INTERVIEWS - Replanting Tropical Forests
by Lisa Mullenneaux
in INNOVATING. Vol. 7, No. 1. The Rensselaerville Institute. Fall 1996.
hills of Coto Brus in
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.
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
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.
did you purchase this land and not some other?
I knew that if I could reforest land this poor, I could reforest anywhere.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
did you first see your future farm?
That same year I was in a bus en-route to a
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.
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
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.