If you scroll through Instagram, you will see them: smiling 20-somethings with dirt under their fingernails and a freshly nestled seedling below them. #PlantATree. The idea has been trending recently, not least of all because of the fires in the Amazon. And in many ways, this is a good thing.
We should be activating in response to deforestation. We should be spending more time outside, interacting with the ecosystems of which we are an inextricable part. And yes, we should be planting trees. But what does that entail? Is it just a matter of grabbing a seedling from Home Depot and heading out into the world? What kind of trees are we planting? Where? How does this tie into the desperate need for conservation and other climate justice efforts?
These are the questions we have to consider, both on a personal and international level. Not every tree planting initiative is a useful or helpful one, particularly if we are talking about large scale tree planting efforts that decimate wilderness for the sake of a cash crop.
In the nuanced political space that is so often a no-man’s land, we have to support and build tree planting efforts that can flourish between the extremes of a greenwashed “plant all the trees!” and a nihilistic “screw it, we’re doomed.”
We have to steer our good intentions based on the realistic emergency we face regarding growing emissions, deforestation and biodiversity loss. We must recognize the importance of protecting what we have left, rather than simply trying to replace what, in many cases, can not be replaced. Our sights must broaden to see a forest beyond just the trees, because a forest is much more than canopy cover.
Not Every Forest Is a Forest
The most recent publication of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forest Terms and Definitions paper defines a forest as any land above 0.5 hectares (roughly 1.2 acres) with a canopy cover of 10 percent or more. This includes land that has been clear cut but that is expected to regenerate within five years. It also includes certain types of tree plantations, including Christmas Tree plantations.
Ultimately, the UN definition of forests misses a lot of points. Be it the damage done by so-called sustainable forestry practices, biodiversity or real climate change mitigation, this definition side-steps reality and misguides the well-meaning plant-a-tree movement.
Roughly two decades ago, Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, threw a much needed wrench into how the world viewed forests when she found that trees “talk” to each other. Her research has shown that thanks to complex and massive underground fungal networks, trees of various species can assess needs, share resources like nutrients and water and send signals to one another about external threats.
Tremaine Gregory, a primatologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute echoed these findings when commenting on his work in the Amazon. “Forest cover is not a very good measure of all the complex processes happening inside the forest. When you work in the tropical forest…you can see what an interconnected web it is.”
If you have ever seen a tree plantation, the last phrase that comes to mind is “interconnected web.” For instance, driving up the 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, you will pass row after row of perfectly ordered trees. In between the plantations is dust — barren sandy dirt that reminds the perceptive passenger that this land was never meant to be the nation’s bread basket. The trees stand as tidy markers of both the western water wars and the danger of mistaking cash crop tree planting for any kind of forest.
As environmental author and journalist Fred Pearce noted in an article in April, “there are growing concerns that the reforestation agenda is becoming a green cover for the further assault on ecosystems.” Be it the claim that planting a trillion trees will save us or the 2011 Bonn Challenge that promises to plant 1.35 million square miles of forest by 2030, the devil truly is in the details.
For starters, the trillion tree study uses the UN definition of forests as the foundation for its findings. Furthermore, it does not address the importance of old growth trees in carbon capture and storage or the fact that we could plant a gazillion trees but if we don’t cut fossil fuel emissions to net zero, we are screwed.
With regards to the Bonn Challenge, an international agreement between dozens of nations signed in 2011 in Germany, a recent assessment shows that some 45 percent of the promised new forests are slated to be monoculture tree plantations made up of fast-growing and flammable species like acacia and eucalyptus.
As with any tree plantation, the goal here is to grow and cut — with these trees destined for paper products. Fast to grow, fast to go, and more prone to fires and disease.
