May 2023 - Reforestation project update
Updated: May 9
Dry Season Update
Welcome to the first dry season update for ACRE Myanmar. We are well into Southeast Asia’s dry season – this is a distinct stage for ACRE as its conditions are not conducive to reforestation activities. We’ve since shifted to a different management focus and regime to risk control, which has seen our team being kept on high alert by the constant threat of wildfires over the first few months of the year.
Fires are a constant threat to our saplings, largely due to activities witnessed almost daily near our plantation. This ranges from villagers burning their vegetal waste without responsibly creating controls in the day, to intoxicated individuals recreationally doing so or hunters using slash-and-burn strategies to force rabbits from their dens at night.
These hazards can also happen simultaneously and from multiple locations, meaning that measures need to be ready to tackle an omnidirectional threat. At ACRE we recognize this constant threat, and monitor these developments 24-7 with a watchman on duty at our observation tower (see picture) who has a line of sight in all directions.
In February, night fires had gotten so fierce that we procured some leaf blowers powered by 2-stroke engines. Originally designed for cleaning urban sidewalks, they proved useful in controlling wildfires in short grassland. These leaf blowers have greatly helped our team to contain the worst occurrences. You can see them in action below, fighting the flames during the night of March 20th, 2023.
Assessing the losses to date, we estimate a loss of roughly 9% of the 55,000 trees planted in September 2022. Most of the lost young seedlings - 4,300 out of 5,100 lost - died victim of insects and fungal disease, and the remaining 800 were lost were lost to fires that were ultimately contained.
In assessing our performance in risk control, we believe that several factors contribute to a meaningful evaluation - the broader landscape, the site conditions, and our methodology:
Landscape: the site of Myinmethi was entirely collapsed, with no standing trees, and no remaining topsoil, with the added pressure of unmanaged cattle grazing. Our seedlings are therefore extremely vulnerable. From this standpoint, at a young age, they could have been wiped out by any disease or pest invasion;
Site: the site is surrounding by human establishments on all sides and so we knew that fire risk would be high. So far, we have found that our “firebreaks” have proven essential in fighting the intrusion of wildfires into our stand.
Method: the three main species of pioneer trees selected for the project (Acacia mangium, Acrocarpus and Parkia) have withstood their first dry season (which has the greatest influence on their growth) very well. No species have collapsed, which means they have adapted to local soil conditions and the elevation. Acacia and Parkia being deciduous trees (meaning that they shed their leaves annually due to seasonality) have regrown their leaves, which is a sign of good health.
We lastly base our evaluation on a framework developed by the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chiang Mai University (FORRU-CMU) in Thailand. As it states that a 10% loss after the first year is an acceptable performance for Collapsed Degradation sites (marked 5 on their 1-5 degradation scale), compared to our 9%, we believe that we can be reasonably satisfied with our performance.
ACRE saw its first storms right after Thinyang Festival (the Burmese name for the Buddhist New Year), which took place on 13 April. This traditionally marks the end of the critical wildfire season, and a transition to another management regime for the project.
Experimenting with Forest Species
With nature projects, and reforestation in particular, adapting to seasonality is critical to managing risk – and finding new opportunities.
During the dry season, there is not a drop of rain for 5 months, exacerbated by the dry northerly continental winds blowing across the Shan highlands. Consequently, trees feel the existential threat and swiftly move into “reproduction” mode, allocating all their resources to producing seeds and attracting animals to pollinate or to disperse them. Wisdom thus dictates that if you’re interested in growing a new forest, you can leverage this pattern by collecting seeds from a patch of forest that has (sadly) survived deforestation or degradation.
You may have heard that we obtained official funding from The Nature Conservancy for research in our last update. Receiving news that this will not reach us before summer, we decided seize the opportunity by performing surveys and tests on a new forest ourselves, which happened to be at the peak of its seeding frenzy.
Our team found themselves in Aye Yar Kan forest, a relatively small pocket of mostly intact forest that surrounds the Kalaw Reservoir, a dam that collects freshwater for the city of Kalaw. This reserved forest was established during colonial times, when its forested area reached 50 hectares. Now, it has shrunk to 8 to 10 hectares, even at liberal estimates. Despite this, we believe that it hosts a crucial seed repository for the area. We’ve sourced seeds for 12 native species: Schima Wallichii, Trema Orientalis, Tetradium Ruticarpum, Albizia lebbeck, Duabanga Grandiflora, Engelhardtia Spicata, Pyrus Calleryana, Sapindus Sanponaria, Clerodendrum Bracteatum, Acacia Concinna, Duranta Erecta, Ageratina Adenophora.
Seeds deteriorate very quickly: once they hit the ground, as they are prey to insects or fungi.
The best way to protect them is to dry them immediately after collection and pack them in airtight containers.
Next, we have to prepare for the germination process, which is species-specific, requiring different strategies. We found that some seeds germinate best when they are soaked in warm water for 24 hours beforehand, others need to be kept in a fridge, while others need to be scarified (making marks on their outer shell). It’s all about breaking their dormancy, the period necessary for the seed to be in optimal conditions to grow into a new tree.
Once the seed germinates, which has already happened for some of those collected, the small seedling is placed in a polyurethane bag. These forest species can’t grow under the full sun, so we will be experimenting with a few samples that will be planted around July, under sun-shade netting in various areas of our reforestation project.
We are excited about learning how to grow these species which are new to us, which will also prepare us to grow and manage the generation to be planted 2 years from now, under the canopy of our current pioneer trees (the main planting of the forest).
At the start of the project, we took great care and invested significant resources in producing high quality compost, some of this from vegetal waste in our demonstration of a circular model. Restoring soil nutrition is crucial in the severely degraded Myinmethi landscape, so we allocated seedlings with enough fertilizers to give them a strong chance to survive their first dry season, a crucial milestone in their growth process.
Sometimes difficult questions emerge from misalignments in research, practice, and personal values. We found this to be the case for our fertilizers. So far, we have adhered to exclusively using organic fertilizers, but according to a publication of the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chiang Mai University (FORRU-CMU), an institution already mentioned, the use of a chemical fertilizer, NPK 15-15-15 fertilizer in extremely degraded sites during year 2 and year 3 is recommended. We originally wanted chemical fertilizers to be off-limits, but in fact they are required if we want to boost our pioneer trees and create a functional canopy within 3 - 4 years. In turn, the pioneer trees fix the nitrogen and then fertilize the soil for the future forest species.
As a result, we’ve looked for a source of quality fertilizer and found one in Taunggyi, the provincial capital located 70 km from our site. We will need 177 bags of 50 kg each if we are to give 70 grams of fertilizer to each tree, in line with the recommended dose.
We plan to apply the fertilizer between June and August, when rain is abundant and facilitates the dissolution and soil penetration of our newly-acquired fertilizer grains. For this, we plan to hire 5 more staff for a period of 2 to 3 months.
We also plan to apply the same treatment at the end of the second dry season in line with recommendations, during summer 2024. At that point, the pioneer trees should have reached 2 m (6 ft) in height. The goal is that by summer 2025, after the 3rd dry season, their canopy extent will offer protection to the native tree species to be planted underneath.
We expect to receive an official confirmation of TNC’s financial support by July, at which point our reforestation project will team up with the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific’s (RECOFTC) to enhance its community management activities.
These funds will be released too late for this year’s campaign, but we shall certainly use some to improve the scientific management and extend the planted area in the 2024 campaign.
But before then, we will send you our next report deep into the monsoon season, around September 2023. In the meantime, please spread the word around you about our efforts to regrow a tropical forest in Myanmar.