A top-to-bottom approach
IAF is the only company in Central America that has the track record and real world experience to implement intensive agroforestry operations. Part of its success can be attributed to its comprehensive/multi-tiered approach to forest management:
Our forestry management approach is predicated on the concept, borrowed from agriculture, of “precision forestry,” a risk averse approach that permits the optimal biological growth performance on reforestation lands. Soils over large areas in the tropics tend to be heterogeneous along dimensions such as depth, porosity, nutrient content and pH. This variability can lead to widely different timber or understory crop growth from one zone to another. By assessing and mapping this variability, BLI’s management can allocate species best adapted to micro-conditions and prescribe practices customized to diagnosed needs, dramatically reducing the risk of biological underperformance. Although this approach sounds commonplace, BLI has observed that many forestry companies ignore or improperly apply adaptive management and micro-zonal considerations, leading to subpar financial returns.
To formulate an effective growing strategy, management collects data to predict and diagnose why trees may thrive in some zones and struggle in others. Each lot is graded according to diameter, height, density, physical condition, crown shape and overall appearance. Patches where poor growth and mortality are abnormally high is typically due to poor drainage, vertisols, and nutrient deficiency. Regular monitoring permits early detection and response, with interventions including application of fertilizer, pruning, weed control or creation of drainage channels. In severe cases, hardier native species are planted (e.g. Rosewood or Big Leaf Mahogany in Central America).
Despite its resistance by traditional foresters, inter-cropping cacao, vanilla and hardwoods is the only logical, not to mention responsible approach to timber investment, IAF founder Richard Bronson comments:
“From an economic point of view the shade overstory planting needs to be carefully designed to utilize suitable precious hardwoods,such as genuine (Swietenia m.) mahogany or one of the endangered Rosewoods, e.g. Dalbergia stevensonii, retusa or nigra, which tend to grow straight and have a limited crown with small leaves that allows a dappled light to penetrate. With mahogany you can plant at 4 x 4 m. intervals two years before the cacao and then slowly thin to 200 trees by age 15. Planting precious hardwoods is paramount to a savings account, where by age 25 the mahogany at 1.5 cubic meters per tree is worth more than the previous 20 years of cacao . Foresters need to work closely with new cacao growers, regardless of size, to insure a project’s future. Even if the cacao is eventually damaged by disease, pest or weak markets, the hardwood will be the life jacket.”