dry forest

Return of Venezuela’s dry forests: how dead soils can come back to life

Currently, tropical dry forests in Venezuela —predominantly located in the north of the country— are in a delicate state. Although under natural conditions their potential distribution would cover 44% of the land, they currently occupy only 10% of this area. 
Currently, tropical dry forests in Venezuela —predominantly located in the north of the country— are in a delicate state. Although under natural conditions their potential distribution would cover 44% of the land, they currently occupy only 10% of this area. 

For almost two decades, José Briceño (45) —a Venezuelan biologist who works with the non-profit organization, PROVITA— has been in charge of inspecting 6 hectares of forest land in the dry Macanao peninsula; a place located in the southwest of Margarita Island, a warm piece of land in the Caribbean Sea. He’s seen the land revitalize with his own eyes.

Although successful, he helped bring back the scarce dry forests of the region with very few resources. He hasn’t received any kind of economic support from national institutions and, on more than one occasion, he has funded his work all by himself. 

Briceño has even been threatened by organized criminals —responsible for the illegal commercialization of native fauna that inhabits the territory—, and has had to deal with a state that allows massive private extraction of sand at the cost of natural ecosystems.

However, his passion for acting locally and thinking globally, and his dream of bequeathing a healthy natural environment for his family to live in, has served as motivation. The biologist has led the conservation and ecological restoration program of Macanao since 2004, with the goal of bringing one of the most threatened ecosystems in Venezuela back to life.

After two years of planning, in 2006, he planted the first trees in the area, as part of a doctoral thesis. Since then, PROVITA has planted more than 10,000 trees, despite the area’s highly eroded soils. In Margarita, reforestation brought the soils back from the dead.

Today, José has achieved, through a project with the English NGO World Land Trust, 732 hectares more with the project to reforest and recover, and has also generated a source of eco-sustainable work for his community.

Currently, tropical dry forests in Venezuela —predominantly located in the north of the country— are in a delicate state. Although under natural conditions their potential distribution would cover 44% of the land, they currently occupy only 10% of this area. 

The main causes for this deterioration are sand extraction and the use of firewood as a cooking tool due to the lack of gas in the country. Sand companies destroy the dry forest shrublands to extract this non-renewable resource. Sand is formed from erosion processes that take thousands of years, and its excessive exploitation generates erosion of beaches and chemical deficits in the soils.

These forests play major roles in their ecosystem. In addition to their capacity of regulating weather by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, their vegetation shows remarkable adaptation to extremely long periods of drought. 

Dry forests also control the spread of deserts and provide organic fertilizer for the agriculture of certain species. They are home for a large number of endemic species well adapted to drought, which can present an opportunity for human communities to resist climate change.

A typical dry forest in the region could host between 110 and 117 plant species in 40 kilometers. They are currently considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in the country. Only 5% of the remaining dry forests are included in protected areas, and this represents only 0.5% of their potential distribution.

dry forest
Preparation of plot to restore

Sand extraction and dry forests

Sand extraction has been the main driver of forest destruction in the Margarita region, mainly because it is a tropical tourist area, home to large recreational complexes for mass tourism. The construction of new residences and hotels is constant. Companies extract enormous quantities of sand, turning habitats into wastelands.

In Margarita, specifically in the Paria Peninsula, there are two important areas for the extraction of sand, La Chica and El Manglillo, both located near the “Chacaracual” ravines. Tractors gather the material extracted from the watersheds to the shore and then mechanical shovels collect all the material and deposit it in trucks to be distributed. 

Despite the legal permission of private companies to extract sand, mining at surface and subsurface levels has significant negative effects, particularly because of the loss of fertile soils. After sand is extracted, it’s difficult for anything to grow back.

According to Luis Guevara, biologist and restoration analyst, there are various degrees of soil degradation. The maximum degree corresponds to mining activities, which completely devoid the soil of all the organic matter and chemical bases capable of supporting vegetable life.

“There are other sustainable methods to work the extraction without damaging the ecosystem, for example, you can work on a 30-centimeter layer that would be replaced later,” he says.

Mining in Margarita is causing serious impacts on rivers, deltas and coastal and marine ecosystems, causing the loss of land due to erosion in coastal areas, the decrease of groundwater areas and the reduction of the sediment supply. 

An increase of temperatures and tides are foreseen as a result of climate change in the next decades. According to the latest IPCC report, global temperatures are expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming in the next 20 years. 

The dry forest in the Macanao Peninsula is a natural contingency resource that protects the coasts against possible floods caused by climate changes and the overflow of rivers in the area. 

