For decades, Reforest The Tropics has been measuring the productivity of its forest plantations. In June 2017, for the first time, RTT contracted with an accredited third party, EARTH University, to verify its carbon claims under the protocols established by the International Organization of Standards. The results are fantastic news for RTT and anyone with an interest in global sustainability. Verified forests are averaging 23.66 metric tons (MT) of CO2e capture per hectare, per year! To help put this into perspective, most literature on tropical reforestation demonstrates carbon capture of 10-15 MT of CO2e capture under favorable conditions. In other words, RTT is essentially doubling the carbon capacity of current, successful reforestation projects.
One of RTT’s longstanding research goals was to design a mixed-species forest that can capture and store an average of at least 20 MT of CO2e per hectare, per year. Internally, we recognized this target was ambitious, however we have maintained the belief that lofty goals are fundamental to fulfillment of our mission of ‘making a tangible contribution to global sustainability.’ Not only have we met this objective, but we are exceeding it.
The amazing carbon capture of RTT forests is only part of the story however. Two additional pieces distinguish the RTT approach:
- RTT’s mixed-species forests are more beneficial to the
biome than ubiquitous single species monocultures, and
- RTT forests are designed to generate perpetual income,
which allows partnering landowners to participate in the
project over the long-term.
Essentially, RTT is planting some of the worlds most productive forests…is doing so in more environmentally beneficial manner than typical reforestation models…and is working to ensure they will remain standing indefinitely. Impressive Carbon Capture Verified RTT has focused on forestry research for many years.
Dozens of different planting matrices and mixtures of species have been investigated in order to discover the optimal design to achieve RTT’s three research goals:
- Sequester 500 MT CO2e over the initial 25-year
- Generate $500 income for the landowner per hectare
per year, and
- Create a ‘permanent’ (read 100+ year) farm forest.
The verification process certified carbon from 8 different designs. The most productive forest was able to capture a phenomenal 34.21 MT CO2e per hectare per year for the Mohegan Sun Casino. Conversely, the least productive design achieved a respectable 11.9 MT CO2e per hectare per year. This design is noteworthy, however because one of the species in this mixture succumbed to a disease and had to be removed. Despite the elimination of hundreds of trees, the 5-year old forest is still productive and will only improve in terms of carbon capture as it matures. This example highlights the importance of RTT’s mixed species orthodoxy and offers a fair warning to advocates of a monoculture approach. Furthermore, if we remove this outlier from our analysis, verification results show that RTT forests are actually storing 25.38 MT CO2e per hectare per year.
The Big Picture: If RTT can plant a forest that doubles or triples CO2 capture of the most common reforestation models per hectare, we only need half the land (or less) to extract a corresponding amount of CO2. We at RTT have long known this is possible and now we have official verification of the RTT model’s potential. We thank you for your support as we spread the word.
Reforest The Tropics
This is the 2.5 acre, 5 ½-year old forest established by Reforest The Tropics for the CO2-emissions account of the Westerly, RI Middle School. In a 25-year contract between RTT and the farmer, this forest is legally dedicated to sequestering and storing CO2 for this school’s account. So far, it has captured 42 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent at 5 years of age when last measured. That’s 92,500 lbs of CO2, the equivalent of 4,625 gallons of diesel used in their school buses offset in this forest.
Based on my research back in 1964, the U.S. and Costa Rican governments approved our applied research program in 1995. Today, we have 185 hectares of R&D forests on 13 farms in Costa Rica built on the following new concepts of pasture reforestation to mitigate climate change.
1) Most governments pay farmers to plant trees. And most farmers cut the forests down when they can sell the timber a decade or so later. The result is that there is no long-term C storage; it’s a short-term sequestration and mitigation effect in temporary forests. In fact, we need permanent farm forests with permanent storage of CO2.
2). In addition to reducing our emissions to zero, James Hansen recently wrote about the need to extract and store 150 GTCO2 from the atmosphere to get us back to 350 ppm, a livable atmospheric content of CO2. Developing permanent farm forests to replace pastures on a large scale can be an important contribution towards that end.
3) Of course, to reforest pastures on a large scale, we need to address how the farmer benefits. Otherwise he won’t participate. RTT has developed such a system applicable to the tropics. Our strategy is to develop and demonstrate our RTT model on farms in Costa Rica, training students from other countries who study in our institutions.
