Katherine Young: Agroforestry Lessons from Brazil

Kata Young
July 6, 2016

June 16th, 2016

Today, one week after my arrival, was my first day out in the field with my homem de ouro (Man of Gold) and field assistant, Jucelino. We spent the day talking with cabruca cacao producers, explaining the research project, and asking them if they were interested in participating. Cabruca cacao is a traditional system of growing cacao, using legacy overstory tree species from the native Mata Atlantica forest. We have been looking for cabruca systems that are at least 40 years old and have a minimum of 10 continuous hectares under minor to moderate management. After eight hours and a dozen conversations, NOT ONE PERSON SAID NO. Even Jucelino was surprised. This is a very, very good sign! The hard work begins next week, but it couldn't have started out on a better foot.

July 2nd, 2016

Two farms are now completed, and we’re looking forward to beginning the third on Monday! My two research assistants, Jucelino and Edilson, have been invaluable helping me mark out three 100m x 50m research plots at each farm. Jucelino in particular has years of experience working in the Mata Atlantica and is very knowledgeable about species taxonomy here! Working together, we run ten parallel transects (10m x 50m) in each research plot and record species inventories of all woody plants greater than 5cm in diameter at breast height (dbh). We mark any unknown tree species for later collection and return at the end of the week to collect leaves and flowers and/or seeds to better identify the genus at the species level. We then take those samples to Insituto Floresta Viva (a local NGO working to propagate and distribute native tree species for reforestation in the Mata Atlantica) to press, dry, and create herbareum vouchers (for those that we have collected that also have fruiting bodies). We have also added 1m x 1m herbaceous plots in each of the four corners of the research plots to record the diversity, density, and structural characteristics of the ground cover under the cacao systems.

Next week my younger brother and tree climber extraordinaire will arrive to work as my functional trait field assistant, using his tree climbing equipment to climb high into the overstory canopy to collect leaf samples from the sunniest part of the canopy. These leaf samples will be used to analyze the functional diversity of the cabruca systems and, together with the structural analysis, will serve to quantitatively compare the mature cabruca systems to natural systems of regeneration of the same age in the secondary forests of Condurú Park, following agricultural fallow. Currently my hypothesis is that management of the cabruca is analogous to lethal and/or sub-lethal disturbances in secondary forest regeneration, so I am curious to see what functional groups are present or missing in the cabruca systems. This research will help us understand how we can better manage agroforestry systems to more accurately mimic natural ecosystems for biodiversity conservation and livelihood development at the landscape level.

Thus far, the highlight of my field work has been spending time in the emerald green cabruca forests, under the majestic canopies of the Mata Atlantica. I have been truly moved by the sight of the oldest jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophylum) I have ever seen! One tree was over 30m tall and had full grown adult trees growing up from root suckers in a circle around it. Beneath that generation was a scattering of young saplings sprouted from fallen and decomposed fruit, creating a model for supporting generations of food-producing trees in agroforestry systems! I am also excited for my brother to arrive next week, as he will be hosting a workshop at Instituto Floresta Viva to teach Bahian ecologists how to repel from canopy trees so they can (more safely) collect seeds from rare tropical species for propagation and distribution. What a great opportunity to participate in cross-cultural knowledge and skill sharing! I am learning so much here and am incredibly grateful to my sponsors, advisors, and collaborators for making this dream come true. I am humbled and blessed.

-Katherine Young, 2016 TRI Fellow

forest panorama

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