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Earth Optimism: Smithsonian’s “Agua Salud” Project restores degraded land with forest

By Becky Haberacker


Nearly 50 percent of the world’s tropical forests are secondary forests that have regrown after clearing, agriculture or cattle grazing. The Agua Salud Project in the Panama Canal Watershed makes it possible for Smithsonian scientists to quantify carbon storage, runoff and biodiversity for land uses including teak and native tree species plantations. (Photo by Christian Ziegler)

This Earth Day weekend in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian is convening the first Earth Optimism Summit. The three-day event, taking place April 21–23, will look at conservation successes and how these can be scaled up and replicated.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s staff scientist Jefferson Hall will be at the Earth Optimism Summit to discuss his work on the Agua Salud (Water Health) Project, which looks at how land in the Panama Canal Watershed can be restored and productively managed. Hall recently spoke with Smithsonian Insider on how projects like this give us reason to be optimistic about the Earth’s future.

Q: What is the Agua Salud  Project?

Hall: Agua Salud is an integrated, interdisciplinary project to study what types of ecosystem services can come from tropical forests in the Panama Canal Watershed. Tropical forests provide many services in an ecosystem—water, carbon and timber, for example—and we need to understand how changes to these forests, whether from land use or climate change, impact them and the surrounding areas.

Different ecosystem attributes—diversity and biomass—change over time and the climate is changing too, so the project looks beyond just measuring ecosystem services. Our teams are building next-generation models of these systems to help predict what the services these forests provide might look like in an uncertain future. In areas that have been degraded by certain types of land use, what does smart reforestation look like, and how can it contribute to a healthy ecosystem?


There is a social and economic component to our work as well. We’re trying to understand human behavior and what types of payments or incentives people will accept that allow these lands to provide services that policy and decision makers have determined will benefit everyone.

Ultimately, this is a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute platform where a lot of people—soil scientists, hydrologists, plant ecologists and physiologists, ornithologists, economists, and others—are doing interesting work that will contribute to a better understanding of what tropical forests contribute to an ecosystem and local and global economies.

Q: What have we learned so far from the Agua Salud Project? Are the lessons applicable elsewhere in the world?

Hall: We know that forests have the ability to help moderate peak floods. From studying 2010’s La Purísima, a storm that dropped more than 30 inches of rain in some parts of Panama, we were able to use our data and to show the tremendous effect the forest of Chagres National Park had on avoiding calamity. One Chagres River reservoir was nearly full, and there was concern the dam would fail. And if the forest hadn’t been there…the forest helped save the day. We’ve been able to show how forests can mitigate these incredible storms. (Forests store much water during the rainy season, release it back into the soil during dry periods and forested soil helps prevent landslides and flooding during heavy storms.)

Aqua Salud

STRI fellow Katherine Sinacore and intern Rand Snyder take measurements of water consumed by a cut teak tree at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud research site on Mar 11, 2015. (Photo by Sean Mattson)

In another part of the world you could reasonably look at this example and make a determination about whether or not it would be in the best interests of a community to cut down a forest near a dam or reservoir for short-term economic gain, or whether it makes sense to take a longer view, knowing what the forest could help prevent.

We don’t have all of the models from the Agua Salud Project developed yet, but people can start acting on some of these things and some already are. One aspect of the project is that we make a big effort to get our information out into the world. For example, I led a watershed white paper (“Managing Watersheds for Ecosystems in the Steepland Neotropics”) that looks at steeplands Neotropical forests from Mexico down to Peru. The paper talks about the importance of managing these areas while at the same time meeting the needs of the people living there.

Q: Is it possible to balance human needs—agriculture, housing, livelihoods, etc.—with the needs of the planet?

Hall: We have no choice—we have to figure this out. Policymakers and decision makers have to be willing to make decisions that are in the best interests of everyone.

In our reforestation work, which we’ve done in collaboration with other institutions, we’ve found that some native species grow really well on degraded soils, so we’re trying to understand nutrient cycling and figure out how these species make a living on these sites. There are ways and strategies that whole groups of scientists are learning about that can be applied. There is a scale issue and temporal lag issue of doing these things, but I think we have no choice—we have to do this.


There will need to be changes in energy consumption, in urban planning and even in agriculture—there are lots of innovations going on in agriculture that can help feed the planet while making it more sustainable.

Q: Do we have reason to be optimistic about the Earth?

Hall: There are lots of things we can be optimistic about. There are things happening now that give people pause, but there is something indomitable about the human spirit. I see it in the next generation—when you’re working with students, you see their enthusiasm and that gives hope.

We work closely with officials in Panama and they’re willing to internalize what we do pretty quickly, and they use it to make decisions. So we’re not just publishing something in peer-reviewed literature hoping that someone will find it someday. We’re really working in a partnership to mainstream this, so people have access to this and act on it sooner. That makes me optimistic.