Fila Marucha farm, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is known for its lush forests and beautiful biodiversity. The Central American country is a favoured destination for eco-sensitive tourists. Just thirty years ago that was quite different. But progressive environmental policies have made an impact and so have farmers like Milo Bekins, who used analog forestry to restore former cattle grounds into beautiful and profitable forest gardens.

 Between 1940 and 1983 Costa Rica lost half of its original forest. The country had one of the worst deforestation rates of Central America. Fortunately this has changed. Today over one quarter of the total Costa Rican soil is designated as ‘forest reserve’ for the protection of biodiversity hotspots. But still, huge parts of the country are severely degraded due to cattle farming and the establishment of agricultural plantations for banana, pineapple, oil palm and other commercial export crops. Many Costa Rican farmers have committed themselves to restoring these degraded lands and bringing back biodiversity, also outside of the protected parks. Milo Bekins is one of them. Bekins, who came to Costa Rica from Los Angeles in 1974, has been a forest farmer for many years. The family farm, called Finca Fila Marucha, is located just outside the small town of Londres, near the Manuel Antonio Natural Park. Its main objective is the production of carbon biomass, but the farm also produces spices, medicinal plants, fruits and foodstuffs. Finca Fila Marucha also serves as an analog forestry demonstration and training site.

Bekins’ wife Tey Lezama Lopez grew up on a self-sufficient farm in Costa Rica. Together they decided to explore how they could work their land in the most sustainable manner. They learned how to farm without the use of chemicals, practices they later perfected to the point that they but no external inputs at all except for agricultural tools and some machinery. Their composting methods have attracted the attention of agricultural researchers in Costa Rica.

After producing organic spices and medicinal herbs for the tourist markets on small plots of land, they bought the new farm outside Londres. Their finca is now 94 hectares in size, of which 47 hectares is primary forest and 35 hectares secondary forest; the remaining 12 hectares had been cleared for cattle grazing. Over time, Bekins managed to convert also the cleared farmland into analog forest. His aim has always been to replicate the ‘architectonic structure’ of the original, primary forest.

Even before they dedicated themselves to analog forestry, inspired by the writings of analog forest ‘founder’ Ranil Senanayake, Bekins and his wife had implemented designs that were in tune with the environment. Analog forestry is different from simple reforestation as it aspires to create a diverse forest that looks like and has all the environmental functions of the original forest. According to Bekins, many efforts to reforest degraded areas end up being industrial reforestation: single crops like teak, gmelina (a fast growing deciduous tree) and eucalyptus are planted, which has little positive impact on enhancing biodiversity. The landscape design in an analog forest is such that the wide variety of native species and exotics mimics the structure of the original, diverse ecosystem.

Through studying the original forest, Bekins learned how to identify the keystone species that work together to restore biodiversity. They range from strangling fig trees to mammals such as bats, birds and other animals. In fact, trees only represent 1 to 3% of the biodiversity of a tropical rainforest, yet they provide 70% of the biomass. The leaves of trees and shrubs that collect on the soil are very important for the health of the forest. The Bekins farm, as all tropical soils, has fungi, bacteria, micorrhiza (a symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular plant) and other organisms that are the drivers of soil fertility. In a forest these are balanced out by the variety of leaf litter.

Analog forestry helps to conserve natural areas and restore biodiversity. It also provides farmers with the option of making the land productive. The Fila Marucha farm grows many different fruits, nuts and spices, including cinnamon, mangosteen, nutmeg, cardamom, citronella, ginger and turmeric, none of which are native to the region. Also, the Bekins family produce and sell steam-distilled essential oils made of for instance citronella, lemongrass, ylang ylang and patchouli. The diversity of crops on an analog forestry farm (see table below) offers the farmer leverage against low or volatile market prices.

For several years now, Finca Fila Marucha manages its own training centre, the Centro de Capacitación de Bosques Análogos, an accredited International Analog Forestry Network (IAFN) centre. Together with other international trainers, Milo Bekins teaches about the concept and practice of analog forestry. Civil society organisations from across Latin America come to the centre for basic training for farmers as well as for training of trainers. Bekins also travels to other countries to give on-the-ground trainings or to organise follow-up instruction and help out with local challenges.

Payment for Ecosystem Services

Not only Milo Bekins and his wife have profited from their efforts. Forests are beneficial to society as a whole. Half of every piece of wood is pure carbon and half of that is sequestered into the soil, thus reducing CO2 emissions. Starting in 1995, Costa Rica was the first country in the world to pay forest owners for the conservation of their forests through its Payment for Environmental Services (PES) programme. This policy allows farmers to use a few hectares of their land for analog farming while leaving most of it for conservation, while still earning income for that protective role. The government PES programme rewards forest owners for four environmental services that their forests provide: watershed protection, carbon sequestration, landscape beauty and biodiversity protection. The strict PES system does not allow even fallen wood to be cut or trails for eco-tourism to be established. Satellite imagery is used to confirm the size of the forest area that a farmer wishes to protect. A commission is then paid to a forest engineer who works out a master plan for this area together with the farmer. Final approval is given on the basis of these data. While the scheme relies heavily on state funds derived from a fuel tax, it has evolved significantly and also tries to engage the private sector (in particular hydroelectric power producers). The Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal (FONAFIFO), a national fund for the recuperation and conservation of forest cover, and local NGOs play important intermediary roles in the government programme.

For the past ten years, the Costa Rican government has paid the Bekins US$64 per hectare for the conservation of their forests. For Milo Bekins and his wife analog forestry is the ideal concept to preserve the unique value of the forest while at the same time fulfilling the aim of every farmer to make a healthy profit. The Bekins forest garden has been so successful, that it serves as an example for many farmers in Latin America.

Protecting the Titi

One of the tourist attractions in and around the Manuel Antonio National Park are the squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii), or Titi in the local language. This red-backed monkey is the most endangered monkey species in Central America; there are only 2,000 individuals left. Fortunately, tourist businesses like hotels and local travel agencies have acknowledged the importance of conserving and restoring the natural habitat of these monkeys. Analog forestry methods were used to create a corridor, which ensures that the habitat of the monkeys remains large enough for them to prosper.

In 2001, a group of tourist business owners based around Manuel Antonio National Park started the Titi Conservation Alliance. Its mission is to promote sustainable development and to conserve the biodiversity of Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Region. Starting from the Bekins farm, where the largest troop of Titi monkeys are found (86 individuals), down the Rio Naranjo watershed to the National Park, more than 38,000 trees and other species were planted along the 22 kilometre long Biological Corridor Mono Titi to provide a habitat for the monkeys. This biological corridor is part of the Costa Rican National Program of Biological Corridors, which links 39 biological corridor watersheds to protected areas within the country.