Conservation vs. tree planting: What to prioritise?
One of the most common queries we receive is: “Can I plant a tree?” There is something really magical about planting a tree; you get a wonderful, warm feeling that you have left a little legacy behind, and one that will continue to grow and thrive for many years to come. What better way to help the environment in places that you love? Well this is actually the question we are asking today. Tree planting has received both unprecedented support and also some pretty negative press over the last 12 months. All environmental organisations (or corporates/universities/governments/you name it) have limited resources, so how do we decide whether to prioritise conserving what we still have or restoring what we’ve already lost?
Let’s keep it simple and compare across three parameters: carbon, biodiversity and communities:
We should firstly caveat that the environmental conditions in any two projects are never exactly the same, so comparisons aren’t straightforward. Here we focus on overall trends and primarily on the tropics, as these are the epicentres of biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
Planting trees to take in more carbon sounds like a no brainer, right? Well it is actually quite interesting when we look at the amount of carbon emitted when deforestation occurs. One study found that tropical reforestation may only sequester around 3% of the carbon emissions saved each year by avoiding the loss of the same area of mature, carbon-rich forests (Griscom et al., 2017). For Sri Lanka, the Natural Climate Solutions World Atlas identifies avoided deforestation as having the greatest carbon saving potential of the available cost-effective options and more than double the potential impact of reforestation (Nature4Climate, 2020). The type of reforestation matters as well, with natural forest storing more carbon than agroforestry, which stores more carbon than plantations (Lewis et al. 2019).
Biodiversity too is nearly always lower in secondary (or restored) forests and much, much lower in tree plantations (e.g. Hua et al. 2016). This is because rebuilding the incredibly complex network of interactions between species and nutrients above and below ground is no mean feat. The biodiversity in existing forests (both plant and wildlife) is essential for seeding regenerating ones (e.g. Gardner et al 2019) and they are also an important store of the genetic diversity needed for resilience to climate change.
That said, with the right conditions reforestation can still provide favourable benefits to biodiversity. Studies in the eastern Amazon found it was possible to recover over 80% of biodiversity in naturally regenerating secondary forests compared to their undisturbed primary counterparts (Lennox et al. 2018). Reforestation is needed to restore connectivity between existing protected areas in order to help resolve existing challenges to biodiversity, including human-wildlife conflict and dwindling genetic diversity in isolated populations of species. When used correctly, reforestation and in particular natural regeneration, can also be highly cost-effective (Crouzeilles et al. 2020).
Both conservation and tree-planting initiatives can provide additional income for local communities. In conservation this might be forest management, security or eco-tourism jobs, and in reforestation it could be seed harvesting or sapling planting work, or produce to sell from agroforestry. However, when designed badly they can also both cause damage to local people, especially if land rights or access to much-needed resources are lost.
The scale of the potential impact of both initiatives is huge: The State of the World’s Forests Report 2020 estimated that approximately one third of humanity has a close dependence on forests and forest products (FAO and UNEP 2020), thus conservation and sustainable management is essential. Similarly, a recent study found that “294.5 million people live on tropical forest restoration opportunity land in the Global South, including 12% of the total population in low-income countries” (Erbaugh et al. 2020). Finding trends in actual success delivered for communities through conservation and reforestation initiatives is surprisingly difficult though, suggesting that it is best assessed on a case-by-case basis.
As always, these things aren’t black and white. Whilst conserving existing forests comes out top for carbon and biodiversity, tree planting can also actually promote conservation amongst individuals/communities by restoring a connection with nature and its benefits. As alluded to above, the success of both conservation and tree planting projects also relies on one key factor: good design. One reason for the negative press tree planting received last year was the poor design of projects in Chile (BBC News, 22 June 2020), where insufficient governance led to native forests being replaced with tree plantations. Extensive work is now being done by organisations and scientists around the world to help inform the successful design of restoration initiatives.
Finally, there is of course the fact that on a global scale we do not have the luxury of deciding what to prioritise: we desperately need both. Conserving our forests is essential but will also not be enough to mitigate the extensive damage that has already been done.
