Trees of Life

Reforestation Projects Won't Take Root Unless Teams Carefully Identify Risks and Groom Local Stakeholders



Part of a massive—but troubled—government reforestation campaign in Turkey, where 11 million saplings were planted across the country in 2019. In January, the country’s agriculture and forestry trade union said most of the trees it inspected had died because of insufficient water, a claim the government denies.

Trees of Life

Reforestation projects won’t take root unless teams carefully identify risks and groom local stakeholders.


The planet has 900 million hectares (2.2 billion acres) available to hold more trees.

Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science



Deforestation in the Amazon. At right, cleared land for palm oil plantation at Tesso Nilo National Park, Indonesia

The world needs more trees—and a lot of them—to stem the damage wrought by mass deforestation. Brazil alone is destroying the equivalent of three football pitches per minute in the Amazon rainforest through deforestation, according to the government’s own figures. Worldwide, the consequences are startling: The annual Earth Overshoot Day—the date the world expends its allowance of natural resources for an entire year—arrived earlier than ever in 2019. It now lands two months earlier than it did 20 years ago.

To fight back before the world reaches an irreversible tipping point, governments and conservation groups are launching projects to plant billions of new trees around the globe. The planet has 900 million hectares (2.2 billion acres) available to hold more trees—an area the size of the continental United States. According to a study published last year in the journal Science, a successful global reforestation program could remove about two-thirds of the carbon dioxide emissions that human activities have generated since the Industrial Revolution.

With the stakes so high, organizations are reforesting at an unprecedented rate—and there’s plenty of public and private support to drive it. The United Nations picked up the Bonn Challenge as part of its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, setting a goal to restore 150 million hectares (370 million acres) by the end of this year and 350 million hectares (865 million acres) by 2030. The move could take 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

In Africa, governments from 10 countries are teaming up with eco-focused groups for the AFR100 megaproject, which aims to reforest 100 million hectares (247 million acres) across the continent by 2030. In other cases, reforestation is a businesses imperative. For example, Brazilian pulp producer Suzano has planted more than 10 million trees over the past decade to sustain timber use.

But reforestation projects aren’t as simple as just planting seeds and saplings. Up to 90 percent of the 11 million trees Turkey planted in November as part of a government-backed initiative had died by January, according to the country’s agriculture and forestry trade union. The union attributed the failures to a lack of rainfall, poorly timed plantings and a lack of technical expertise.


But other surprises are lurking, too, for reforestation teams. Project leaders must help teams navigate a series of interconnected challenges, ranging from soil remediation to biodiversity to funding and security. The ultimate risk for teams is failing to earn buy-in from landowners and residents who live in the areas targeted for reforestation, says Sebastian Africano, executive director, Trees, Water & People, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.

“The people are the most important part. If they’re not invested, concerned and engaged in the well-being of their land, then the trees don’t stand a chance,” says Mr. Africano, whose organization leads PrintReleaf-sponsored reforestation projects on native lands in the United States.


—Sebastian Africano, Trees, Water & People, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA


Reforestation teams can get lost in the woods if they don’t properly manage requirements and stakeholders. Beyond the demands of sponsors and governments, teams must work closely with conservation oversight groups that verify project progress and ensure that rows of newly planted trees mature over decades into healthy forests.

In Indonesia, for example, projects by conservation group Forest Carbon target sites of at least 20,000 hectares (about 75 square miles), which is the optimal scale required to earn enough carbon credits to turn a profit for the organization’s investors, such as Mirova Asset Management. The team must meet auditor-verified achievements in carbon reduction, biodiversity and community benefits to earn carbon credits. The standards, developed by third-party sustainability group Verra, require project plans to include accommodations for 30 years of forest restoration.

But long-term viability means teams must navigate a maze of property-related risks, particularly in developing countries like Indonesia, which is home to the world’s third-largest tropical forest but has been ravaged by deforestation in recent decades. The country has lost more than 100,000 square miles (258,999 square kilometers) of woodlands as well as its distinctive peatlands.

“Having land tenure and land rights is the number one way to mitigate operational risk” because they help guarantee project longevity, says Devan Wardwell, director of growth, Forest Carbon, Jakarta, Indonesia.


—Devan Wardwell, Forest Carbon, Jakarta, Indonesia

One of his project areas is a documented habitat for Sumatran tigers, so the reforestation helps support population regrowth and habitat restoration for an endangered species. The team secured conservation-related land rights from the Indonesian government for 25 years before beginning its project, and that deal can be extended for an additional 60 years.



Eden Reforestation Projects’ efforts in Indonesia


Formal documentation doesn’t always seal the deal. The land rights of indigenous people and other locals are often overlooked during commercial land transactions. Forest Carbon had to work with a local partner to gain the federal, state and district-level business licenses for conservation activities, in addition to extensive identification and engagement with local stakeholders. Other organizations leading reforestation projects in Indonesia face similar challenges.

“Sometimes the federal government in Indonesia will say something is part of a concession land, and then at the district level you’ll hear that it belongs to an indigenous group, and then when you go a level lower, you hear something else,” says Christian Dannecker, director of project development, South Pole, Zurich, Switzerland.

To ensure it identifies and mitigates all property risks, Forest Carbon also canvasses the project area for smaller settlements to obtain work consent and program input from indigenous groups, following a Participatory Rural Assessment framework to ensure local villagers have a say in the direction of community development efforts.


