NEB Podcast Episode #14 -
Interview with Reforest The Tropics: Offsetting Carbon emissions through reforestation

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Interviewer: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc. 
Interviewees: Dr. Herster Barres, Founder and Director of Research, Reforest The Tropics; Harry Hintlian, Chairman of the Board, Reforest The Tropics; Greg Powell, Executive Director, Reforest The Tropics

Hello and welcome to the Lessons From Lab And Life Podcast. I'm your host Lydia Morrison, and I hope that today's episode offers you some new perspective into carbon offsets. Today I'm joined by members of the non-profit organization Reforest The Tropics, whose mission is to make a tangible contribution to sustainability by planting carbon capturing forests in Costa Rica.

Dr. Herster Barres founded Reforest the Tropics more than 20 years ago, and today the organization manages more than 500 acres of research forests on 13 farms in Costa Rica, and they do this for over 100 US carbon emitters. Also joining us today are chairman of the board Mr. Harry Hintlian, and executive director Greg Powell.

Dr. Barres, where did the idea to found Reforest The Tropics come from?

Well, it starts when I was 12 years old, and my father knew that I liked languages, and liked plants. And he said, "What you should do is you should go to Yale." We were living at Yale at the time. "Go to Yale, study languages, go to Yale School of Forestry and study forestry and then work for the United Nations."

And so I did those first two things, I studied Spanish and Portuguese, majored in that, and then the two more years at the Yale School of Forestry and then I went to Switzerland to study European forestry.

I asked FAO, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations at the end, if there was a job for me in the field, and they said, "No, but we have a desk job for you," and I said, "No, no, I want a field job. I gotta learn something."

So I worked for five years with the US Forest Service in Puerto Rico, and at the end of that time I was given a job in CATIE, which is a research organization in Costa Rica, and that's where we began our basic research in testing trees that could grow wood on farms. At that time the forests of the tropics were being cut down, they still are being cut down, and the question is some of these countries are going to run out of woods. And so if you can grow wood on the farm, that's so much the better, it's another farm product.

Later, quite a bit later, after we had found some really interesting trees, I got a call from the planning office of EPA asking me to submit a project to the first stage of projects off-setting carbon dioxide emissions. Can I show them how we do it with tree plantations on farms? And that was approved by the Costa Rican government, by the US government and eventually by the UN, and that's what we've been doing now for a lot of years, 20 years.

Well, thank goodness for your father's insight into your talents.

I know! Thank you, dad.

Carbon Capture Through Reforestation

And how do you identify which trees you're going to plant? Do you look into which ones are best at carbon capture?

So I think that's one of the great advantages of Reforest The Tropics has is the history, and the decades of research that were conducted by Dr. Barres. A lot of what we've learned over the years is come from those early trials, lessons from even some of our mistakes and failures. But having that long history of research, we've also learned some very important lessons of what does work, so some of those early trials resulted in some very promising trees. Trees are not really planted elsewhere around the world, and we've utilized those to create a model that's quite unique in the world, that is capturing more carbon than most other contemporary models but is also able to be economically sustainable by providing an income for the farmers, and that's key to the long-term success of any project.

And how do you identify which local farmers you're going to work with in Costa Rica? How do you find them?

We typically find our farmers through word of mouth. So, we're at a scale right now where we don't have to actively search for new farmers-

Oh, that's great.

It's conditions where we're somewhat successful with the farmers we're working with, and they're talking with their friends who might have some land available to plant on their own and show some interest. So it's a long road to get there from those early conversations to actually planting, because our project and our model is so reliant on the farms following our prescription, for lack of a better word.

We invest quite a bit of time, having conversations, explaining why our model's different, preparing them for a little bit more of an intensive management than typical forestry projects. We spend a lot of time setting expectations, and then just building an interpersonal relationship, which is also very key for success in any sort of development project.

So Dr. Barres could you tell me how long it takes for a sponsored forest to become fully productive?

It depends on the species of trees we plant, but we plant mixtures and if we measure our forests, which we do, every year, we have dozens of graphs showing us how the sequestration by trees occurs. And we found that our forests can start sequestering significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the age three to five.

