Agroforestry in Costa Rica, a fruitful policy?

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Costa Rican farmer

Agroforestry, a fruitful policy? © Robbe Vancraeynest


Since going through a rough patch in the 80’s, Costa Rica has been reforesting its land. Instead of contributing to deforestation, farmers are now actively planting trees. How does agroforestry play into the nature conservation policy? And what can Belgium learn from the Costa Rican strategy? 

“Environmental policies have been the dominant DNA of Costa Rica”, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada said in The Guardian on Monday 22nd of February. The tiny Central American nation is aiming for total decarbonisation by 2050 and is encouraging other countries to do the same. It is also spearheading the international contract to protect thirty percent of the planet’s land and oceans. 

Coffee farmer Glenn Jampol agrees that biodiversity and nature conservation are important values to Costa Rican farmers. When he moved to Costa Rica, he transformed the barren land he had bought into a thriving organic coffee plantation. Since 2002, Jampol has planted more than 7.000 native trees on his property.

Why are farmers like Glenn Jampol making the change now? Many countries surrounding the equator have already had to endure the effects of climate change. 1.4 million people in Kenya are suffering from famine due to ongoing drought in the country, according to the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. In November of 2020 the Philippines were hit by Super Typhoon Goni, the strongest storm since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. According to BBC News the passing of Goni affected nineteen million Philippine lives. Likewise, Costa Rica has not been spared from extreme weather. In October and November of 2020 hurricanes Delta, Eta and Iota swept across the Central American nations. Hurricane Eta alone caused at least fifteen million dollars in damages in Costa Rica. These encounters have made Costa Ricans take matters into their own hands.

Going radical  

In the last thirty years, Costa Rica has regrown large parts of its tropical rainforest after having cut down more than half of it. Today, the Central American country is covered in forest for over fifty percent. How did they manage such a radical reforestation?  

In the 90’s, the government introduced a series of subsidies and tax breaks to help turn the tide. They also started with the expansion of protected areas, including national parks. One of the most important conservation and reforestation tools is the Payments for Environmental Services Program (PES). It has been established in 1996 and Costa Rica has been the first country to apply the program on a national scale.  One part of Costa Rica’s plan of action is to stimulate farmers in implementing agroforestry.  

Farm like an Egyptian 

Agroforestry is the collective term for combining trees and shrubs with agricultural crops or animals on the same parcel of land. Think of, for example, a pineapple farmer who sows rows of trees in between his pineapple crops or a rancher who lets his cattle graze on tree-filled meadows. This sustainable approach is nothing new. It went hand in hand with the rise of the first cities in Egypt. 

Scientists claim that trees and shrubs benefit the quality of the soil by using light, water and nutrients more efficiently. In turn, a healthier soil makes for a better crop and boosts biodiversity. Natural vegetation and wildlife such as insects protect the crops from pests and diseases. Therefore, farmers do not need to use damaging chemical fertilizers and pesticides as much. Moreover, planting trees between crops makes them more resistant to extreme weather conditions. Their roots bind the soil in place, so it does not wash away during heavy rain or strong winds. Trees and shrubs take up water which prevents water runoff and serve as a natural irrigation system. Unlike annual crops, trees have roots in the ground all year long. They take up nutrients and release them to the soil over a longer period of time. Another well-known quality of trees is their ability to take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.  

Additionally, agroforestry makes the farm more resilient against fluctuations on the world market. If one crop fails, the farmer can still count on his second crop to provide an income. The farmer could even gain financially by investing in both crops. The total yield should be greater than cultivating the two separately, but it takes a lot of work, patience and dedication. 

Sweet fruit, bitter seed 

Before a farmer decides to implement these practices, he should be aware of the initial and later investments. In some countries, including Costa Rica, the government provides financial support. However, the registration process for a subsidy is not always smooth sailing. “The bureaucracy to fill out the forms and to have the government come and inspect means you sometimes have to wait for months. It is crazy. Many small businesses just decide it is not worth it”, Glenn Jampol states. 

Restoration in Costa Rica © World Resources – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

On top of the paperwork, farmers need to invest their time and money in the upkeep of the trees. Finding the right combination of trees and crops requires a lot of knowledge. Farmers need to consider the amount of sunlight or shade necessary for their crops. In Costa Rica, information like this can be found through organizations such as the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE). However, not all farmers find their way to these kinds of organizations. Another obstacle could be the supplemental cost of new, adapted agricultural tools. Some of the traditional ones do not match with an agroforestry approach. 

In order to reap the benefits, a long-term vision is needed. According to Belgian researcher Paul Pardon, trees need to grow for at least ten to fifteen years before bearing quality fruits. For some species, this even takes up to fifty years. The move from the regular commercial market to a smaller sustainable market could be a big financial drawback, since the demand for organic, more expensive products is not as high. 

Money doesn’t grow on trees 

Costa Rican farmers interested in agroforestry can count on the PES program for financial support. The size of the check depends on the number of trees they want to plant on their property. They receive the subsidy in three steps, spread over five years. 

Eduardo Menés Solorzano is an engineer at the National Fund for Forestry Financing (FONAFIFO), the governmental organization charged with administrating the PES Program. He works on agroforestry contracts and brings them into fruition. “The farmer only needs to bring a filled in request form, ID and a ground plan of the land. FONAFIFO takes care of the rest of the paperwork.” In an ideal situation, the whole process should take about four to five months. “We receive an estimate of 600 requests a year, but accept around forty percent of them”, Solorzano says. Since the founding of the program, approximately eight million trees have been planted on farmland all over Costa Rica. “Six years ago, we reached the milestone of five million trees. That basically means that there is one tree planted for every person in the country.”

