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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Tuva Project: Of Oxen and Fallen Timber

Air Date: Week of April 24, 1998

The Osa Peninsula juts off of Costa Rica's Pacific Coast, just above Panama. To those who value biological diversity, this is holy ground. The Osa possesses some of the most spectacular primary forest in Central America. A small, sustainable forestry project there is providing an alternative to conventional timber harvesting. Instead of cutting standing trees, only fallen timber is removed, and oxen have replaced forest crunching tractors. Ecologists say the TUVA project proves what they've learned after years in the field: like politics, all conservation is local. John Burnett has our report.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Osa peninsula juts off Costa Rica's Pacific coast, just above Panama. To those who value biological diversity, this is holy ground. The Osa possesses some of the most spectacular primary forest in Central America. A small sustainable forestry project there is providing an alternative to conventional timber harvesting. Instead of cutting standing trees, only fallen timber is removed, and oxen have replaced forest-crunching tractors. Ecologists say the TUVA Project proves what they've learned after years in the field: like politics, all conservation is local. John Burnett has our report.

(Footfalls through tall growth; bumping sounds)

BURNETT: Don't be fooled by Costa Rica's national symbol, the colorfully- painted oxcart. It's picturesque to watch, but painful to ride in. The heavy wooden wheels convey bumps directly into the spinal column of riders. But that doesn't seem to bother Miguel Sanchez, as he drives his team of oxen noisily into the depths of the rainforest.

(Sanchez sings)

BURNETT: Sanchez works for a sustainable forestry project called TUVA. The TUVA crew that Sanchez heads takes only fallen timber from the forest.

SANCHEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the tree falls, we come here to the forest. We number it, identify the type of wood, and map where it has fallen. Then we have to test it for the sawmill. If it is too soft on the inside, it's no good, and if the color is too dark, it's no good either. When it's good, like this tree here, we call it pura vida, as we say it in Costa Rica: just right.

BURNETT: We're standing in a clearing formed by the collapse of a massive cedro bateo tree. In the torpid midday heat the cicadas buzz electrically, and exotic heliconia flowers, a relative of the banana, hang heavily on their stems.

(A bird calls)

BURNETT: Around us stands virgin forest: never cut, never cultivated, never grazed. Some of these trees were already sizable when the first Spaniards set foot in the New World 400 years ago. If this were a traditional timber contract, the logger would bulldoze a road into the forest, then drive a tractor to the clearing to extract a tree. It's the quickest method, but it scars the landscape for decades. The TUVA team brings its own portable sawmill, on which a worker is sharpening the chain.

(Sharpening sounds)

BURNETT: The sawmill is basically a chainsaw attached to an adjustable metal frame that guides the blade evenly through the trunk.

(A motor starts up)

BURNETT: The fresh-cut boards are then lashed to the oxcart, and Miguel Sanchez hauls them out ready for market.

SANCHEZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: It's better to use oxen because as I say, it damages the soil less. Less damage to the plants. The oxen can go places where the tractor can't go. Tractor's need a big opening, and if there is a tree in the way they'll cut it down. With oxen we protect the forest, and we don't have as much noise that frightens monkeys and birds.

(Birds calling, bells?)

BURNETT: TUVA's larger goal is expressed in its name. In Spanish, the letters stand for United Neighboring Lands for the Environment. A group of conservation-minded land owners, including the next Costa Rican Environmental Minister and Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, have given their neighboring tracts of forest to the Republic of Costa Rica. Next month, the government is expected to declare this land on which TUVA has been working as a private nature preserve. It will serve as a biological corridor stretching from Corcovado National Park to the Golfo Dulce, or Sweet Gulf, which separates the Osa peninsula from the mainland. At 5,000 hectares, it will be the largest private wilderness sanctuary in the country. Biologists consider the Osa one of the best examples of lowland rainforest on the Pacific coast of Central America. Average annual rainfall here is 13 feet.

(Bells?)

BURNETT: The new nature preserve could not have come at a more critical time. Last year, logging increased sharply on the Osa because of a permissive new forestry law. Local environmentalists say they'd never seen so many logging trucks before. Timber cutting has subsided somewhat after the government declared a 3-month moratorium on logging last fall. One of the most troublesome areas for conservationists has been the Guaymi Indian Reservation located in the buffer zone that borders Corcovado National Park. The Guaymi were clear-cutting the forest to plant crops and sell the wood.

(Loud engine, voice on radio)

BURNETT: From the air, the clearings look like soccer fields in the dense green hills. Last summer, a local environmentalists and an air taxi pilot, Alvaro Ramirez, took me up in his Cessna to survey the deforestation.

RAMIREZ: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Now we're over the Guaymi Reservation. Look at that clearing where they load the logs. In the dry season there are caravans of 20 to 30 trailers loaded with logs. Look what they have been cutting in the watersheds. When they cut the trees, the unprotected topsoil washes away. You can see all the erosion in the rivers.

BURNETT: As a way to slow the slashing of the forest, TUVA has taken on the Guaymi as clients. The TUVA team has been invited onto the reservation by the Guame to show the Indians how to identify viable fallen trees and how to use the oxen and the portable sawmill. TUVA's chief advisor, Manuel Ramirez, emphasizes the project seeks neither to save the forest nor save the Guame from poverty.

RAMIREZ: The idea of this approach is that a campesino will not only live off the fallen timber, but that campesino household will have also to cultivate land, will have to have a few cows if he wants. And then you add a new thing, which is the use of the fallen timber as an economic benefit. So that person will not have to encroach and cut more forest to make more pasture.

BURNETT: Conservation biologists say the reason TUVA has been successful is because it has deliberately stayed small. TUVA does not sell its lumber internationally or even nationally. It sells to the local market on the Osa, to tourist lodges and home builders who'll pay a premium for fallen timber. Other sustainable forestry projects have failed because they were too ambitious, too complex, and too distant, says Adrian Forsyth. He's a tropical ecologist at the Smithsonian in Washington and one of the Osa land owners whose property is part of the TUVA group.

(Bird calls)

FORSYTH: I think the fact that TUVA is primarily an operation that's focused just on its immediate surroundings and not trying to be all over Costa Rica or all over Central America or all over South America or all over the world like a lot of conservation organizations, it greatly increases its chance of having an impact where it matters. And the more you work in the field you realize, like politics, all conservation is local.

BURNETT: As conservationists have learned, there's no silver bullet to solve the problem of shrinking tropical forests. The success or failure of a sustainable forestry project depends entirely on the variations of the local population, local biology, and local politics. But everyone is looking for answers. Already, representatives from Honduras and Brazil have visited the TUVA project, wondering if the model would work in their countries. For Living on Earth, I'm John Burnett.

 

 

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