4) How much CO2 can we capture in a hectare? Our best models for sequestration are stands of pure Klinkii (Araucaria hunsteinii) with over 2,400 MTCO2/ha in 50 years. These were my original research plots established when I worked for FAO and the UNDP. However, we do not espouse pure stands of any species, rather, we work with mixtures of species as more ecologically stable and beneficial for our long-term goal of 100+ years of sequestration.
5) How much income can a farmer earn? Our research goal is $500/ha/yr combining grants and income from the sales of thinnings (RTT rules) and eventually from the sale of sequestered MT of verified CO2. Our oldest program forests in this UNFCCC-AIJ project, 18 years of age, have been thinned twice lightly, a process that will be repeated every 5 years to create a cash flow for the farmer.
All forests work with a 25-year contract between the farmer and RTT. To achieve our goal of 100 years of sequestration in permanent farm forests, we envisage a series of 4 successive 25-year contracts. The initial contract, 0-25 years, the U.S. forest sponsors receive information of the amount of sequestered CO2 in their forests annually. During the following contracts, RTT expects to sell the future verified CO2 to the original donors or into other markets for the benefit of the farmer.
6) To establish the original forest, farm income begins with the awarding of a $2,000 to $4,000/ha grant to the farmer, along with free intensive technical assistance. These amounts are fixed in the contract. The latter, $4,000, is from an experimental trial of $2,000 for the forest establishment, and at 4 years, we begin paying the farmer $5/MT CO2 sequestered in the forest up to another $2,000. This is one of several financial models we are testing.
7) To maximize the production of the forest, we use a system of light 15-18% thinnings every 5 years, thinnings so light as to leave small holes in the canopy that close rapidly and that stimulate growth. Our basic rule for thinning is to thin to favor the best trees in the forest, taking out their biggest competitors and leaving the best in the forest. (Positive Auslese in German). Loggers, if left alone, will take out the best trees to increase their profit, leaving big holes in the canopy depending on how many trees they extract. Big holes make the forest less productive; they take longer to close. So, vigilance is an important element in harvesting and sales. RTT is responsible for the management of the forest in this early research stage in the contract.
8) To replace the thinned trees and to maintain production/sequestration, we are carrying out research to find native species that are shade-tolerant and that can be planted under the main stand. These species are also selected based on the value of the wood produced. They will grow up under the main stand, moving up into the main canopy as the forest is periodically thinned. Because of their slow growth, the wood produced may be of higher quality.
Note that with this system, we can improve the quality of wood that the stand eventually produces through species selection, increasing the farmer’s income towards our $500/ha/yr goal. Presently, a cubic meter of cedar (Cedrela odorata) standing in the forest is worth about $150, mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) perhaps $500/cubic meter standing.
9) The original stand is composed of a mixture of several significant species. Roughly, we plant 1/3rd Klinkii, 1/3 E. deglupta “hybrid”, and 1/3rd valuable hardwood species such as Mahogany and Cedar.
The Klinkii trees are planted and mostly left in the forest for long-term carbon storage. This tropical conifer species can reach over 250 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter at breast height. It is native to Papua New Guinea. It has been growing for over 50 years in Costa Rica. It is shade tolerant and relatively fast growing although slow the first year. Its columnar shape allows us to have very dense forests (= higher production and thus, sequestration.) We seem to be getting very high sequestration rates in older plantations with Klinkii, 50+ MTCO2/ha/yr.
I developed the E. deglupta “hybrid” in the ‘70s by crossing two provenances of this very fast growing tree species. It is straight and produces good wood. Its role is to produce logs that can be thinned at about 7 years of age for early farmer income. Planted at wide spacing, it has a light crown under which Klinkii can grow very well in the original stand.
Finally, in a 4-species mixture of the original stand, we plant Mahogany and Cedar. Both species produce very valuable wood that command high prices, again, towards our long-term income goal for farmers. We are testing many other species in our forests and our long-term research related to forest management continues.
When we plant Mahogany and Cedar, we need to control the Mahogany Shoot borer (Hypsipyla grandella), using a relatively low-cost system that we have developed.
