Category: Positive Feedback Stories

Reforestation Rears its Leafy Head

To quote Gandhi,

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”[i]

An interesting submission, particularly when you bear in mind that it was said over 80 years ago, but then Gandhi was known for being ahead of his time.  Could he foresee the horrific deforestation of the late twentieth century, and how badly it would reflect upon western civilisation?  On average during the eighties and nineties an area roughly the size of Greece[ii],[iii] was deforested every year.  This primarily took place in developing nations,  but would never have done so without demand from the developed world.

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A lone tree left by loggers stands tall above the three year old reforested saplings in Miguel Pereira, Brazil.[iv]

Thankfully however, the tide may be starting to turn.  In September 2011 The Bonn Challenge was set.  Bonn, already in the collective conscience of environmentalists because of the 1969 Bonn Agreement[v] (a landmark international deal to reduce oil spills in the North Atlantic), played host to an IUCN-chaired summit attended by a governmental ministers and CEO’s of international organisations and companies.  The focus of the agenda was to develop a strategy to mitigate, counter-act and control deforestation.  The resulting Bonn Challenge is defined as a commitment to “restore 150 million hectares of lost forests and degraded lands worldwide by 2020″[vi].

To put this in perspective, the UN claims that the average global deforestation between 1980 and 2005 was over 13 million hectares per year[vii], so meeting the Bonn Challenge would effectively reverse over 11 years’ worth of deforestation…not too paltry.  If it is achieved, climate scientists believe the net carbon emissions gap needed to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees centigrade could be cut by 17%[viii].  It is, unfortunately, worth noting that reforestation will always be accompanied by deforestation elsewhere, so what the Bonn Challenge can only really achieve is an off-setting of deforestation.  Nevertheless, it represents a change of thinking among governments and businesses, and the results are already bearing fruit, and nuts…

In Brazil, for instance, the ITPA (Instituto Terra de Preservacao Ambiental) forest restoration project has been undeniably successful.  Operating in the Miguel Pereira region, 100km north of Rio, over 950 hectares of formerly barren hillside have already been reforested with native Atlantic forest species such as Araguaney and fast-growing Angico Artemisiana – some of which are almost 10 metres tall.

Sequentially, logging, coffee plantations and cattle ranching had reduced this land’s fertility to virtually nil, making reforestation particularly challenging.  The key, according to the Nature Conservation Foundation, is to use a mixture of native and alien species[ix].  Some alien (to Brazil) species, such as Eucalyptus and Acacia are particularly hardy, and are able to get a foothold in the barren soil.  They provide shelter and stability for the native species, and their leaves create fertile topsoil.  So long as the forest is managed to prevent the alien species taking over, which would result in very poor biodiversity and unsuitable habitats, the strategy is successful.

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Native species such as the Yellow Flowering Araguaney have been used to reforest barren land in Brazil.

Further evidence of change is the Brazilian government’s pledge to reduce deforestation by 80 percent by 2020[x], as illustrated by the graph below.  Although the 500,000 hectare deforestation target is still huge compared to current reforestation rates in Brazil, the massive reduction it represents augurs very well for the future.  David Cleary of Nature Conservancy South America believes Brazil is “moving towards essentially a no-deforestation position by 2030; It’s way, way beyond any commitment that Brazil has made in deforestation before“.  And while deforestation still significantly outweighs reforestation in Brazil, it’s not so bad on a global scale…read on!

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Historic and future targets for deforestation in Brazil[xi].  The 2017 target is 5000 square kilometres, or 500,000 hectares.

Take China, for example; an interesting country between Mongolia and Nepal.  Often slated for building “one coal-fired power station every 3 seconds (no citations found!)”, my key observation about China is that the furious rate of development and economic evolution seems to have resulted in the simultaneous occurrences of the industrial revolution, enlightenment, dot.com boom and, importantly, a significant environmental movement.  Before being too hard on China, you need to bear in mind that it ranks 78th in terms of carbon emissions per capita, while the US and UK are ranked 12th  and  43rd respectively:  If Chinese levels of car ownership were the same as those in the USA, global oil demand would double.  Unthinkable.

