By Michael Salama
Here in the province of Los Santos, it doesn’t take much to see that agriculture and pastoralism dominate the regional landscape, economy, and culture. An aerial shot of the Panamanian province might lead you to think that the rolling, Tuscany-esque hills of the Azuero peninsula have always been defined by grassy and treeless ecosystems. Yet for 12 thousand years, humans have inhabited and deforested the natural landscape, and in the colonial and post-colonial eras (primarily in the 20th century) the province’s forested habitats were nearly wiped out and converted to today’s cultivated fields and cattle pastures; in pre-Columbian times, Azuero was almost entirely covered by a biome called neotropical dry forest. Since the 16th Century, the Azueran landscape has been drastically altered, with around 90 percent of tropical dry forest slashed, burned, or otherwise converted into grazing land. Today, tropical dry forest habitats in Los Santos are highly fragmented and scarce, making the existing dry forest the most highly threatened tropical ecosystem in the world, though it is also one of the least known. What little forest cover remains is largely thin and degraded strips of riparian lineage, property divisions, and natural fencing for cattle (Griscom et al 2010). Still, along with many valuable ecosystem services, these patches provide critical habitat for the many threatened endemic species in the region and therefore hold immense ecological value for the biodiversity that they sustain.
What is tropical dry forest?
As a habitat type, tropical and subtropical dry forests are characterized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as predominantly deciduous forests with warm climates year-round and a long dry season. They usually foster high levels of biodiversity, though not as high as their moist counterparts, and are highly sensitive to disturbances. Most of the world’s tropical dry forest occurs in the neotropical realm, with large swaths in the Central American dry arc (which includes the Azuero Peninsula), the Chaco region of Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, and the Caribbean Islands.
In 2017, Pro Eco Azuero began its Watershed Reforestation Program, a campaign to create a reforested mosaic of tropical dry forest in the Azuero peninsula. Using geographic information system mapping analysis (GIS), we determined critical target areas for strategic reforestation, to make sure that our efforts result in the maximum ecological output. For instance, it is more valuable to reforest narrow corridors connecting fragmented areas of trees, to allow for the safe passage of wildlife from one patch to another, than it is to reforest larger, isolated patches. Our GIS-informed strategy is to reforest an 80-kilometer-long stretch along the Oria River basin, crossing eight corridors and three districts in the province of Los Santos (see the map below). Based on this objective, and the fact that the vast majority of land in Azuero is privately owned agriculture or grazing land, the Pro Eco Azuero Foundation has been developing social-engagement initiatives in eight rural communities for the past decade. These initiatives have, through education, stressed the significance of restoring tropical dry forest, water quality, and habitat connectivity, as well as diversifying production of cultivated land. The information campaign, which is also being implemented through an environmental curriculum in local schools, is drawing in the active participation of community members and having a profound impact on how rural citizens observe and benefit from the positive effects of reforestation.
This past week marked the onset of the planting season, which lasts through June and July, after months of planning and working with the landowners who are hosting reforestation sites. Groups of students, volunteers, Pro Eco Azuero workers, and producers enter the fields on a daily basis to restore dry forest cover in privately-owned riparian zones along the Oria River basin.
The tropical dry forest of Azuero fosters high amounts of endemic species, including the Azuero spider monkey and the great green macaw, both of which are highly threatened. The Azuero spider monkey is currently in critical danger of extinction, attempting to survive in small, isolated, and increasingly rare patches of dry forest. Due to lack of funding, census data for these endangered species is few and far between, though we know that continued destruction of their only viable habitat significantly decreases their chances of survival.
By preserving existing habitat and reforesting to produce new dry forest, we can increase Azuero spider monkey populations, which will in turn speed up the regeneration of forests; this monkey is a particularly good seed disperser that can swallow and distribute seeds that other animals cannot. Not only is tropical dry forest cover threatened by deforestation, but the increasingly evident impacts of climate change are putting at risk the landscape, the biodiversity, and the people it supports. The region’s climate is tropical savanna, with wet summers and dry winters, usually receiving a total of approximately 1700mm of rainfall per year. Recently, drought seasons have been longer and more intense; in 2015, the district of Pedasí only saw 578mm of rainfall, which led to the death of 700 livestock, and in 2016 only 1114mm (Dibala 2021). Local communities are becoming more dependent on bottled water due to these water shortages.