Money for funding is mainly collected through taxes and is supplemented by international investors. “Every time someone fills his tank, they’re giving 3.5 percent to FONAFIFO”, Solorzano adds. “But the dependence on this tax is also a risk, because people do not like taxes.” 

In the early stages of the PES program, the Costa Rican government was more concerned about the number of trees planted and the percentage of forest coverage. They have since shifted their focus from quantity to quality. Instead of simply counting the number, they are considering the type of trees and increasing subsidies for native and endangered species. 

On top of that, they now prioritize areas more critical to conservation. A key point of critique that had to be dealt with was the unintended bias towards larger properties. FONAFIFO tackled this issue by engaging with smaller businesses through agroforestry contracts. As a result, the participation rate of those farmers has significantly increased. To make sure the program keeps its focus on quality and inclusion, the organization has worked out a point system. Farmers that meet certain criteria, get more points and are given priority when handing in their application.

La Rosa Blanca 

American painter Glenn Jampol traveled to Costa Rica for the first time in 1989. Today, he runs Café Rosa Blanca, an organic coffee plantation and speaks fondly of President Quesada as ‘our president’. Café Rosa Blanca is a rather small coffee plantation. Jampols coffee crops are shaded by a canopy of trees, which are home to over 140 different kinds of birds. It comes as no surprise that the tourists that visit Rosa Blanca are mostly birdwatchers, hikers and eco minded people. The symbiosis of coffee with other plants and trees makes for a richer microclimate on his property. Jampol can count on the presence of natural agents like bugs and other soil inhabitants to keep his plants healthy. Unlike most farmers, he does not use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Every Costa Rican has the right to live in a healthy environment

Eduardo Menés Solorzano

Coffee crops grow quicker in the sun, but Jampol swears by an agroforestry approach that provides shade for his plants. He explains that while his coffee may grow slower, the quality is higher than that of a sun grown coffee bean. Due to the longer growing season and the work that goes into trimming his many trees, Café Rosa Blanca sells its organic coffee for almost three times as much as the regular stuff. Jampol knows that the demand for expensive organic coffee is small and he realizes that for many farmers, this model is not persuasive. “Until there is demand on a large scale, nothing will change”, he says. On top of that, many farmers struggle with the long process of filing the necessary requests. Jampol understands that to reach Costa Rican farmers, the government needs to find solutions that are positive for the future as well as people’s bank accounts.

Baby steps in Belgium 

How is Belgium dealing with nature conservation and agroforestry? According to the latest reports, our country is 23 percent forested. Though there is a big difference between Flanders and Wallonia: Flanders has about 140.000 ha of forest while our southern neighbors can count on four times the amount of forest.  

In 2011, following the European policy, the Belgian government introduced financial support for farmers who implement agroforestry. The subsidy repays up to 80 percent of the start-up costs. The latest report of Agroforestry Vlaanderen shows a rising trend in the number of farmers that have implemented agroforestry since the launch of the program. Currently, there is just over 150 hectares of agroforestry in Flanders, spread over approximately 30 farms. This means agroforestry only takes up 0.02 percent of the Flemish farmland.

Agroforestry has not yet become popular in Flanders © Markus Spiske

“It is true that agroforestry has not yet become popular in Flanders”, Pardon, Belgian expert at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering of the University of Ghent, mentions. According to Pardon, the governmental subsidy does not provide the right financial support. “As the maintenance costs for agroforestry are quite high, the agricultural sector proposes to offer a maintenance subsidy, rather than a start-up grant.” Moreover, Agroforestry Vlaanderen points out that there is a lack of knowledge among Belgian farmers. They doubt the system is profitable as it takes a couple of years before quality fruit or wood can be cultivated. In addition, agroforestry requires a transformation of the farmers’ business model. 

It us especially the progressive ‘nature conservation mindset’ that sets Costa Rica apart from us. In Belgium, agriculture and reforestation are considered opponents rather than allies. During a recent protest action in Kluisbergen, farmers denounced how difficult it is to get a license for new farmland. Unlike in Costa Rica, tourism and more specifically ecotourism is not one of the main sources of income. Besides that, Belgium does not have the tropical climate as found in Central America. The advantage of trees providing shade to the crops and making the soil moister, could be a disadvantage for our farmers. Belgian soils contain enough water. Too much shade causes a light reduction which severely affects the crop growth.  

Both Belgian and Costa Rican experts point out it is hard to put the benefits of agroforestry and reforestation programs into numbers. Figures may vary with the type of tree, soil and climate. Because there are very few publications on agroforestry, farmers are hesitant to implement this type of agriculture. Currently, several research projects in Belgium are trying to expand public knowledge as experts are convinced agroforestry help ensure nature conservation.  

Teaching trees

Should Belgian farmers simply copy their Costa Rican colleagues? Probably not, but there is a thing or two to learn from their agroforestry approach. Climate awareness is deeply engraved in Costa Rican culture. FONAFIFO engineer Solorzano explains: “The government determined that every Costa Rican has the right to live in a healthy environment.” All throughout their upbringing, kids are taught the importance of nature and their surroundings. By emphasizing these topics through sensibilization campaigns, the Belgian public could gain climate awareness.  

Teaching people the importance of their surroundings is good, but it’s not enough. Farmers need to be stimulated more to apply agroforestry. Initiatives exist but are not as popular as in Costa Rica. The Belgian government could make the existing financial support systems more attractive. The biggest challenge for our country is connecting the agricultural and environmental departments so they can team up in reinforcing the agroforestry approach.  

De auteur

Stijn De Meester

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Expressieve & enthousiaste duizendpoot die journalistiek studeert aan de Arteveldehogeschool.