Planting a tree is a universally recognised act — it’s a symbol of caring for our environment. From presidents to primary school children, we all want to get involved.
On Saturday, we will celebrate the International Day of Forests, an annual event that raises awareness about forests.
The theme this year is forests and biodiversity, linking to the UN conference later this year where governments will agree on global goals and targets to halt and reverse the alarming loss of nature worldwide. This — combined with an international awakening to the climate crisis, and that next year we will enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration — has triggered a groundswell of interest in forest restoration and reforestation.
Planting a tree is a tangible way to respond to the climate crisis and to connect with nature.
But how can mass mobilised tree planting contribute towards global goals on climate change and reversing the loss of nature? I spoke to experts who concur that for tree planting to have tangible benefits, it must be done in consultation with local communities, have broad political support, done in the right place, and be complemented by strategies to protect existing forests and reduce carbon emissions.
Tree planting by the masses
In 2017, an event in India broke the world record for the number of trees planted in one day. Across the border in Pakistan, over 1 billion trees were planted as part of a multi-year initiative. WWF-Pakistan’s Conservation Director, Rab Nawaz, says leadership from both the federal and provincial governments played an important role in engaging the public and helping exceed Pakistan’s Bonn Challenge commitment. There was so much enthusiasm that “one of the challenges was meeting demand with a supply of seeds.” And the social and political success of this initiative has enabled it to grow into a new nationwide pledge to plant 10 billion trees.
At a global scale, our Trillion Trees partnership between WWF, BirdLife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society has a vision of expanding forest cover around the world and fosters initiatives that help protect forests and restore them at scale. This includes tree planting, among other approaches.
Our fellow advocates of a future with a trillion trees restored and better protected, Plant for the Planet, have developed a tree counter which shows that 13.6 billion trees have been planted since 2011 by their supporters.
Founder Felix Finkbeiner says “mass mobilisation for tree planting can have a significant local impact but we are realistic about its global impact to date — although it can also help to mobilise funding — which is much needed to protect and restore forests — from large and small donors.”
Lasting and landscape impact
Planting a tree is one thing and monitoring and maintaining it into the future is another.
“To have a lasting impact on communities and landscapes, community and mass public tree planting efforts need to be part of a bigger plan,” esteemed forest restoration Professor Chazdon told me. “Tree planting in this way can play a role as part of an overall forest landscape restoration (FLR) strategy which might involve a number of different types of intervention.”
Chazdon cited one example, in the Philippines, where trees had been planted on the same site five times over a matter of years and each time the trees were burned down by local community members because they were not part of consultations and saw no direct benefits from the reforestation efforts.
The right tree in the right place
Another concern with tree planting initiatives is the choice of species planted. Eucalyptus and pine are sometimes favoured for their fast growth rate and quick return. While there is a role for the introduction of exotic species in the right context to deliver a livelihood benefit, if not well managed this can have ecological consequences.
“Sometimes restoration needs more technical expertise to ensure that the right tree is in the right place,” Rab Nawaz told me. “In Pakistan, for example, WWF provided advice in the process, particularly to promote native species in the mountains and foothills. On private land, there were some eucalyptus planted.”
It is also important to build local expertise and leadership in ecological restoration.
“We need rural extension services that are well versed in FLR to support this growing movement,” Professor Chazdon says. “In many corners of the world we have forestry departments providing technical knowledge regarding productive forest management and less so on holistic forest restoration that serves multiple purposes. As momentum grows behind FLR, addressing this gap will be vital.”
There is a role for us all to get our hands dirty and plant trees in our global effort to avert dangerous climate change. The greatest impact of this may be far from the field or forest itself, and in the corridors of power. According to Justin Adams, executive director at the World Economic Forum and co-founder of 1t.org, which aims to connect supporters and actors on reforestation and restoration, “whether you are a city dweller or a farmer, planting a tree connects with your heart and soul and mobilising the population around this issue can create the political space needed for the bigger changes.”
Expert views clearly show that to achieve acceleration in forest creation, we need active engagement of local communities, strong public sector engagement which includes consistent monitoring and the right trees in the right places.
We must also ensure that it encourages and not distract from essential steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect existing forests — without which averting dangerous climate change and reversing the loss of nature is not possible.