Phantom forests: Why ambitious tree planting projects are failing

It was perhaps essentially the most spectacular failed tree planting project ever. Definitely the fastest. On March 8, 2012, teams of village volunteers in Camarines Sur province on the Filipino island of Luzon sunk over one million mangrove seedlings into coastal mud in only an hour of frenzied activity. The governor declared it a convincing success for his continuing efforts to green the province. At a hasty ceremony on dry land, an official adjudicator from Guinness World Records declared that no person had planted so many trees in such a short while and handed the governor a certificate proclaiming the world record. Loads of headlines followed.

But look today on the coastline where many of the trees were planted. There isn’t any sign of the mangroves that, after a decade of growth, needs to be near maturity. An on-the-ground study published in 2020 by British mangrove restoration researcher Dominic Wodehouse, then of Bangor University in Wales, found that fewer than 2 percent of them had survived. The opposite 98 percent had died or were washed away.

“I walked, boated, and swam through this complete site. The survivors only managed to cling on because they were sheltered behind a sandbank on the mouth of a river. Every part else disappeared,” one mangrove rehabilitation expert wrote in a letter to the Guinness inspectors this yr, which he shared with Yale Environment 360 on the condition of anonymity. The consequence was “entirely predictable,” he wrote. The muddy planting sites were washed by storms and waves and were otherwise “ecologically unsuited to mangrove establishment, because they’re too waterlogged and there isn’t a oxygen for them to breathe.”

Researchers found little evidence that government-led planting in India resulted in additional tree cover, carbon uptake or community advantages.

“It was an entire disaster,” agrees Jim Enright, former Asia coordinator of the U.S.-based nonprofit Mangrove Motion Project. “But no one which we all know of from Guinness or the record-planting proponents have carried out follow-up monitoring.” Guinness has not responded to requests for comment.

Such debacles will not be unusual. Forest scientists say they’re surprisingly frequent, and so they warn that failed afforestation projects all over the world threaten to undermine efforts to make planting a reputable technique of countering climate change by reducing carbon dioxide within the atmosphere or generating carbon credits on the market to corporations to offset their emissions.

In one other high-profile case, in November 2019, the Turkish government claimed to have planted more trees on dry land than anyone else in a single hour — 300,000, within the central province of Çorum. It beat a record, also confirmed by Guinness inspectors, set 4 years before within the Himalayan state of Bhutan. The Çorum planting was a part of a National Afforestation Day, when volunteers planted 11 million trees at 2,000 sites across Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was amongst those wielding a spade.

But two months later, the top of the country’s union of forestry staff reported that a survey by its members had found that as many as 90 percent of the national plantings had died. The federal government denies this, but experts said its counter-claim that 95 percent of the trees had survived and continued to grow was improbably high. No independent audit has yet been carried out.

Unanimity of support for tree planting may reduce the impetus for critical evaluation of what’s achieved at each project.

In an investigation published last yr into extensive government-organized tree planting over several many years within the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, Eric Coleman of Florida State University and colleagues found little evidence that it had resulted in additional tree cover, carbon uptake or community advantages. Typically, tree species growing on common land that were useful to local people for animal fodder and firewood had been replaced by plantations of fast-growing but less useful trees, often fenced off from local communities.

One other study (Spanish), published last yr by the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) in Mexico, called into query the advantages from a billion-dollar government-funded environmental recovery program. Sembrando Vida pays farmers to plant trees across the country to assist Mexico meet its climate targets under the Paris Agreement. But WRI found this system has no effective audit of outcomes, and that rates of forest loss were currently greater in states implementing the plan than in others. It concluded that this system “could have had a negative impact on forest cover and compliance with the country’s carbon mitigation goals.”

Tree planting within the Philippines under its National Greening Program has also been a widespread failure, in response to a 2019 study by the federal government’s own Commission on Audit. Ministers imposed unachievable planting targets, it said, leading to planting “without … survey, mapping and planning.” The actual increase in forest cover achieved was little greater than a tenth of that planned.

The causes of failure vary but include planting single species of trees that turn into vulnerable to disease; competing demands for the land; changing climate; planting in areas not previously forested; and an absence of aftercare equivalent to watering saplings.

Everybody likes trees. There isn’t any anti-tree lobby. A world push to transcend conservation of existing forests and begin creating recent ones goes back to 2011, when lots of the world’s governments, including the USA, signed as much as the Bonn Challenge, which set a goal of restoring some 860 million acres of forest globally by 2030. That’s an area larger than India, and enough to absorb 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, adding almost 1 / 4 to the present estimated forest carbon sink.

In 2020, at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum launched One Trillion Trees, an initiative aimed toward adding a 3rd to the world’s current estimated inventory of around 3 trillion trees. Even Donald Trump got behind the push, promising to plant a billion trees across the U.S.

However the very unanimity of support for tree planting may reduce the impetus for detailed audits or critical evaluation of what is definitely achieved at each project. The paucity of follow-up to this point has resulted in an amazing deal of wasted effort — and money.

Even the best-planned planting projects can come undone, forsaking non-existent forests and uncaptured carbon.

Every yr, “tens of millions of dollars” are spent on reforesting landscapes, in response to Lalisa Duguma of World Agroforestry, a world research agency in Nairobi, Kenya. Yet “there are few success stories.” Typically only a minority of seedlings survive, he says, since the improper trees are planted within the improper places, and lots of are left untended, partially because ownership and management of trees just isn’t handed over to local communities.

