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.

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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.

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

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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. 

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Making baby trees!

In May of last year, when community members from Dos Brazos decided to work with Karen (Osa Birds) and me to establish a native species nursery and garden, none of us really knew what we were doing.  Despite the fact that during the year I worked at Osa Conservation I oversaw programs that were collecting and germinating thousands of trees from over 50 species, I never actually DID any of it myself. I wrote pretty proposals and watched Max give our donors nursery tours. I helped students plant trees and thought I understood things way more than I did.

Much like during the two years I worked for CATIE-FINNFOR2, a project whose mission was basically to help small farmers manage, harvest and sell trees. I designed some real neat indicators for that M&E matrix, but was left feeling like I’d still be lost if confronted with a real live plantation.

So, like most things related to my finca, the vivero (nursery) in Dos Brazos is partly an experiment in “doing it myself”. Ourselves. We’ve all been learning as we go, with the help of a few good books (here & here), advice and training from Osa Conservation staff, the wisdom of experience from my assistant Carlos, and lots of mistakes. (That latter, I was taught decades ago in my Harvard environment seminars, we call “adaptive management”….)

And now: we’ve got thousands of baby trees! It’s very exciting. Here’s a brief recap in photos.

We hatched plans back in April 2016 and began to raise funds for a small project

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hatching plans with Ermer, Seidi and Neftali, leaders in Dos Brazos’ community association (2nd, 4th and last from left), Karen of Osa Birds (3rd), and botanist Reynaldo Aguilar (5th)

My donors – YOU ALL, I have no pretense that strangers read this blog – have been amazingly generous, and there’s a lovingly planted and labelled tree in each of your names (or your kids’ names) growing happily in Sector Astronium on Finca Las Tijeretas. Come see it when you can.

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My goddaughter Maisy gets a nene so she can one day make jewelry with its awesome red-and-black seeds

Nursery construction got underway in October 2016, in what seemed to be the ideal open, flat space behind the ACODOBRARTI community tourism association offices.

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building Germinator 1.0

We held a workshop with Max Villalobos of Osa Conservation to improve planning and organization.

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Talking with Max about how to locate and design a nursery

We began collecting the first seeds and putting our first plants in bolsas (bags).

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Then…disaster struck, as rains on the outer edge of Hurricane Otto deluged the Osa for weeks. The slope behind ACODOBRARTI offices simply let loose, covering the nursery site in several meters of red mud and leaving an altered landscape.

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AFTER the flood: our nursery site 😦

We felt a bit dispirited. But not vanquished. Fundraising for the rebuild commenced. See: my amazing friends.

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That is some impressive damage!

In January, I got serious with the community group: either you get seeds germinating by February, or you don’t have a project because we won’t have anything big enough to plant in 2017. See, tree planting in Osa begins in May, as soon as the rainy season begins, and it ends around August. If we plant later, trees don’t have enough time to take root and thrive before summer hits again in December.  (I made that mistake this year, and don’t intend to repeat it.) Dos Brazos rose to the challenge.  The group identified a new nursery site and began to build.

Community members also began collecting seeds from forest trees. For a few species, I ordered seeds from CATIE’s Forest Seed Bank and the Hojancha Cantonal Agricultural Center (CACH) delivered to Puerto Jimenez. (I did this partly because I wanted high quality genetic material for endangered timber trees such as cocobolo, and partly because I like the idea of using seeds from institutions that I worked with…)

This here is The Germinator, where seeds begin their long journey to becoming trees. Embedded in sterilized, constantly moist river sand under hot greenhouse conditions, most species sprout rapidly.

There is nothing more exciting than seeing the first seeds poke out of the sand and realize that, yes, YOU CAN MAKE BABY TREES!

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I got this photo in Whatsapp in mid-February. We were all thrilled!

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Healthy seeds emerge quite rapidly in a well-build and maintained germinator

As I said – we are learning lessons. Some seeds sprout quite exuberantly! It probably wasn’t necessary to spread all 4000+ seeds of guachipelin (Diphysia americana) into 4 square feet.

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The carpet of guachipelin seedlings after a few weeks…very pretty, but no way in hell DB can sell that many trees. It feels like enough for fencelines halfway to San José!

Likewise, the minimum 100 grams order of Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) seed contained approximately 5000 seeds. It looks like ALL of them germinated.

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I’m excited to plant Spanish cedar, which is a vulnerable species whose illegal logging I spent years documenting in Perú. But my finca can’t fit thousands!

Other species didn’t do so well. I am keen to plant roble de sabana (Tabebuia rosea) along my fences, but only a single sprout broke the sandy surface. Could be a problem of the seed or who knows. Luckily they’re blooming all over the peninsula now, so I’m hoping Dos Brazos takes the initiative to collect the seeds.

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why so forlorn, Tabebuia rosea?

Two members of the community group are being paid a standard local wage to oversee nursery operations for now. Meet Alexis and Kembly. They’re awesome.

As the seeds – whether from my order or collected from the surrounding landscape – germinate and begin to grow, the work is now to transplant them from germinator to individual bolsa. This is a meditative task that has its technique. Exposing their tiny roots carelessly is bad, as is overpacking the soil around them. I feel it’s important to undertake transplanting with love.

And there we are: well over a thousand trees are now bagged and beginning to grow their root systems with twice-daily watering and moderated sunshine. Monitoring for munching insects, fungal infections or droopy, dying seedlings is a constant effort.

The positive energy in our little Dos Brazos group grows in parallel with the trees. The positive feedback cycle of watching seeds become sprouts become seedlings is empowering in such a primal way. I feel it too. I can’t wait to close the loop come June by planting these trees in the Finca.

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Karen, Alexis, Andrea and Kembly with the miniature forest of guachipelin behind us

And I dearly hope that Dos Brazos is able to build on this year’s beginnings to create a stable business model for next year’s vivero.  They must learn not only to make babies but to market them to an Osa clientele. Anyone need a few thousand guachipelins? Be in touch!

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