Taking Root Project Updates

Building A Sawmill Where There Are No Trees: A Short Essay On Creative Ways To Incentivize Reforestation

By Kahlil Baker

Kahlil Baker is the Executive Director and Co-founder of Taking Root. He oversees all aspects of forest operations, including complying with rigorous international forest carbon standards, developing forest inventory and carbon accounting methodologies, and supervising the operational team. Kahlil also develops international partnerships to help promote the project. In addition to his work at Taking Root, he is currently pursuing doctoral research in forest economics at the University of British Columbia.

Background: Harvesting forest products to give trees value

The idea of cutting down trees as a way to promote reforestation might sound a little controversial. After all, cutting down trees is what leads to deforestation in the first place. Yet, harvesting forest products within a framework that promotes massive reforestation, and where the only trees that are harvested are purchased from smallholders, can create a positive price signal to further incentivize farmers to keep trees on their farms. This is especially effective when the trees come from thinnings of legally registered tree plantations.

In fact, it is the absence of this price signal for sustainably managed forests that has lead to such massive deforestation rates around the world. Although we talk about forests being so valuable for the environment, the hydrological cycle, soil protection, biodiversity, etc., if we don’t place a financial value on forests, we are by default giving them a financial value of $0. Consequently, landholders, such as the smallholders that we work with in Nicaragua, are faced with the decision of keeping a portion of their farm forested, which has a financial value of close to zero, or clearing the forest to make room for other land-use activities that provide more income, such as cattle pasture.

In the case of Taking Root, we have been fortunate enough to have found companies and individuals from around the world that buy ex-ante carbon offsets from our project, providing us with money to pay farmers over a 10 year period. This money, combined with educational workshops and capacity building workshops, are enough to encourage smallholders to reforest portions of their farms. However, because these payments are for a finite time period, new long-term incentives are required so that every hectare of forested land provides its opportunity cost (i.e. the forested land provides at least the same amount of benefits as the alternative land-use option available). Therefore, Taking Root is creating additional financial incentive for farmers to keep trees on their farms by buying trees from the smallholders, building a forest products processing facility, and creating a market for their trees.

Developing high-value forest products

This past February, I spent time at the Limay office in Nicaragua working with the Taking Root team to establish a pilot forest products processing facility to further incentivize smallholders to establish new forest plantations.

Project 1) Sawmill: While the first trees we planted in 2010 still aren’t large enough to harvest, a few other farmers with a lot of foresight planted small woodlots prior to Taking Root working in the region. Many of these trees never received any silvicultural management so the stands are really crowded, preventing individual trees from getting any larger. Furthermore, many of the trees are getting old and starting to rot from the inside. We received a permit from the government to legally harvest some of these trees (one of the same species that we plant every year for fuelwood) and purchased them from the farmers.

To process the trees into boards, we set up a circular table saw at the office. With this we were able to successfully process the harvested trees into beautiful boards.

Above: Our pilot project sawmill

However, when milling cylindrical logs into boards, a large portion of the wood is lost. For large diameter logs, this waste can represent at best 40% of the total volume but for small diameter logs this can reach as high as 70% of the total log. In isolated regions of Nicaragua where sawmills are normally established, these sawmill residues can’t even be sold as firewood because the transportation costs are too high relative to their value. Consequently, the sawmill industry is incredibly wasteful from both an environmental and economic perspective. Given this inefficiency, the value of the wood in a standing tree is very low despite the high value of the boards after processing. This low price received for a standing tree does not provide enough incentive for farmers to want to invest in planting new trees. For this reason, we developed a second pilot project…

Project 2) Charcoal briquettes: In order to pay farmers a good price for their trees, we had to find creative ways to create merchantable products out of the sawmill residues. Our solution: charcoal briquettes (just like the ones commonly used in barbeques in high-income countries). This is actually an innovative solution for rural Nicaragua considering both how charcoal is traditionally made and the lack of local charcoal making technology.

Above: Charcoal briquettes

Although traditional production methods vary from place to place, the general principle is the same. Wood is heated in an oxygen-limited environment, generally underground or in mud kilns where it is set on fire. After the fire is well lit, the oxygen is cut off and the wood smoulders for several days.

Above: A traditional stove

This method leads to two major environmental problems. The first is that this slow incomplete combustion produces large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more harmful than CO2. Second, setting the wood on fire before blocking off the oxygen prevents the use of small pieces of wood since they would burn entirely before turning into charcoal. As such, whole trees need to be cut down. This is commonly a major cause of deforestation and the resulting sawmill residues cannot be utilized.

To overcome these problems, we constructed a small pilot-scale charcoal kiln using scrap metal, based on a Japanese design that bakes the wood instead of burning it. Unfortunately, when making charcoal from small pieces of wood, it results in pieces of charcoal that are too small to work well in a barbeque. So, we had to briquette it by building our own briquette press.

Since charcoal has no plasticity, we also had to develop a non-toxic flammable glue at a low cost using local materials. The solution: starch made from cassava (a local starchy root vegetable similar to a potato). By mixing 1 part starch with a bit of warm water and 9 parts charcoal we got a mixture that could be moulded and compressed using our homemade press. The resulting charcoal briquettes have a much higher energy density than firewood meaning that they can be transported to market cost effectively.

The end result: we are able to process 100% of a tree’s biomass into merchantable products, which allows us to pay an attractive price to smallholders. Stay tuned, as this is something that we hope to continue expanding on in the months and years to come.

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