Forestation

Forestation

In July 2019, Ethiopia made headlines worldwide through forestation after claiming its people had collectively planted 350 million trees in 12 hours1. This mass planting of trees effort was a world record. In fact, the story was so popular that other governments soon made similar pledges. Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn pledged to plant two billion trees in 20 years if elected2. Canada’s Justin Trudeau went further and promised two billion trees in ten years. Even former US president, Donald Trump claimed he would plant a trillion trees to rescue our planet’s health3.

But, the headline-grabbing initiatives raised more questions than they answered. Was it possible to plant that many trees so quickly? Is tree planting as good as people claim? And, would this actually work? In other words, could Ethiopia be a model for the world, or was it a big gimmick?

What is forestation?

Forestation is the process of growing trees on land. There are three types:

  • Forest restoration involves rebuilding areas that have degraded 
  • Reforestation involves regrowing trees on land where they have previously been destroyed
  • Afforestation consists of growing a new forest on land where one hadn’t existed before

All three are slightly different from each other, but with significant implications. Ethiopia’s drive was a mix of all three. The country’s forest cover had previously fallen from 35 per cent of its land area 50 years ago, to just above four per cent by the 2000s.4 Ethiopians felt the impact with more droughts, flooding and desertification. 

“I think Ethiopia is one of only a few countries very invested in getting trees back in the landscape”, Fred Stolle at the World Resources Institute told Fast Company magazine recently. “They’ve gotten to a very bad place. And so they really see the value.”5

But, forestation is more than just the practice of growing trees – it is a science. It is the art of understanding nature itself and discerning environmental language. Trees and plants need careful nurturing to ensure that they survive and fit into the ecosystem around them. A recent feature in the New York Times explored how trees in a forest communicate and share resources with each other through fungi. Forests are more than a collection of trees.

Planting trees: What does it do?

Forestation has tremendous benefits, not just for the environment, but for the local region and economy. New trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it for hundreds of years. This reduces the earth’s temperature and protects us from destabilising climate change. Since forestation is widely practiced, we can quickly implement it around the world to fight climate change. According to one estimate, China’s new forests have absorbed over 774 million tonnes of carbon from 1973 to 2003.6

Moreover, forests create ecological diversity in the flora and fauna they harbour. They can also be a source of recreation – cultural festivals, walks and hikes – in addition to providing jobs in the forestation and tourism sectors.

Forestation: Climate change

In places like Ethiopia, growing forests can help farmers and rural people too. Forests attract more local rainfall, improve the soil and protect the land from flooding. This allows farmers to grow more food more sustainably.

Which trees are grown for forestation?

Here, it gets complicated and controversial. Introducing non-native trees to a region can do more harm than good. Some tree species can change the soil acidity while others can deprive surrounding trees of resources. In some cases, planting trees may destroy local ecosystems grown over thousands of years.

One strong criticism of tree-planting programmes is that they lead to mono-cultural plantations. In other words, people are led to plant the same tree species for miles. A forest plantation covered by the same species does not increase biodiversity and is more vulnerable to being wiped out by disease. Some reforestation programmes have “replaced traditionally biodiverse farming systems with monocultures of eucalyptus and rubber”, Fred Pearce at Yale found.7

Therefore, we need forestation with a variety of native species that sustain each other. And more importantly, keeping older forests is better for the environment than cutting them down and building new ones.

The Ethiopian government took some of these issues into account. Volunteers were provided with native seedlings and trained to ensure that they were planted correctly. But, there is no independent verification of the government’s claims, and a BBC investigation found it difficult to confirm the figures too.8

Ethiopia may not have managed to plant 350 million trees in 12 hours. But, at the very least, the country started an important debate around the world. If creating more awareness of forestation was its only legacy – that is good enough for now.

Sources

  1. CNN, S.P. and H.R. (n.d.). Ethiopia plants more than 350 million trees in 12 hours. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/29/africa/ethiopia-plants-350-million-trees-intl-hnk/index.html.
  2. General election 2019: Labour promises to plant two billion trees by 2040. (2019). BBC News. [online] 28 Nov. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50578207.
  3. Irfan, U. (2020). Tree planting is Trump’s politically safe new climate plan. [online] Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2020/2/4/21123456/sotu-trump-trillion-trees-climate-change.
  4. team, R.C. (2019). Can you plant 350 million trees in a day? BBC News. [online] 11 Aug. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49266983.
  5. Peters, A. (2019). Ethiopia just planted 353 million trees in a single day. [online] Fast Company. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/90383148/ethiopia-just-planted-353-million-trees-in-a-single-day [Accessed 18 Jan. 2021].
  6. Xu, X. and Li, K. (2010). Biomass carbon sequestration by planted forests in China. Chinese Geographical Science, 20(4), pp.289–297.
  7. Not, W. (2019). Why Green Pledges Will Not Create the Natural Forests We Need. [online] Yale E360. Available at: https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-green-pledges-will-not-create-the-natural-forests-we-need.
  8. team, R.C. (2019). Can you plant 350 million trees in a day? BBC News. [online] 11 Aug. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49266983.