Saturday, February 27, 2010

27. Organic Agriculture in Havana

February 26, 2010

by Mickey Ellinger and Scott Braley

The 44th Street and Fifth Avenue Organoponico in Havana was founded in 1992, at the beginning of the “special period.” Each weekday the ripe beds are picked and sold to the neighborhood at the Punta de Venta on site. – Photo: Scott Braley
We are looking at the end of (relatively) cheap oil, food and transportation, crises that have already had a devastating impact on Third World nations and communities of color. These issues hit Cuba a stunning blow in the early 1990s, which they overcame by using what they have – scientific intelligence, organization and human energy instead of money and machines.
On a recent visit we learned that Cuba has been raising its fruits and vegetables organically for more than 15 years, using worm and vegetable compost and integrated and natural pest management to raise crops for its people. In the process they have decentralized agricultural production, tripled farmers’ average income, built stronger communities and shown the way to living well after the end of cheap oil.

When Cuba overthrew the dictator Batista in 1959, wealthy Europeans, Americans and Cubans fled the revolutionary society and the U.S. cut off economic and political relations. Cuba turned to the Soviet Union, and for about 30 years exported its sugar, nickel, coffee and tobacco to the socialist world at better than market prices. Russian oil powered agriculture and Russian cars and trucks filled the roads.

At the 44th Street and Fifth Avenue Organoponico in Havana, the banner says, “From our beds to your table.” Amaranth (shown) is an insect attractant planted on the edges to keep insects from going further into the garden. – Photo: Scott Braley
The plantations owned by foreigners became state farms. Cubans were paid better and had more say in their working conditions, but the structure of the economy – what was produced and how – did not change that much. People worked on big farms drenched in fertilizer and pesticides, and almost 60 percent of Cuba’s food was imported, paid for with income from the socialist bloc.
By the 1980s, Cuban biologists and ecologists were already challenging these methods and urging attention to integrated pest management and methods of cultivation better suited to Cuba’s relatively infertile tropical soil. Their studies, demonstration projects and policy papers laid the basis for rapid change in agriculture once the crisis forced changes upon Cuba.

For Cuba, the end of cheap oil came in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and its trade agreements with Cuba collapsed with it. Overnight, Cuba lost 80 percent of its oil imports. Cuba was thrown back into the world market, and the price of its exports fell dramatically. The U.S. tightened its trade embargo and Cuba had to come up with hard currency for all its imports.

The 44th Street and Fifth Avenue Organoponico in Havana was founded in 1992 at the beginning of the “special period.” The members of the cooperative make a production plan and planting schedule each November. They always grow lettuce, both acelga espanol and acelga bok choy, spinach, radishes, green onions, garlic chives (which they call ajo montana), arugula, chicory, green beans, carrots, watercress, apio (celery), parsley, broccoli and an Argentine green bean that looks like a snap pea on steroids. They also raise medicinals – aloe vera, manzanilla (camomile), tilo, mejorana, cana mexicana, yerba buena, and another kind of mint. A sign explains the health benefits of chicory. – Photo: Scott Braley
This crisis, which Cuba calls the “special period,” hit the people hard. The food ration shrank; and although no one starved, people were hungry. People lost weight. Cubans began to suffer from diseases of malnutrition for the first time since the revolution.
Cuban society not only survived this crisis but actually used it as an opportunity to make major changes in how it raises food. Today tens of thousands of small gardens, ranging from patios and back yards to medium sized truck farms, produce more vegetables and tubers than before the crisis, using organic methods and manual labor.

One immediate way people confronted the food crisis was by starting to grow food in their own back yards, in vacant lots, even on their balconies. State institutions did the same. Catherine Murphy, researcher for Food First, writes: “The Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) tore up the front lawn at their modern headquarters in Havana, and planted lettuce, bananas and beans. Many employees that regularly worked behind desks began watering and weeding to ensure a steady food supply for the ministry’s lunchroom.”

