.

Overhead View of Tree Plantation
Fields filled in with rows of
plantation trees; space has been
left around mother trees & forest.

In the plantation phase, we grow trees for ourselves and others as an investment. You can find out on our Web site how to have us raise tropical hardwoods for you and help you sell the wood. We are taking this approach because in this way we can afford to secure more farms around us for reforestation. After the plantation trees are harvested, the land will revert to forest. It’s as if the trees themselves are working to bring back their habitat.

Already, because of owning land for our current plantation, we are expanding the natural forest around the rivers, streams, and swamps. Also, we have done a very unusual thing: All of the big, lone trees in the middle of the pastures, ojoche, laurel, corteza, and other rare species, have been left standing and the plantation trees planted around them. This means that we are preserving the seed stock, or mother trees. There are about 200 mature trees in the areas that we are planting. Some will need to be harvested over the years due to their age, but most will still be there in 25 years, bigger than ever.

Overhead View of Expanding Forest
Half the plantation trees harvested;
native trees replace plantation trees;
mother trees bigger; forest spreads.

So, when you purchase trees with us, you are doing more than just providing some reforestation now; you are permanently preserving 350 square meters of land for every block of 100 trees. You are helping us create a perpetual forest. Perpetual means that, unlike most forests, this one will have people who will always protect it and care for it. It will be maintained for wildlife and for the environment, with trees only being removed as needed to improve the health of the forest. The wood from these trees will be sold to provide a living for those who work taking care of the forest. This is not a new idea. In Central Europe this is called Dauerwald. The Dauerwald is about 200 years old. There are people in the United States doing it as well. You can read about one example at

To offset your personal 40,000 pounds of CO2 production, you would need to plant 1 hectare of trees (on Finca Leola, that’s about 800 trees). If you were to do this, a reasonable expected return for your investment would be about $800,000 in hardwood sold, reducing the demand for wood from the forests. Then the new piece of forest you made would always be there, providing carbon sequestering for you and for future generations. Of course, most of can’t start by investing in 800 trees at once. It is Finca Leola’s mission to make it possible for anyone to reduce their CO2 debt, so we have set up payment plans and quantity discounts that are retroactive. By enabling you to make a good investment and at the same time offset the carbon dioxide you are producing by living, we hope to boost reforestation efforts in a very practical way.

Overhead View of New Forest
Plantation trees 100% harvested;
mother tree seedlings transplanted to
open space; forest spreads.

The owners of Finca Leola S.A. are currently working on placing all of the land that we have purchased in a land trust, where the use of the land will be forever defined by a conservation easement. We will no longer own the land ourselves, but like everyone who owns trees that we are taking care of, we will own only the trees that were planted as an investment.

We, the people of the world, didn’t understand what would happen if we beat back the forests, clearing large sections of land for growing crops and grazing cattle without leaving enough trees in between. We thought of it as progress, an example of human ingenuity. Later, many of us looked at the loss of forest as an aesthetic loss and nothing more.

Now we can see the landslides; the dwindling, muddied streams; and the loss of animal species that play a role in the balance of ecosystems. We know about the effects of releasing excess carbon into the atmosphere. Now we can understand why we need to find the means to encourage the regrowth of forests that will continue far into the future. What was thoughtlessly destroyed must be thoughtfully restored.

As for us, when we became concerned about deforestation, we were still the same people with the same needs as before. We need to provide for our retirement, so we have to invest wisely. We decided to do it at the same time as investing in something that would make a difference. In addition to securing our retirement, by turning all of the land we own into a perpetual forest, we will secure it from ever again being used for anything besides sustainable forest. Because this reforestation land will be set aside in trust for the future, when people invest with us, they will know that they are doing something not just short-term, but they are making a permanent change to the amount of rainforest in the world.

We all have the same choice: to invest in things based solely on how profitable they are, or to include in the decision whether the investment is helping the future of all our lives.

In the time it took you to read this article, the world lost about 1,500 acres of trees.

Rainforest Action Network Logo

Thanks to the Rainforest Action Network for many of the statistics used in this article. For more on rates of rainforest loss, select Rainforests from the menu on the home page and go to Fact Sheets. Also on the site is a list of ways to help.

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