Moreover, the resistant plant species that inhabit there form a genetic bank that renews the soils, preventing them from becoming bare and thus ensuring a decrease in soil temperature. The destruction of this forest would leave this area completely vulnerable to natural disasters

A clever solution

After the impacts of sand mining in the area, soils were heavily damaged and reforesting in the region seemed difficult. However, under these conditions, Briceño decided to try a new reforesting initiative.

In a first attempt in 2006, PROVITA succeeded in opening planting holes and was able to plant the soil in a totally eroded and rocky area. After this, the land regenerated and began to produce plants. They called this area “the experimental patch”. 

The conservation program developed a technique that uses mixed native inoculums of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi as a strategy to increase the growth, survival and drought resistance of native plants in order to restore degraded ecosystems.

“Thanks to a symbiosis between the fungus and the roots, we produce the inoculums and, through this fungal structure, we help the absorption of nutrients from the soil. This process generates greater plant stability in soils altered by mining,” explains Briceño.

Mycorrhizal fungi have always existed in plants, but overexploitation of agricultural soils and desertification have made them disappear. Through this biotechnology, plant life is recovered, reactivated and reintroduced, and environmental balance is restored.

This process also makes it possible to increase crop health, given that they are ‘natural vaccines’ that make plants become more resistant to pathogen attacks and adverse situations such as drought, salinity or contamination.

The implementation of HMA is done in community vivariums through a mixture of spores, hyphae, roots and soil, which is introduced at the base of the plants. The biotechnology is transmitted to the community, who prepare the soil, germinate the seeds in germplasm banks and produce the mycorrhizal inoculums, which are then planted in August and December and supervised by PROVITA.

“In Margarita, specifically in the Paria Peninsula, there are two important sand pits, La Chica and El Manglillo. It would be great to get the people involved in mining extraction in those sand pits to understand that after extracting the sand, the soil can be treated and prepared for sowing. In addition, if we get them to collaborate with our restorers, we could treat more land in less time,” says Guevara.

Part of the project was not only environmental restoration, but also the resilience of local communities in the area. These communities are allies in the ecosystem restoration happening in the area.

For example, in Margarita, as in various parts of Venezuela, water is a resource difficult to access, due to the lack of efficient infrastructure. The east branch of the hydraulic system ‘Turimiquire’ closed indefinitely in 2018, due to constant breaks in the underwater pipeline connecting the island to the mainland. José Briceño points out that, since then, the water crisis has intensified. 

Briceño explains that people had no water in their homes and this endangered the project, since they had planted 3,000 trees the past December. So they established an irrigation plan. By implementing hydrogel -a biopolymer that allows the roots to store water and administer it via capillarity (a process in which water rises through the plant’s internal plant tissues and nourishes it), watering can take place once a month, or even less frequently. “Trees learn to survive even with water shortages. Consistency is the key”, he points out.

The community of Paria

Roberto Vásquez (32) is one of the main collaborators of the Paria Peninsula’s community. With his children and wife, he takes care of one of eight family-run vivariums promoted by PROVITA. 

For three years, they have participated in the ecological restoration program, and one of their main tasks is to open the plots and promote the conversation in their community. 

“In front of the town where I live, there is a quarry. I realized that they were always extracting, wearing down the land. People here do care about the plants because they provide shade and clean the oxygen,” Vásquez says. 

The community has been one of the main supporters of PROVITA. The ‘restoration crew’ is in charge of the field work. By December 2022, they expect to have planted 4,000 trees. 

Vasquez believes that what unites people from the Peninsula is the desire to save nature. With PROVITA, their mission is to create awareness in sand companies, by getting them to understand the damage caused and working in partnership with them. “There is still a lot of work to be done to prevent soil erosion, but we are still proud of all the work we have been able to do over the years,” he says.

The project succeeded in saving the regional bird species, the Margarita’s parrot, by planting new trees in the reclaimed areas, right in the ravine where sand was previously mined. 

In 1989, at the beginning of the project to reduce the impact of mining, there were 700 parrots, and now there are three times that number. “I think the most amazing thing is that it has been possible for us – to a certain extent – to reverse and reduce our impact on the environment”, adds Vasquez.  

Liliana Rivas
Liliana Rivas is a freelance journalist from a small town in the Andes mountain range in Venezuela. She is interested in science, environment, climate change and development as a society in the Latin American Caribbean. She is part of the journalistic network Distintas Latitudes (Factual Mexico Project) and the Mexican Network of Science Journalism.