Reforestation is great for PR, but will not effectively combat the climate crisis alone, says Inés Yábar.
Trees. Strong, majestic, a symbol of ecology, swaying in the wind. Fire. Burning, ravaging, destruction, flickering flames on our screens. Trees on fire are a powerful and emotive image of climate destruction showing us the urgency of acting against climate change. This is why many countries choose to offset their carbon emissions by planting trees. It’s also why many people see reforestation, re-planting what’s been lost, as a simple elegant solution to the crisis. However, although it is certainly better than doing nothing, planting trees is far from being the best means to act and the romantic image facilitates major greenwashing.
In Brazil, deforestation rose 85% between 2018 and 2019. In Peru, small-scale agriculture, commercial mining and illegal logging seem unstoppable. Reversing these trends seems attractive through the carbon market that offers tree planting as a substitute to reducing carbon emissions. This should not be the case. Balancing out carbon emissions may be a step in the right direction, but too often it is practiced as a way of hiding carbon (to deal with at a later date). This is not the only issue, a French research centre found that 37% out of 120 studies REDD projects (UN program for Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation) overlapped with existing protected lands like national parks. How can we reforest if the forest exists already and the land needing protection is elsewhere?
The problem with reforestation.
While planting trees sounds like a nice idea, reforestation programs often choose to plant thousands of the same kind of trees. “Monoculture forests” might look good on paper, trap carbon quickly and do well on photo ops, but the lack of diversity limits the animals that can live in them. This leads to imbalanced ecosystems and other issues including lack of resilient spaces and further climate changes. This happens as ecosystems usually work together, when different living species no longer interact, they become weaker and more prone to suffer from changes. Also, each tree interacts with the minerals in the soil differently, having only one species impoverishes the soil as it is used “unevenly”. No natural forest has just one kind of tree, no reforested project should promote monoculture either.
Governments promise reducing emissions however those working hardest to realise those promises are indigenous communities. As of 2016, 58% of carbon stored above ground in Amazon forests was found in indigenous territories (Wayne Walker . Ph.D Woods hole research centre). However, 17% of the biome in the Amazonian forest is already deforested. In reaching 25%, an irreversible process of drought will start and no promise to protect it will be enough. Tropical forests are being lost at a rate of 15.8 million hectares a year (Weisse & Goldman, 2018), why not prevent their loss first?
Defending what we have.
This is what people on the ground are working towards with or without support. In Peru, Tatiana Espinosa started project Arbio to protect historic forests. For her, before thinking of reforestation we should avoid deforestation (especially when the trees being cut down hold so much history and carbon in them). Another project, Evea, led by Cristian Gutierrez helps locals protect their forests by making conservation more economically attractive than deforestation. Using the sap from Shiringa trees he makes soles for sustainable shoes and creates income for communities, protecting these trees from logging.
Although local initiatives are crucial, without the help of governments, their efforts are often overturned by rough reality. Faced with this,
What should governments do now?
• Protect the protectors. Brazil has the highest murder rate for enviornmental protectors. Protecting those protecting the environment is crucial.
• Produce less to waste less. Food loss and waste account for 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions since approximately ⅓ of what we produce is thrown away. This means swathes of forest are being destroyed to produce crops that will end up unused.
• Make coherent choices in sustainability. A study by forestry & land in Scotland showed 13.9 million trees have been cut down since 2000 to create space for 21 wind farm projects. Although wind farms are a good investment to create energy more sustainably, cutting down trees to make them is self-defeating.
• Don’t make pledges, take action. 292 hectares of degraded land (that is ten times the area of the UK) has been promised to be restored by 43 countries worldwide. This includes the UK who pledged to have 1/5 of its land covered by trees & woodland by 2050. This will bring benefits hundreds of years from now but only if these announcements are followed through with actions. However, without complementary climate policies, 100 years from now it will be too late. More reduction action needs to happen now.
Above any concrete action that governments should put into place, the overarching position should be that of sustainable development. This includes social, environmental and economic pillars. Taking into account that not acting today will be worse for tomorrow should make decisions today easier to make. For example, in the Amazon, if deforestation grows 4%, malaria grows 50% (since the mosquitos thrive in deforested areas). Is that the price we are willing to pay? We do not want to deal with the consequences later, so we must act today. If we want to see more swaying and less flickering, we must forget the romanticism in tree planting and start protecting the trees already in the ground.
What can you do?
An easy way to take part in conservation from home is to adopt a tree. Both Arbio & Conservamos por Naturaleza allow you to stay home & protect the forest! You’ll get a sponsorship certificate for the tree you save that you can choose specifically on a map with Arbio. You can also offer the protection of a tree to someone you care for through Conservamos. What tree will you protect today?
Inés is a sustainability activist, specialising in the themes of plastic pollution and communications for sustainability. She is one of the founders of Ensemble pour TECHO, an organisation seeking to eradicate poverty in South America. Inés works leading on communications for L.O.O.P., a Peruvian social impact company conserving the marine ecosystem. She has also helped young innovators advance their projects with social and environmental impact through "La Social cup", a program by makesense. Last year she was a part of the Peruvian delegation at COP25 following negotiations on deforestation. She is also a member of the Youth Power Panel and the Global Youth Power Senior coordinator for Restless Development. Inés combines her research, volunteering and job to continue learning, sharing and acting towards a more sustainable future.