Sunday, July 29, 2012

Las Bondades del Frijol de Palo

Flores del Frijol de palo (Cajanus cajan).

En este día caliente de verano norteño recordé uno de mis cultivos tropicales favoritos, el Gandul o Frijol de Palo (Cajanus cajan), también conocido como Guandul, Quinchoncho, Gandú, entre otros nombres comunes con los que se le conoce en otros países latinoamericanos. En inglés se le denomina Pigeon Pea mientras que en los países francófonos de África Occidental se le llama Pois d'angole.

En Costa Rica se le cultiva en zonas tropicales húmedas de la vertiente del Caribe y en el Pacífico sur en donde crece sin mayores dificultades en suelos ácidos y pobres como los ultisoles de color rojizo comunes en las tierras bajas de ambas vertientes, en especial en la zona sur del país. El gandul es, efectivamente, una de las leguminosas más adaptables y tolerantes de las sequías.

El gandul es originario de India en donde se ha cultivado por más de 4000 años. Su uso se extendió luego a África Oriental en donde se desarrollaron frijoles de grano más grande cuyo uso se esparció por el resto del continente. De África pasó a América con el comercio de esclavos de donde se cree que proviene su nombre común, posiblemnte originario de Gabón según el botánico costarricense Jorge León en su excelente libro titulado Botánica de los Cultivos Tropicales

En las zonas del Pacífico Central y Sur de Costa Rica este frijol crece hasta en suelos erosionados en donde requiere poco mantenimiento. Como buena leguminosa el gandul es un buen fijador de nitrógeno (¡de hecho es la leguminosa que produce más N biomásico por hectárea!) además de ser un excelente forraje de alto contenido proteínico para el ganado bovino, cerdos, cabras y ovejas.

¡Pero lo mejor de todo es su uso culinario y sus propiedades nutricionales! Los frijoles del gandul contienen hasta 26% de proteína y son de buen sabor. Aunque en Costa Rica no es tan popular como en otros países latinoamericanos, en la zona sur del país es quizás en donde más se le consume (debido a la influencia cultural panameña evidente en esa zona). Un simple arroz con gandules o gandules guisados son un excelente almuerzo después de una caminata o un día de trabajo bajo el sol tropical. Otra bondad del gandul es que produce poca flatulencia, una característica que algunos individuos proclives a sinfonías "pedológicas" indeseadas agradecerían.

El gandul es indudablemente uno de esos cultivos tropicales altamente prometedores en el contexto actual de cambio climático, degradación de los suelos y pobreza. De hecho su uso se ha propuesto como de gran potencial en regiones como África en donde, como mencioné anteriormente, se cultiva desde hace muchísimos años. También es de gran potencial para su uso en sistemas agroforestales, mi sistema agrícola favorito en los trópicos.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Glimpse Of Green Spain

Thought I would share some travel hedonism here. Spain is without a doubt a delightful country, from centuries old architecture, bustling cities, Mediterranean beaches to snow-capped mountains and picturesque rural landscapes. Here's a glimpse of the green side of Spain, or at least the tiny little bit I got to experience given the short time I had to do so.

I always enjoy exploring new places, especially new ecosystems, when I'm walking in unknown natural areas looking at different plants, landscapes and wildlife I really feel like a kid in a candy store. That happened to me when I started exploring --at least least from a naturalist perspective- the rainforests of my own country Costa Rica or when I moved north of the equator here to the DC area exploring the woods at the Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC those were truly breathtaking experiences.

Located 60 kilometers (37 miles) NW of Barcelona, Montserrat is a particularly charming place for its brew of medieval history and nature. The "jagged mountain," for its meaning in the local dialect Catalan, is an astonishing geological formation of more than 10 million years in the making. The spectacular rocky mountains you see today were part of a delta 50 million years ago. Geologically speaking it is considered a conglomerate, basically a sedimentary rock made up of rounded fragments. The steep base of the mountain is covered with conifers and oak trees. And even though I didn't see any major wildlife it was fascinating to learn that wild boar (which are native in this part of the world), and chamois roam the park.

Particularly fascinating was to see fig trees in the wild. Being from Central America this may sound ridiculous since we have hundreds of cool-looking tropical fig trees there that are closely associated with many fruit-eating bat species and a myriad of other critters. However, the only fig that I can relate to when it comes to food, and a good flavor, is Ficus carica, the species I saw at Montserrat.

A Fig tree (Ficus carica)
The historic charm of the mountain is well represented with the sanctuary of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat with its beautiful monastery at the foot of the mountain. Some of the buildings in the compound date back to the 1300s, and before! The church, the jagged arid peaks and the montane ambiance of the sanctuary makes it a very peaceful place to scape from the craziness of La Rambla and the streets of Barcelona. To add more to the charms, the mountain has a small farmer's market with many local cheese makers and other local farmers selling outstanding cheeses, confectionery and honey. The mató cheese with honey, a local specialty, is a must-try. Another cheese that I clearly remember was an extremely piquant blue goat cheese with a killer kick to it. Take a blue goat cheese from your local grocery store and multiply that flavor 100 times and you get a spicy flavor to remember the rest of your life... That was the only cheese I didn't like though the other rosemary scented and the many other cheeses and honey were out of this world. If you travel to Barcelona and appreciate rural areas and nature, which I assume you do if you are reading this blog, definitely escape to Montserrat and enjoy the Old World's countryside.