Alamar – people’s farm in Havana’s suburbs

Members of our Global Exchange tour visit the Alamar Organoponico – in front, Mickey Ellinger, and in back, Jesus Garcia, our guide and translator from Amistur. Miguel Salcines Lopez told us that when he was working in the Ministry of Agriculture at the beginning of the “special period,” his job was to found the farm, which was one of the first and is now one of the largest in Havana. – Photo: Scott Braley
One of those Ministry of Agriculture bureaucrats was Miguel Salcines Lopez, who came out from behind his desk to learn to be a real farmer. Today he is president of the Alamar Food co-op in Havana’s eastern suburbs, which he helped establish in 1998 on land that had been used to dump building materials.
After the density of central Havana, turning into Alamar is a relief: long straight rows of greens, ranging from the nearly yellow green of lettuce through the gray green of the cabbage family to the deep red greens of beet tops, like a striped afghan against the red soil.

The central part of the co-op is built out of recycled materials: wood, tin roofing, one building with windows that clearly came from a bus, hand painted signs.

Alamar has 160 members, 42 of them women, 63 seniors over the age of 60, two Ph.Ds. They farm on 10 hectares (a hectare is 2.6 acres) and produce 80 tons of food per acre with as many as five rotations a year of some crops. The co-op receives credits and services from the government, contracts to deliver crops for schools, hospitals and the food ration that every Cuban gets – people tell us it’s about half a month’s worth of food – and sells the surplus.

Profit is divided among the members according to a formula that allocates shares based on seniority as well as hours worked. Their average wage is 950 pesos per month (about $40 US), about three times the average Cuban wage. The seniors also have a pension, and the co-op provides not only breakfast and lunch but interest-free loans, work clothes, detergent, hair cuts and beauty parlor services.

At the 44th Street and Fifth Avenue Organoponico in Havana, crops are protected from insects by amaranth, marigolds and basil (shown), which repel insects and are planted at the end of each bed. Onions or garlic (shown) are also planted on the perimeter of each bed to repel insects. – Photo: Scott Braley
Cuba’s soil is not naturally high in nutrition for plants, so Alamar, like most of Cuba’s gardens and farms, nourishes the soil with worm castings. The worms eat garden scraps as well as manure from Alamar’s animals, supplemented by manure from neighboring farms. In turn, they provide worm compost for smaller gardens and the storefronts that serve individual gardeners.
Unlike the smaller co-ops in the city itself, Alamar has domestic animals, even a pair of oxen that they use to bring new areas under cultivation. Most but not all of its crops are grown in the raised beds that are standard for Cuban organic agriculture and, except for the oxen, all the labor is done by hand.

Farming in the city
“Del cantero a la mesa: from the garden bed to the table,” says the banner outside the urban garden at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue in Havana’s Playa district. People are lined up at the counter to buy today’s harvest: lettuce, spinach, bok choy, garlic chives.

Havana has almost 10,000 gardens, ranging from back yards to truck farms like Alamar. The 44th Street organoponico (the official term for the organic gardens in raised beds), founded in 1992, takes up half a city block on what used to be a dumping place. Its 48 raised concrete beds are filled with a planting mixture made of soil brought in from farther out in the country, mixed with worm compost from a bigger garden near them. They start the plants in three shade houses, harvest a bed all at once and set out new plants the same day.

They grow sorghum around the edges of the whole garden as a trap plant; the bugs like sorghum and munch on it instead of the leaf vegetables. Garden director Roberto Perez Sanchez says that the sorghum “keeps the insects entertained.” Basil and marigold bloom at the foot of every bed to ward off more insects; and onions or garlic planted close together as a border inside each bed is a third line of defense.

This planting method gets results: They harvest half a dozen crops a year on average. Some plants like spinach go from garden to table in as little as 15 days. And the leaf crops are organically grown – beautiful, succulent, unblemished.

They also raise medicinal herbs – aloe vera, chamomile, lime, marjoram, two kinds of mint, and chicory. A sign at the counter from the macrobiotic researchers at Havana’s world-famous Finlay Institute explains the health benefits of chicory: “a friend of the liver.”

The garden co-operative has eight members: three in production, three in sales, a biological specialist that makes trichoderma (a biological control for nematodes) and director Perez, who is the agronomist and administrator. They contract part of the crop to the government to redistribute to schools, hospitals and workplaces to supplement what these institutions grow on site. They sell the rest directly: 80 percent of the profit goes to the workers, 15 percent to the state and 5 percent is saved as a capital reserve.

