Our Tree Program funds Tree Projects, collaborative enterprises that plant and/or regenerate trees throughout the tropics. But what does a Tree project involve? Tree Projects are more than just planting a bunch of trees. They are complex efforts that involve a larger scope, and the outcome may vary depending on the approach and goals.
First, let's look more deeply at the two planting options to re-robe our planet with trees: reforestation and regreening. Then, we'll look at how our Tree Projects go beyond trees and forest establishment.
Essentially, our Tree Projects primarily refer to 'reforestation' efforts or 'forest restoration efforts to emphasize the forest recovery process involved. Reforestation is the natural or intentional re-establishment of existing forests or woodlands in an area considered deforested or treeless. The work consists in re-growing a desired group of trees, perhaps a forest ecosystem, on a given site, for a given goal.
Different management approaches
The resulting forests will have different 'look and feel', depending on the goal when setting up the project.
The reforestation goal might be to re-establish a forest that provides timber and firewood to the local communities to prevent people from felling trees in a nearby natural forest of importance. In that case, projects work towards restoring a 'semi-natural forest'. While not strictly natural forests, semi-natural forests keep some characteristics of nearby natural forests, such as some tree species of the original ecosystem and the capacity for natural regeneration. That is the case with the project in Nepal.
Alternatively, the intention might be to reach the level of a typical old-growth and stable forest. In that case, a more ecologically-focused forest restoration method is used, which works with natural processes that enable the forest to regenerate naturally. For that, projects work towards enhancing soil life, increasing species diversity, and recreating functional ecosystems with interrelated species of plants and animals, including associations with mycorrhizal fungi destroyed during deforestation or forest degradation. The project in Brazil is similar to this model and works towards regrowing a biodiversity corridor from remnant forests, and trees left along riversides.
Regreening the Landscape
In our 'Western imagination', re-robing the planet with trees is the recovery of a forest. Still, a process called regreening increases tree cover outside forests on formerly forested lands but today under different land cover/use. (1)
Regreening occurs outside forests, hence on land not dominated by trees and on land under other predominant land uses. It takes place in rural and urban settings. In rural settings, trees are integrated into cropland, pasture land, communal land, etc.
While not a forest, the landscape may look like a forest from a distance and with perspective, making it a scenic landscape such as the countryside in the South of Mount Kenya (Embu county).
Trees may be associated with intercrops, such as in agroforestry systems. Trees can be planted around farms as hedgerows. They can also be planted along roads, in orchards and small woodlots. Trees may occur naturally, be assisted in growing naturally or be planted. They are protected and managed. Wild trees may be 'domesticated'; hence are cultivated and under management. In other words, trees can be treated or farmed like a permanent crop.
Why regreening, not just reforestation?
The logic behind this is simple: regreening avoids further deforestation and forest degradation of wild forests. Firstly, regreening farm systems improves soil structure and fertility and thus will keep more land in the forest. Secondly, with trees in villages, people won't need to extract timber and firewood from the wild forest around them. Thirdly, in the context of increasing population and demands of land for farming, it is a way to expand or restrict farming to available degraded lands and avoid encroaching on forests.
Rural people in the tropics need trees and forests to survive and make a living. It is easy to understand that rural women in the tropics rely on firewood to cook food. It is crucial to have fast-growing trees near their home, as they no longer have to walk long distances and collect wood from the established/existing forest.
Re-greening may occur on farms under an 'agroforestry' system or design. This is the case with Project Green Hands in India. Agroforestry is the integration of trees with crops and/or livestock on the same plot of land, primarily to increase crop yields. It focuses on the interactions between those three elements in the same plot. Each element is a part of the whole. Most often, agroforestry is a permanent agricultural system, but sometimes agroforestry is just a transitional stage in the establishment of a natural forest. This is in one of the three sites of the International Tree Foundation project in Mount Kenya. Trees are planted by the project, and farmers are allowed to cultivate annual cash intercrops between the trees at the early stages of tree growth (4 to 5 years). In exchange, the farmers protect and maintain the trees. When the canopy closes, and the trees take over, the farmers are given another plot to farm.
In this way, reforestation spreads progressively from one plot to another without resistance from local communities or land conflicts. In fact, for a number of years now, the Kenyan government has been fighting illegal logging in Mount Kenya and trying to evict settlers. However, forest-adjacent people have been struggling to survive or earn an income. So in a certain way, agroforestry is a "win-win" solution for the people and Nature in the context of limited land availability and increasing human population and needs.
