Evaluating the Effectiveness of Native Species Reforestation for Carbon Sequestration, Biodiversity Conservation, and Sustainable Agroforestry in Nicaragua’s Tropical Dry Forest Ecosystem (2017)

Client Organization: 
Paso Pacifico
Project Location : 
Field work will be conducted in the Paso del Istmo Biological Corridor, Department of Rivas, Nicaragua; lab work and data analysis will be conducted at UM’s SNRE.
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives

In 2007, the environmental non-profit Paso Pacifico restored and reforested 400 hectares of abandoned and degraded cattle pasture in Nicaragua, via funding from an ex-ante carbon purchase from Carbonfund.org. This project aimed to maximize multiple ecosystem benefits by not only sequestering carbon, but incorporating a diverse mix of dozens of native tree species known to provide resources for endangered animals and incorporating local ecological knowledge into reforestation design and management. We have also conducted semiannual monitoring of birds and annual monitoring of lepidopterans at reforestation sites since the initiation of the project, providing information on changes in two indicator taxa assemblages associated with reforestation. During the past year, we have revisited plots established at the project start, to measure carbon sequestration since reforestation began. Our preliminary analyses suggest that tree growth and carbon sequestration has proceeded with surprising speed, with above ground stocks consistent with 20-25 year old forest. However, at this point we don’t know if our reforestation design and management resulted in unusually rapid gains, or if these growth rates are more broadly typical of the area. We are seeking a team to work with us to locate areas of unmanaged forest regeneration and of managed hardwood plantations in the area of similar age to the reforestation to establish some after-the-fact controls where we can measure and contrast carbon sequestration and establish the pacing of above-ground carbon accumulation in our work area. The team would collect data on bird and lepidopteran diversity at these sites to provide a snapshot data set on biodiversity that we can contrast with data from our multi-year monitoring. This landscape is a dynamic and complex mosaic of forest, regeneration, and agriculture; ideally, one team member would explore effects of land cover at different spatial scale on response variables, Together, these data will allow us to evaluate whether or not our reforestation methods represent the substantial “kick start” to biodiversity that they appear to be.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance

Tropical dry forests are one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems, with less than 2% of its original area remaining. The long term survival of this ecosystem will require restoration and reforestation, sometimes with active intervention. From an ecological perspective, allowing tropical dry forests to regenerate naturally from pasture can result in forests dominated by wind-dispersed tree species that are less attractive to many vertebrates, particularly large-bodied frugivores. However, the costs of labor-intensive reforestation from seedlings that later require mechanical thinning can be a barrier to tropical dry forest restoration. By considering the composition of natural regeneration and native species reforestation in the same landscape we can evaluate the effects on a number of response variables and better evaluate the costs and benefits of the two approaches. If Paso Pacifico’s refoerstaiton approach proves particularly beneficial for biodiversity and forest recovery, our methods could be used to restore dry forest in other areas of Mesoamerica and help rebuild Central America’s Pacific coast forest corridors.

Specific Activities & Duration

Most of the work will consist of establishing plots and measuring trees using a standard methodology and with the assistance of Paso Pacifico’s project technicians in the field. Additionally, depending on interests, team members might establish point transects for bird monitoring (in collaboration with our Nicaraguan biologist) and line transects for placement of lepidopteran fruit baited traps in collaboration with a Nicaraguan entomologist. We would strongly encourage and welcome a component of social science and interviews in order to establish land use histories Field work could be completed in a 6-8 week period, allowing some time for internships over the summer break of 2016. Although team members would at times work with bilingual members of Paso Pacifico’s staff, all team members must have some ability to communicate in Spanish (ideally 2 or higher on the ILR scale, http://www.govtilr.org/Skills/ILRscale2.htm#2). A participant interested in the informatics aspect would work from a laboratory setting with land cover files developed from 2009-2010 SPOT imagery, although would be encouraged to participate in field work as appropriate and feasible with time commitments and travel costs. Once back Michigan, data analysis for carbon sequestration calculations would be fairly straightforward.