The Danger of Green Deserts
In 2017, after a huge wildfire ripped through a village in central Portugal, residents moved to create a “Village Protection Zone” consisting of native fire-resistance species like oak and chestnut, uprooting pine and eucalyptus plantations to do so. It was a smart move. Eucalyptus trees are almost naturally designed to spread fire. Frequent shedding of bark and dead leaves makes for a nice carpet of kindling. Once the fire reaches the trunk, the long strands of bark slip the fire quickly into the canopy. Eucalyptus oil literally acts as gasoline on the blaze, making for fireball conditions that easily jump from tree to tree.
To make matters worse, eucalyptus plantations are commonly referred to as green deserts as they siphon nutrients from the soil and prevent native trees and plants from growing around them. Yet eucalyptus trees are often planted in reforestation efforts because they grow fast and store carbon quickly, thus making them a prime example of the dangers of single-minded tree planting efforts.
Another tree that has grown in infamy since videos of desperate orangutans in the Indonesian rainforest surfaced is the oil palm. According to the Orangutan Project, every hour some 300 football fields of rainforest are destroyed to make way for these tree plantations. The speed of growth and the diversity of uses (food products, biofuel, detergents, cosmetics and more) have made palm oil plantations a global cash crop, with the associated effects of a for-profit paradigm: seek, destroy, cash-in.
The pitfalls of cashing in go beyond just tree plantations and orangutans. The overall capitalist perspective of forests as something to use for the sake of profit and progress have proven disastrous. Our judicial and political systems reflect a paradigm that treats that which is finite, such as forests, as infinite while treating that which is infinite, 1s and 0s as money on a screen, as finite.
A 2016 study in Nature calculated the biodiversity loss in the Pará region of the Amazon from legal forestry practices to be equivalent to clear-cutting 139,000 square kilometers of pristine forest — an area roughly the size of North Carolina or Greece.
The study measured conservation value loss, an umbrella term ironically coined by the forestry industry which refers to the loss in biodiversity, habitat, and ecosystems as well as places of cultural importance. It turns out that practices such as selective logging and wildfires, like the ones in the Amazon, can double or triple the amount of conservation value loss seen from deforestation alone.
So, while clearcutting deforestation is a horror that must be stopped, this study shows that conservation efforts must consider the larger ecosystems of which trees are inextricably a part. Legal practices and forest management need to place a greater value on protecting old growth forests than on the profit to be made by replacing them with tree plantation seedlings.
Direct Action: A Necessary Piece of the Puzzle
A perfect example of this comes from Mattole watershed in Northern California where forest protectors run year-round observation of the old growth forests still left in the region. Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC) has permits to log in the area and on the face of it, they appear to be a responsible company. They proudly display their Forest Stewardship Council (the organization responsible for coining the conservation value term) sustainability mark and offer pages of reading on their respectable practices flanked by dreamy images of towering redwoods.
Unfortunately, the reality on the ground looks more like logged old growth trees and ghostly forests where dead trees hover over herbicide spray bottles littered along the forest floor. Known as hack-and-squirt operations, this method involves hacking the base of trees and applying herbicide in order to thin “undesirable” species and make room for more profitable plants.
In the recently burned hills of Northern California, this practice which leaves dead and dry trees as behemoth matchsticks raises more than passive concern. The logging of old growth trees and destruction of biodiverse forests for the sake of monoculture tree plantations further exacerbates the strain on an already stressed ecosystem which not only serves as a fire barrier but as a complex ecosystem and carbon capturing heat sink as well.
With evidence of these destructive practices, a coalition of groups has filed multiple complaints with the Forest Stewardship Council, the international nonprofit that sets standards for sustainable forest products. Through administrative efforts such as these combined with tree-sits and ground blockades, forest protectors have highlighted the hypocrisy of Humboldt Redwood Company’s so-called sustainable logging practices and have successfully preserved large portions of what’s left of this ancient forest.
In a recent post, forest protectors announced the expiration of a timber harvest plan permit for the Mattole region: “Despite the fact that HRC managed to log and herbicide a portion of this ancient forest, relentless resistance from the community and devoted forest defenders succeeded in saving a significant amount of forest that would have otherwise been logged by HRC.”