How much carbon does a forest sequester?

Well, we conservatively say 20 tons a year. 20 tons is a lot of tons of carbon dioxide.

Protecting Young Forests from Natural Elements

That sounds like a lot of carbon emissions. Is it difficult to protect the forest from those who might be interested in cutting them down?

In terms of protecting the forest, our biggest concerns are not people coming in and cutting trees down, it's more other natural elements. So, especially in the early years of establishing a forest, there's a lot of competing ground vegetation that can either wipe out a young plantation or certainly stunt its growth. On top of that, we have ... leaf-cutting ants are a major problem with a young plantation. It can wipe out huge areas of a new forest, basically overnight, so that's another area that we have to keep a careful eye on.

Now as the trees mature, we are planting some valuable hardwoods. I have heard of instances on other projects on other farms, where some of those valuable trees have been robbed. We have never faced that ourselves. Every once in a while, we'll have a ... maybe one or two trees cut down during our thinning process, which is necessary to maintain our strong growth curves. Maybe one or two trees that weren't marked by us will be cut down, but that's typically more human error than anything sinister.

Carbon Emitters Participating in Reforestation

Dr. Barres, how many carbon emitters from the US are involved in your projects supporting forests?

Well, at my last count, we had over 200 people who had donated from a dollar all the way up to thousands and thousands of dollars to enable us to do our research and to plant the forests in Costa Rica.

We planted ... how many forests Greg, now?

Just about 80 with this year's planting.

Yeah, 80 forests. Each one is a separate project. Each one is measured separately. Each one has a sign on it so that when you see pictures, the sign is the same, but the trees get taller and taller and taller, so you know it.

We also have the longitude and latitude of all our forests, so you can see them on Google Earth.

That's pretty cool.

So it's really a nice way of connecting people who are responsible for the emissions of carbon dioxide that we'd like to deal with, and the forest. It's a connection that we really need to make, and the tropics where the trees grow so fast and of course, our trees grow even faster than that, the tropics is where to do the sequestration.

Carbon Emitters are Becoming Carbon Neutral

The carbon emitters from the US, are those academic institutions, or private companies, or public companies, or a mixture?

One of the tenets I had at the very beginning, since this is a UN project, and we're trying to figure out what is what, was to have an eclectic mix of carbon emitters. So we have schools, we have individual people, we have families. Harry Hintlian and his family have got three or four forests already for his own personal emissions. That is to say, in your family, and your cars, and electricity you use. We have 14 schools involved. We have a teacher who goes to these schools and tells them what their forest is doing and they have ... all of those 14 have forests with us. We have Connecticut College. We have Yale School of Forestry, they have a forest with us. We have a Mohegan Casino!



That's great.

We have an electric company, the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, and we have Harry's business here, Superior Nut which is the prime example of what it means to use a forest to sequester the carbon. I think Harry, you could say something about that.

Well, I could but you ... There's another company that we do forestry for and that's Triumvirate and they're one of your sources.

Yeah, we know Triumvirate Environmental.

So they have planted five tropical forests with us to off-set their emissions.

Oh that's amazing, and they do such amazing work too because they're already working to turn recyclables into ... or clean recyclables for further purposes.

What a nice connection.

Yeah, yeah.

John McQuillan had a vision to see our project many years ago, and subscribed to it. His forests are doing terrific, so that's one example.

And my own company, Superior Nut Company in Cambridge Mass., we're a food processor. We became the first company in America to be 100% carbon balanced solely through its own newly-planted tropical forest. So actually, what we did is we actually stuck the seedlings in the ground. We didn't buy these ubiquitous carbon credits, and we didn't do any of the other things that involve the trading markets. Our relationship is directly with the farmer. We've actually planted so many trees that in another three years, we'll be 200% carbon balanced.

That's amazing.

We're already about 150, 160%, and we'll be 200% in another two years without planting any more trees. I've done my obligation, and people say, "Well, why do you have to be 200% carbon-balanced?" And I said, "In order to convince other people to be 100% carbon-balanced, I have to be 200% carbon-balanced." So it's-

There's another reason for that, the fact that it's not enough just to cut back our emissions to zero. There's too much CO2 in the atmosphere.