Agricultural extension Havana style

This is downtown Havana from the old Morro Fort. Havana is one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, founded in the first years of the 16th century. – Photo: Scott Braley
The consultorio at Seventh Avenue and 60th Street is full of customers, buying seeds and worm compost, consulting with specialists Odalys Bello Barrera and Magaly Vines Diaz. These state stores support Havana’s backyard gardeners. A leaflet series called “ABC of the Producer” explains planting, soil, worm culture, the use of biological controls for pests.
The consultorio conducts workshops for institutions planning an autoconsumo (garden at an institution to feed its members) and consults with individual backyard gardeners, helping them plan their plots. They diagnose pest damage and recommend remedies. Although a state agency, they are self-financed and share half the net proceeds, often as much as five times the average Cuban wage.

What makes it work?
Of course there are challenges: convincing more people to see farming as an honored and well-paid job, training new farmers, allotting and preparing more farm land, encouraging more people to grow food in their back yards or on their patios.

But farming in Havana works. It fills an important social need and has government and social support. By Cuban standards it is well paid. It’s a place where workers have collective control over their work, influenced by consumer demand, community needs and government direction. And it’s not opposed by developers or corporations who want to make a profit from the land.

What Cuba can teach us about changing from gigantic pesticide- and fertilizer-heavy monoculture to urban agriculture and sustainable farming points the way to sustainability for people all over the world.

Urban farmers in the United States face different opportunities and different challenges. On the one hand, community activists from Oakland to Detroit are organizing urban farms as part of a strategy of environmental justice and community empowerment, and it will be a topic at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in late June as activists converge under the slogan, “Another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary.”

And on the other hand, Fortune magazine in January featured an article on a Detroit financier who smells money in urban agriculture and is thinking of investing tens of millions of dollars in a land grab to run for-profit urban farms on Detroit’s vacant land. Whether urban farming is a resource for profit or community power depends on what we are able to make happen in the next while.

Mickey Ellinger can be reached at and Scott Braley at
This article appeared in BayView at’s-capital

Monday, February 15, 2010

26. The Year of the Tiger

February 14 is the beginning of the Chinese New Year: the Year of the Tiger. But with 1.1 billion Chinese, only 20 tigers are still living in the wild in China. In India, the tiger population is larger, about 1,400. However, this is half as many as a decade ago and 100 years ago there were about 100,000 tigers in the Indian subcontinent.

The world population has tripled in the past hundred years, with Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan accounting for 41% of present day population. Overpopulation has put pressure on the wildlife habitat. At the same time, Chinese economic growth combined with traditional belief in medicinal property of tiger parts has increased incentive for poachers to kill the tiger for a cash prize.

In traditional Chinese medicine tiger bones suppose to help arthritis and serves as aphrodisiac. Tiger skin is part of the trophies of the Chinese newly rich. Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times reports that with pelts are selling for $20,000 and a paw selling for $1,000, “the value of a dead tiger has never been higher.”

Under international pressure, the Chinese government formally banned trade in tiger parts. But tiger farms, where tigers are raised for their part, are still operated in China. Jacobs’s reports that in the Xiongsen Tiger and Bear Mountain Village in Guilin, the gift shop offers alcohol based bone rich liquor that sells for $132 a bottle. The owner claims, “it reduces joint stiffness, treat rheumatism and increase sexual vigor.”

Opened in 1993 with financing from the State Forestry Administration, Xiongsen is the country’s largest tiger farm with 1,500 cats roaming a tree less, fenced area. The less luck ones are placed in small cages where they pace back and forth. There are other animals there as well. Capuchin monkeys are kept in cages to feed the tigers or for medical experiments. There are also about 300 Asiatic brown bears kept for their prized bile that suppose to improve the eye sight.

For $12 a visitor will see tiger shows, cats jumping through rings of fire or balance on balls. For larger crowd, they have special treats—throwing a bull and a tiger in an enclosure together with the gruesome results. Until about two years ago (before they got bad press), they served tiger steaks. There are 20 tiger farms in China.

When will the real Year of the Tiger arrive?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

25. Granma Publishes Critical Viewpoints on "Privatization"

By Nick Miroff
Published: February 9, 2010 06:29 ET

HAVANA, Cuba — Something unusual has been stirring lately in the pages of Granma, this country’s largest newspaper and the official mouthpiece of the Cuban Communist Party.

Lacking commercial advertising and printed entirely in red and black ink, Granma typically carries eight tabloid-style pages devoted to fawning coverage of Cuba’s top officials and the latest iniquities of Yankee imperialism. Its primary function is to promote the Cuban government, rather than cover it, offering an Orwellian chronicle of life on the island as a never-ending series of socialist triumphs.