Integrative Approach:

Although the primary focus of this project is conservation ecology, it would include several aspects (terrestrial ecosystems, conservation biology), specifically characterization of plant assemblages monitoring of vertebrate and invertebrate indicator taxa, and ideally interviews and education with local community members.
Paso Pacifico has a WIDE range of programs that cut across conservation, science, and education; within the basic framework of evaluating rates of carbon sequestration in different land use types in our work area, we are flexible about developing specific activities and research questions.

SNRE Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Informatics
Role for each program area: 

In an “ideal” team, all members would participate in all aspects of the project’s data collection; however, each member would spearhead one of the three or four following areas in terms of honing methods, determining needs, managing/analyzing data, and contributing written sections to a final report:

  • Tree Leader (vegetation): sets goals on how many plots for each land use type to investigate (e.g., natural regeneration, monoculture/commercial polyculture native hardwoods, monoculture exotic hardwoods), decides on plot placement, leads data collection on tree measurement, manages and analyzes data to calculate carbon sequestration
  • Biodiversity Leader (indicator taxa): as above, but focused on collecting data on birds, butterflies, and/or other native animal species as deemed appropriate given the 
  • Social Science Leader (interviews): outreach to owners of areas we would like to sample (note, Paso Pacifico will do some legwork before team arrives to locate likely areas), interviews on land use history, decision making processes, and goals. Ideally would work based on social science surveys we have developed to understand management decisions by local farmers, in order to build that database. 
  • Informatics Leader (GIS/computing): maps geofreferenced data collected by other team members, extracts variables from existing land coverages to investigate potential spatial factors affecting carbon sequestration, associated biodiversity, etc. Depending on interests, mines several years of data on bird and butterfly monitoring to describe change over time in reforested areas.
Team size: Ideally this team will have 3 or 4 members. This upper limit is set mainly by logistical constraints of transportation in the countryside.
Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Working on these projects would provide students with experience working on the ground in a developing nation, working in an NGO environment, and conducting community outreach. All applicants would need to speak basic conversational Spanish. Specific skills developed would depend on the subprojects selected, but cover a variety of topics related to conservation science. Together with existing data on carbon sequestration and biodiversity, the results would be suitable for publication in a scholarly journal.

Funding Sources: 

At this time, Paso Pacifico has very limited ability to support visiting researchers, however, we would likely be able to cover food and lodging in the field (under rustic conditions) and some transport within Nicaragua. We would provide all equipment necessary for field work. Additionally, we would be interested in collaborating with team members to seek additional funding by co-writing grants. Applicants are strongly encouraged to apply for internal SNRE and UM funding to support international travel costs. 

Identify expected products/deliverables: 

Interim reports at end of fieldwork period and detailed jointly written report (introduction, back ground and conclusion sections written collaboratively, and with each team member leading the writing of a specific report chapter reporting on the aspect of the project they led) at end of student’s term.

Findings from the project will be used to guide our future restoration strategies (i.e., determining the situations in which passive versus active restoration approaches are optimal, determining the mix of species that are optimal for a givn conservation goal, etc.). The report will also be shared with our major collaboartors and funders for our reforestation and restoration projects and will inform design for other conservation initiatives that tie in closely with reforestation (e.g., our spider monkey conservation initiative). Ideally we will publish results in both a regional and international journal to share insights on our reforestation methods with a broader audience.

Contact full name: 
Kimberly Williams-Guillen
Job title: 
Director of Conservation Science, Paso Pacifico; Visiting Scholar, SNRE
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
SNRE Faculty Advisor: 
Ivette Perfecto
Contact Phone: 
Contact information: 
SNRE alum
U-M faculty member
Staff member of a potential client organization
Our Organization has been an SNRE master's project client in a previous year
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • John Andreoni, MS Conservation Ecology/Environmental Justice
  • Lillie Kline, MS Behavior, Education and Communication/Conservation Ecology 
  • Astrid Santiago, MS Sustainable Systems 
  • Alex Truelove, MS Sustainable Systems 
Project Status: 
In Progress