INTERVIEWS - Replanting Tropical Forests
by Lisa Mullenneaux

in INNOVATING. Vol. 7, No. 1. The Rensselaerville Institute. Fall 1996.

The hills of Coto Brus in southwestern Costa Rica are not called "La Tierra Triste" for nothing. Starting in 1952 when the first hardwood fell, the hills have been relentlessly chain-sawed and cleared for cattle pasture and coffee plantations. They've been scorched by fire, gutted by herbicides, eroded by rainstorms, and finally abandoned. Such "use-abandonment" explains why Costa Rica--despite its reputation for conservation and ecotourism--is losing its rain forest faster than any other Latin American country.

Dr. Lynn Carpenter is one of several American scientists determined to reverse that trend. The 52- year-old University of California at Irvine ecology professor has risked her academic prestige, personal savings, and every cent of her credit card limits to coax new growth from barren soil. With the help of five field workers and volunteers, she has planted 7,000 trees on her 63-acre farm and more seedlings are sprouting in the nursery.

Though her project is bewildering to academic colleagues---who know her as a hummingbird expert--she is having just the effect she desired: neighboring farmers are planting trees. Finca Frances (the tree farm she established in 1994) is becoming a model of sustainable land use, and suddenly Carpenter's friends aren't calling her the "wanna-be Johnny Appleseed" anymore. Lisa Mullenneaux spoke with Carpenter at Finca Frances on a rainy afternoon in August.

What is the goal of your project?
We are trying to restore fertility to land that has been destroyed. The challenge is to find plants with potentially harvestable timber that will grow in subsoil. Subsoil is what's left after the topsoil has eroded. Most of the minerals that plants need to grow--nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus--are scant or absent from this soil. This is soil with a pH of five or even lower.

Why did you purchase this land and not some other?
I knew that if I could reforest land this poor, I could reforest anywhere.

What tree species have you chosen to plant and why?
In our first trial in 1994, we planted seven valuable species--two were exotic, five were native. Of the exotics, pine grew, but eucalyptus didn't. In 1996 we added eight more species, including some legume trees, which mostly failed. We've planted soursop (Annona muricata), a tree native to the tropics, which produces a very valuable fruit. Guanabana, as it's called in Costa Rica, has a white, aromatic, spongy flesh used to make ice cream and beverages. My neighbors tell me a single soursop tree can produce a living for a small family.

How do you nurture growth?
We don't, because we want to see what species will do well in subsoil. We do weed around the base of the plants to prevent competition from other plants, including grass.

Who helps you work the farm?
I employ five paid Costa Rican staff and volunteers who sign up through the University Research Expedition Program (UREP), a nonprofit sponsored by the University of California.

Who can volunteer?
Anyone fit and willing to pay the $1,495 fee. The idea is to help UC researchers in their fieldwork and investigations. Students and teachers receive course credit and, of course, the experience of living and working in a farming community. This year has been a great disappointment: only three volunteers signed up. UREP usually sends three teams of six volunteers and I get $900 per student.

Are there no other sources of funding?
Not so far. In 1992 I wrote to 20 private foundations and received only a $5,000 gift. This year my sister has taken over as business manager. She's in the process of establishing a nonprofit organization and will do some active fundraising.

But you are a respected scientist. Wouldn't your reforestation work interest the National Science Foundation?
For 22 years, my work focused on the foraging patterns of hummingbirds. Reforestation is an entirely new field for me in which I have no track record.

What precipitated such a dramatic career change?
I was on sabbatical leave from teaching at UC Irvine in 1991. I chose Wilson Botanical Gardens, close to here, to do my research and every day my spirits sank as I watched trucks roar down the mountain hauling massive rainforest logs. You see, I had done research in Costa Rica since 1989, but I had avoided what I was seeing all around me--an increasing population and decreasing arable land. All of a sudden I was asking myself: Does it really matter whether hummingbirds defend their territory or not? I had never taken on something that really mattered, maybe because of a fear of failure. If I failed with the hummingbirds, it didn't really matter for the long term well-being of humans. But the trees and soil matter.

When did you first see your future farm?
That same year I was in a bus en-route to a Pacific Ocean beach, and I was taking photos out of the bus window of degraded pasture to use as exhibits in my classes at UC. Suddenly I saw a perfect example: a hillside rutted with cattle trails. Topsoil had washed down the slopes and collected in a brown pool at the bottom of the hill. I snapped a photo, which I still use in my lectures on deforestation. When I went back to look for land, I realized the perfect choice was the one in the photo. I bought 63 acres in 1992 and started building a house in 1994.

How do you get along with your neighbors?
I couldn't succeed without them. They know their land and I know science. They know what will grow in a tropical zone; I know how to plan and conduct an experiment, how to replicate results. What is innovative about this project is the alliance between farmers and scientists. It began in 1994 when 30 local farmers asked me to give a talk. Now they are planting trees. This respect for the indigenous population and its traditions is the opposite of the scientific imperialism sometimes practiced by developed countries. We try to tell natives how to use their land, land they've been growing on for centuries. I feel that I'm riding the crest of a wave in which scientists and farmers join forces to change land use.

How has this reforestation project changed you?
I am more passionate about my work and communicate that to students. This project drives and inspires me. And that's scary because what we're doing here is so important. Rainforest will disappear as long as first world countries demand beef, paper, and timber. I know that I can't change the world's consumption patterns, but I can change my own. And I can try to influence students. The future of our species may depend on what research can accomplish now.

INNOVATING's comment: Thousands of tiny seedlings sprouting at Carpenter's treefarm hold the promise of a use-profit method of agriculture in which farmers are sustained by what they grow. She is seeking a practical and sustainable answer to the use-abandonment, which has characterized agriculture in Latin America for half a century. She has deliberately chosen to cultivate property along a major highway in Coto Brus so that the "before" and "after" contrast of the green slopes is unmistakable. Area residents cannot help being drawn to the project curious to see what's going on. What they see is that even the most damaged land can be renewed. The tactic is prototyping--with the greatest leverage for diffusion of the innovation.

The intensity in Carpenter's life and work is also a magnet for her students, many of whom volunteer to work the farm for academic credits. She is a better teacher of ecology, not only because she now has a subject that "matters," but because she has invested so much of herself.

Lisa Mullenneaux is a writer from Rensselaerville, NY. Dr. Lynn Carpenter, Professor in the Department of Ecology at the University of California at Irvine, can be reached at the department at 714-824-6006.

[R.A.I.N.] [Dr. Lynn Carpenter]