Hecho de madera panameña

Quietly populated by the voices of some stakeholders in Panama’s timber production.

Today we visited the Agua Salud Project (Stallard et al. 2010), a STRI initiative which seeks to understand and quantify the ecosystem services provided by forests of the Panama Canal Watershed. Researchers at Agua Salud are interested in particular in how land use conversions (e.g. from forest to pastures) would affect ecosystem service provisioning in the Watershed. Obtaining an answer to this question will be key to the good functioning of the canal and the livelihood of many local communities in years to come.

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The 2017 IGERT-BESS crew visiting the Agua Salud Project. Photo credits: Chloé Debyser.

In order to undersand the importance of land use in shaping ecosystem service provisioning in the Canal Watershed, six different land-use types are studied and compared at Agua Salud: native-species plantation, native second growth, teak plantation, mature forest, pasture, and invasive grass (“canal grass”) (Stallard et al. 2010). As we walked through Agua Salud’s rolling hills, we discovered a new facet of Panama’s landscapes, those that are being constantly and visibly shaped by humans. Having hiked several of Panama’s primary forests over the past week, we had almost forgotten about the importance of human communities in shaping many tropical forests.

“In 2009 there were about 71 000 hectares of planted forest [in Panama], an increase of 15 000 hectares over that reported in ITTO (2006).” (International Tropical Timber Organization 2011)

In fact, tree plantations alone represented about 71,000ha of Panama’s land in 2009 (International Tropical Timber Organization 2011). Whereas contributions to Panama’s GDP from forestry were only US$510 million in 2008 (≈0.3% of GDP), the sector employed about 10,600 people, largely in forest plantations (International Tropical Timber Organization 2011). However, there is little consensus in Panama about the viability of timber plantations as a development model. In particular, several groups have expressed concern over the environmental impacts of tree plantations, which are often established in lieu of existing forests, and the poor distribution of economic benefits to those communities most affected by plantation development. Increasingly, timber plantations in Panama are therefore a source of tensions, at times conflicts, over land use (Tuckman 2013).

“We have a limit on how much of the forest we can clear to cultivate our crops, but the invaders cut it down without any respect and do terrible damage.” Belia Opua, from the Embera community of Arimae (Tuckman 2013)

El recurso forestal de Panamá tiene un enorme potencial tanto para la conservación como para la producción. Se reconoce que el desarrollo forestal de Panamá en la última década ha tenido un auge muy significativo, principalmente en el establecimiento de plantaciones forestales.” (Arias & Flores 2006)

At the heart of these frictions are plantations of exotic tree species, such as teak (Tectona grandis). Teak is a cherished wood. Since the 1990s, it has replaced Pinus caribaea as the main plantation species in Panama. Over 47,000ha of teak were planted between 1995 and 2011 in Panama (International Tropical Timber Organization 2011), majoritarily in the provinces of Colón, Panamá Oeste, Chiriquí, and Cocle (Arias & Flores 2006). Together, teak and Pinus caribeae now comprise over 80% of Panama’s planted area (International Tropical Timber Organization 2011). For this reason, Agua Salud researchers have chosen to incorporate teak plantations as one of the land-use types under study.

La teca tiene una reputación centenaria como la reina de la madera. Es altamente durable, fácil de trabajar, atractiva, fuerte y relativamente liviana. Con la decreciente disponibilidad de la teca en bosques naturales, las plantaciones son una fuente cada vez más importante para suministrar la madera para satisfacer la demanda.” (Forwood Forestry Panama S.A. 2017)

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A teak plantation in Belize. Photo credits: Amber Karnes.

Results from reseach in Panama suggest that conversion from pasture-land to teak plantations can provide many of the ecosystem services of importance to the Panama Canal Watershed, including carbon storage (Kraenzel et al. 2003). However, when compared to services provided by the surrounding natural forests, teak plantations systematically underperform. Carbon storage is lesser in teak plantations than in natural forests of the Panama Canal Watershed (Kraenzel et al. 2003), and teak plantations also have adverse effects on soil quality, water availability, and biodiversity (Méndez-Carvajal
2012, Simonit & Perrings 2013).

“[…] la plantación de teca mantendrá menos especies de mamíferos entre más años pasen y más lejos se encuentre de los bosques nativos, obteniendo así un número reducido de especies sobre todo de los órdenes Carnívora y Chiroptera.” (Méndez-Carvajal
2012)

“[En reuniones] aparecen afirmaciones o suposiciones sobre algunos mitos relacionados con las plantaciones de teca, como por ejemplo, la poca o nula biodiversidad de flora y fauna dentro de las plantaciones, los problemas ambientales y de erosión del suelo, dudas sobre la calidad de la madera, el impedimento para que crezca otro tipo de vegetación en el piso de las plantaciones de teca” (Arias & Flores 2006)

Increasingly, alternatives to teak plantations that nonetheless allow for timber production are therefore under scrutiny in Panama. In particular, researchers are wondering whether native species plantations might be of greater interest to the Panama Canal Watershed, once ecological, social, environmental, and economic factors are considered (Stefanski et al. 2015). Could it be that native species plantations have the potential for enhanced ecosystem service provisioning, including hydrological services and carbon storage, greater biodiversity conservation outcomes, while nonetheless providing valuable economic opportunities to communities of the Panama Canal Watershed? Thanks to the Agua Salud Project and other land-use experiments in the panama canal region, we might soon know the answer to this critical question!

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A plantation of native timber species in the Agua Salud Project, Panama. Photo credits: Chloé Debyser.

REFERENCES

Arias, L. U., and M. G. Flores. 2006. Perspectivas económicas y ambientales de las plantaciones de teca bajo manejo sostenible, en Panamá. Published report prepared for United States Agency for International Development and the National Environmental Authority of Panama. URL

Forwood Forestry Panama S.A. 2017. Acerca de la teca. URL

International Tropical Timber Organization. 2011. Status of Tropical Forest Management. URL

Kraenzel, M., A. Castillo, T. Moore, and C. Potvin. 2003. Carbon storage of harvest-age teak (Tectona grandis) plantations, Panama. Forest Ecology and Management 173:213-225. URL

Méndez-Carvajal, P. 2012. Estudio de diversidad de mamíferos en cuarto hábitats de transición asociados a una plantación de teca (Tectona grandis) dentro de la cuenca del Canal de Panamá, Las Pavas, Chorrera, Panamá. Tecnociencia 14-2: 55-83.

Simonit, S., and C. Perrings. 2013. Bundling ecosystem services in the Panama Canal watershed. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:9326-9331.

Stallard, R. F., F. L. Ogden, H. Elsenbeer, and J. Hall. 2010. Panama Canal watershed experiment: Agua Salud Project. Water Resources IMPACT 12:18-20. URL

Stefanski, S. F., X. Shi, J. S. Hall, A. Hernandez, and E. P. Fenichel. 2015. Teak–cattle production tradeoffs for Panama Canal Watershed small scale producers. Forest Policy and Economics 56:48-56.

Tuckman, J. 2013. Panama’s indigenous people see Redd over UN forest conservation scheme. The Guardian, Friday 24 May 2013

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