Reforestation Taking Root in Projects Around the World

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Deforestation is responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Driven in part by consumer appetite for cheap beef, leather, timber, biofuels, tropical oils and products, as well as paper products, deforestation is proceeding at the rate of an estimated 13 million hectares a year. That translates into 50,000 square miles, an area more than half the size of the United Kingdom, being lost every year.

While there is growing international support for tackling global deforestation — there’s even generous support in the Waxman-Markey bill for the effort — action has been stymied by the overall lack of progress on a global climate agreement. The circumstance is exemplified by the UN’s program on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). It has only one donor, Norway, and six projects off the ground.

While addressing deforestation has remained difficult, around the world there has been encouraging progress on the opposite process – reforestation and afforestation. Governments, companies, organizations and individuals are putting trees back on some of the lands devastated by deforestation. 

Earlier this month, Pakistan broke a Guinness World Record previously held by India for the most trees planted in a single day – 541,176. There are even reforestation vacations for enterprising travelers that want to get in on the act. But popular events are just the tip of the iceberg of a far more difficult process that is proceeding largely unseen in many pockets around the world.

The Example of India

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently put a spotlight on India’s reforestation efforts as part of her global climate diplomacy. Speaking on CNN, she gave India credit for the $3 billion it has budgeted for reforestation. Indian Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, earlier this month tooted his own horn in the Times of India.

Brazil has been leading the discussions on how to give incentives to reduce deforestation, that is, to prevent existing forests from being cut down. India has been leading the discussions on giving incentives to accelerate afforestation and reforestation. In fact we have submitted a project proposal to the UNFCCC on sustainable forest management.

Yet India faces a number of challenges in both its forest protection and reforestation efforts, not the least of which is balancing its Forest Conservation Act with the Forest Rights Act, which gives forest-dwelling tribes the right to exploit forest resources and access to forest land.

Despite these its efforts, India is still losing forested land, though deforestation rates have slowed significantly, according to Ramesh.

“Between 1950 and 1980, before the Forest Conservation Act, India was losing 140,000 hectares to non-forest use. After the Act, between 1980 and 2008, the loss has been 25,000 hectares.”

U.S. Reforestation Efforts

In the U.S., under the banner of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), a plan was recently floated to reforest an initial 175,000 acres of Appalachian mountains, part of  the 1.5 million acres destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. The group is looking for $422 million in federal stimulus money to plant 125 million trees, a project they say will not only restore habitat but create 2000 local jobs and improve local water quality. Many of ARRI’s partners are the very same companies that removed those mountain tops and restored the areas as hay pastures instead of reforesting them.

Green Jobs Czar Van Jones is reported to be ‘interested’ in the project and even the UN, which has a campaign to plant 7 billion trees around the world over the next three years, sent an emissary to a Kentucky mountaintop earlier this year to help plant saplings under the auspices of the Billion Tree Campaign.

Motivated By Orangutans

The Samboja Lestari project in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, is a project of a different nature. It grew out of conservationist Will Smits desire to restore orangutan habitat in Borneo and was supported by $4.5 million in NGO funding. The project was the subject of his talk at the TED conference in February of this year and also the subject of a recent article in Science called “Restoring a ‘Biological Desert’ on Borneo.”

A 2000 hectare area, once clear-cut, has been restored thanks to the project Smits launched in 2002. The area is in one of the poorest districts in the province where people once spent 22% of their income buying water.

Samboja Lestari is now home to 1600 species of plants, 137 types of birds, 30 species of reptiles, sun bears and orangutans. Rainfall in the area has increased by 25% and local air temperature has decreased by 3 – 5 degrees Celsius. 3000 people in the area, which previously experienced unemployment rates as high as 50%, are paid salaries for tree-planting and sustainable production of cash crops, food, timber and ethanol. Everybody seems to be winning.

Smits blames the growing appetite for biofuels for the most recent destruction of the forested areas. And these are not just any forested areas, Smits explains, but the largest accumulation of organic material in the world.

“When you open this for growing oil pumps,” he says, “you are creating CO2 volcanoes that are emitting so much CO2 that my country (Indonesia) is the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world, after only China and the United States, even though we don’t have any industry at all — only because of this deforestation.”

A new report (pdf) from Christian Aid concurs that deforestation, along with pollution of local water resources and displacement of local farmers are the main by-products of the current biofuels system.

Smits project has been successful, but he doesn’t want anyone to believe that it is easy. In 1998, East Kalimantan lost 5.5 million hectares to fires in just 5 months. It’s imperative that the local population be prepared to protect the forests against these fires that move from underground to brush during dry seasons. In Samboja Lestari, they created fire insurance by planting a ring of fire-resistant sugar palms around the area. Tapping them twice daily provides income for 648 families and protects the area.

Addressing local poverty was a critical part of the reforestation effort as well. From introducing crops like pineapple, beans and ginger and limiting tree planting to 1000 a day in order to keep employment stable, great care was paid to the needs and culture of the local community.

The $4.5 million spent on the project is a quarter of what the U.S. and Germany just allocated to reforest a similarly sized area in Bangladesh — $19 million for the Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary in Bangladesh. The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that it hopes the project will create income opportunities for over 125,000 people who live in and around Chunati – income that does not come from cutting down trees.

Private Corporations Claim a Stake in Reforestation

Last week, SFM-BAM’s Campo Verde project in Peru became the first commercial reforestation endeavor using native species to be validated under the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) and following the AFOLU guidelines for Afforestation and Reforestation. The project, which has planted 919 hectares so far and has a goal of 18,900 hectares, was validated by TÜV SÜD and is also undergoing validation under the Carbon, Community, and Biodiversity Standard (CCB).

SFM-BAM is a Peruvian forestry and environmental services company that owns the land they are reforesting and are currently developing several large REDD projects in various regions of the Peruvian Amazon.

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata, Executive Vice-Chairman of Sustainable Forestry Management, explained the profit model of the project.

“The revenue comes from 2 sources: carbon (credits) and timber,” told SolveClimate. “The timber creates value over the long-term; the carbon is planned to be monetized immediately.”

While the project employs 250 men and women (with an equal gender balance), those workers will not share in the ultimate profits of the reforestation in the way that a project like Samboja Lestari is set up to allow. Still, the company argues that there are ongoing social and ecological benefits for the local communities,

“It is important to recognize the emphasis in training of local workers, as well as the active involvement of local actors as projects partners, in the form of small enterprises which produce the seedlings and provide services,” says Castro de la Mata. “These aspects are fundamental for the long term sustainability of the project.”

Earlier this month, The World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund announced that it would purchase 500,000 tons of emission reductions from a reforestation project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Ibi Bateke Carbon Sink Plantation Project will reforest 4,200 hectares of degraded land and trap an estimated 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years. French carbon buyer Orbeo has committed to purchasing a similar amount of credits from the project. It is also the first project in the DRC to benefit from global trade in emission reductions under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Similar to Campo Verde, the project is being developed by a private Congolese firm, Novacel. The company, founded by Bateke locals, has obtained loans from French water conglomerate Suez and Belgian materials and metal company Umicore to finance the project. Novacel has committed some of its profits to finance health, education and agro-forestry activities in the local community.

Whether these efforts at reforestation – both private and public – find long term and larger scale success has yet to be determined. Success in forest maintenance seems to rest with creating economic opportunity for the local community. As Willie Smits reiterates throughout his talk, the key is developing local economic value in keeping forests.

“If we want to help the orangutans- what I actually set out to do – we must make sure that the local people are the ones that benefit,” Smits told the TED audience, adding “I think the real key to doing it, if you want a simple answer, is integration.”