Check out this video from the DC-based celebrity chef José Andrés savoring the local wines and the delicious mató cheese with honey.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Invasive Plants, Are They Really That Bad?

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), an European herb, is one of the most sought-after "villains" on the East Coast of the U.S. 
Some people when first faced with the overwhelming task of removing invasive plants get an internal twinge of suspicion about the true effectiveness of such an enterprise. A sense of questioning rises within you. That's when you ask yourself skeptical questions like, is this right? Are we ever gonna win this battle? Don't these plants come back like crazy a month or less after you remove them? Is this gardening, or, restoration? Does this make any sense? Even when you know you are doing something that is supposed to be right you can't really help wondering. Well, at least I did, and still do...

I'm not going to say that invasive species are not a problem because it is clear that some nonnative species have really become invasive and caused enormous ecological and economical damages. But, it is also clear that they are a minority of all the introduced species. All I'm trying to do here is just bring up the other side of the story, and foster some critical thinking. There's a very interesting "counter-invasion biology school of thought" going on that is refuting the lack of scientific substance of many of the claims insisted on by invasion biologists and conservationists for at least the last two decades. These invasion biology mavericks are not some senseless fools, they are renowned scientists that really know what they are talking about. They just want to bring back disinterested science to the table and steer away from the black and white assumptions predominant in the invasion biology world.

Last year I attended an interesting symposium at the Annual Meeting of the AAA here in DC, that's when I first heard of Mark Davis (Macalester College, Saint Paul, Minnesota). Davis is one of the main critics of invasion biology, I thought his lecture had really good points and he didn't reduce his speech to accusatory "invasion biologists are Nazis", like other opponents do. Since then, I've been reading some of his stuff, and, I'm really liking it, I think his assertions are genuinely science-based! The bias of some invasive species people is sometimes preposterous, from biologist with high academic credentials to the go native gardeners and backyard weed pullers. One of Davis' main points is that the negative impacts of invasive species have been largely overgeneralized and exaggerated. He also points out that ecosystems change,thus, we are witnessing rapidly changing ecosystems and not necessarily ecosystems "harmed" by invasive species as it is often claimed without any scientific evidence. The highly subjective and value-based premise that all nonnatives are bad and natives are good is also anything but scientific. Unfortunately an awful lot of people take that stance very literally and all too often with a zeal that borders on fanaticism. Native species like the Pine bark beetle or the Colorado potato beetle have become invasive and caused a lot of trouble, according to Davis. Also think about the abundant Poison ivy here on the east coast, so loved by birds and so hated by many people even knowing that it is a native species. At the end they are all species, they are nature, some are old locals and others are newcomers.

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) is an Asian shrub whose edible raspberries are heavily dispersed by birds and mammals. It is considered invasive in the north half of the East Coast of the U.S.  
 So, the question is: have we gone too far? Are we being eco-bigots? Whether in the tropical forests or the temperate woodlands of North America many conservationists feel strongly about our pristine, pre-colonial ecosystems and the natural heritage represented by what we call native species. That's fine and we should definitely encourage the use of native plants for landscaping and restoration. But, are we gonna be able to bring ecosystems back to what they were 70, 100, 300 or 600 years ago? Are we really going to be able to reverse the course of the seemingly fast expanding novel ecosystems by pulling invasive plants?  Are we gonna be able to create invasive species-free ecosystems? I really don't think so.  

Another important question is: Do we want to protect species diversity or ecosystem services? Perhaps, many ecosystems are disturbed enough and are so deeply modified that they have reached a point of no return. Maybe we should just leave the highly adaptable invasive species alone in those places and let them provide important ecosystems services such as carbon sequestration, reduction of heat island effect in the cities, etc. We are, without a doubt, facing novel ecosystems here --well, at least in the DC area. These are ecosystems with a significant component of nonnative species. Rather than being the game changers, invasive species are moving in to fill in new niches and to take advantage of habitat conditions that have occurred as a result of a greater change. Climate change, for instance, is modifying habitats and shifting species distributions altitudinally and latitudinally and at anastonishingly fast pace. Also, changes in the nitrogen cycle around the globe are modifying aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in extremely complex ways, perhaps faster than we can humanely understand.

At my work I still do invasive plant management work, but after reading about new opinions, scientific evidence and other perspectives I have a different mindset. Now I look at invasives with different eyes and have even taken some management decisions along the lines of refocusing and prioritizing on what's really harmful. Or at least on the worst actors where there is some sort of evidence of their real environmental impacts, not just based on their nativity. I think that the field of invasion biology will change in the next decade or so, not only that, even the discipline of ecological restoration will change since it is based on bringing back ecosystems to that 'historical natural stage' which is, veritably, determined by us and our values.

