Tree planting is promoted as a quick fix for combatting climate change, decreasing the threat of desertification and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the reality is that repairing our planet is complex and relies on a variety of restorative interventions. The focus on tree planting leads to funding challenges for people doing actual restoration work on the ground. At the beginning of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, let us move the message beyond trees and towards rebuilding the ecological foundations of ecosystems.
What is an ecosystem?
The world is made up varied and interconnected ecosystems. An ecosystem is “a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscapes, work together to form a bubble of life.” There are both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. They can be as small as a tidal pool or as large as the Amazon rainforest.
Healthy ecosystems provide the ingredients for life. They create fresh water, breathable air, flood prevention, climate regulation, soil fertility, rich and nutritious food and livable areas for human and more-than-human populations. Without the stability of the planet’s current ecosystems, humanity would never have existed; healthy ecosystems are fundamental to life as we know it.
All the components of an ecosystem like plants and animals, are interrelated and connected. The disappearance of one component – such as a bumblebee – can lead to catastrophic and unexpected consequences, impacting both one as well as interconnected ecosystems. And unfortunately, two centuries of industrial human activity is upsetting the balance of healthy ecosystems across the world, even as we only begin to understand their complexity and value.
“When you realize that everything is interrelated and nothing is extraneous, then you feel the heartbreak for how much has been lost” – John D. Lui, Ecosystem Ambassador for Commonland, founder of Ecosystem Restoration Camps
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched this year, is a rallying call to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. The importance of ecosystem restoration is clear. However, there are at present difficulties around the general communication of the best way to restore ecosystems and combat climate change.
Tree planting: “more hype than solution”
In recent years, tree planting has been promoted as a one-stop-shop for combatting climate change, decreasing the threat of desertification and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. In short, tree planting is touted as a simple solution for broad and multifaceted issues.
Of course, trees do play an incredibly important function within some ecosystems. Trees – through the process of photosynthesis – convert carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and nutrients into organic matter and oxygen. Tree planting can be an effective way to draw down carbon dioxide and other emissions in the atmosphere. However, some ecosystems do not have trees – like swamps and wetlands – and when planted in the wrong place, or an invasive species is planted, trees do more harm than good.
Eucalyptus – one of the world’s most widely cultivate trees – lowers the ground water tables when planted in semi-arid landscapes, leading to drought; pine trees planted too closely swamp out all other life and create eerily quiet monoculture “forests”; and the growing criticism from scientists and ecologists highlights how tree planting has become more hype than solution.
Tree planting is a communication tool
Tree planting is easy to understand and almost anyone can get involved. Governments, companies and individuals can offset their “carbon footprint” by donating money to tree planting initiatives around the world. Tree planting is easy to measure and provides great content for social media. Donors and funders of restoration initiatives can easily communicate their impact through the number of trees which they have supported or funded.
The intentions of tree planting programs are positive and well-meant. However, the exaggerated importance placed on tree planting can not only wreck natural ecosystems, but it often limits the work of restoration practitioners on the ground.
Repairing an ecosystem is complex
Restoration practitioners employ a variety of techniques to rebuild ecological functions and repair damaged ecosystems. Hydrological corrections like constructing water ponds, swales and check dams, improve the capacity of a degraded landscape to absorb and retain water – essential for reversing desertification. Planting grasses and bushes prevents further soil erosion, and in some cases fixes nutrients like nitrogen into the soil, further creating fertile soils – the foundation of a healthy ecosystem.
An ecosystem is like an ecological engine. And trees are just one part of the gears of this engine. The other is the soil – which can even be considered as the heart of this engine. Without soil and without nutrients and a water infiltration guarantee – without this health that we want to recover in the soils – we can do nothing.’ – Fernando Bautista Exposito, AlVelAl
Sometimes ecosystem restoration actually means removing trees. In South Africa where alien tree species cover 8% of the country’s total area, restoration practitioners working with Living Lands use controlled fire to remove invasive species. And in the Altiplano in Spain, where overgrown pine plantations prevent biodiversity habitat, AlVelAl advocate for selective pine removal to restore forested slopes back to natural ecosystems.
These techniques are vital for restoring ecological functions and regenerating the world’s ecosystems. Yet currently it is the external funding that drives most restoration interventions, and as it is much easier to understand and communicate about tree planting, that is the work that donors push for. This can limit the work of restoration practitioners. So, we must take the restoration narrative beyond tree planting to consider all the required techniques to rebuild ecosystems.
Broadening the restoration narrative
There is an incredible drive to restore ecosystems, protect nature, reduce the threat of desertification and regenerate livable habitat for people, animals and plants across the world. And 1000s of organisations do great and well-intentioned work. This article is not intended as a criticism. Rather it is a call for us to find a new way to communicate about ecosystem restoration. Because to move forward into this UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we must take the restoration message beyond trees. Only by broadening the narrative can on-the-ground practitioners employ the right intervention strategies and make ecosystem restoration happen to its fullest potential.
How can we better communicate the complexity of ecosystem restoration? Share your ideas in the comments below!
This story was made possible with input and feedback from Fernando Bautista Expósito and Elvira Marín of AlVelAl, as well as my Commonland colleagues.