Environment

Reforestation is a battle for nature, not a battle for us

We've done enough damage where the environment is concerned, argues Fred Pearce. Rather than charging in with bulldozers and trowels, now is the time to give nature some room to repair itself.

Now is the time for reforestation. The task is urgent – to restore nature, to protect the climate and, while we are about it, to restore forest lands to their rightful owners, the world’s forest people. But guess what: if we truly want the return of the trees, the last thing we should do is to get planting.

In 30 years of reporting from the world’s forests, I have learned one lesson. Nature does it best. Let’s put away our trowels and leave the great forest restoration to nature.

We humans have done indescribable damage to our planet. Since the dawn of civilisation, we have chopped down and burned half of the world’s forests. The sound of chainsaws has replaced birdsong from the rainforests of the Amazon to the steppes of Russia and the outback of Australia.

Even so, almost a third of the planet’s land surface is still covered by about three trillion trees. That is an unimaginably large number – more than all the stars in the Milky Way.

Those trees are home to more than half the world’s surviving species. They cleanse the air and water. They deliver fruits and nuts, rubber and timber, honey and medicines. They store moisture in soils to maintain river flows. They control our climate too, by storing as much carbon in trunks, roots and leaves as humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution. And each day, every tree pumps about 50 litres of water into the atmosphere from quintillions of tiny pores on their leaves, keeping the atmosphere moist and cool.

So what we have lost shames us. But what we have left is still immensely precious. And the good news is that the great shaving of our planet may be coming to a close. Deforestation is declining. And in ever more countries, from Costa Rica to Nepal, trees are returning in huge numbers. Even China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, have found room for more. Our planet as a whole has more trees than it did a decade ago.

If we stand back and give them room, forests will regrow

For several years, there has been a political movement built round the idea of adding an additional trillion trees by planting up formerly forested lands, and even foresting our great grasslands. Deserts, even.

I buy the ambition. We need a great global reforestation. A planet with a trillion more trees would be a much better place. My problem is not with the ambition, it is with the word ‘planting’. It implies – it requires – a global industry, taking over farms and former forest land, often riding roughshod over local rights, all in the name of reforestation. I fear this would end up being bad for people, bad for many forests and, in the end, bad for the planet too.

It would also be almost entirely unnecessary. We don’t have to do the planting. We shouldn’t do the planting. Nature will mostly do it for us. And recent research everywhere from Brazil to Britain should confirm that nature will do it better.

If we stand back and give them room, forests will regrow. For the great unheralded truth about our forests is that they are far from being passive victims of our assaults. Everywhere they fight back to restore their domain. And in ever more places, nature is on the march.

Europe has a third more trees today than it had in 1900. Most of them were not planted. They grew back on abandoned farmland. Or take a look at Niger in the African Sahel, one of the world’s most arid, poorest and hungriest nations. Farmers there have stopped digging up buried roots in their fields and instead encouraged them to grow.  They have 200 million extra trees and have been rewarded with better grain yields, richer soils and healthier families.

A region once thought to be succumbing to the advancing Sahara is now greener, wetter and cooler. If they can restore natural treescapes there, it can be done almost anywhere.

As a science and environmental journalist, I have been reporting on the world’s forests for more than 30 years now. I have seen deforestation being carried out on a terrifying scale from the Amazon to Borneo, and Siberia to West Africa, mostly to put meat on our tables or paper in our printers. But I have also seen people protecting trees and restoring forests from Kenya to central China, and Guyana to the Scottish Highlands. My book, A Trillion Trees, tells their story.

From my journeys, the lesson seems to be consistent: we can put our trowels and bulldozers away. We can pack up the seed nurseries and put our money back in our pockets. In most places, to restore the world’s forests we need to do just two things: ensure that ownership of the world’s forests is vested in the people who live in them and know them best; and give nature room. Rewilding the Earth does not mean an orgy of replanting; it means almost the exact opposite.

A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World by Fred Pearce is out now (Granta, £20)

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