19 July 2011

Agroforestry Conundrums: Vanilla vs. Camphor

A recent series of posts (Well, back in May, but still…) by Noah Jackson, over at Rainforest Alliance’s Frog Blog, focused on vanilla farming in Madagascar. He is an auditor for RA, travels the world meeting farmers and foresters, assessing the sustainability of their practices and compliance with certification standards. He makes the point about how important it is for vanilla farming to be sustainable. Especially in Madagascar:
Vanilla grows in the northern part of the country, where coastal and montane rainforests thrive. In a place as biodiverse as Madagascar, growing and cultivating crops like vanilla in harmony with nature is particularly important –  irresponsible farming could threaten the integrity of this incredible landscape.
But if its like most of the crops in Mada very little is certified because of how expensive it is to do the audits and stay up to date with the latest requirements. There are, however,  folks  trying still export crops the right way. People like From the Field Trading, composed primarily of 2 rpcvs and the farmers that they have lived and worked with for years. 
What struck me though, In Jackson's piece, was the usual line, about “harmony with nature.” Agroforestry is hot stuff in the world of conservation, and crops like coffee, pepper, vanilla and cloves are ideal because they can grow as understory plants under forest trees and still provide habitat for native wildlife while providing often times higher income (if you can get the certifications…) to the farmer. From a biodiversity standpoint, these systems are certainly better than monocrops or plantations.
I'm not a vanilla expert by any means as I have never exactly lived in vanilla country here, though I have planted it a couple times. On the west side of the humid forest corridor where I live, its higher than the east where vanilla is grown, so better for coffee. But due to lack of equipment and knowledge as well as past market crash disappointments amongst other reasons, its not coffee that is grown here by and large any more but Camphor trees. These trees are all the rage; everybody, including local upstarts, NGO funded forest management groups, and foreign investors are planting large plantations of ravintsara hoping to cash in in a few years on the high price, and prodigious quantity, of the leaves which are used mostly for cosmetics.
Yet it is all in monocrops. If the groups I work with are planting native trees as well, they aren’t in the same place as the camphor, and I haven’t seen a plantation yet that is growing anything under the camphor trees. Is this going to be the next eucalyptus here, dominating the landscape all over where I live? In fact along the road to my site, a private landowner had paid a few dozen people to dig the ever-resprouting root masses of 80-year old eucalyptus trees in order to plant a field full of these new trees. Good bye firewood, hello money.
Unfortunately, this may not be a wise course of action. This tree has been declared a class 1 invasive species in Florida and a noxious weed in Queensland, Australia. Birds like the fruits and spread the seeds, and the tree is allelopathic, like eucalyptus, meaning that its leaves when they fall are toxic to the seeds of other plants, turning it into a monocrop even if it wasn’t planted as such. In Australia, it not only outcompetes rainforest, it will outcompete native eucalyptus which is the primary food of Koalas (oh the irony). Guess its probably not a good species for integrated agroforestry systems, huh?
It can, however, be a lucrative cash-crop and that's what these forest management groups are banking on as they struggle to find projects that will provide them the income to pay their forest patrollers and keep their groups running.
So, much like with the fish farms questioned in a previous post, who's to tell these groups that they should pursue these types of projects, reliant on foreign and potentially destructive species? Conservation work here, like many places, is being conducted in crisis mode, trying to find ways to protect remnant ecosystems in a vacuum of national governance capacity and shrunken budgets. Projects that can provide a sustainable income source to support local management groups may be worth the trade-offs in terms of creating mixed-use landscapes instead of insisting on restoration of native ecosystems at all costs. 
If only they could grow vanilla on this side of the corridor. Corridor Coffee* is trying to support coffee growers in the region, which would be a less contentious species to plant, especially if they were able to market the native species of coffee effectively. Corridor also has created their own certification label because of the prohibitive costs of coming under another. Perhaps Rainforest Alliance might be a good fit? But options are limited and choices are tough, and the promises of thousands of dollars in just a few years' time for camphor oil is often too alluring to pass up.

*sorry Corridor, couldn't find a link to your site - is there one?