Direct action preservation campaigns such as this one must be a part of the tree planting dialog. They are a necessary piece of the puzzle, just like cutting emissions and consumption. Still, the fact of the matter is that sometimes the forest is already gone. Sometimes it is too late to save what we should have protected. That is where the true power and potential of tree planting can be realized.
Protect the Remaining Wilderness
Some 25 years ago, toxic ghosts of opencast mines, old clay quarries, and abandoned coal pits haunted wide expanses of land in the Midlands region of the UK. The land was a post-apocalyptic nightmare made real, home to polluted waterways, air and little to no flora or fauna. Fast forward to today and more than 8 million trees have been planted — native oak, ash and birch trees flourish in some 500 square kilometers of what is known as the National Forest.
In Africa, residents of the Sahel region are 15 years into a bold plan to grow 8,000 kilometers of forest across the entire width of the continent. Known as the Great Green Wall, the initiative aims to combat climate change, drought, famine, conflict and migration.
In July, Ethiopia planted more than 350 million trees in one day. Known as the green legacy campaign, the goal is to plant some 4 billion indigenous trees by the end of the rainy season in October. In August of this year, India planted 220 million trees in a single day.
The number of trees being planted is impressive, but we have to remember to not get caught up in a race to just plant trees wherever and whenever we can. Initiatives like the Bonn Challenge are trending worldwide.
For instance, on September 25, more than 90 Indian environmental and rights groups signed an open letter to Leonardo DiCaprio asking him to pull his support from the Cauvery Calling tree-planting initiative. They warn of the “low credibility” of the organization in charge of the initiative and say that planting trees in this ecosystem “promotes a “monoculturist paradigm of landscape restoration” that “could result in drying up of streams and rivulets, and destruction of wildlife habitats.” Incidentally, this situation also serves as a reminder of centering indigenous and local stewardship.
The wisdom of those who live and have lived in these ecosystems for generations should carry more weight than big NGOs and green corporations looking to reach a tree-planting quota.
Again, it is not the number of trees that is vital. It is the ecosystems they are a part of — or not a part of. It is that vast interconnected web, the biodiversity of forests and wild areas. Indeed, a study published on September 18 found that areas unaffected by human use on industrial scales are vital for protecting at-risk species from extinction.
“This research provides the evidence for how essential it is for the global conservation community specifically target protecting Earth’s remaining wilderness,” James Watson, the study’s author said in a statement.
We Cannot Click Our Way to a Green Future
While we can, we have to do everything in our power to protect the old growth and natural forests that we have left. If there is only one takeaway from this article, let it be that.
When it has to and does come to realizing the power and potential of tree planting, we must focus on rewilding in sync with ecosystems and native species — prioritizing complexity rather than tree count, sustainability rather than profit.
Indeed, there is nothing capitalism can offer to this endeavor. We can not buy our way out of this, no matter how many carbon offset points we buy. We can not make excuses for destructive forest management because forestry creates jobs. (As an aside, why not focus on just transitions that create jobs planting trees rather than felling them?)
We cannot click our way to a green future by just using services like One Tree Planted or the French-based Reforest Action that plant trees for small dollar amount donations. Indeed, even Reforest Action founder and president Stephane Hallaire said in a recent interview, “If you don’t reduce your emissions and don’t stop deforestation, you’re not going to solve anything by merely planting trees.”
Tree planting is a tactic that must follow the vital work of protecting existing trees and reducing emissions, more often than not through direct action. If we are to combat policy moves like mass Alaskan logging, we have to be clear that an apron and a garden shovel aren’t going to save the day.
Solidarity efforts that draw connections between questions of climate justice, capitalism, indigenous rights, fossil fuel and agriculture industries are mandatory. Coordinated, intersectional and collaborative direct action is mandatory.
And like in the Mattole, direct action efforts are ongoing. From Appalachia to the Amazon to the Shawnee Forest in southern Illinois where in October, folks from around the country met to radically converge and carve out plans for the future of forest protection and climate justice. Tree planters ready to dig deeper are welcome.