Tree planting is often discussed as a panacea for environmental ailments such as climate change and biodiversity loss. However, this simplistic approach to tree planting threatens to cause more harm than good if investments are not backed by evidence-based practices.
At the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) tree planting event on Sept. 29, scientists from the recently merged Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) will weigh in on contemporary issues surrounding global tree planting initiatives.
Some of the diverse topics they will discuss include the persistence of restored forests, common tree planting misconceptions, participatory management strategies and conservation of tree genetic resources.
A core theme throughout each of the presentations, however, is the need for a more nuanced, context-driven conversation about the benefits of planting millions, billions or even trillions of trees.
“Planting trees is, of course, a good idea when consideration is given to ecological as well as social contexts to ensure that planting trees is actually beneficial,” says Ramni Jamnadass, co-leader of the Tree Productivity and Diversity unit at ICRAF and a speaker at the GLF digital tree planting forum.
“Tree planting initiatives are successful when the right tree is planted in the right place for the right purpose.”
Through this evidence-based approach, CIFOR-ICRAF scientists are helping to ensure that today’s tree planting investments will have long-term benefits for people, the environment and the planet.
Jamnadass, Manuel Guariguata, principal scientist with CIFOR; Susan Chomba, a scientist and project manager at ICRAF; and Cora van Oosten, senior project leader landscapes, restoration and governance at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands shared their insights ahead of the GLF digital tree planting forum.
Q: What topics will you cover at the GLF digital forum?
Manuel Guariguata: I will talk about the persistence of restored forests — the length of time restored forests are able to grow before being cut down or degraded again — and how we can promote greater persistence. During the presentation, I will highlight key factors that have favored persistence in the past and discuss how we can learn from these successes in order to minimize failures in other regions.
Susan Chomba: During my talk, I will argue that engagement with different stakeholders, especially local communities, is crucial for tree planting success. All tree planters should strive to understand how the goals, needs and impacts of tree planting initiatives change according to different ecological niches and stakeholders. In developing countries, for example, it is impossible to uncouple tree planting with poverty and the need for development. Though our shared desire to plant trees, we should be able to find convergence between climate change, biodiversity and livelihood goals.
Ramni Jamnadass: I will discuss the CIFOR-ICRAF tree planting mantra: “Choosing the right tree for the right place and the right purpose.” The mantra implies three aspects of successful tree planting:
- The right tree: choosing the right tree means selecting seedling genotypes of species that are most suitable for the project’s location and the overall biodiversity of the region. The right tree aspect also considers the quality of the seeds and their source. Is the seed healthy? Is it from an adapted seed source? How much is known about the seed to ensure successful germination, propagation and management? Is the seed domesticated or wild? What is the minimum viable population to ensure productivity? These are just some of the questions we need to consider before planting seedlings in the ground.
- The right place: research from CIFOR-ICRAF and many other organizations has documented different niches that are suitable to plant trees. Trees can be integrated with crops on farms, planted on the boundaries of farmland and grown in communal areas or on roadsides. Considering the ‘right place’ also reminds us to account for soils, water tables, precipitation levels, current and future climate and altitude.
- The right purpose: different species provide different ecosystem functions and services. Trees can be cultivated for food and nutrition, timber and other income sources, soil fertility enhancement, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and more. There may also be societal and gender preferences for planting trees. CIFOR-ICRAF has many context-specific tools, processes and methodologies to help with these considerations. The ‘purpose’ aspect also considers global issues: will the forests be restored to help mitigate climate change? Will trees be planted to create food security or for income generation?
Finally, when talking about ‘purpose’ it is important to be aware that not all open areas should be filled with trees. Natural grasslands should not be replaced with trees. Croplands can only cope with a certain percentage of tree crown cover (varies based on crops) beyond which the beneficial elements are outstripped by competition for nutrients, moisture and light with crops.
Cora van Oosten: Without discarding the importance of tree planting, I would like to raise questions regarding the inclusiveness and legitimacy of the underlying decision-making process: how are decisions regarding the types of trees, and the places where these should be planted, being made? What is the institutional context in which these decisions are made? Who are the parties engaged in the process, and which interests do they represent? Do these decisions take into account current policies and market trends? Will they lead to any sustainable venture in the long run?
Q: What are your personal views on tree planting (when is it a good idea/when isn’t it)?
Manuel Guariguata: I think planting is a good idea when a suite of preconditions has been carefully examined; that is, when ‘success factors’ have been identified to the greatest extent possible. Conversely, it is not always a good idea when local aspirations are disregarded and when there is not enough consideration about which species to plant and for what purpose.
