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Partnership between ITEC and the S/Y Acadia to Restore the Forest at Finca Maribella


The forest restoration project came about as a result of the convergence between two separate concerns for the environment, maintenance of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. In the Fall of 2018, the mainland site known as Finca Maribella was donated to the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC), a nonprofit NGO in both the United States and Panama (http://itec-edu.org). The property is located in a region called Tierra Oscura on the mainland of Bocas del Toro Province, Panama, and forms a peninsula separating Dolphin and Tierra Oscura Bays (9.200201,-82.248923). The area is about 100 acres in size not including an equal amount of mangrove forest surrounding the property on three sides. The topography is diverse with an extensive shoreline and with hills rising abruptly above the bay to about 60 feet in elevation. While the mangrove and swamp forests on the property appear mature and intact, the 50 acres of upland area is not. As a result of research conducted by members of ITEC’s Tropical Rainforest and Canopy Ecology field course in 2019, it was discovered that the forest structure and biodiversity in the upland areas of the property was highly degraded and composed principally of small, early successional and invasive species of plants that were hindering the establishment of the native flora. Our research indicated that to bring back the original biodiversity of Finca Maribella, a forest restoration project was needed. An intact, mature, lowland tropical rainforest always provides the additional benefit of storing large amounts of carbon and this is where ITEC and S/Y Acadia converge. Following a two-week coral reef ecology course at ITEC’s field station on Isla Colon, the vessel’s owners, Mark and Rachel Rohr, began looking for a way to offset the carbon debt created by sailing the S/Y Acadia around the world promoting environmental projects. ITEC has now partnered with the S/Y Acadia in an effort to reforest Finca Maribella. With a grant provided by The Ocean Foundation (https://oceanfdn.org) we can work together to reestablish the original biodiversity and carbon storing capacity of this tropical forest ecosystem. Planting trees and sequestering carbon is perhaps the best way to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and thus reduce or halt global warming. The S/Y Acadia expends about 120 metric tons of carbon annually as the vessel travels the seas in Mark’s effort to contribute to coral reef research, management and restoration. To offset the S/Y Acadia’s carbon footprint, approximately 2500 trees will be planted in five, 10-acre plots. After 20 years, with all 50 acres reforested, the amount of carbon sequestered would far exceed that expended by the S/Y Acadia not only subsequently, but would pay back the accumulative carbon debt as well. The forest restoration project began with the building of a shade house nursery at the ITEC field station. Plants were obtained from a variety of sources including seeds and seedlings collected from the area forests, and seedlings purchased from tree nurseries. In our effort to replace the native plant community, between 50-60 species of trees are being grown for the project. While some species are understory trees with important ecological functions, most represent canopy or emergent species of forest trees. A sampling of trees includes laurels (Cordia alliodora, C. megalantha), guacimo (Luehuea seemannii), mahagony (Swietenia macrophylla), nutmegs (Virola surinamensis, V. sebifera, V. koschnyi), bongo (Ceiba pentandra), peinecillo (Apeiba membranacea), cedro (Cedrela odorata), almendro (Dipteryx oleifera) fig (Ficus insipida), jobo (Spondias mobin), nisporo (Manilkara zapota), gavilon (Pentaclethra macroloba) and 30 others. The next step in the process to restore the forest will be to prepare the land for planting. In June, “macheteros” will be hired to use machetes to cut out the unwanted vegetation on the first 10 acres chosen to be reforested. Only early successional, herbaceous and invasive plants will be removed leaving the already present canopy and subcanopy species intact. Simultaneous with this effort will be to initiate the Local Environmental Education Program (LEEP) at the Tierra Oscura school. Here students from kindergarten to the 6th grade will learn about why forests are important, how they function, and how to protect and restore them. The older kids will be encouraged to be part of the tree planting team (for details, see “Local Environmental Education Program” at http://itec-edu.org/station-update-2019/). Once the seedlings have been transferred to the finca, ITEC faculty, staff, LEEP volunteers and students both from ITEC and Tierra Oscura, will begin the planting process. Trees will be planted about 6-8 feet apart not in straight rows, but in a random fashion that mimics natural forest structure. Everyone planting trees will be given a variety of seedling species to avoid species clumping. Each plant will be marked with flag containing information as to the species and date planted. The flag also functions to prevent subsequent macheteros from cutting the newly planted trees. The site will be examined every two weeks and monitored for signs of successful transplanting, growth rates, diseases, death rates and their causes, and unwanted vegetation growth. Unwanted plants on the plot will be cut every three months until the new forest takes hold and begins to shade out early successional vegetation. This process will be repeated yearly until the entire 50 acres has been restored. Working together, ITEC and the S/Y Acadia will indefinitely restore the original biodiversity of this lowland tropical rainforest site and with its carbon storing capability, offset the carbon debt not only of the S/Y Acadia, but from many other sources as well.


By Peter Lahanas PhD of ITEC

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