10) Our research, operations and farm forests are sponsored by over 200 mostly U.S. donors, each forest using a 25-year contract between RTT and the farmers. Forests are measured annually to guide our management att his stage of our applied research. The donations to sponsor forests are deductible to the extent allowed by law. Verification procedures are being developed through second parties.
11) RTT is staffed by two foresters in Costa Rica. In our headquarters, we have a director and a forest scientist, the founder of RTT. Our research continues as we expand our forests to confirm the results. Our website is reforestthetropics.org.
We believe that our RTT model forest, combined with farmer extension, will be a significant contribution to defining an important to the role of new forests that mitigate climate change.
Would you care to sponsor a 1-ha RTT forest?
Dr. Herster Barres
MF Yale, 1958; D. Tech. Sci, ETH, 1961.
The present line-up of species in our mixtures:
- Klinkii, Araucaria hunsteinii, 6 ft in diameter and 273’ in height in PNG forests. Araucaria examples in city parks and cemeteries.
- Deglupta, E. deglupta, fast growing “hybrid” for early farmer income. Annual income if planted 5 years in a row and thinned for the first time at 7 years.
- Species that produce valuable wood. Cedar (Cedrela odorata) and Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) Other valuable-wood species for medium to long-term farmer income are being tested.
- Sombra! Underplanting shade-tolerant species for long-term production of valuable wood.
- How many species in our future mixtures?
RTT recently launched an exciting new module to its educational program. In photos taken in both Costa Rica and Rhode Island, Greg Powell, the RTT Director, is giving a presentation about RTT forests to students at the Westerly Middle School. Greg, and RTT Forestry Engineer, Victor Martinez were able to make the presentation from Costa Rica using video-conferencing equipment funded by The Rotary Club of Westerly. Students were able to ask RTT staff questions about their forest in real time and learn about the importance of reforestation as well as specific elements of RTT’s reforestation approach. This level of connectivity between a school and their efforts towards sustainability is truly unique. RTT believes this type of engagement will foster a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding global sustainability for students throughout the region, moving forward.
When speaking with various stakeholders, we at Reforest The Tropics, often find ourselves talking about the “quality” of different carbon offsets. We maintain that all sustainability efforts are important and worthwhile, however the carbon offsets generated from tropical reforestation projects carry a special significance. Only carbon credits that are created from NEW forests are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Offsets that are created through energy efficiency programs (think wind, solar, etc) or conservation programs (i.e. avoided deforestation, improved forest management) are only addressing the small yellow circle seen above. Of course, we need to shrink that circle to the extent that is possible, but we must not do so at the expense of ignoring the centuries of excess CO2 that has accumulated (represented by the checkered arc) in the atmosphere. This distinction is extremely important when we view the proportions of the carbon problem that we must tackle.
THERE IS HOPE… The diagram on the left demonstrates the importance of carbon extraction strategies. The planet shares the collective goal and responsibility to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to approximately 745 Gt CO2 (or 350 parts per million). Currently, the atmosphere contains approximately 850 Gt (or 400 parts per million). Most climate change strategies are currently focusing on limiting the 10 Gt CO2 that are being emitted each year. Although carbon emissions reduction is very important, this graphic illustrates the relatively small impact these efforts have on the climate equation. Due to the longevity of CO2 in the atmosphere (500-800 years), we will never reach our sustainability goals without technologies that EXTRACT CO2 from the atmosphere. Tropical reforestation is our best hope to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for the long term in trees, soil, and wood products. After 50 years of research, RTT models are extracting an average of 25 metric tons per hectare per year. Careful species selection and underplanting of shade tolerant species allows RTT forests to remain productive as carbon capturing tools for over 100 years. Our data indicates that RTT forests can accumulate over 2500 metric tons per hectare within 100 years. Some models have achieved this in only 50 years. Out of the estimated 185 million hectares of deforested land that is ideal for reforestation, we only need 40 million hectares using the RTT model.
