A Big Tech-backed campaign to plant trees may have taken a wrong turn

Roughly half of the land targeted by a major tech-enabled forest restoration campaign in Africa was never intended to be forest, according to a new analysis. Planting trees in the identified area could actually harm grasslands and savannas that may have been accidentally mislabeled as ‘forests’ in need of help, the report concludes.

The article, published in the magazine Science today takes stock of AFR100, an initiative endorsed by 34 governments in Africa and which counts the Bezos Earth Fund and Meta among its major backers. The goal of AFR100, short for African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, is to restore at least 100 million hectares of land by 2030. AFR100 disputes the new analysis.

For forest restoration to be successful, the right types of trees must be in the right places. It’s easy to screw that up, and this recent analysis aims to show just how big a problem one continent can be. Although it focuses on one initiative, the authors say it is likely emblematic of major shortcomings in international conservation campaigns.

For forest restoration to be successful, the right types of trees need to be in the right places, and that’s easy to screw up

“We had already suspected this was a threat, but the sheer scale of it was absolutely enormous,” said Catherine Parr, lead author of the paper and an ecologist at the University of Liverpool. “Some countries where there were no forests at all, who were planning to plant those trees and label it as reforestation – that’s really quite a shock.”

Nearly a fifth of the total area set aside for restoration – 25.9 million hectares – spreads across eight countries that naturally lack forest cover, Parr and co-authors from the University of Oxford and Utrecht University found in their analysis. That includes land in Burkina Faso, Chad, Lesotho, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Senegal and Gambia. A total of eighteen countries have committed to ‘restoring’ an area larger than the amount of forest it should actually have according to the analysis.

“The article is full of many inaccuracies,” a spokesperson for AFR100 wrote The edge in an email. According to AFR100, Gambia is currently not included in the initiative, which would reduce the figure attributable to AFR100 countries to 21.9 million hectares. “Even if Gambia is a member of AFR100, that small country cannot commit 4 million hectares,” Teko Nhlapho, communications officer for the African Union Development Agency that co-launched AFR100, said in the email.

To conduct their analysis, the researchers used publicly available information on the AFR100 website and a database of restoration projects maintained by the environmental news organization Mongabay. After looking up projects taking place in AFR100 countries, the researchers compared those locations to biome maps commonly used to identify what types of habitats are present. They concluded that many of the areas identified for restoration actually contained grasslands or savannas – not forests that need more trees.

According to the analysis, about half of the total area earmarked for restoration in the AFR100 countries is savannas or grasslands, where planting trees could actually harm the local ecosystem. And because Parr suspects that grassland and savanna coverage is underestimated on biome maps, Parr says the numbers in the analysis are actually quite conservative.

The authors argue that conservation groups need to change the way they identify land for restoration. Relying on satellite tree cover measurements is one problem. Another is a standard widely used by conservationists that defines forests as areas with at least 10 percent canopy cover. Parr says this process can incorrectly categorize open areas with a few trees, often savannas, as forest.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Xie Hao/Xinhua via Getty Images

The edge also contacted the World Resources Institute (WRI), a nonprofit organization mentioned in the article that defines forests as having a 10 percent canopy and maintains an atlas of areas it considers ripe for restoration. WRI launched AFR100 together with the African Union Development Agency, the World Bank and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2015.

“AFR100 has made it clear that native grasslands should not be converted into forests and this is reflected in its principles,” Sean Dewitt, director of the forest restoration initiative at WRI, said in an email.

Both WRI and AFR100 said in their responses that the article’s authors should not equate all restoration projects with reforestation. “It must be understood that the total area committed to the AFR100 initiative consists of both degraded forests and farmlands. So it would be a mistake to focus only on degraded forests,” Nhlapho said in an email.

WRI’s Dewitt says that a “vast majority” of restoration projects affiliated with AFR100 are actually agroforestry projects. “Agroforestry projects add trees to existing croplands to improve soil fertility, increase water retention, and reduce erosion of topsoil,” he writes.

However, nearly 60 percent of agroforestry projects use non-native species, Parr’s analysis found. “A good example of misapplied tree-centered approaches is the use of non-forest agroforestry as a restoration tool,” Parr responded in an email. “We agree that agroforestry brings multiple social and economic benefits, but increasing tree cover in non-forested systems is not ecological restoration.”

As tree planting campaigns have become more popular with brands and consumers conscious of their impact on the environment, this has fueled conflict over how effective these types of initiatives actually are.

The drama has not deterred some major financiers

A 2019 study published in Science about the potential that trees have to fight climate change, led to a controversial campaign by the World Economic Forum to plant a trillion trees. Dozens of scientists published their own scathing critiques of that research and the tree-planting projects that resulted from it, saying the study inflated the numbers on how much potential tree planting has to sequester planet-warming carbon. The chief scientific adviser for the Trillion Trees campaign has since left his post, apparently “begging environment ministers to stop planting so many trees” at a UN climate conference in December. Wired reported.

The drama has not deterred some major financiers. “Our partnership with AFR100 has helped us find and fund more than 150 [locally led restoration] efforts, and we are extremely proud of the work they are doing,” Emily Averna, land restoration program officer for the Bezos Earth Fund, said in an emailed statement to The edge. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

Trees have become a powerful symbol for protecting the environment and halting climate change, so much so that they risk overshadowing other wildlife in need of protection. In a literal sense, grasses wither in the shade of trees. Their ‘woodland encroachment’ can displace savannas. “The lions, wildebeest and zebras of the Serengeti need those open grassland systems,” says Parr. “Trees are great, but the problem is that if we get too many in the wrong place, we start to have problems.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *