• Impressions from initial stakeholder engagement in Catacamas, Honduras

November 6, 2018. The objective of our new project “Trees on Farms” is to identify and support innovative approaches to integrate trees into agricultural landscapes. Especially in the tropical developing countries we work in, it is agricultural production and land-use changes that compete with local biodiversity and ecosystem stability. Climate change and human expansion further add to the tension of this relationship, while at the same time highlighting the interdependence between production and healthy ecosystems. Our current journey brings us to the city of Catacamas in the South-East of Honduras. The area is dominated by cattle ranging and its agricultural frontier keeps expanding into primary forest[1]. Our small group including the local CATIE[2] representative Edwin Garcia, Dr. Etti Winter[3] and myself travelled to Catacamas with the mission to identify local actors and to connect them to national policy processes and finance mechanisms for trees on farms.

During our three our drive from the capital Tegucigalpa, we drive through endless natural pine tree forests in the central highlands that have been strongly affected by a recent bark beetle. After entering the Department of Olancho, the forest opens up and reveals long pasture lands, divided by tree lines, fences and water currents. Steep, impressive mountain ranges of the “Sierra Agalta” preserve the remaining virgin forest and dominate the landscape. The mountain range is home to 176 bird species, ozelots, tapirs, ant eaters, many different monkey as well as threatened species.

After a short time in Catacamas, we realise that production systems are quite clearly defined. Compared to the high local biodiversity, there are few clearly defined cash crop systems. While subsistence farming includes patches of beans, fruits (e.g. banana, mango, avocado) and mais (corn), primary cash crops are meat, milk, coffee and cacao. Accordingly, farmers are organised in associations and corporations. It quickly became apparent that representatives from all of these farm systems see the necessity of introducing and conserving trees on farms.

“The drought in 2011 and the loss of more than 25000 cows demonstrated that climate change has a strong impact on the viability of cattle ranging” says Oscar Cerna, president of the Catacamas association of cattle rangers (AGACO). The young entrepreneur finished his degree of agriculture in 2012 and remembers: “When I came back home for vacation in 2011, I saw starved cattle along the roads”. Trees are an important element of micro-climates and water household of the pasture ecosystems. However, pasture land keeps expanding into forest areas and few trees remain in between pasture patches. Pasture management is extremely extensive and local actors report cases of 4 cows on 200 ha. “It is really difficult to change attitudes of the older generation. When I came to work with my grandfather on his farm, he was reluctant to incorporate more efficient soil management technologies or more tree cover. He prefers to manage pasture rotation according to his gut feeling” says Cerra – “the younger generation and even my father is more open to technological innovation”. By intensifying cattle production and a careful soil management, Cerra envisions an intensified cattle management that requires smaller areas and could allow for a tree cover of up to 30%.

Edwin Garcia adds: “Many of the larger farmers do not see the need to manage their farms efficiently, as they already manage larger areas of pasture land than necessary to produce a decent income. They like cattle farming and see farm as an investment.” Larger and middle farmers living in the lowlands near Catacamas recognise that we need trees on farms. Garcia observes: “Many farmers living in Catacamas own land in mountain areas to the South and East, where primary forest still exists. The management practices of large farmers serve as an example of for management of smaller farmers”. David Reniery of American-Canadian NGO HEIFER observes: “Large cattle rangers lease patches of their land (less than a hectar) to their employees to assure their subsistence. This way pastures are ploughed and prepared to produce sufficient feed stock for the cattle in the subsequent years. In their need for an optimised harvest, employees clear those patches of forest to produce beans, maíz, fruits and what else they need. If large farmers saw the potential of trees, they could assure their conservation throughout years of production.” Oscar Cerra articulates strong potential of trees on farm. What they need is seedlings and technological strategies for how to incorporate suitable, and potentially native tree species in cattle farming practices.

By chance, this is exactly what the Association of producers of Cacao Agroforestry Systems in Olancho (APROSACAO) can provide, as revealed during our initial workshop. We had invited representatives of the main producer groups, local government agencies, NGOs and academia to identify key-stakeholders influencing the introduction and conservation of trees on farms and indicate to the nature of their interaction. In the process of the exercise, participants started discussing the role of those stakeholder groups revealing their potential and challenges as well as possible links of their work. An important outcome of this discussion was the realisation that APROSACAO had currently 15,000 tree seedlings and was looking for possible planting sites, while the AGACO cattle rangers had sites and were looking for seedlings.