Greg Powell, Director, RTT
Reforestation of our tropical zones is the most effective, inexpensive, and technologically feasible method to arrest the acceleration of atmospheric CO2. This is our primary focus at RTT. We are developing forestry models that are capturing more CO2 per hectare than some science and forestry professionals even thought possible. And we are doing so in a manner that is attractive for owners of degraded land. This fact alone carries important implications for our future climate, as our model is overcoming the historic conundrum of incentivizing landowners to participate in reforestation. In addition to the primary goal of carbon sequestration, there are a number of benefits that tropical reforestation offers. This month, we are focusing on habitat creation. RTT forests play host to numerous species of mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, and insect. By utilizing a mixed-species model instead of traditional monocultures, RTT is enhancing flora diversity in a way that results in a healthy biome. It stands to reason that a variety of plant life will invite more wildlife,
however the team at RTT is continually surprised at the habitat we are creating. Nearly all small mammals found in Costa Rica have been witnessed in RTT forests. More exciting is the evidence of some of Costa Rica’s (and the world’s) more elusive species. We have seen tracks of various large cats, including jaguars, which are presumably entering forest plots to hunt for the myriad small animals that RTT forests host. We have also seen tracks, scat, and food leavings of the iconic tapir. We have even seen evidence of tapirs feeding on the deglupta—a naturalized species to Costa Rica that was first hybridized by RTT Scientist and Founder, Dr. Herster Barres. Another species that is listed on the endangered list is the Great Green Macaw. This magnificent bird is attracted to the seed of the almendro tree – a species found in multiple RTT plots. RTT is attempting to create the most holistic model possible while pursuing its goal to develop the most powerful carbon capturing model in the world. In order to encourage the propagation of wildlife, RTT routinely plants fruit and seed bearing species with the specific purpose of attracting fauna. Planting bananas, plantains, papayas, berries, and other fodder does little to improve carbon capture, however we recognize the importance in broadening the habitable zones for Costa Rica’s amazing wildlife. – Greg Powell,
Reforest The Tropics is proud this month to offer an essay by our friend and fellow tree advocate, Richard Higgins. Mr. Higgins is a writer, editor, and public speaker on Thoreau’s lifelong passion for trees. His book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees is due out next year. He is the editor of five books and the co-author of Portfolio Life. – Greg Powell, RTT Director
The discovery of the biochemistry and dynamics of the carbon cycle has made the work of Reforest the Tropics possible. Scientists know how much CO2 new trees absorb from the atmosphere, down to the quantities that different types of trees store in their roots, stems and leaves. While that science is impressive, it is helpful to remember that, long before the facts were in, wise people throughout history intuited the necessity, beneficence and saving qualities of trees.
One was Henry David Thoreau. The decimation of the New England landscape, which peaked about 1850, during his lifetime, angered him. Even the woods around his beloved Walden Pond were ravaged for fire wood during the unusually cold 1850s. “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!” he fumed. Thoreau hated losing woods that he knew, but his anger was the greater because he knew that without trees, nature would wither, and human life would as well. What we now know about trees makes Thoreau look clairvoyant. They were “rivers of sap and woody fiber” flowing “from the atmosphere and emptying into the earth,” he wrote. A century before nurse logs became a concept in forestry, Thoreau called pine trees “nurses” to the oak saplings that take root beneath them. He described trees as “fountains of water” and knew that their decomposition enriched the soil. He knew also knew, from the German botanist Kurt Sprengel, about the transpiration of leaves. “A thin column of smoke curls up from some invisible farmhouse,” Thoreau wrote “as silently and naturally as the vapor exhales from the leaves.” Before the term ecology was coined, Thoreau saw forests as whole landscapes that transcend any public or private boundaries. He urged that they be preserved as such. And despite the deforestation he witnessed, Thoreau had the foresight and faith in nature, to write that “one day they will be planted and nature reinstated to some extent.”
Thoreau also knew that trees were essential to the human spirit. “From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind,” he wrote in “Walking.” A town is saved, he said, “not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.” Every tree “sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild,” and in such wildness “is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau was not only the wise person to see these things. “Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them,” the French diplomat Chateaubriand wrote in 1820. “What we are doing to the forests of the world,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, “is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” And a biblical author didn’t need to know about stomatal pores and chloroplasts to write, in Revelations 22.2, “The leaves of the trees are for the healing of nations.” Looked at this way, scientists should see it as an honor to provide the empirical evidence that these people were right. It’s even a greater honor to turn their words into action, which is just what Reforest the Tropics is doing.
Richard may be contacted at: email@example.com