I have to admit, the loss of our native species will always be something worrisome and frankly sad for many of us, but in some instances it responds to extremely complex factors that we might not even be able to tackle. But people should at least listen to other opinions and leave the religious-like vehemence and subjectivity to the chapels and art studios. New research and fresh brains working in these fields will bring some adaptive change to redirect the scarce resources available into more sound and realistic conservation and restoration actions.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Costa Rica, Con Ingredientes Artificiales

Sí, ha leído bien, CON ingredientes artificiales. La famosa campaña internacional de promoción turística lanzada por el Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) hace ya varios años suena cada vez más cliché en la Costa Rica de hoy. La realidad ambiental que se vive en en el país respalda mi variante del slogan.

El Informe XVII Estado de la Nación (2010) apunta al preocupante aumento en la importación de plaguicidas, la más alta en la historia del país. En realidad esto no debería sorprender tanto ya que el sector agrícola de Costa Rica siempre ha estado lejos de ser sostenible ambientalmente. Los que han visitado una finca de producción convencional de piña, banano o palma africana bien saben a lo que me refiero. Incluso los pequeños y medianos agricultores con la premisa de "mejor que sobre y no que falte" sobreaplican agroquímicos. El aumento es lo que preocupa, ya que nos da una buena idea de la magnitud de los daños que este sector está ejerciendo en el medio ambiente. Al uso de agroquímicos hay que sumarle otros daños que implican las operaciones agrícolas convencionales: la erosión y destrucción de los suelos; la contaminación de las aguas y otros daños serios a los recursos naturales.

El informe advierte de lo reacio que ha sido el sector para mejorar su desempeño con respecto a la sostenibilidad. También de su alta dependencia en los agroquímicos y de sus tecnologías nada ecoamigables, pero más rentables a corto plazo. Asimismo, el área de cultivos agrícolas aumentó en 3% con respecto al 2009. La piña, el tercer mayor cultivo del país, es el que se lleva el premio por su conflictividad ambiental. Sólo en el 2009 el Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo (TAA) tramitaba 36 denuncias contra compañías piñeras en Alajuela, Puntarenas y Limón. En ese mismo año se pudieron constatar casos de contaminación de acuíferos y acueductos rurales en Siquirres, en la provincia de Limón. La mortalidad de distintos animales domésticos y silvestres por plaguicidas se ha reportado en el país en numerosas ocasiones, por lo menos en las últimas cuatro décadas, (¡imaginemos los casos que no han sido documentados!) incluyendo: vacas, abejas melíferas, peces, aves y otros animales.

La exigua o nula sostenibilidad ambiental del sector agrícola en Costa Rica, caracterizado por su "agroquímico-dependencia" y su destrucción ambiental, es indudable. Esto no solo afecta a las plantas o los animales silvestres, estamos hablando de la degradación de los suelos y de la contaminación de las fuentes de agua potable para la población, de nuestra agua. ¡Peor aún, pensar en las implicaciones que esta contaminación ambiental pueda tener en la salud de los y las costarricenses! Las áreas silvestres protegidas no necesariamente son oasis ecológicos inmunes a estos impactos que ocurren fuera de sus límites. Más bien, los ecosistemas se encuentran intrincadamente conectados en el paisaje, y en las cuencas hidrográficas, por una serie de procesos bióticos y abióticos. Las malas prácticas agrícolas no solo afectan las áreas circunvecinas, sino también, todas las áreas bajas en la gradiente altitudinal incluyendo los humedales --ecosistemas, que por cierto, el mismo informe comunica que se encuentran desatendidos por el SINAC- y los ecosistemas marino-costeros, que son de gran importancia para los sectores pesquero y turístico. Por otro lado, el área de cultivos orgánicos, aunque ha aumentado en más de 3.000 ha, apenas representa el 2% del área agrícola total.

Este informe debería ser un jalón de orejas para todos los costarricenses, para que se empiece a considerar seriamente la promoción de cultivos y prácticas forestales, agrícolas y pecuarias sostenibles. Tenemos los sistemas agroforestales y agrosilvopastoriles que tanto se han investigado en el país; la agricultura orgánica, que se debería expandir e incentivar por medio de políticas oficiales inteligentes. Se podrían hacer tantas cosas buenas para contrarrestar este modelo agropecuario existente... El slogan turístico (no el del título de arriba) debería reflejar la realidad de Costa Rica, la realidad de un país pequeño pero progresista y líder mundial en sostenibilidad ambiental. Un país realmente verde. No debería de ser el hazmereír de ticos y extranjeros. Sin embargo, la realidad es otra y hará falta muchísimo esfuerzo, pragmatismo, participación ciudadana, cooperación y voluntad para llegar a ese estado, si es que algún día llegamos...