The effects of reforestation are not just beneficial to ecological biodiversity; reestablishing tree cover in rural pastures is shown to provide highly valuable ecosystem services for those managing the land. Pasture trees can prevent soil erosion and improve the quality of watersheds by reducing sediment and nutrient runoff (Griscom et al. 2021). Perhaps more importantly for the cattle ranchers of Azuero, the presence of trees in grazing lands—an agroforestry practice called silvopasture—can significantly improve the health of livestock during the dry season. During the five-month dry period, livestock in Azuero’s open pastures often become malnourished to the point of weight loss and even mortality, due to thermal stress and the lack of nutrient-rich forages (Vega and Vergara 2015). Silvopasture, which is achieved by Pro Eco Azuero’s reforestation projects, has the proven potential to reduce this thermal stress, improve forage diversity and availability, and improve overall biodiversity (Galindo et al. 2013). A two-year study of silvopasture’s impact on Azuero farmlands during the dry season showed that nutritive value of forage grasses improved as tree cover increased, with forage in moderately and densely forested pastures exhibiting higher crude protein levels than forage in treeless pastures (Griscom et al. 2021).
While it may be difficult for producers to recognize the profitability of keeping trees on their grasslands, the deliberate combination of forest cover and livestock forage can significantly improve the health of livestock and reduce the costly impacts of winter drought. Pro Eco Azuero works continuously with these producers to educate about the benefits of reforestation and increase local participation.
Keeping these benefits in mind, Pro Eco Azuero’s reforestation initiative provides landowners that choose to have portions of their land reforested with the following:
- Native and fruit-bearing saplings selected by the producer (including timber-producing varieties), as well as labor and organic fertilizer for the planting of these saplings
- Materials for fencing (wire and clips)
- Five years of technical support and access to a network of reforestation contacts to monitor the health and survival of saplings
- Soil samplings and reforestation reports
- Assistance with paperwork to register the planting, including planting certificate with Azuero Eco Foundation
- A reforestation process that works closely with the producer and offers future productive benefits, increasing the value of the farm
In our pilot year of reforestation, 2017, we reforested 5000 trees and more than four hectares of native fruit species from the dry forest of Azuero, connecting ten patches of tree cover to protect animals like the Azuero spider monkey. An increasing number of producers have come to work with our organization as our network of contacts and landowners expands—gradually, the community is opting for greater involvement in environmental causes like reforestation on rural farmland, possibly as a result of our educational campaigns.
However, due to scarce funds for reforestation, we are only able to work with approximately 20 percent of the producers who approach the organization wanting to reforest their farms’ riparian zones.
As we enter another season of reforestation, further collaboration with companies and individuals who are willing to contribute to our environmental initiatives will be key to the expansion of our restoration projects. Greater access to financial resources is critical to unlocking our ability to reforest five more riverine patches with native and fruit species across eight livestock farms in our target ecological corridor. At a current expense of approximately $5USD per sapling, accomplishing our goal of reforesting the Oria River corridor will be difficult and costly; we currently use a standard reforestation density of 1111 trees per hectare (a metric that has been proven successful by timber companies and institutions like Smithsonian). Private companies, especially those with social and environmental corporate programs, are increasingly committing themselves to the preservation and restoration of environments like Azuero’s tropical dry forest, and to the fight against climate change. In Panama, we must focus on reforesting our most vulnerable ecosystems, which are critical for the transition to a low-carbon economy and to building resilience in the communities most exposed to the effects of climate change. Our reforestation program is a strategic and effective way of protecting biodiversity, restoring fragile and disappearing ecosystems, and offsetting the growing carbon footprint left by unsustainable economic expansion worldwide. But we cannot do this alone. With the help of companies, volunteers, and individuals around the world, we hope that this initiative will support Panama in achieving its environmental goals by restoring one of the country’s driest, drought-sensitive, and least known areas to promote a resilient future for the region.
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- Griscom, Heather & Connelly, A. & Ashton, Mark & Wishnie, M. & Deago, J.. (2011). The Structure and Composition of a Tropical Dry Forest Landscape After Land Clearance; Azuero Peninsula, Panama. Journal of Sustainable Forestry. 30. 756-774. 10.1080/10549811.2011.571589.
- Vega E, Vergara Y (2015) Ganaderos en Los Santos preocupados por muerte de 1800 reses. In: TVN Not. https://www.tvn-2.com/nacionales/provincias/Ganaderos-Santos-preocupados-muerte-reses_0_4276072453.html. Accessed 12 Apr 2019
- Galindo F, Olea R, Suzán G (2013) Animal Welfare and Control. In: international workshop on farm animal welfare. Sao Paolo, SP Brazil. pp 159–166
- Jose S, Dollinger J (2019) Silvopasture: a sustainable livestock production system. Agrofor Syst 93:1–9. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10457-019-00366-8