Community Forestry in Puerto Rico
Las Casas de la Selva is an excellent example of community forestry, because local wood is produced to support the livelihoods of local people on an island where wood is primarily imported. The private landowner, Tropic Ventures, has harvested wood from 300 of their 1,000 acres of freehold land since 2000. This wood supports local woodworkers, furniture makers, craftsmen, etc. The directors at Las Casas de la Selva have influenced the community through a forest products needs assessment, helping with two forest products symposiums, the creation of an online platform, the creation of a council to discuss Puerto Rico's future natural resource uses, and the creation of a small forest enterprise. However, the successes of Las Casas de la Selva have been paused, because Tropic Ventures- and the rest of Puerto Rico- must recover from the impacts of recent hurricanes in 2017.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an island territory of the United States of America, is located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and has a population of about 3.9 million people. The main island is approximately 160 km long and 60 km wide (9,000 square km). The geographic makeup of the island features 53% mountains, 25% plains, 20% hills, 1% plateaus, and 1% rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.
Human presence on the island of Puerto Rico has been dated back to 5000 BC. But the first documented people on the island, the Tainos, were believed to have occupied the island since 1100. “The Tainos built thatched huts, slept in hammocks, spoke a common language, and participated in a common social and political system”. Besides some small areas used by the Tainos for agriculture, nearly all of the island was covered by forests. They lived off the island and the ocean to survive, but their livelihoods swiftly declined under Spanish colonialism.
Christopher Columbus found himself in Puerto Rico in 1493, and the Spanish Era officially began in 1508. This era began with the exploitation of gold from the island and then land uses changed primarily to agriculture. The Spanish Era led to influxes of slaves from Africa, and exports of gold and crops in name of the Crown. The Tainos were all but gone after more than three centuries of colonialism. From 1700-1800, the population of Puerto Rico grew from 6,000 to 130,000.
The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 resulted in Puerto Rico being transferred to the United States, so the island’s forests became managed by what became the USDA Forest Service. The agricultural colony was then perhaps 18% forested. The Luquillo National Forest (today called El Yunque National Forest) was established in 1902 and the Puerto Rico Forest Service (today called the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources [DNER]) was established in 1917. This entity reserved lands on the island as local forests in the 1920s, but nearly all of it was bought by the USDA Forest Service in the 1930s due to The Great Depression and two major hurricanes. By the 1940s, the forested area of Puerto Rico was a mere 6%.
After World War II, the government launched “Operation Bootstrap [and] under this program the island was to become industrialized by providing labor locally, inviting investment of external capital, importing raw materials, and exporting the finished products to the U.S. market. To entice participation, tax exemptions and differential rates for industrial buildings were offered”. The island did become industrialized, as the primary sector of the economy today is manufacturing (50.1%; pharmaceuticals, electronics, processed foods, clothing, textiles) followed by the service industry (49.1%; finance, insurance, real estate, tourism) and agriculture (0.8%).
The shift to manufacturing made the island almost completely dependent on wood imports, and timber production today is not a main goal for the USDA Forest Service in Puerto Rico. The demise of the island’s agriculture industry and subsequent absence of management and commercial timber production led to the growth of secondary forests. A 2008 estimate claimed Puerto Rico was 53% forested, but this figure is likely higher today.
Situated in the southern mountains of Patillas, Puerto Rico and situated next to Carite State Forest is a 1,000-acre property known as Las Casas de la Selva- the site of Tropic Ventures Sustainable Forestry & Rainforest Enrichment Project. Since 1983 and with the help of the Institute of Ecotechnics, this project has planted over 40,000 trees on 300 acres of the property via line-planting. “Since 2000, plantation areas are being experimentally thinned, timber sold, and scientific research is underway all over the land”. The mission of Tropic Ventures is, “to research and demonstrate the economic use of rainforest land using methods that do not destroy the rainforest ecology”. The Director is Thrity Jal Vakil and the Technical Director is Andrés Rúa Gonzalez.