But in recent months, Granma has become an unlikely forum for a debate that seems to portend much-expected reforms to Cuba’s state-run economy.

A flurry of op-ed columns have appeared lately in the paper’s “letters to the editor” section, staking out positions for and against something Cubans are calling “privatization” — small-scale liberalization measures that might allow more entrepreneurship and private business. At its roots, it is an argument over how to revive Cuba’s anemic economy, which was already woefully inefficient and unproductive before the global recession hit.

Most surprising, at least for the pages of Granma, is that many of the editorials contain rather frank criticisms of Cuba’s economic ills, which include petty corruption, the widespread theft of state goods and a low-wage system that pushes Cubans into black-market activity to make ends meet.

“What would it mean for the State to eliminate the ongoing farce of state-owned property?” asked one letter, signed by D. Gonzalez de la Cruz. Pilfering is so rife at state-run businesses that they’re already being privatized, he argued.

“In our current situation, privatization is already happening” Gonzalez wrote. “Only instead of a rational and well-thought-out process, it’s chaotic and perverse. What kind of social benefits do we get from state-run business and restaurants where the State pays the bills but the profits — obtained fraudulently and illegally — go into the pockets of the those who prey off the people and the State?”

The letters in Granma appear to be part of a broader re-examination of Cuban socialism called for in speeches by President Raul Castro, raising hopes and expectations among Cubans who struggle with constant shortages and a system that officially bans most forms of private commerce. Of course, the debates are bound by certain unspoken parameters, and do not contain calls for free-market capitalism nor any direct political criticism of Cuba’s leaders.

Rather, they are framed as a discussion about the best way to save Cuban socialism and its vaunted social safety net from an underachieving economy choked by excessive centralization and bureaucracy.

“I’m concerned about the future of my country, and it worries me that some still blindly believe that the old economic model we have is perfect,” wrote J. Gonzalez Fernandez in another Granma editorial, saying that he is a 28-year-old whose views are shared by “almost all young people.”

“We can’t keep living in the past. We have to think about the present and future of our country,” he wrote, adding that he believed “adjusting” socialism was needed to ensure its survival.

What’s not clear is when economic reforms may be enacted, nor how extensive they may be. With frustrations running high, many insist changes can’t wait. Even Cuba’s Catholic Church weighed in last week, publishing an editorial written by priest and economist P. Boris Moreno, who warned of “socioeconomic collapse” if reforms aren’t made.

And yet, if “privatization” is being floated in Granma and other official newspapers, does it indicate some package of liberalization measures have already been decided upon by the Castro government?

“I think these are changes that almost everyone supports, including many Communist Party militants, but I don’t know when they may occur” said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who said he has been followed the debates “with great interest.”

“Raul Castro raised a lot of expectations, and people are growing frustrated he hasn’t done anything,” he said.

Since Raul Castro officially took over Cuba’s presidency from his elder brother in 2008, his government has enacted modest reforms to Cuba’s agricultural sector, putting unproductive state land in the hands of private farmers and cooperatives. But many services and small businesses — from watch repair to fast-food restaurants to bakeries — remain in state hands.

And not everyone seems eager for that to change, as other editorials appearing in Granma have urged “not to give capitalism an inch.”

“Now is not the time to create the conditions for the reintroduction of clever and treacherous capitalism into our homeland,” wrote J.L. Valdes Carrasco, exhorting readers to work harder, produce more food, and “place absolute trust in the leaders of the Revolution,” while calling on young people to “lead in the decisive stage of the Revolution,” the term used on the island to refer to the Castros’ socialist system.

One interesting feature of the Granma debates is that many of those who have submitted letters for and against economic reforms try to bolster their arguments by borrowing quotes from Fidel Castro’s speeches. Gonzalez, the 28-year-old, cited Castro’s words from a 2000 May Day speech in making his case: “Revolution is everything that should be changed.”

That partisans on both sides would quote Castro may be a preview of the political debates likely to ensue once he, Raul, and their generation of Cuban leaders is gone, and younger Cubans are left to sort out the island’s problems.

24. Cubans Debate Racism

Saturday, February 13, 2010
By: Isabel Sanchez

HAVANA, February 13, 2010 (AFP) - Half a century after Fidel Castro's revolution claimed to have done away with racism, Cubans are publicly debating a stubborn strain of discrimination and prejudice that associates blacks here with quarrels, crime, sex and rum.

