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Plantation forestry in the tropics of Latin America: a research agenda

J.L. Whitmore

J.L Whitmore is with the International Forestry Staff USDA Forest Service. Washington, D.C. He is past Chairman of the IUFRO Working Party on Silviculture of Plantation Forestry in Latin America and Deputy Coordinator of IUFRO Division I.

MEASURING A RESEARCH PLOT IN HONDURAS success requires a long-term commitment / FAO

As the areas of natural forest in the tropics of Latin America continue to decrease, plantation forestry will be called upon to supply increasing amounts of wood for industry and energy. In this article the author reviews some of the constraints to plantation forestry in the region and describes the ten urgent research priorities needed to help overcome these problems.

· The natural forests of the neotropics are steadily disappearing. The result is a diminishing resource base for those nations that rely on these raw materials for development. Part of the solution to this problem is to establish tree plantations. Biological, social and economic research will make plantation efforts more successful and could also contribute to the national progress of developing countries.

The term "neotropics" (i.e. new world tropics) refers to most of Latin America and the Caribbean region except for most of Mexico and the temperate areas south of 23°S. There is, of course, a great deal of variability in such a large region, with altitudinal changes from 0 to over 5 000 m, and latitudinal variations from 0° to just over 23°N and S. Annual precipitation ranges from 25 mm to nearly 10 000 mm a year. A brief outline of plantation projects in this region illustrates this variability.

Plantation projects in the neotropics

The coast of northern Peru receives an average of only 25 mm a year of rainfall, and is characterized by shifting sand dunes. Agriculture is possible only in those few areas with subsurface runoff from mountain glaciers or along the banks of glacial streams that cross the coastal desert. An agroforestry project near the city of Piura has been successful in using Prosopis and a variety of food crops (Valdivia and Cueto, 1979). Not far from Piura, but at an altitude of 2 000-3 000 m, nearly the entire wood supply for densely populated Andean valleys comes from Eucalyptus globulus plantations, established and managed by residents for local consumption.

At the other end of the Amazon watershed, near the Brazilian city of Belem, is the well-known Jari project to replace dense natural forest with plantations of pine, gmelina or eucalypt, depending on soil characteristics. Near Jari is a little-known but highly successful plantation of Pinus caribaea, one of the largest in the world, but growing on savannah instead of dense forest sites (McDonald and Fernandes, 1984).

Dozens of other plantation efforts, several of which are quite successful, employ these and many other species. Most of these efforts, even the successful ones, would benefit from further research and this brings us to an important point. There is no "tropical forestry problem" in Latin America. Instead, there are a series of forest resource-related problems that vary from one nation or region to the next. Some are biological and related to genetics, insects or diseases while others are social problems of land tenure, fire, economics, marketing, law, colonization or other origin, all of which need to be solved individually. Scientists from non-tropical areas should avoid overdependence on generalized terms such as tropical soils, tropical forests, or tropical land-use if they are to understand specific issues effectively and be able to converse intelligently with colleagues from tropical areas.

Developing countries, most of which are tropical, logically expect to depend on their forests to support the development process.

The neotropics and their ret source problems

Of all major tropical regions, the neotropics are the most blessed with natural forests. However, areas exist within this region that have severe forest resource-related problems as well as promising opportunities. These areas tend to fall into three main categories: those with a high population/land ratio; drier regions where annual potential evapotranspiration exceeds annual rainfall; and areas with slopes and soils especially prone to erosion. Other important categories include industrial-scale plantations and natural forest management. Each of these five categories may present problems or opportunities. The first four are discussed in this article, but each has meaning only within a specified geographic zone and it does not apply equally to all parts of the neotropics. Natural forest management is a particularly important category but lies outside the scope of this article. (See article by R. Schmidt on p. 2 - Ed.)

Many parts of the neotropics are inaccessible and there the forest remains undisturbed. A dense forest often exists in one area while a few hundred kilometres away villages lack the benefits of a forest resource. It is to these villages that plantations offer the most, since they are less expensive and less destructive than building roads between the village and the inaccessible forest would be.