Issis MaradiagaI is member of the directive committee of APROSACAO. Due to her passion for nature, she left her family’s pool table business in Tegucigalpa over ten years ago and went to work in the country side. The initial creation of a cacao association by forty farmers provided an interesting opportunity for the marketing expert to work in the agroforestry sector. “At the beginning we made a lot of mistakes identifying appropriate cultivation techniques”, she remembers. The NGOs FHH[4] and now ICADE[5] gave us technical support and finance for seedlings and technology. In 2018, the association has 420 members that each cultivate between 700 and 1000 ha of organic cacao certified by Biolatina and fair trade with all timber trees being certified by the national Institute for Conservation and Forestry, (ICF).

The cacao is not cultivated in clean monocultures, but in multifunctional agroforestry systems. Isis leads us around the farm of one of their associates. Different cacao varieties are mixed with banana trees that provide shade for the first year. Additional trees for timber production are integrated to provide shade in the subsequent years and potential revenues in the medium term. Even though seedlings are subsidised, small contributions by associates shall assure their responsibility for managing the small plants appropriately. Cacao fruit pulp is bought for fixed prices that significantly surpass market levels. These elevated prices and market access are key arguments for farmers to engage in the association. MaradiagaI states: “Now we know that both plantation of trees as well as supporting finance mechanisms have to be accompanied with a clear management plan and trainings of land users to assure the sustainability of the process”.

Coffee cultivation is another economic potential of the region that integrates shade trees in optimised agroforestry systems. We visit neatly managed Arabica plantations in higher altitudes around the Catacamas valley that incorporate large, native shade trees that maintain the tree cover and provide a habitat a large variety of bird and insect species. The coffee farm we visit with a representative of the local “IHCafe” corporative is managed organically relying on natural fertilizers and pest management strategies. The owners consider the additional development of ecotourism in the area to lead tourists in the adjacent virgin forest areas and to viewpoints on surrounding peaks. However, the coffee plantations don’t reforest degraded areas, but instead turn virgin forest floors into farms while benefiting from existing shade trees. As coffee quality requires higher altitudes, coffee farms compete with protected areas and biodiverse mountain ecosystems that provide the valleys’ freshwater.

Existing Honduran laws on the environment and forestry ban production on conservation areas including mountain ranges with slopes of more than 30% gradients. By law, no land titles and user permits can be allocated in those areas. Unfortunately, a lack of institutional capacities do not allow the full implementation of the law. A promising and widely used instrument however is geo-referencing new tree plantations. Only trees from registered tree plantations can be sold on the market excluding timber from illegal logging and primary forest areas. ICF serves as the national governmental agency to certify geo-referenced plantations. Together with a representative from the local ICF office, we visit a certified area that hosts silvipasture assemblies and agroforestry collection combining valuable timbre trees such as Mahogany and Cedar with pasture or fruit trees respectively.

During our event, we learn from the local experts how stakeholders regulate each other, collaborate in important value chains and exchange information. While we knew about existing expertise and ongoing projects in the area, we are very confident about the positively surprised by the enthusiasm, with which actors welcome the installation of innovation platforms and technical support provided by our Trees on Farms project. As next step, a biodiversity experts meeting in November in Catacamas will consult on suitable tree and fauna species to indicate progress in protecting local ecosystems. Specific innovation workshops and action research processes will support actors in strengthening tree preservation and facilitate cooperation, not only between. We are specifically interested in collaborating with the National University for Agriculture (UNAG) in Catacamas and the prospective to jointly supervise Master students or to organise a Summer School. Confident about the start of our project, we drive back to Tegucigalpa, where we will host a national focus group meeting to connect the local potential to national biodiversity policy and national and international finance opportunities. We are aware that this initial momentum is only a first spark to the possible development. However, we are confident that Catacamas has the potential to become a model area for biodiversity conservation in tropical agricultural areas.


Written by:

Yves Zinngrebe
University of Göttingen