"I am not racist, but I don't want my daughter to have a black boyfriend. No way!" said Celia, a 52-year-old former teacher of mixed race. "When she became a young lady, I told her: 'I married your father to go forward, not backwards.'"

Experts discussed the problem on local television for the first time just recently, but ordinary Cubans readily acknowledge that racism is pervasive in Cuba, a former Spanish colony and the destination of hundreds of African slaves.

"If 20 blacks pass by, the police will ask 18 of them for their identity cards. If 20 whites pass by, they will ask two of them," said Yeimi Mora, a 35-year-old housewife, explaining the situation to a white friend as she walked through a street in the center of Havana.

Daniel Casanova, a slender 29-year-old mulato who works in a cafeteria, and Carmen Leon, a blond 41-year-old Spaniard, hold hands on their strolls through town.

But they complain that the police stop them in the street "for being a black-white couple."
"They ask him for documents and they ask us how many years we've known each other and whether we are married. First on one corner, then the next, and on it goes like that five times over," said Carmen, who works in Spain but has had a long-distance relationship with Daniel for a year.

Daniel agreed and added, "Because of the economic problem everybody steals, but they blame the blacks. I have some pretty racist friends who tell me: 'You're okay, because I know you, but otherwise..."

In Cuban slang, someone who has an amorous relationship with a black person is said to have "a stain on his record", or that he or she "burns petroleum".

Olga, a 50-year-old linguist, said having a relationship with a black man would not even cross her mind. "I don't see blacks as the opposite sex," she told AFP.

"It's a low intensity racism, more differentiating than excluding, more diffuse," said Pablo Rodriguez of the Cuban Institute of Anthropology.

Ethnologist Miguel Barnet, president of Cuba's Union of Writers and Artists, said these prejudices are seated deep "in the subconscious and to eliminate them requires education."

Several weeks ago a document signed by personalities in the United States accused the government of Raul Castro of harassing blacks, a charge Cuba rejected.

Cuban academics say the revolution of 1959 eliminated institutional racism with laws and policies that ensure equality, for instance in education.

But after the revolution, racism was written off as solved. And for a long time little was said about it for fear of arousing divisions at a time of conflict with the United States.

But when Cuba was engulfed in an economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the black population was hit harder than others in the country, accentuating their marginalization.

Bienvenido Contrerars, a taxi driver for 10 years, said he experienced discrimination. "Because I was black, I did not qualify to work at a hotel in Varadero," he said, referring to the island's main tourist center.

With a basket of artificial flowers, large earrings and her yellow hair in bun, Anita Montero, is a spirited, 37-year-old black woman who entertains tourists in Old Havana.

She lamented that blacks are only now being seen "a bit more in important jobs and the political leadership."
And yet, the glories of Cuba's music and sports owe much to the island's African roots.

More than 60 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million people are blacks and mulatos, even though 65 percent in the national census declared themselves to be white, says Esteban Morales, a political scientist at the University of Havana and a fierce defender of black rights.

"We have to take the bull by the horns and debate this subject," he said. "It would be silly to imagine that despite 50 years of revolution racial stereotypes don't exist."

Friday, February 12, 2010

23. Cuba Plans to Surround Towns with Organic Farms

By Marc Frank

CAMAGUEY, Cuba (Reuters, Sunday, Feb 7, 2010 ) - Cuba has launched an ambitious project to ring urban areas with thousands of small farms in a bid to reverse the country's long agricultural decline and ease its chronic economic woes.

The five-year plan calls for growing fruits and vegetables and raising livestock in 4-mile-wide (6.5 kilometer) rings around 150 of Cuba's cities and towns, with the exception of the capital Havana.

The island's Communist authorities hope suburban farming will make food cheaper and more abundant, cut transportation costs, be less reliant on machinery and encourage urban dwellers to leave bureaucratic jobs for more productive labor.

But the government will continue to hold a monopoly on most aspects of food production and distribution, including its control of most of the land in the Communist-run nation.

The pilot program for the project is being conducted in the central city of Camaguey, which the Cuban agriculture ministry has said eventually will have 1,400 small farms covering 52,000 hectares (128,490 acres), just minutes outside the town.

