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Beyond Tree Planting: People-Centered Natural Climate Solutions

By David Barton Bray, professor in the Earth and Environment Department at Florida International University.

Forest restoration based on indigenous knowledge is critical to effectively tackle biodiversity loss and climate change -- not large-scale tree planting projects.

Since it was first declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, March 21 has been International Day of Forests. As it is now frequently noted for Earth Day, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day? By the same token, given the crucial role that forests play in planetary health, shouldn’t every day be Forest Day? However, for now, we will take what we can, so let us take this day to reflect on forests and how we should be thinking about them.

When I attended the XIII World Forestry Congress in Buenos Aires in 2009, the focus on the conversation was on REDD+ all the time. REDD+ is a framework created by the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties to encourage activities in the forest sector that would reduce emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation, “plus” promote the sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries. At that congress, there was much excitement that forests as carbon reservoirs were about to become a centerpiece of global efforts to stop climate change. In 2015, it was enshrined in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, with parties being encouraged to implement REDD+ activities. However, REDD+ has stumbled while struggling with thorny issues of carbon measurement and the lack of a global carbon price.

Unfortunately, climate change isn’t slowing, and in the search for how forests can play a role in mitigation and adaptation, the conversation has shifted to all tree planting all the time, with or without a price on carbon. In fact, it’s safe to say that now there is confusion in the forestry world about the best path forward for forests. The confusion is reflected in the UN website for the 2022 Forest Day. On the one hand, the theme for this year’s Day of Forests is “Forests and sustainable production and consumption” and the website features a video that touts innovative uses for wood like wooden skyscrapers and plastics substitutes. However, the only concrete strategy mentioned to make this happen is “tree-planting campaigns”. Sticking trees in the grounds seems a lot easier than actually reducing fossil fuel use and carbon emissions. But the current focus on tree planting is obscuring the greater priority of what has been called “People-centered natural climate solutions.”

Are large-scale tree planting projects the answer to global warming?

There is no end to the current global enthusiasm for planting more trees. It began with the 2011 Bonn Challenge, which proposed to restore 150 million acres of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and upped the ambition to 350 million hectares by 2030. Not to be outdone, the New York Declaration on Forests endorsed and built upon this goal in 2014. In the meantime, these initiatives have been swamped by a new generation of super-pledgers, driven by rising concerns about climate change.

For example, in 2020 The World Economic Forum kicked off a project to “conserve, restore, or grow” one trillion trees, with a billionaire promising to plant 100,000 of those. A clothing company is telling customers it will plant ten trees for every purchase. A credit card company has also jumped into the tree planting game, promising to plant trees as you rack of charges.

These efforts do have scientific backing. A 2017 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called “natural climate solutions” evaluated 20 conservation, restoration, and improved land management options, in forests, agriculture, grasslands, and wetlands, that increase carbon storage and/or avoided greenhouse gas emissions, constrained in the modeling by needs for food and fiber security. The authors found that forests have over two-thirds of the potential mitigation and, far and away, the most important was reforestation. A 2019 paper in Science claimed to identify 900 million hectares of land available globally to plant trees, based on lands with enough rainfall to support trees but currently with no forests, agriculture, or urban areas although critics pointed out this included high-profile savannah protected areas like the Serengeti.

Many large corporations are now committing to net-zero carbon emissions. This involves both reducing emissions and offsetting those that cannot easily be reduced. Naturally, offsetting by planting trees rather than actually reducing emissions seems like an attractive option. However, Oxfam has helpfully added up the volume of all the carbon offsetting proposed by major corporations and found that they would need an area five times bigger than India. Researcher Forrest Fleischman has noted ironically “Yeah, we’d need another planet. There is a limited amount of land that’s available for storing more carbon through forestry.”

There are many successful examples of people-centered natural climate solutions which have been operating for decades and need more support.

The studies above and the sudden affection of corporations for tree planting often don’t consider who plants the trees and who takes care of them over the long term to make sure they survive into mature adulthood, and generate benefits for local communities. They also don’t take into account that, as a 2020 article in Bioscience noted, “large-scale tree planting programs have high failure rates.” A study of large-scale planting in Himachal Pradesh, India, on government lands by the state forest department found that local communities weren't provided with enough incentives to take care of the trees. After decades of significant investments in tree planting, the study found “no evidence that [these] projects secured substantial benefits for carbon mitigation or livelihood support in Northern India.”