Developing countries, most of which are tropical, logically expect to depend on their forests to support the development process if they are fortunate enough to have forests on the stump. If they are not so fortunate, or if existing forests are insufficient, they would do well to explore the potential benefits offered by fast-growing plantations. Fortunately the world community of forestry practitioners and researchers is now in a position to know:

i) which group of species is likely to succeed under a given set of conditions;
ii) which silvicultural techniques are likely to attain the goals of management;
iii) how to manage most of the soils likely to be available for plantations;
iv) which species are useful, given a defined need; and
v) which socioeconomic realities lead to success or failure.

Developing nations have in fact a great store of indigenous or exotic knowledge upon which to build, and most have well-qualified foresters, although generally there are far too few foresters to accomplish the necessary or intended goals. Nevertheless, the task is not easy and barriers of many forms exist, such as:

· a lack of national commitment. Very few government leaders view forestry as a development issue or as a high-priority programme. Other priorities (agriculture, mining, tourism, etc.) usually compete with forestry programmes for the scarce resources;

· a lack of international emphasis. International organizations must put higher priority on forestry, particularly in Latin America;

· a lack of personnel. Most developing nations have too few qualified foresters who are too often isolated from their specializations by administrative assignments or are isolated from literature sources that describe applicable experience by foresters in other nations. Personnel turnover is a particular problem in forestry, where success requires years, not merely months;

· limited technology-transfer mechanisms. Needless repetition can be prevented when researchers and practitioners have access to knowledge from elsewhere;

· inadequate funds. Project financing is often difficult, especially in nations with balance-of-payment problems;

· social and economic constraints. Projects in the past have often failed by not being economically competitive with other land-uses, or by disregarding the needs and desires of local populations. The negative impacts of plantations have been overlooked and foresters have been slow to learn this, although progress has been made recently;

· a lack of research. The cost of research, in terms of time and money, plus the simple fact that certain important questions cannot be easily answered, constitutes another potential barrier to plantation success, although not always the main one.

Research needs for plantations in the neotropics

A review of the list of forest resource-related problems in the tropical regions of Latin America reveals some problems that are common to several areas. Based on this review, research needs or priorities in neotropical plantation forestry activities are for:

1. Techniques to restore productivity on degraded sites; through natural revegetation on some slightly degraded sites and remedial plantations on severely degraded sites.

2. Species trials and other tree, improvement work on native species (especially on sites where exotics have failed), such as Polytepis spp. trials above 3500 m altitude, and in regions where too much reliance is currently placed on a single species, such as Eucalyptus globulus in the Andes.

3. Testing and promotion of multipurpose species in a community forestry context to meet fodder, food, fuel and other needs, including native and exotic species.

4. Development, refinement and; promotion of industrial agroforestry, techniques using exotics such as pine, eucalypt, teak and Acrocarpus spp., as well as native species.

5. Testing of methods to alleviate or prevent negative aspects of industrial plantations, such as site degradation, reduction of biological diversity, impact on local residents, market variations, etc.

6. Research on fuelwood production for small-scale and for industrial uses.

7. Establishment of plantations for conservation purposes, including watershed restoration; protection of agricultural land and activities (including irrigation sources and wind-breaks); and buffer zones around natural forests.

8. Improved wood utilization and harvesting techniques, to reduce waste and produce more utilizable wood per hectare.

9. Development of techniques for performing the above economically, using sustainable production methods.

10. Social research to guarantee satisfaction of villager needs as a main goal; active participation of local inhabitants in forestry projects; and effective incentives programmes.

A COMMUNITY PLANTATION IN PERU management ski/is can be taught / E. G. SANDSTROM

Other research merits mention. Further study is needed on mycorrhizal relationships, especially when remedial silviculture is practiced on heavily degraded sites. More work is needed on nutrient cycling, especially within the contexts of rotation cropping (switching species for the second rotation) and coppice management. The protection of plantations from fire, insects (especially ants), disease, weeds and human encroachment is an important research issue. Socio-economic comparison of land-use for long-term, high value species vs. faster-growing lesser-value species is needed as well as production for export vs. local consumption (including the benefits of international barter vs. hard-currency export). Intensive silviculture needs to be practiced without causing irreversible negative site impacts. Access to negative research results, however, is needed in addition to those considered successful.

