Between 2001 and 2020, we lost an estimated 411 million hectares of tree cover globally, equating to the disappearance of 10 percent of our trees since 2000. Trees are crucial for many reasons: they’re a source of food to people across the planet, they provide a haven for endangered wildlife and they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the effects of global warming. So, we should plant more trees, right?
Yes – but we need to be selective about which trees we plant.
At The Word Forest Organisation, we are huge advocates of planting trees both to protect the environment and to provide a sustainable source of food and income to communities feeling the worst effects of climate change. But it is critical to plant the right trees in the right places. Certain tree species might actually have a negative impact on their environment, for example, they might outcompete native trees that local wildlife rely on for food.
With this in mind, earlier this year scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) teamed up to determine best practice for reforestation. Publishing their findings in the journal Global Change Biology, the researchers identified 10 golden rules for restoring forests, which we outline below.
Protect existing forest first
Before we think about planting new trees, we need to think of the importance of protecting the precious forests we have left. Under President Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest is disappearing at an unprecedented rate, while forests around the world are being destroyed to make way for animal agriculture, crop plantations and urbanisation. Large, established forests store more carbon than young trees, so protecting old forests is vital.
The authors of the research note that governments and corporations need to enforce more protected areas and do more to prevent deforestation, while local authorities need to work to limit sources of deforestation like overgrazing.
Work with local people
According to the researchers, a common reason why reforestation projects fail is that they do not involve local communities. Engaging local people in tree-planting projects helps both trees and people thrive; people can gain employment and livelihoods from tending to the forests and sustainably harvest fruits, nuts and other resources from the trees.
At The Word Forest Organisation, local communities are at the very heart of our tree-planting programmes. Our Mothers of the Forest group plant trees in Kenya, which in turn gives them a sustainable source of food and income and motivates them to protect and nurture the forest they have built.
Maximise biodiversity recovery to meet multiple goals
Reforestation is about more than just planting new trees – we want to be planting the right kinds of trees to rebuild native forests. Returning forests to their former glory might be more time-consuming than just planting lots of fast-growing, cultivated trees, but it will help biodiversity to bounce back and thrive. In turn, this will help the reforestation project meet a multitude of goals, from reducing carbon emissions and conserving wildlife to financially benefiting local communities.
Select the right area for reforestation
According to the researchers, the best place to plant trees is on deforested land. Planting trees on agricultural land could lead to another area being deforested to make way for livestock, meanwhile various natural lands, such as grasslands and wetlands, are already doing their bit to capture carbon in soil. Sites can also be selected based on the benefits they’ll provide – for example, trees might be planted to create a recreational space for local communities or to create flourishing habitats for native wildlife.
Use natural forest restoration wherever possible
Allowing abandoned land where a healthy forest once stood to recover naturally is preferable because it can be cheaper and more effective than planting new trees. Forests that have naturally regrown can also capture up to 40 times more carbon than artificial plantations, according to the researchers. This kind of reforestation often works best when close to an existing forest that can act as a source of native seeds.
Select tree species that maximise biodiversity
When the planting of new trees is needed for reforestation, the types of trees should be carefully selected. Monocultures are no good for biodiversity; a variety of species is a far more preferable choice. A varied forest will also be tougher in the face of threats like disease and extreme weather.
It’s best to use native species while also incorporating endangered trees to help protect them from extinction. Trees that have beneficial relationships with pollinators and seed-dispersers, like insects and birds, as well as fungi are great ones to plant. Alien species, which can take over land and outcompete native species, affecting local wildlife, should always be avoided.
Use resilient tree species that can adapt to a changing environment
Climate change is making life harder for trees around the world, as they have erratic temperatures, extreme weather and surges in pests and disease to contend with. Therefore, selecting the right kinds of trees that give the forest enough genetic diversity to persist through these challenges is key.
When it comes to tree planting, organisation, as with any project, is vital. You need to know how you will source your seeds or trees, and what facilities, processes and resources will be necessary to plant them and help them thrive. Those involved will require training in areas like seed collecting, equipment usage and successfully planting and maintaining the trees. The researchers note that it is best to rely on local infrastructure and seed supply chains.
Learn by doing
It’s important to use evidence when planning and implementing a reforestation project. Those involved should gather information from scientists and local people, and test out proposed techniques in advance through trials. Various indicators of success should be monitored, such as the speed at which endangered species are able to recover.
Make it pay
To prevent a new forest from being lost to deforestation, it’s crucial to make sure it has financial benefits. These might be a sustainable source of income for local people who can harvest fruits and nuts from the trees to sell, or ecotourism, whereby tourists spend money coming to visit the forest and the wildlife that inhabits it.
A reforestation project is no easy feat; strategies, species and location must all be carefully considered to ensure success is achieved. Those planting trees should take the 10 golden rules of reforestation into account so that we can effectively increase tree coverage across our planet, helping both people and wildlife to thrive. If you would like to support The Word Forest Organisation’s tree planting project, click here.
Rachel Baxter and The Team