There's time to reverse.

But we have to take that out, and the only way we can do that economically right now is by planting trees, and we have the best model we think.

Oh, what a great way to make being carbon-neutral a more tangible process and connecting it with the environment at the same time. So rather than buying carbon offset credits, Reforest The Tropics is reconnecting people with nature.

Well, when you think about it, it's very important for farmers too. We do not cut forests down to replant forests. We take open pastures that were cut down 50 years ago if you will, and we ask the farmer, since this is a business venture for him, if he would please move his cattle, and we plant up their pastures to trees. And the farmer benefits because our trees are valuable woods and in our model, we plant the trees, we measure the carbon being sequestered, but the amount of carbon or wood being grown there, which is essentially the same thing as the carbon, we take a certain amount of those trees and thin them every five years after a certain point, and the farmer gets to sell those logs for his income. That's why he's doing it. And our goal is to make these forests permanent. We say 100 years, but ...

And so the income that the farmer would earn by growing a forest on these lands rather than say, raising cattle on them, are those amounts comparable?

That is one of our primary research goals is to develop a forest that can out-compete cattle on the same land. And the data that we are receiving and have been receiving for the last 20 years suggests that we can safely out-perform the economic value of that land by planting trees. That has some major implications for the world, if we can convince tropical land owners to do something that's beneficial for all of us without making sacrifices to their own livelihoods. We have a much better chance at solving this climate crisis.

The important part of this whole piece of redeeming ourselves for the damage that we've done to the environment involves corporations, and corporations have to take a leadership position in solving the climate change crisis. There's a couple of really important reasons for that. Corporations have decision-making ability that no other entity or area of society has. A corporate CEO can make a decision to implement tropical forestry into their carbon balancing. It can make that decision instantly. Corporations also have the financial wherewithal to support a project like this. So it's really important for them to provide that kind of leadership. Also, they're the largest emitters of carbon dioxide, collectively.

It's a perfect situation for involvement for companies, and not only that, it's showing leadership to the rest of the world. For the employees of the companies that are doing this work, their children will see what their parents are doing, what the employees are doing, setting a good example. Psychologists will tell us that we can tell our kids anything, we can try and say, "Do this, do that," but our kids are going to end up listening to their peers and most of all, following the example of their parents.

I have one more story and that is about a farmer. This farmer's name is Carlos Manuel Rojas. He was Minister of Agriculture of Costa Rica, and when ... I knew the family, and when I began to plant trees down there, as a young forester, he said, "I'm interested in doing this. My father cleared forest." 5000 hectares I believe, was the number he told me, to make cattle. "And I believe that I should pay society back a bit by reforesting some of these acres of pastures that we have." So I began to plant for US carbon emitters forests on his farm.

And one day, he came to me and he said, "You know, I think our family should plant a forest too." And so, he had his entire family, the babies, and the brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles, out in the field planting the trees, one of the weekends and he has a nice forest now.

Get Involved with Reforest the Tropics

So if our listeners are interested in becoming more involved with this or learning more about Reforest The Tropics, how can they do that?

A good place to start is visiting the Reforest The Tropics website. We have a wealth of information available, but we're also happy to speak with any interested parties. So on that website there's the contact information for myself and Dr. Barres, and if somebody wants to shoot us an email or give us a call, we're happy to ... That's what we do, we love to talk about some of the accomplishments that we're seeing in the field ,and I think it's safe to say that we all really enjoy our work, so we're very eager to share what we've learned.

Well, I think we can all appreciate your work, and I'm sure our children will as well, so thank you.

I hope you enjoyed today's episode, and that you're inspired to think more critically about your own carbon footprint.

Be sure to tune into the next episode and be quite frankly astonished by what professor Ron Weiss of MIT shares about the current state of synthetic biology, and the amazing wonders that it has and will enable sooner than you think. The future it seems, is at our doorstep.

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About your host:


Lydia Morrison
NEB Marketing Communications Writer

Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

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