While certainly not exhaustive, the above list includes the most important neotropical forestry issues needing research. However, it is imperative that areas of natural forest be protected in parks and biosphere reserves, an issue which the author considers to be a management, not a research, matter. The fine line between management and research needs to be recognized. Practitioners, consider research a necessary part of the management process, in league with troubleshooting or problem solving. Management decisions should rarely be postponed in order to await the results of research. It is an on-going process that is fine-tuned by research results whenever they become available. Research is often ahead of management, which means that extension work is needed to get research results into the management activity and also that lack of research is not currently a barrier to successful practice. In those cases where research is lagging, researchers face the challenge of defining the problem and its urgency appropriately so that managers may swiftly improve their practices. Since time is always a principal limiting factor careful research planning is required to obtain the right answer to the right question.

An additional four factors are necessary for research advances. The lack of these is at present an impediment to forest research in tropical America. These necessary factors are:

· proper application of statistical and experimental procedures;

· automatic data processing at low cost;

· working relationships between foresters and agronomists striving to increase productivity on marginal sites and profitability of small-farm silviculture;

· an international facilitating mechanism like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of cooperating local forestry research institutions and personnel.

Meeting research needs

International cooperation and national (local) efforts similar to CGIAR have made an important impact on food production. The same kind of effort by foresters and other specialists would help to meet the needs of forest researchers in both the neotropics and other tropical regions The establishment of such an institutional structure would promote a more formal network on International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO) lines. One of its principal functions would be information transfer. Similar networks already operate on a smaller scale, such as the one based at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) in Costa Rica and at the Oxford Forestry Institute in the United Kingdom. If IUFRO, FAO, the World Bank, national development agencies and the private sector (e.g. the Swedish Match Co., PICOP, Aracruz, etc.) were to combine their efforts on a worldwide scale, forestry researchers in the neotropics would have an enormous boost in their ability to resolve research problems.


Such a network would help to make it clear that:

· in some cases "more research" is not necessary and nor is it the main limiting factor. Sometimes by being too close this fact is overlooked;

· research needs in tropical America should be met by tropical Americans. Funding and/or cooperation from "foreigners" may serve as a catalyst, but the responsibility is in tropical America. Fortunately there are many very highly qualified forest researchers in tropical America, even though they often have to operate under conditions that severely limit their effectiveness;

· extension networks need to be built to facilitate the implementation of research results and help the researcher to pinpoint the vital questions from the user group's point of view;

· IUFRO's role in the resolution of research needs for plantations in the neotropics is potentially great. Recent efforts by the Special Coordinator for Developing Countries and those working parties heavily involved with developing-country scientists are leading the way.


The following conclusions may be made, on the basis of this article:

· A wide variety of forestry problems exist in tropical America, some of which require further research in order to be solved and some which do not. Land tenure, lack of incentives and lack of national priority are usually non-research problems.

· There are several genetic plantation silviculture problems in the region but because of the great variability in ecological conditions, social attitudes and customs, goals and economic realities, each problem needs to be defined within its given set of factors.

· Integrated research approaches should replace the more common fibre-production goals. Goals must be defined in concert with end users' and rural inhabitants' perceived needs.

· Plantation silviculture can make major contributions in areas with a high population-land ratio; in drier regions where annual potential evapotranspiration exceeds annual rainfall, in places where slopes and soils are especially prone to erosion; and on sites where industrial plantations are likely to succeed.

· Current knowledge allows plantation practice to succeed in many areas. In these cases further research will increase this success but planting should go ahead even while this research is going on rather than be delayed by it.

· Where plantations fail or are not being established despite a perceived need, a lack of research is often only one of several limiting factors operating.

· A worldwide network of forest plantation practitioners and researchers would help overcome barriers to plantation success.


MCDONALD, L. & FERNANDES, I. AMCEL. J. 1984 Forest., 82 (11): 668-670.

VALDIVIA, S. & CUETO. L. 1979 Settlement and rural development in the eriazas zones of the north coast of Peru. In G. De Las Salas, ed. Proc. Workshop on Agroforestry, Systems in Latin America, Turrialba, Costa Rica. CATIE and UNU. pp. 163-9, 26-30 March 1979.

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