How we decide
For our Foundation, we always aim to identify where we can have the greatest impact within our sphere of influence. As a small grassroots organisation, this is usually within our local area and community. We know that deforestation is a growing issue around us, especially with the economic impacts of COVID-19, but that conserved forests can help provide additional income for communities if access to market is provided for their extensive fruit and spice produce. Our surrounding forest is of especially high biodiversity and is located between two protected areas, potentially helping to form linkages between them. We have built relationships with local farmers to plant trees on their lands, however at present there are few opportunities for new larger-scale reforestation projects in our immediate vicinity. For this reason, we always lead with prioritising conservation, specifically our Mudalali Land project where we are urgently fundraising to protect 7 acres threatened with deforestation.
As we grow as an organisation and hopefully access further funding, we will also look to reach out into new reforestation work. For example, there are numerous abandoned tea plantations that are slightly further away but still close enough for us to work with the local communities and care for growing saplings. Tools and methodologies are available to help assess which restoration approaches used on which areas can have the maximum benefit for the environment and communities for the best cost.
To help you decide
So what does all this mean for you? We recommend having a think about your sphere of influence and the different impacts you can make. In the busy world we live in, this could be something really simple, e.g. adding a wildlife-friendly plant or tree to your garden. If you are able to give financial support to projects further afield then have a read about their environmental and community benefits and cost-effectiveness to help you select one. We can guarantee that your chosen project will be incredibly grateful!
There are also loads of ways to support both conservation and reforestation efforts for free. Some ideas include:
Volunteering with a local conservation initiative;
Using old materials and cardboard to build bird baths or insect hotels in your outdoor space;
Collecting seeds (not too many!) to grow tree saplings in your own mini-nursery ready for planting. We recommend getting in touch with your local environmental groups first to find out what trees they might need and get some advice;
Helping conservation scientists via online volunteering projects, e.g check out Zooniverse. They are often looking for people to help analyse photographs/videos to identify wildlife;
Taking on a challenge to fundraise for a project you want to support. Our online donation platform partner, Global Giving, helps you set up your own fundraising page or there are lots of different platforms depending on where you are in the world;
Using your social media to follow and share stories or campaigns from different projects that you are inspired by.
Making decisions on how to look after the environment is never straightforward and there are many more factors that we haven’t looked at here. Please let us know your thoughts and how you’re getting on in your world.
If you’d like to support our Mudalali Land conservation efforts, please visit our donation page here. Thank you!
Crouzeilles et al. (2020). Achieving cost‐effective landscape‐scale forest restoration through targeted natural regeneration. Conservation Letters, 13 (3), e12709.
Erbaugh et al. (2020). Global forest restoration and the importance of prioritizing local communities. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, pp. 1472–1476.
FAO and UNEP (2020). The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome.
Gardner et al. (2019). Quantifying the impacts of defaunation on natural forest regeneration in a global meta-analysis. Nature Communications, 10, 4590.
Griscom et al. (2017). Natural climate solutions. PNAS, 114 (44) pp.11645-11650.
Hua et al. (2016). Opportunities for biodiversity gains under the world’s largest reforestation programme. Nature Communications, 7, 12717.
Lennox et al. (2018). Second rate or a second chance? Assessing biomass and biodiversity recovery in regenerating Amazonian forests. Global Change Biology, 24 (12), pp. 5680-5694.
Lewis et al. (2019). Restoring natural forests is the best way to remove atmospheric carbon. Nature 568, pp. 25-28.
McGrath, M. (2020). Climate change: Planting new forests 'can do more harm than good'. BBC News, [online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-53138178 [Accessed: 10/01/2021].
Nature4Climate, (2020). Natural Climate Solutions World Atlas: Sri Lanka Country Report. [online] Available at: http://nature4climate.s3.amazonaws.com/ctry-factsheets/Sri%20Lanka_factsheet.pdf [Accessed: 10/01/2021].