Rainy (mixed) blessings

January 21: I’m writing under the fog of mild heat delirium, not exactly sunstroke or anything you need medical training to manage, just that loopy slightly stupid feeling of having been out wandering the full hot humid glory of the finca for 8 hours without enough food or water and then you have a (1) beer with friends and now you are finding it hard to remember why, four lines ago, you titled this blog what you did.

In summary: summer, it seems, has finally arrived to Osa.

afternoon rainclouds gather over the hills

Afternoon rain clouds gathering over the hills…that’s not your typical January sky

I’ve been down in Osa for 2 weeks now and up till today it rained every day – big afternoon or evening thunderstorms, the kind of weather we get in September or November, never in January. January is for beach afternoons and flowering treetops, for all-day sunshine that feels welcome after months of mildew. This weird rainy spell is pretty much all anyone has talked about since I arrived.

Needless to say, it’s probably somehow linked to the same Gulf Stream aberrations producing record numbers of U.S. Eastern seaboard Facebook posts featuring grumpy friends in puffy winterwear entertaining their children during official snow days. Climate change. How can you feel happy about it? Plus the rain is going to spoil the incipient corteza tree bloom and is knocking the flowers off my damn mango tree. Climate change is fucking with mango season! It’s not quite a starving discolored polar bear shambling over melting permafrost, but it’s dire.

holy melina!

Holy fast-growing melina trees! In the background is my beleaguered mango tree

However, my baby trees love this weather. As I’ve mentioned before, January through April is a bit of a gauntlet for a seedling just trying to establish itself; the sun pounds and crisps your tender leaves, the soil not-so-gradually loses its moisture (especially in shade-less grassy fields). Growth rates slow and plants slip into survival mode. Two weeks of no rain and Carlos is filling up the Ghostbusters backpack pump and repeatedly carting 44 lbs (20kg) of water upslope to keep our trees alive. This January, though, my trees are putting on new leaves daily and look healthier than ever. Carlos and I are stoked to be working under cloud cover, which keeps the sun-stupidity at bay. I have felt more than a little bit grateful for the weird weather.

 

The halting start to summer also fits my new year’s state of mind. I spent November and December in EIA overdrive taking rock stars and indigenous activists to the Peruvian jungle (read a professional blog about it here and a nice article here). I then got back on a plane to spend quality time in beautiful places with my alarmingly adorable niece and nephew, all members of my family, and multiple beloved friends. I landed back in Costa Rica with a hangover from all that love. My situation in San José felt cold in the literal and metaphorical senses of the term.  Once I got down to Osa a profound exhaustion set in, and the usual questions: does it still make sense for me to be here? Why have I created a life spread across so much damn geography? What would it take to feel coherent?

But this place restores me, every time. Somewhere around day 12, tree #688 of my randomized pilón monitoring count, I felt whole again. That’s a mixed blessing too, in some ways. I love it so much, I never want to leave. But it’s sort of hard to be an environmental policy professional based at la casita amarilla with mediocre internet on the wrong side of the River Barrigones. I haven’t entirely figured out the balance, much as I think and write about it. For now off I go, back to the chilly evenings and broader bandwidth of San José.

rain means rainbows

Rain in a time of sun means rainbows too. It’s all very confusing.

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Work work work work work… and my illegal logging trees

It’s been a long time since I last posted a blog entry. That’s largely because all that beautiful offline time I spent planting trees earlier this year came back to haunt me in the form of unfinished major writing products for EIA that came due big time, urgent, now, NOW! I suppose I knew deep down there would eventually be a consequence for working all of 8 days in May.

As many of you know, I’ve been working again with Environmental Investigation Agency, where for years I headed up the Forest Campaign. From 2006 through 2012 I had my head deep in the world of illegal logging and associated timber trade around the world. Coming back to that world has been a comfortable return to something I care about and am good at, with colleagues I trust and respect beyond words. It’s also reminded me, at times, of why I left D.C. and sought jobs engaged on a more daily basis with forests and trees and sawmills and communities.

I love words. I love using them to leverage people into doing things the way we want them done. (Which is, to be clear, different than convincing people.) I can put together complex advocacy documents, weave a coherent argument from hundreds of sources in multiple languages, incorporate trade data analysis and video imagery, think through the strategic implications of every sentence I write, badger my colleagues into giving me their revisions, see the damn project through to its gorgeous final publication.  Those are skills I have. I’m not good at self-promotion or even self-congratulation, I wake up most mornings thinking of 10 ways I failed to live up to my own expectations, so I’m taking a moment to recognize: I have some skills. And it’s fun to exercise them.

But part of this “skill” is that I’ve never been good at moderation. And I don’t have the parameters that rein many people in – the children, the spouse, the discipline to close my computer after a certain hour in the evening.  This last month has made me doubt how much we really change. In 2012 I  moved down here, put myself in a new place, removed that constant low-grade D.C. urgency vibe from my life, and wow, look, I now have a daily yoga practice. But would I keep it up if you put me back in D.C.? That’s the question I fear to answer.

On the other hand, surely much of the “wisdom” you acquire as years accumulate is the ability to make decisions based on self-knowledge rather than fantasies, guilts, projections, desires. Perhaps it’s fine to just say: I’m a better version of myself in Costa Rica. I am happier when baby trees are part of my life.

On that note, and with EIA on the brain, I wanted to share how much I am enjoying watching the growth of saplings of some of the very same species I spent years campaigning to protect.