Such failures often go unnoticed, believes Duguma, because performance indicators measure planting rates not survival rates, and long-term oversight is minimal because projects typically last three years or less. The result’s “phantom forests.”

The record for restoring mangroves along coastlines, often in an effort to carry back coastal erosion from storms and rising tides, is very bad. An evaluation last yr by the Netherlands-based NGO Wetlands International, which had previously sponsored mangrove planting, concluded that “while many tens of tens of millions of euros have been spent on mangrove restoration in recent times, the vast majority of these restoration projects has failed. With success rates ranging between 15 to twenty percent, quite a lot of conservation funding has gone to waste.” It blamed poor planting methods and the improper species planted within the improper places.

Most planting across Southeast Asia has been of Rhizophora red mangroves. Their cuttings are easy to reap from existing trees and to plant. Typically, they’re planted in tidal mudflats, which ensures no competing land uses, but most are starved of oxygen or washed away by constant inundation at high tide, in response to an evaluation by Shing Yip Lee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The federal government of Sri Lanka launched a mass mangrove planting program around its shores to assist prevent a repeat of the disastrous lack of life there in the course of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But this system has turned out to be an abysmal failure. “Nine out of 23 project sites … showed no surviving plants,” in response to a 2017 study by Sunanda Kodikara of the University of Ruhuna. “Only three sites showed a level of survival higher than 50 percent.”

Too often, argues Duguma, tree planting is “greenwashing” aimed toward grabbing headlines and promoting a picture of governments or corporations as environmentally friendly. Tiina Vahanen, deputy director of forestry on the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, noted recently that many projects find yourself being little greater than “promotional events, with no follow-up motion.”

Cynical PR is one thing, but phantom forests are also increasingly sabotaging efforts to rein in climate change. This happens when planters claim the presumed take-up of carbon by growing forests as carbon credits. If certified by reputable bodies, these credits can count toward governments meeting their national emissions targets or be sold to industrial polluters to offset their emissions. Many corporations plan to make use of their purchase of carbon credits as a way of fulfilling guarantees to achieve “net-zero” emissions. So the stakes are rising.

But even the best-planned and best-audited planting projects can come undone, forsaking non-existent forests and uncaptured carbon. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is a significant certifier of carbon-offset forests across the American West. It approves the carbon credits generated by the forests, that are then sold to industrial polluters in California who wish to offset their emissions in keeping with state regulations.

Forest ecologists say creating space to permit nature to do its thing is frequently a greater approach to restoring forests than planting.

But climate change is leaving the western U.S. increasingly vulnerable to wildfires — raising serious questions on the viability of the forests and the credibility of their carbon credits.

To satisfy this challenge, CARB requires offset developers to carry back from sale a proportion of the credits, which they put right into a central buffer fund as insurance against quite a lot of potential mishaps in the course of the 100-year planned lifetime of the offsets. As much as 4 percent of credits insure against wildfires. That buffer fund picked up the tab, as an example, when 99 percent of the carbon in a forest offset project on Eddie Ranch in Northern California burned in a hearth in 2018.

However the CARB certification system is running out of buffer carbon, in response to an evaluation published in August by ecologist Grayson Badgley at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate solutions database. He found that just seven years into its supposed century-long insurance, 95 percent of the wildfire buffer has been consumed by just six fires across the West. CARB says that certifying more forests will grow the buffer account and stop a default. But Danny Cullenward, an environmental lawyer at American University in Washington, D.C. and co-author of the CarbonPlan evaluation, calls this “a large Ponzi scheme.”

He says the issue of undercapitalized buffer accounts for carbon is widespread among the many tons of of markets arrange internationally to certify and trade carbon offsets for corporate clients. They’ve “essentially no regulatory requirements and operate as an alternative on loose private standards,” he says.

In northern Malawi, they broke fences and burned a growing forest to get back the common grazing land on which the trees had been planted.

Those private standards are more likely to be increasingly inadequate, says forest ecologist William Anderegg of the University of Utah, who estimated recently that climate change will make wildfires 4 times more likely across the American West by the tip of the century, raising “serious questions on the integrity of [offset] programs.”

Besides climate change and wildfires, one other major problem for forest planters is bad relations with locals. In a global survey of organizations involved in forest restoration, Markus Höhl of the University of Gottingen found widespread concern about an absence of buy-in from forest communities. Project promoters didn’t ask the local people what trees they wanted, or where they needs to be planted.

Not surprisingly, those locals often reacted badly. For instance, in northern Malawi, they broke fences and burned a growing forest to get back the common grazing land on which the trees had been planted. In two Nigerian projects, villagers cut all of the planted non-fruit trees for firewood, while protecting those who bore fruit.

Forest planting can work if the social and environmental conditions are right, and if planting is followed by long-term monitoring and aftercare of the trees. There was substantial regrowth of the Brazil’s Atlantic Forest following a joint initiative of the federal government and personal sector. But even here progress has been haphazard and much of the rise has been a results of natural regeneration fairly than planting.

Actually, many forest ecologists say creating space to permit nature to do its thing is frequently a greater approach to restoring forests than planting. “Allowing nature to decide on which species predominate … allows for local adaptation and better functional diversity,” argues one advocate, Robin Chazdon of the University of Connecticut, in her book “Second Growth.” For mangroves, Wetlands International recommends abandoning widespread planting and as an alternative creating areas of slack water along coastlines, where mangroves can naturally reseed and grow.

Ashwini Chhatre, an authority in forest governance on the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, just isn’t alone in saying that “after three many years of walking through planted forests … it’s surprising any are successful in any respect.”


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