Why would people invest in regreening land?
While trees can contribute to land protection and conservation, carbon sequestration in their biomass and the soil. At the end of the day, local people need to find a financial interest in regreening rather than doing business as usual, such as in slash-and-burn traditional practices or intensive farming.
Firstly, farmers will invest in planting trees on their farms because of the benefits they can provide. Primarily the presence of trees boosts crop yields. With trees, more water infiltrates the soil and boosts groundwater. Trees enhance soil structure and fertility. Trees also help farmers raise livestock, often found near homes in the tropics. Thin branches and leaves of trees can serve as fodder to feed a household's animals, such as chickens, goats or a few cows and calves that procure milk.
Secondly, the cultivation of more diverse, productive and profitable crops, trees and other plants bring self-reliance to farmers. It includes economic self-reliance through income generation, nutritional self-reliance through food security and enhanced nutrition from a greater variety of higher-quality medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables, etc.
Moreover, regreening degraded land with trees can help local people cope with the adverse effects of environmental degradation exacerbated by global warming. In the drylands, people are suffering from land degradation and land desertification. But thanks to Project Green Hands in India, desperate farmers in Tamil Nadu are no longer considering selling lands that become unproductive. In coastal areas, such as Eden Reforestation Projects in Kalamboro, trees can help reduce sea surges caused by storms or tsunamis, provide nursery grounds for fish, and people catch more fish.
Seeing Beyond Trees
Tree Projects are not only a planting event but a part of a much larger effort. It takes much more than that and time, which is why we engage in long-term Tree partnerships and comprehensive Tree projects. Ultimately, it is about how it is done to ensure forest reestablishment is a success.
An array of actions and measures are required before local communities see the trees' value and advantages and become the 'guardians of the trees literally'. It doesn't make sense to ask people to plant trees and expect them to take care of them - water them, remove weeds around them, and keep their cattle away when they don't have the time and the extra money to spend on these activities and are struggling to survive and make a living.
Eden Reforestation Projects knows that recovering a healthy mangrove system goes beyond trees. In Kalamboro, families needed to find their way out of debt and prostitution. Essentially they needed a job and a regular income for planting, which is what Eden Reforestation Projects offer through their 'Employ to plant' methodology. Men and women are saving money from income earned. More children are going to school. Fishermen invest in fishing equipment, and women have time and space to think of starting cottage businesses. Slowly and surely, by experimenting and attending awareness-raising meetings, they start seeing the value of trees for themselves.
They see the value of mangrove restoration - because everything is connected, through increasing fish and shellfish yields and the value of planting trees in their home gardens through enhanced nutrition and crop yields. The involved communities eventually feel part of the process and take full ownership of mangrove management. (2)
Local communities often need more than financial aid and a sense of ownership to motivate them. They must become economically and sustainably self-sufficient. They may need training and capacity building to set up sustainable income-generating activities. For instance, International Tree Foundation in Kenya trains self-help groups and community associations on how to set up and operate tree nurseries. An agroforestry project will train and support the local communities in managing agroforestry trees and marketing agroforestry products.
Most of the time, legitimate needs, such as food and firewood provision, also need to be addressed. There is an important link between forests and the livelihood of the poor. Firstly, they depend on forests' timber and non-timber products to make a living and survive. Secondly, local or subsistence agriculture often drives deforestation in the tropics, especially in Africa, where it is the number one cause, mainly for fuelwood consumption. (3)
At TreeSisters, we look for approaches in Tree projects that propose "win-win" land use practices and solutions that are optimal at the ecological, social and economic levels for forests and trees.
An example is regreening farmlands with trees following an agroforestry system. It provides sustainable agriculture productivity and livelihood of farmers. An agroforestry system harbours a variety of tree and plant species, which can be attractive to wild bees, pollinators, and wild animals. And these trees and plants help improve water availability and the water quality of streams.
Agroforestry trees are literally "grown" and taken care of like the intercrops on the farmers' lands because of the benefits they bring - wood, fodder and shade, and increasing crop yield. So they are well cared for and would often be permanent trees. They may be pruned rather than cut down for timber.
In the Eden Reforestation Projects in Nepal, all the trees funded by TreeSisters are planted in community forests. 90% of the trees planted by the project are for forest restoration purposes, while 10-20% are production and agroforestry trees. These latter trees are the ones that the local communities may use or cut down for fuelwood and timber provisions, as well as food and medicinal uses."