The farms, mostly in private hands but also including some cooperatives and state-owned enterprises, must grow everything organically, and the ministry expects they will produce 75 percent of the food for the city of 320,000 people, with big state-owned farms providing the rest.

On a recent day, dozens of people were hard at work plowing fields, hoeing earth, posting protective covering for crops and putting up fencing as the sun came up.

"This land they gave to us, the private farmers. I have four hectares (10 acres) and now they have leased me eight (20 acres) more," one of the farmers, Camilo Mendoza, told Reuters.

"Look, on this side and the other side are other plots, and over there another. Here they have given quite a bit of land and support to private farmers," he said.

The project is modeled after the hundreds of urban gardens developed by then-Defense Minister Raul Castro during the deep economic depression of the 1990s that followed the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe.


He proclaimed at the time that beans were more important than cannons, marking a strategic shift towards a more domestic focused agenda by Cuban leaders after decades of active support for liberation movements and leftist guerrillas overseas.

The suburban project dovetails with other steps introduced by President Raul Castro since he took over the day-to-day leadership from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008.

These have included the leasing of fallow state lands to 100,000 mostly private farmers, raising prices for farm products and allowing farmers to sell part of their crops directly to the people instead of to the state.

On the other side of Camaguey and a few miles up Cuba's central highway, Armando, the head of a cattle cooperative, said his group was persuaded to join the plan by the offer of land to raise garden and root vegetables and the chance for direct sales to the public.

Stands have been set up every mile or so along the city's ring road for the sales, but Armando said they are taking their products to the customers.

"They assigned us a district where we can sell our produce. We are using a mobile system, a bicycle cart, and sell out every day," he said.

"In December we produced around five tonnes. The root vegetables we had to sell to the state, but we were free to sell the garden vegetables directly," he said.

The changes are tweaks to Cuba's centralized socialism, not a major step away from it, keeping with Raul Castro's vow to protect the system put in place after his brother took power in the 1959 Cuban revolution.

He has balked at more sweeping, market-oriented changes that many expected when he took power and without which many economists say Cuba will not significantly increase agricultural output.

Cubans have seen many past government efforts to transform the country's agriculture fail, so the farmers at Camaguey said they were taking a wait-and-see attitude on this latest one.

"For sure there will be more food around here if you come back in a few years," Camilio Mendoza said about his expectations.

"More than that, I can't say."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

22. Forests Are Found Responding to Climate Change, Shouldn't We?

ScienceDaily (Feb. 2, 2010) — Speed is not a word typically associated with trees; they can take centuries to grow. However, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found evidence that forests in the Eastern United States are growing faster than they have in the past 225 years. The study offers a rare look at how an ecosystem is responding to climate change.

For more than 20 years forest ecologist Geoffrey Parker has tracked the growth of 55 stands of mixed hardwood forest plots in Maryland. The plots range in size, and some are as large as 2 acres. Parker's research is based at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, 26 miles east of the nation's capital.

Parker's tree censuses have revealed that the forest is packing on weight at a much faster rate than expected. He and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute postdoctoral fellow Sean McMahon discovered that, on average, the forest is growing an additional 2 tons per acre annually. That is the equivalent of a tree with a diameter of 2 feet sprouting up over a year.
Forests and their soils store the majority of the Earth's terrestrial carbon stock. Small changes in their growth rate can have significant ramifications in weather patterns, nutrient cycles, climate change and biodiversity. Exactly how these systems will be affected remains to be studied.

Parker and McMahon's paper focuses on the drivers of the accelerated tree growth. The chief culprit appears to be climate change, more specifically, the rising levels of atmospheric CO2, higher temperatures and longer growing seasons.
Assessing how a forest is changing is no easy task. Forest ecologists know that the trees they study will most likely outlive them. One way they compensate for this is by creating a "chronosequence" -- a series of forests plots of the same type that are at different developmental stages. At SERC, Parker meticulously tracks the growth of trees in stands that range from 5 to 225 years old. This allowed Parker and McMahon to verify that there was accelerated growth in forest stands young and old. More than 90% of the stands grew two to four times faster than predicted from the baseline chronosequence.

