A doctoral student at UCSC examines how a new method of cattle ranching can help restore tropical forests in her home country of Colombia
In the southwestern mountain forest of Quindío, Colombia, there is a farm known as Finca Pinzacuá. Here in the La Vieja watershed, rancher Don Olimpo raises cattle. It’s the number one land use in Latin America—and its continued expansion has been blamed for the ongoing degradation of native rainforests.
Finca Pinzacuá, like many cattle ranches, began as a forested shade coffee plantation, home to many species of plants and animals. A few live only in the forest. After coffee prices plummeted in the 1990s, Olimpo accepted a subsidy to raze his trees and ranch cattle instead. The farm became strangely quiet without the song of vibrantly colored birds. A savannah of invasive African grasses replaced native vegetation. Rainwater carved gashes into the steep hillsides, stealing nutrients from the soil before leaving it parched and lifeless. During the dry season, Olimpo’s dehydrated animals found refuge beneath a single remaining tree. Every year, Olimpo used more expensive fertilizer to grow enough grass for his cattle. He feared rising costs would force him to abandon his damaged land.
Cattle ranches like Finca Pinzacuá have a long history in Colombia. Spanish colonists settled in Latin America in the 16th century, bringing cows and a tradition of ranching. As demand grew, ranching turned to methods ill-suited to the tropics. Today, cattle ranching covers 27 percent of Latin America—and it replaces some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of the original forests in Central and South America are gone. Land now used for conventional cattle ranching represents nearly two-thirds of this loss. Without as many trees to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, climate change across the globe has worsened.
Despite these stark environmental consequences, conventional cattle ranching keeps spreading—and we’re part of the reason why.
“We are not becoming vegetarian anytime soon,” says researcher Alicia Calle of UC Santa Cruz.
Calle, a Ph.D candidate at UCSC, works with a Colombian research and training organization called CIPAV to understand how sustainable cattle ranching can restore the valuable forests of Latin America. Calle grew up in Colombia and began her career as a graphic designer. But she was long aware of the consequences of cattle ranching; her brother-in-law Enrique Murgueitio is CIPAV’s executive director, while her sister Zoraida leads the group’s research on ecological restoration. Calle worked with CIPAV as well, and her interests in conservation biology grew. In 2006 she went to Yale University to pursue her master’s degree.
At first, Calle did not share her family’s passion for improving cattle ranching.
“Cattle ranching was the worst thing ever. I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she says.
Calle agreed, however, to help CIPAV analyze the changes that had taken place on farms that participated in a pilot project for an alternative to conventional cattle ranching. In this method, known as silvopastoral systems, or SPS, native forests and cattle grow together. The pilot project promoted sustainable ranching on more than 50 farms, including Olimpo’s, with technical assistance and financial support. According to CIPAV, farms using intensive silvopastoral ranching techniques produce more beef and milk than conventional farms—all without clearing any more forests.
When she saw how SPS had improved the land and increased awareness of conservation among local ranchers, Calle had a change of heart. She realized that although cattle ranches are in Colombia to stay, managing them differently might be an effective way to restore forests.
“If we really wanted to have cattle ranching in the tropics, we needed a form of ranching that was designed for the condition of the tropics,” Calle says.
SPS in Latin America combines native trees, shrubs and pastures. This creates an agroecosystem: a community of plants and animals that help one another survive. At the center of the community is a legume, a bean-like plant that infuses the soil with nitrogen through bacteria living in its roots. The nitrogen feeds other plants, replacing the need for chemical fertilizer. Native shrubs and trees provide protein-rich food and shade for the cattle, helping the animals grow healthier and produce more milk. Dense vegetation stabilizes the soil, helping it retain water and provide hydration for the animals and plants—even in drought conditions.
No two farmers use quite the same system. Some choose to plant trees throughout their pastures; others plant dense timber forests on the steep slopes not suited for cattle. Still others use lines of trees to make living fences or to protect streams. “The farmer gets a menu of different options,” Calle says.