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baby cedars in Hedi’s trunk back in May

i'm so happy planting cedar!

oh my god i’m so dorky and happy

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five months later, this particularly robust seedling is loving life in the finca

This here above is Spanish cedar, cedro amargo, cedro real, Cedrela odorata. I worked with the community of Dos Brazos to germinate and plant about 125 cedros this year in mixed plantations across the finca. (In the Neotropics you can’t do pure plantations, it’s attacked by the Hypsiphyla shoot-borer)…. In my favorite work at EIA, recently profiled in a fun piece by Wired magazine, we documented systemic illegal logging and laundering of cedro from Perú to the United States, and fought for it to be uplisted in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

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Kembly planting a wee tiny cocobolo back in May

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These guys grow like gangbusters (and i’m real excited about it as you can see, ha!). This is the biggest one of all, but almost all are happy. The problem is their growth form….most are either slinky like this or bushing out with multiple stems. Not sure how to manage them. Stay tuned.

This above is cocobolo, rosewood, Dalbergia retusa….this year we planted about 120 in the finca, also from the Dos Brazos nursery.  Last year (2016) the entire Dalbergia genus was determined to be threatened by international trade and listed under CITES, the first time that’s ever been done for a timber species, due in large part to EIA investigations and campaign work done in both our U.S. and U.K. offices to document the corrupt and violent pillage from Madagascar, Thailand, Cambodia, Belize, Guatemala, Nigeria (check our latest exposé), and elsewhere around the tropics, pouring into China.

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i think the intern was a little scared of me

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These are mahogany seeds germinating in the CATIE seed bank. Soon Carlos will do the same with ours.

And these are mahogany seeds!  I bought them last month from CATIE’s commercial seed bank. Mahogany was practically the reason EIA hired me in the first place – its illegal extraction and trade from Honduras and other countries across Latin America was my first campaign focus and the origin of all our work in Perú. Mahogany financed the illegal road networks that have now turned southern Perú into a deforestation frontier. It’s also financing the best community forestry in the world in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Like its Meliaceae cousin Spanish cedar, you can’t grow Swietenia macrophylla in pure plantations in the Neotropics – it always gets attacked by Hypsiphyla shoot-boring insects that cause the trunk to bifurcate while still tiny and thus lose its commercial value.  But I think next year the finca will have enough diverse scrub and growing trees that I can tuck a few hundred mahogany seedlings into the cracks, which research shows limits insect damage. Fingers crossed.

I want to be clear: planting trees is not the answer. Or rather, it’s just one part of a bigger answer that I believe involves all the other stuff I’ve worked on: trade policies, awareness campaigns, international treaties, law enforcement, community forest monitoring.  We’re not going to protect mahoganies, rosewoods, cedars, ebonies, shihuahuacos and other beautiful endangered species without fighting battles on many fronts. I’m not proposing we all stop fighting and start planting. That’s in fact why I’m trying to make this weird schizophrenic life of mine work – dividing my time between airplanes, a San José apartment, and a cabin on the wrong side of a flooding river, trying to skype into urgent phone calls while watching toucans through my binoculars.   I’m trying to plant AND fight. I’m not at all sure it’s a sustainable set-up, but in a world coming apart at the seams, where everything needs fixing, starting with one’s own slightly doomsday perspective, it’s what has felt necessary in my heart for now.

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I take work calls from here a lot of the time nowadays. It feels weird but I’m not complaining.

One of my favorite days ever

May 31st was one of my favorite days ever. That blithe hyperbole is such an American formulation, but I’m going to use it here with intention, because it is rare and superlative-worthy to have moments when your life feels like it coheres and comes full circle. Planting cedar and cocobolo with Dos Brazos community members and friends was all that.

i'm so happy planting cedar!

Yeah that’s how I felt about things all right! (also, aren’t those removable sleeve thingies awesome? $2 each at the local hardware store.)

First, because one year after Karen and I began the process of raising money for a native species nursery and garden with the community of Dos Brazos, we found ourselves parked at that very nursery, loading 200 baby trees into the trunk of the car before heading out to the finca to plant them, accompanied by the community nursery managers Kembly and Alexis and DB’s inimitable Peace Corps volunteer Jackie.  Yes! We made it happen! (Look at these trees only 3 months ago…. And at the nursery after Hurricane Otto…)

 

Second, because these 200 trees aren’t just any species. They are two of the best timber trees in the New World tropics: Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) and cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa).  The former is closely related to mahogany, not a “true” cedar, although its scent properties have indeed made it a favorite lining for cigar boxes. Cocobolo, meanwhile, is a gorgeously hued, dense wood, coveted by artisans and furniture makers. Almost all species within the genus Dalbergia – found in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and usually called rosewood in English – share these qualities.

baby cocobolo

my lovely little Dalbergia…someday I may sell you for lots of money to Chinese merchants

For my entire career with the Environmental Investigation Agency – six years in DC and now two years based down here – I’ve been working on exposés and policies and enforcement and governance measures to stem the global flow of illegal timber. Under my lead at EIA, we documented million-dollar trade streams of both Spanish cedar (from Peru) and rosewood (from Madagascar). These species are now listed by the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) after having been pillaged across most of their natural range. Between 2008 and 2015, the Chinese demand for period-replica red-brown wooden furniture became so voracious that hong mu beds made from Malagasy rosewood were selling in Beijing malls for over one million dollars.

I worked for years on the illegal logging and trade in Spanish cedar before I ever had a chance to hang out with a living Cedrela tree. Same with Dalbergia. So you can perhaps imagine the simple joy of kneeling out there in the red mud and hot sun with my friends to plant a few hundred on my own finca.

DB planting day group 50p

Planting crew! Carlos, Karen, Kembly, Alexis, Jackie and me

cocobolo y cedro pattern

My planting pattern. Green squares are pilón, orange squares are cocobolo, and yellow are cedro. It’s important to keep the Cedrela well spaced, as this species is plagued by the shoot-boring caterpillar Hypsipila grandella . Only distance, interspersed vegetation and luck can keep it at bay.