By grouping the forest stands by age, McMahon and Parker were also able to determine that the faster growth is a recent phenomenon. If the forest stands had been growing this quickly their entire lives, they would be much larger than they are.
Parker estimates that among himself, his colleague Dawn Miller and a cadre of citizen scientists, they have taken a quarter of a million measurements over the years. Parker began his tree census work Sept. 8, 1987 -- his first day on the job. He measures all trees that are 2 centimeters or more in diameter. He also identifies the species, marks the tree's coordinates and notes if it is dead or alive.

By knowing the species and diameter, McMahon is able to calculate the biomass of a tree. He specializes in the data-analysis side of forest ecology. "Walking in the woods helps, but so does looking at the numbers," said McMahon. He analyzed Parker's tree censuses but was hungry for more data.

It was not enough to document the faster growth rate; Parker and McMahon wanted to know why it might be happening. "We made a list of reasons these forests could be growing faster and then ruled half of them out," said Parker. The ones that remained included increased temperature, a longer growing season and increased levels of atmospheric CO2.
During the past 22 years CO2 levels at SERC have risen 12%, the mean temperature has increased by nearly three-tenths of a degree and the growing season has lengthened by 7.8 days. The trees now have more CO2 and an extra week to put on weight. Parker and McMahon suggest that a combination of these three factors has caused the forest's accelerated biomass gain.

Ecosystem responses are one of the major uncertainties in predicting the effects of climate change. Parker thinks there is every reason to believe his study sites are representative of the Eastern deciduous forest, the regional ecosystem that surrounds many of the population centers on the East Coast. He and McMahon hope other forest ecologists will examine data from their own tree censuses to help determine how widespread the phenomenon is.
Funding for this research was provided by the HSBC Climate Partnership.

Monday, February 1, 2010

21. Wilder Weather Undermines Biodiversity

ScienceDaily (Jan. 17, 2010) — An increase in the variability of local conditions could do more to harm biodiversity than slower shifts in climate, a new study has found.

Climate scientists predict more frequent storms, droughts, floods and heat waves as the Earth warms. Although extreme weather would seem to challenge ecosystems, the effect of fluctuating conditions on biodiversity actually could go either way. Species able to tolerate only a narrow range of temperatures, for example, may be eliminated, but instability in the environment can also prevent dominant species from squeezing out competitors.

"Imagine species that have different optimal temperatures for growth. In a fluctuating world, neither can get the upper hand and the two coexist," said Jonathan Shurin, an ecologist at the University of California, San Diego who led the project. Ecologists have observed similar positive effects on populations of organisms as different as herbacious plants, desert rodents, and microscopic animals called zooplankton.

Now a study of zooplankton found in dozens of freshwater lakes over decades of time has revealed both effects. Shurin and colleagues found fewer species in lakes with the most variable water chemistry. But lakes with the greatest temperature variations harbored a greater variety of zooplankton, they report in the journal Ecology Letters January 21.
Their study considered data from nine separate long-term ecological studies that included a total of 53 lakes in North America and Europe. In addition to sampling zooplankton, scientists had also taken physical measurements repeatedly each season for periods ranging from 3 to 44 years.

From these data, they calculated the variability of 10 physical properties, including pH and the levels of nutrients such as organic carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen. Temperatures and the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water at both the surface and bottom of each lake were also included. The authors also teased apart variation based on the pace of change with year-to-year changes considered separately from changes that occurred from season-to-season or on more rapid timescales.
Zooplankton populations respond quickly to changes because they reproduces so fast. "In a summer, you're sampling dozens of generations," Shurin said. "For mammals or annual plants, you would have to watch for hundreds or thousands of years to see the same population turnover."

At every time scale the pattern held: Ecologists found fewer species of zooplankton in lakes with fluctuating water chemistry and greater numbers of species in those with varying temperatures. The authors noted that the temperature variations they observed remained within normal ranges for these lakes. But some chemical measures, particularly pH and levels of phosphorous, strayed beyond normal limits due to pollution and acid rain.

Environmental variability through time could either promote or reduce biodiversity depending on the pace and range of fluctuations, the authors suggested.

"It may depend on the predictability of the environment. If you have a lot of violent changes through time, species may not be able to program their life cycles to be active when conditions are right. They need the ability to read the cues, to hatch out at the right time," Shurin said. "If the environment is very unpredictable, that may be bad for diversity, because many species just won't be able to match their lifecycles to that."

Shurin's 10 co-authors include scientists from environmental agencies in Canada, and universities and research institutes in Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the United States. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada supported Shurin's work on this study.