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

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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