Susan Chomba: My personal view is that tree planting is a good idea if it is done right! We have lost a huge amount of tree cover with dire consequences such as declining agriculture productivity, loss of biodiversity and adverse effects on climate change. Doing it ‘right’ means understanding the different goals we are aiming to meet with trees. We need to consider which tree species are best suited to meet these goals, which local actors we can best work with and how we can ensure funding is going to initiatives that align with our values.
Ramni Jamnadass: Planting trees is, of course, a good idea when consideration is given to ecological as well as social contexts to ensure that planting trees is actually beneficial. Tree planting initiatives are successful when the right tree is planted in the right place for the right purpose (as described above). When the aim is to restore vegetation that has been degraded it is very useful to characterize the original vegetation – was it a forest, a savanna or ancient grasslands? Whatever the kind of original vegetation, the next step is to ensure that the restoration includes as many species as possible from sources that are suitable for the restoration site while also taking climate change into consideration; what used to be natural may not be so in the future. When restoring natural vegetation, it is important to involve the surrounding rural people and include their recommendations on choice of species and management of the future restoration site. When the main purpose of tree planting is to create agroforestry landscapes, the starting point should be to ensure that the species or their cultivars/varieties utilized will improve livelihoods and cash incomes – tree planting should from the start aim to enable the full value chain from use of the best possible seed sources of the target species (e.g. selected or bred for specific market demand, climatically adapted sources that will produce high quality products – fruits, timber, fodder, etc.) to networks for producing and distributing seeds and seedlings and networks for producing and selling high value products from the trees. When such social and ecological concerns are taken into consideration, it will become obvious very quickly when tree planting is a good idea and when it isn’t.
Cora van Oosten: Tree planting is a good idea if the decision to plant is taken by those living on or otherwise belonging to a landscape. We need to consider land ownership, soil protection, food security, livelihoods and more. If tree planting is steered by external parties without consulting with those whose land will be used, there’s a high chance of failure.
I would stop the promotion of tree planting as a solution to the multiple global problems we face. Instead, I’d start investing in the many initiatives of local people who have always tried to improve or restore their own landscapes; their interests should be forefront. Of course, local people don’t always agree with one another, but an integrated landscape approach to local governance helps facilitate agreement and collective action. Strengthening local organizations in these ways will lead to better and faster solutions which can be the core of a more integrated policy process towards restoration.
Q: What’s the most interesting part of this conversation for you?
Manuel Guariguata: I’m most interested in moving beyond tree planting commitments and toward refining the planning and implementing phases, which are both essential for these initiatives to be a success.
Susan Chomba: I’m most interested in breaking down the myths of tree planting, because this ensures we do not invest in actions that cause further damage to the people and the planet, only to realize these problems after the damage is already done.
Ramni Jamnadass: Everything about this conversation is interesting to me.
Cora van Oosten: I’m most interested in discussing local implementation. I am happy with the global interest in tree planting — as it places environmental issues high on the global political agenda — but I am afraid that reducing the problem of land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change to the simplistic solution of planting trees will lead to massive failure and loss of political momentum in the long run.
Q: What do you hope people take away from this tree planting forum?
Manuel Guariguata: Hopefully, listeners will leave with a better understanding of the gaps we need to overcome in the context of the global restoration agenda. In particular, I hope they will understand the issues we need to consider to ensure restored forests persist both in time and space. Tree planting is only the beginning of a long-term endeavor.
Susan Chomba: I want the audience to understand that it is okay, and in fact very desirable, to plant trees. However, we need to invest in more research to know which trees need to be planted in what niches. We also need to understand how these trees affect the local ecology and what effects they will have on communities and livelihoods. Understanding these dynamics can best be achieved through partnership with research institutions.
Ramni Jamnadass: First, I want people to pay attention to the whole concept of planting the right tree in the right place for the right purpose. Second, I want the audience to know the facts and accept that there is a bottleneck in tree planting called ‘access to quality planting material.’ Successful planting is limited by the quality of available resources. Third, and perhaps even more importantly, I hope to convey the need to invest in tree genetic resources to conserve them. We need to develop best protocols to propagate high value tree species and to breed and improve them so that quality planting material is available for specific contexts. We also need to ensure sound seed delivery systems. The benefits of tree planting can be greatly enhanced with improved seed sourcing and delivery.
Cora van Oosten: I hope that through our conversations people will not get discouraged as they realize that planting trees alone will not be enough to save the planet. Instead, I hope the audience will be encouraged to think creatively about new ways to address environmental issues that put landscape inhabitants and local populations at the core of the solution.
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