As well as all those coal fired power stations, China generates almost 16%[xii] of the planet’s wind power from over 34,000 turbines, second only to the USA.  It is also by far and away the largest generator of hydro-electricity (although the 3 Gorges Dam is highly controversial, and studies into the resultant carbon emissions from submerged and decaying organic matter are ongoing).  Furthermore, as I reach the end of this Chinese tangent, China’s “Great Green Wall” project, a human-made ecological barrier designed to stop rapidly encroaching deserts and combat climate change, aims to cover 400 million hectares with new forest by 2050; more than 42 percent of China’s landmass[xiii].

Globally, annual net deforestation is currently around 7.3 million hectares per year[xiv], and China will need to reforest about 9 million hectares per year to achieve the Great Green Wall’s objective; if successful net deforestation could be wiped out…but it’s a big ask; Come on China!

Countries such as Spain, the UK, and Germany are also increasing their forest cover, but obviously cannot have the same level of impact with just over 11% of China’s landmass between them.

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China – country of contrasts[xv].

Elsewhere, the Philippines is making waves:  The country is ranked fourth most vulnerable to climate change, but only 43rd in terms of emissions:  But instead of blaming richer, bigger polluters, they are leading by example and have set a target of reforesting 1.5m hectares of forest by 2016[xvi]

Meanwhile in Ecuador, a unique project to preserve the tremendously important Yasuni nature reserve, which sits on top of millions of barrels of oil, is under way.  The reserve protects some of the finest, most biodiverse rainforest on the planet, but Ecuador’s economy depends largely on oil.  What to do?  Ask the UN!  And they answered; a new fund was created which pays Ecuador to leave Yasuni’s oil untapped, saving the area from destruction.  Traditionally, developing nations have been paid by richer countries to plant trees and off-set Western emissions; part of the international carbon emissions trading scheme.  In this case, however, Ecuador is being paid not for remediation or mitigation, but for the opportunity cost of extracting oil -a world first.

Key donors to the fund, which has so far raised about $250 million, include the Italian, Spanish (not sure how they can afford it!) and German governments, as well as brands such as Unilever and Coca-Cola who see it as part of their corporate social responsibility.  Long may it continue.

While the greatest gains are to be had in the Amazon, tropical Africa, and China, efforts are going on all over the planet, and they all add up.  Read about the Armenia Tree Project here, Ulster’s plan to double its forested area here, and the Haiti reforestation Project here; just a taste of the myriad projects going on all over the world.

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The Armenia Tree Project has planted over 4,000,000 trees since 1994.[xvii]

Ultimately reforestation and afforestation (creating forests on land which has never supported them before) can play a vital role in combating climate change.  During its lifetime a single tree in the rainforest will sequester the carbon emissions associated with one short haul flight.  That may not sound hugely impressive, but there is scope to plant more than a couple of trees!  However, as is usually the case in our complicated world, the issue is far from simple.  Planting more trees means less land to grow crops on.  Richer developing nations means more demand for meat, which means dedicating more land to cattle, which take up more land than rice does, per calorie produced:  Planting trees may lead to  a global shortage of food.  Preserving trees may lead to a shortage of construction materials.

There is currently a massive uptake in the demand for woodfuel, with modern biomass boilers offering a viable alternative to oil.  This could lead to greater forest cover, as responsible woodfuel suppliers will only supply sustainable produce, but it could also lead to irresponsible suppliers razing existing forests without replacing them.  Consider these issues if you will, but hold on to the fact that global deforestation rates are decreasing, and there is a genuine chance of achieving zero net deforestation within a couple of decades.  You couldn’t have said that ten years ago.


[ii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005), “Deforestation continues at an alarming rate”, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/1000127/index.html

[vii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005), “Deforestation continues at an alarming rate”, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/1000127/index.html