In pursuit of their mission, Tropic Ventures influenced the development of other initiatives to support the community forest operation. In 1998, the non-profit Tropic Ventures Research & Education Foundation (TVREF) was established to support the project. In 2011, the DNER granted TVREF $21,000 to inquire about the island’s forest and non-forest products, which resulted in the creation of nuestramadera.org- a website that documents the Technical Director’s findings based on the forest products assessment. In 2012 and 2014, forest products symposiums were held on the island. In 2013, the Council for the Development of Agro-forestry (CADA) was founded to bring Tropic Ventures together with, among others, university representatives and government agency members to discuss the future of Puerto Rico’s natural resource uses. In 2014, the forest enterprise Puerto Rico Hardwoods, Inc. (PRH) was founded based on CADA discussions. PRH takes tree trunks and branches, which would otherwise be dumped into landfills, and processes them into forest products.
The tenure arrangement is freehold, as the official owner of the land is Tropic Ventures so they are the private landowner.They have a complete and secure bundle of rights. In 2011 Tropic Ventures voluntarily entered into a forest management agreement with the USFS, the International Institute of Tropical Forestry [IITF], and the DNER through the Forest Stewardship Program. The agreement was solidified with a certificate signed by Tropic Ventures and the DNER and the publication of a 10-year management plan document, which allows for adaptability.
Tropic Ventures is “a joint venture between Global Ecotechnics Corporation and Decisions Team Inc.”. The Tropic Ventures Director and Technical Director must manage the 1,000 acres using the approved management plan as a guideline. The management plan document explicitly states that the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources has designed monitoring strategies to make sure forest practices are quantified and qualified.
Tropic Ventures is the private landowner, therefore any activities on their land is of concern to them. The fulfillment of their mission is of importance and they have the total power to do so. Puerto Rico Hardwoods, Inc. is forest business enterprise that is an affected stakeholder. The business is based off of products that come directly from the forest. Without forest products, the business will not survive. PRH has some power.
Other affected stakeholders are those that benefit from the actions of Tropic Ventures. This includes local architects, woodworkers, artisan workshop workers, furniture makers, and those who salvage or harvest, transport, mill, dry, market, and sell wood products in Puerto Rico. These people’s livelihoods depend on income that is provided directly or indirectly from the forests of Puerto Rico. The major objective is to make a living and gain income. Their relative power is not high, but their participation in workshops and symposiums has given them a platform to use their voices as power. The website nuestramadera.org is a useful source for affected stakeholders as it acts as a platform to post and sell forest products.
The Institute of Ecotechnics is a larger, international entity and has established several projects, such as Las Casas de la Selva. Their objective is to support the project and they do have great power, because they basically own the private landowner Tropic Ventures.
The USFS, IITF, and DNER are all government agencies who are interested stakeholders. They have power due to the fact that they are government agencies and are the entities that entered into a formal forest management agreement with Tropic Ventures. They are the managers of public land in Puerto Rico. But at the end of the day, they are paid no matter what, so they are interested stakeholders.
The Earthwatch Institute is an interested stakeholder, because they do not depend on the forest for livelihood. This organization has collaborated with Tropic Ventures as a volunteer network for over 15 years. The institute has little power, but organizes volunteer trips where people come to Las Casas de la Selva to inventory the forests. This aids the research and education objectives of Tropic Ventures.
The Agroforestry Development Advisory Council (CADA) is an interested stakeholder with little power. It is a council that is concerned about the future of Puerto Rico, but the council itself does not depend directly on the forests. Also, local universities are interested stakeholders with little power. Their main objective is research.
The overall objectives of Las Casas de la Selva are to:
This community forest project has been successful for over three decades. 700 of the 1,000 acres are being left as a reserve. This is extremely important for the ecosystem services that are provided. The 300 acres of managed forest featured enrichment planting of over 40,000 trees and harvesting has occurred since 2000. Felled trees from Las Casas de la Selva have been milled and sold to local woodworkers who depend on such forest products for their livelihoods. Earthwatch has collaborated and expanded research and education in Las Casas de la Selva. The fact that the forest has managed and unmanaged areas makes the site great for comparative studies. The relationship with the government agencies is positive too- as the private landowner goals align with the goals of the agencies.
With the support from IITF, USFWS, and CITES, Puerto Rico Hardwoods, Inc. felled and removed twenty-three Puerto Rican mahogany trees from the Arroyo Cemetery that the municipality was going to remove anyways for cultural and historical preservation. PRH saved the valuable trees from being dumped into a landfill, then employed two locals to help mill and dry over 16,000 board feet. This wood will support local artisans and furniture makers. Puerto Rico is an island that imports wood to meet demands. Las Casas de la Selva is a beacon of hope for supporting the production of local wood and the creation of Puerto Rican wood products. It has been successful thus far.
