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Curing “Teak Fever” in Panama through Smart Reforestation

Blog | Tue, 04 Sep, 2018 · 9 min read
Technician measuring a two year old Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) planted into a 10 year old teak plantation in Panama.

Technician measuring a two year old Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) planted into a 10 year old teak plantation in Panama.


People have long recognized the commercial value of teak. Foresters in the Americas understand its silviculture. While the government of Panama made news recently with its program to reforest a million hectares, Alianza por El Million, it recognized the benefits of reforestation as early as the 1990s when “teak fever” took hold throughout Central America. Information campaigns advertised that in 20 years, a teak plantation would yield from $50,000 to $250,000 a hectare. Easy money! For its part, the government sweetened the deal by throwing in reforestation tax breaks and offering a reforestation visa to foreign investors.

But if something seems too good to be true, it often is. In 2015 our group at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) partnered with colleagues from Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (Yale FES) to publish a paper (Stefanski et al. 2015) showing that cattle ranchers can make more money – or as I often say – “lose less money” on degraded pastures in the Panama Canal Watershed than teak farmers. Teak does not grow well on the acidic, low fertility, clay soils that predominate there. A lot of people were disappointed by past investments. Some rural farmers accrued debts they regretted and now cannot bear to get involved in another reforestation effort.

In 2015 we began an experiment to test ways of returning under-performing teak plantations to productivity and profitability. We leveraged research conducted during the PRORENA project (a native species reforestation project undertaken as a collaboration between the Yale FES and STRI; see Hall and Ashton 2016) and the Agua Salud Project (a long-term project to understand the ecosystem services provided by seasonal tropical lowland forests and how they change with land use and climate change; see Mayoral et al. 2017) as we set up a new enrichment planting experiment.

We already had a poorly productive teak plantation as one of the experimental watersheds in the Agua Salud Project. In the spirit of the “art of forestry” we enriched the plantation by planting Dalbergia retusa (Cocobolo – a highly valuable craft wood) and Terminalia amazonia (Amarillo – another locally harvested and valuable timber) to see if we could take advantage of all the work that had gone into cleaning, planting, and maintaining the teak plantation to plant these native hardwoods at what would be a final harvest density.

In the case of cocobolo, we wanted to use the teak as nurse trees to try to improve the form to get straight stems as opposed to the typical bushy or highly-branched stature of open-grown cocobolo. Early positive results convinced us that we needed to move from the “art” to the “science” of forestry by setting up properly replicated trials.

In 2016 we recruited neighbors including Mr. Olmedo Alfaro (owner of the Lluvia Verde project) to take part in applied research experiments. We upped the number of species and added a fertilization treatment. While fertilization might not make economic sense for low-value timber products, for species like cocobolo that purportedly can be sold for thousands of dollars per cubic meter, it might be financially justifiable.

The early results are more than intriguing. One two-year-old cocobolo stand is as tall as our ten-year-old teak and with decent form (Figure 1). Most – but not all - of the other native species are also showing promising early growth (Figure 2). However, there are plenty of examples in the forestry literature where species die off, even after 16 years of growth (e.g., Piotto et al. 2010).

Technician with an eight month old Quira (Platymiscium pennatum) in a 10 year old teak plantation in Panama.
Technician with an eight month old Quira (Platymiscium pennatum) in a 10 year old teak plantation in Panama.

I recently attended the Oslo Forest Forum and the celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Amazon Fund. The Norwegian government partnered with the Brazilian government to set up a one-billion-dollar fund to reduce the rate of deforestation in in the Amazon as a strategy to slow and potentially stall climate change. During a panel about the future of the Fund and how to invest the next billion dollars during the next 10 years, Tasso Azevedo, one of the architects of the Amazon Fund, made a plea for risky investments that showed some promise for combating climate change either from reduced deforestation or actual sequestration of carbon. His argument was that companies are poised to take steps that will clearly provide a healthy return on investments. The Amazon Fund and, by extension, governments around the world concerned about climate change, could shoulder the risk of less certain but potentially high pay-off investments to address the problem.

Smart Reforestation® is about planting the right trees in the right place at the right time and for the right reason. I understand why rural land owners might not be willing to take risks given the results of teak fever. But governments, donors, the scientific community, and industry must build partnerships, make the investments, and take the necessary risks to develop viable and sustainable solutions to combat climate change.