With so much complexity, teams must anticipate a wide range of risks during all phases of reforestation projects—from identifying land-access issues that could slow progress to studying how creating a new forest might disrupt existing ecosystems and economies. For instance, illegal logging operations are rampant in Indonesia, and Forest Carbon’s local partner needed to devote part of its team to providing security along site borders. The ranger program, which cost about US$250,000 per year and was part of the initial project budget, works with local law enforcement to report illegal activities, Mr. Wardwell says.

Forest Carbon’s team also leans heavily on technology to monitor the massive project areas for progress and risks. For example, it uses fixed-wing drones to capture images that inform Forest Carbon’s site plans and ongoing progress reports, as well as predictive statistical models based on that progress. In one instance, drone images helped the team map a canal area used by about 20 local fishermen. Having a firm grasp on the project’s potential impact on the watershed helped it earn the support of local indigenous groups. For instance, the project team agreed to add dams that would sustain the hydrology of the area and support better fish production.


Taking Root

Reforestation project teams around the world have ambitious goals:

Number of trees planted in a single day—29 July 2019—as part of a national reforestation effort. It was part of the government’s goal to plant 4 billion trees from May through October last year.

Proportion of the country the government hopes to cover with forests by 2035. It’s on pace to cover 23 percent by the end of this year.

Amount Iceland’s Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service plans to spend by 2023 on carbon capture projects, including 4 million new trees last year.

Number of additional tree planters the country’s reforestation industry needs to hire this year to meet its goals. British Columbia alone aims to plan 48 million more seedlings in 2020 than it did a year ago.

meters (13,123 feet)
Elevation at which villagers in the Andes mountains are planting polylepis saplings. With help from a Peruvian organization, the Association for Andean Ecosystems, indigenous groups hope to plant 1 million trees in 2020.

Teams also must learn to tailor planting practices. When Eden Reforestation Projects launched its first projects in Indonesia in 2017, the first year was spent learning about which tree species did well in different types of soil. Such risk analysis helped the organization improve the survival rate of its trees from 45 percent to 80 percent after the first three months, says Jesse Willem, national director, Eden Reforestation Projects, Jakarta, Indonesia. By the end of 2018, teams got up to speed enough to plant 1.7 million trees. Worldwide, Eden’s projects achieved impressive scale, planting more than 50 million trees in 2018.

Taking a targeted approach is part of Eden’s strategy to work with smaller parcels and partner directly with landowning tribes, which helps secure buy-in from the local population. Mr. Willem looks for tracts of land as small as 1,000 acres (404 hectares) owned by a local tribe, then hires and trains workers from the tribe with a promise of five years of continuous employment.

For instance, Mr. Willem assigns one local villager per project to be a full-time site manager. He also shows the economic and sustainability benefits of the project by meeting with village leaders to explain what Eden hopes to accomplish for the environment and how its long-term commitment to hiring workers from the village will deliver local benefits. A few months of steady pay and fast environmental returns can win over any villagers who are initially skeptical, Mr. Willem says.

“They began to feel the change in their economic lives after they had started to work with us for a couple of months. Then after about six months, fish started coming back to the river, first smaller fish and then bigger fish. That made it easier for us to talk with them,” he says.


—Jesse Willem, Eden Reforestation Projects, Jakarta, Indonesia


Reforestation teams also must be skilled at facilitating change. The need for reforestation often is the result of actions by the people living nearby, which requires teams to foster a cultural shift across an entire region. In impoverished Haiti, for example, rural landowners historically have made money by chopping down young trees and selling them to charcoal producers. So the Haiti Reforestation Partnership team is working with a network of rural neighborhoods to show locals the financial benefits of letting trees grow for decades rather than years.



Haiti Reforestation Partnership projects.

To drive home the value of economic patience, local leadership planted a small demonstration forest at a crossroads between six communities shortly after the organization’s launch. That now-mature forest has become a powerful teaching and recruiting tool, helping the team convince prospective partners how patience ultimately leads to more profit, says Michael Anello, executive director, Haiti Reforestation Partnership. The team also pays locals to tend the nurseries and budding forests, creating even more economic incentive to counteract the allure of selling to charcoal producers.

“People have seen it work, and so they understand the long-term investment. In five years there are going to be mangoes, and in 20 years they’re going to be able to cut down a few of the hardwoods to sell lumber—which brings in a lot more money than charcoal,” says Mr. Anello.

In Colombia, a South Pole team had to allay fears by farmers that building new forests would take away precious grazing land and attract wild animals that might kill their cattle, Mr. Dannecker says. He assigned a team member to work with farmers to explain how carbon credits paid to farmers will help offset any project-related income losses. But trust remains difficult to earn when jaguars stray from the forest and attack the cattle.

“They say, ‘You guys protect the forest, so reimburse us for the cows eaten by the jaguars,’” says Mr. Dannecker. “So we have to manage that. And we also teach strategies around it—it can be as simple as hanging up your sweaty T-shirt on the fence at the end of the day, because it smells and so jaguars won’t come into your land.”

The strategies don’t stop there. The team promotes herd-management concepts, such as keeping animals that weigh less than 60 kilograms (132 pounds) away from the ranch borders at night or building higher, stronger fencing that keeps predators out. South Pole also conducts wildlife-management workshops, explaining how excessive hunting leads to underfed jaguar populations that are more likely to risk forays onto farmland.

Regardless of how many billions of trees they plant, reforestation teams must stay focused on finding new ways to sow seeds of support. It’s the best way to ensure projects deliver long-term benefits toward fighting climate change, Mr. Wardwell says.

“You have to look at restoration as more than just replanting. You have to come in and assess the unique features of the landscape and develop a methodology for how you’re going to restore it. Often it is, and should be, more complicated than just planting a bunch of trees.” PM


—Devan Wardwell



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