There are a number of issues that are of concern for Las Casas de la Selva and forests in Puerto Rico: wildfires, hurricanes, climate change, invasive species, pests and diseases, and habitat fragmentation from developments. Specifically, Puerto Rico was hit hard recently by hurricanes Irma and Maria, the latter of which crossed directly over the island. Much of the island is without power and they are in dire need of help.
The social actors with power are all using it appropriately. The government agencies- who have the most power- have positively influenced Las Casas de la Selva and produced a private landowner plan for Tropic Ventures- who helped with that process and has been properly managing the land. The Earthwatch Institute has consistently been sending volunteer groups to Las Casas de la Selva to aid in the inventory of the forests. CADA used its small collaborative power to influence the creation of a forest enterprise (PRH) whose aim is to reduce waste from harvesting. Finally, local affected stakeholders have been participating in workshops and symposiums, maximizing the little power that they have and using it to the fullest. The community forestry case study of Las Casas de la Selva is an exceptional example of community forestry. Because Tropic Ventures is the private landowner, they have a full bundle of rights and legal tenure. In addition, power has not led to corruption here. However this is not always the case in community forestry case studies.
In northern Sweden, conflicts exist among small forest owners (who have statutory rights) and the indigenous Saami people (who have traditional rights). Saami people have historically used the lands for reindeer herding, traveling to the mountains in the summer and to the forests in the winter. In the winter, their reindeer depend on lichens in older forests as a food source. But grazing areas in forests are poor when logging practices have impacted the land, so the conflict is presented. The statutory rights of small forest owners to log the forests threatens the traditional rights of the Saami reindeer herders-who have been using the land for much longer. The conflict has led to many court cases and also international awareness for the indigenous Saami dilemma. This example in northern Sweden shows how statutory and traditional land claims can complicate community forestry. Such is not the case with Las Casas de la Selva because the private landowner has the full bundle of rights and the indigenous Tainos people are no longer present. If the Tainos thrived on the island today, perhaps there would be similar claim issues.
In Senegal, conflicts exist among rural community leaders and Forest Service officials. This example shows how corruption can be present in community forestry. In 1996 and 1998, Senegalese legislation was passed which gave rural community leaders power over their local forest resources. Historically, Forest Service officials allocated permits to exploit the local forests for charcoal production. But the decentralization gave rural leaders "effective property rights over forests in their jurisdiction: they can exclude others, exploit the resource and allocate access. But in practice they cannot begin to exercise these rights". The Forest Service officials now need rural leader signatures to proceed with resource exploitation. However those who resisted were often threatened and paid off, therefore failing to exercise there power justly. In a way, the rural leaders were "elected as the representatives of the people, but they 'have no tongues'". This example in Senegal shows that despite power given to local people by law, they can still be corrupted through threats and pressure by government officials. Such is not the case with Las Casas de la Selva. All stakeholders, government and non-government alike, have similar goals and there is no corruption.
The main priority for all stakeholders right now should be to recover from the hurricane damage. This will take efforts from as many people and entities as possible. Financial resources are definitely needed. A blog post from Tropic Ventures featured a video showing damage to Las Casas de la Selva and the forest got destroyed. The rebuilding phase must start now. This will include a complete inventory of Las Casas de la Selva and a compilation of required activities such as salvaging and replanting.
In the long-run, the regular activities in Las Casas de la Selva should continue. The volunteer work will continue to aid and guide management in addition to supporting research. Trees that are harvested and processed should still be sold to local people to support their livelihoods. Perhaps more attention could be paid to the online platform. Local woodworkers could expand their markets using the online platform.
Continued funding of programs will support agency goals. More private landowner management plans should be created. Projects like the Mayaguez Community Forest Project should be undertaken across the island. This project features the Mayaguez municipality collaborating with a local NGO, a local university, and the government to create a community forest management plan for a 68-acre forest the government is helping them purchase. The agencies can use Las Casas de la Selva as an example of a successful forest management plan.
|This conservation resource was created by Matthew Todd. It has been viewed over 167 times. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.|