Forrest Fleischman and colleagues lay out ten pitfalls and misperceptions around large-scale tree-planting campaigns in a 2020 Bioscience article. They kick off the list with “ecosystems, not tree-planting campaigns, capture and store carbon” and close out with “effective climate solutions require social systems that support people to conserve ecosystems.”. Instead of tree planting, Fleischman and colleagues call for “people-centered natural climate solutions.”

Using people-centered natural climate solutions to address climate change and biodiversity loss

Indeed, there are many successful examples of people-centered natural climate solutions which have been operating for decades and need more support. Two of those are supported by the EcoLogic Development Fund. The first is their work with the 48 Cantons of Totonicapan, a traditional K’iche governance institution that manages the Communal Forest of Los Altos de San Miguel a 21,000-hectare forest that more than 150,000 people depend upon for their livelihoods. In addition, the forest contains the largest remaining concentration of the endangered Guatemalan fir tree Abies guatemalensis and, in a recent period, had the lowest deforestation rates in Guatemala. To date, the 48 Cantons reforestation efforts are a little more modest than the sweeping global pledges, but are based on ancestral knowledge and traditions and are firmly embedded in a larger forest ecosystem.

A second example is the Agreement on Joint Environmental Management of the Municipality of Olanchito (MACO), an alliance between AJAASSPIB, the Municipality of Olanchito, and EcoLogic to conserve the 6,100-ha Uchapa-Pimienta watershed, which supplies water to more than 40,000 people. Here, assisted natural regeneration (ANR) actions have been prioritized by the local project team as more appropriate to respond to the scale of loss of pine forest over 950 hectares due to particularly severe outbreaks of the pine beetle in recent years that has affected the vast majority of the pine-oak forest in the area of ​​influence of the project in the Department of Yoro.

These local activities are connecting existing ecosystems and with more support, they could be substantially scaled up.

Again, these efforts may not seem so impressive if stacked up against the pledges of billions of trees, but each one of these trees will be carefully tended. These local activities are connecting existing ecosystems and with more support, they could be substantially scaled up. So if the UN really wants to encourage sustainable production and consumption as well as wooden skyscrapers, it needs to stop talking up only tree-planting campaigns, and focus as much on supporting indigenous and local communities in restoring and expanding entire forest ecosystems.

David Barton Bray is a professor in the Earth and Environment Department at Florida International University. He carries out research on community forest management in Mexico and Central America and pursues interests in natural resource and ecosystem management in Latin America and globally. In November 2020, Dr. Bray added another book to his portfolio: Mexico's Community Forest Enterprises: Success on the Commons and the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene. Dr. Bray is a member of EcoLogic’s Board of Directors


Coleman, Eric A., Bill Schultz, Vijay Ramprasad, Harry Fischer, Pushpendra Rana, Anthony M. Filippi, Burak Güneralp, et al. "Limited effects of tree planting on forest canopy cover and rural livelihoods in Northern India." Nature Sustainability 4, no. 11 (2021): 997-1004.

Fleischman, Forrest, Shishir Basant, Ashwini Chhatre, Eric A. Coleman, Harry W. Fischer, Divya Gupta, Burak Güneralp et al. "Pitfalls of tree planting show why we need people-centered natural climate solutions." BioScience 70, no. 11 (2020): 947-950.

Hess, Katharina Franziska Elisabeth. 2017. "Evaluación de la vulnerabilidad ante el cambio climático de hogares en Totonicapán, Guatemala." PhD diss., Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru-CENTRUM Catolica (Peru), 2017.

Preacher, Amanda. There isn’t enough space for all of the trees companies want to plant. https://www.marketplace.org/2021/11/08/there-isnt-enough-space-for-all-of-the-trees-companies-want-to-plant/ Nov 8, 2021, accessed 3/8/22

Welz, Adam. Are Huge Tree Planting Projects More Hype than Solution? https://e360.yale.edu/features/are-huge-tree-planting-projects-more-hype-than-solution April 8, 2021.