The kinds of trees and shrubs also vary by farm. Leucaena is a common choice of nitrogen-fixing shrub, since it withstands nibbles from cattle and provides excellent nutrition. Many farmers plant these shrubs closely spaced throughout their fields. This “intensive silvopastoral system” allows for high production in small, densely packed pastures.
At Finca Pinzacuá, Olimpo began restoring his farm in 2002 with CIPAV’s guidance. From his experience growing shade coffee, Olimpo decided to plant guamo trees to nourish his soil with nitrogen, even before he was introduced to sustainable ranching techniques.
“Everybody said I was crazy—that underneath the trees, pasture would not grow,” Olimpo told Calle.
He proved them wrong. The guamo trees blossom with beautiful white flowers, attracting pollinators and bearing fruit to feed birds and insects. The canopy provides shade for the cattle, but enough sunlight passes through the branches for grass to grow underneath. The regrowing ecosystem becomes home to fungi, birds and lizards that control annoying pests, such as blood-sucking ticks.
The scientists encourage farmers like Olimpo to share SPS with their neighbors to create chains of forest-friendly farms. In such networks, the new trees would connect patches of natural forest with one another, restoring healthier soils and helping native species survive. In Colombia, this is already starting to happen, but only on a small scale. “In some areas you will see two farms next to each other that are working together,” says Calle.
While promising, this is not enough to achieve Colombia’s restoration goals. Leaders in the SPS movement are now working to develop national-scale projects using sustainable cattle ranching to impact entire landscapes.
The Colombian government has also embraced silvopastoral ranching methods. In 2010, government officials, along with the Colombian cattle ranching association (FEDEGAN) and global conservation and funding organizations, launched the Mainstreaming Biodiversity into Sustainable Cattle Ranching (MBSCR) project. This initiative has hefty goals of fostering 126,000 acres of silvopastoral pastures, preserving almost 15,000 acres of forest, and creating 39,000 acres of strategic corridors to connect protected areas by 2017.
“Colombia has decided this is a good idea,” Calle says.
But outside Colombia, sustainable cattle ranching is not yet accepted. Many conservationists remain skeptical of cattle ranching as a tool for re-establishing forests. The ranching stereotype of deforestation and pollution is hard to overcome, Calle observes.
After experiencing her own transformation, Calle hopes to inspire such skeptics to give cattle ranching a second chance. She is now pursuing doctoral research in environmental studies at UCSC to understand whether sustainable cattle ranches truly can restore forests. She is also exploring what motivates the farmers to maintain their forested farms once financial support is gone.
“One of the main goals of my research is to provide the scientific evidence that these new forms of cattle ranching are good for conservation and restoration,” Calle says.
This summer, Calle visited Finca Pinzacuá and the other pilot project farms in Colombia to measure how the forest regrowth is progressing at each one. She sampled the vegetation to document changes in the landscape and the diversity of plants growing at the farms. These measurements will show where forests have returned—and how well they’re doing.
She also spoke with farmers during tours of their property to gauge which benefits the farmers recognize. Listening to how they think about their investments helps Calle learn what motivates them to continue ranching sustainably. She suspects there is more to it than just money.
If Calle’s studies show that silvopastoral ranching is an effective restoration tool, it could be a step toward converting many more burned and barren pastures into tree-friendly farms throughout Latin America. Calle knows the road ahead is long, but she hopes enough farmers are willing to reforest their land to spark profound change across the region.
When Olimpo showed Calle around his transformed farm, his shy face glowed with pride. Their refreshing walk beneath the trees was accompanied by a symphony of birds. The heat didn’t feel oppressive. He pointed out many species of plants and critters, the naturally green grass, and his fat, happy cattle. Olimpo turned to silvopastoral ranching in economic desperation, but now he understands the environmental and ethical benefits, too.
Degrading their land was once the only option for Latin American ranchers like Olimpo. Now, silvopastoral systems may provide a way out.
“I was a criminal,” Olimpo told Calle. “What I did to my farm was unforgivable.”
THERE WILL BE CUD A cow at Finca El Hatico, a farm in Colombia. There is a growing movement to use new and more environmentally sound methods of cattle ranching. PHOTO: CIPAV