The Queen's Green Canopy, an initiative to commemorate Elizabeth II's golden jubilee next year, asks people across the UK to plant trees, dubbed a "treebilee" by her son, Prince Charles. This is one of a number of public and private projects currently underway, including initiatives by major firms such as Nestle and Audi, which are planting millions of trees to offset some of their environmental impact.
On a much smaller scale, however, there are hundreds of community forestry programmes around the world with goals that vary according on the environment and local people's aspirations. Planting native trees along the Kinabatangan River in Borneo, for example, can help local ecotourism enterprises, while forest projects on New Zealand's east coast are intended to preserve agricultural soils from erosion.
People are more likely to plant the right trees in the appropriate location for the right purpose because of the local context, making each community initiative unique and valuable. However, these programmes are expensive, and obtaining funding can be difficult when donors are so focused on achieving measurable targets and removing carbon from the atmosphere to offset emissions-producing activities. Small local projects invariably suffer the brunt of the burden, incurring high monitoring and certification costs.
Cost of trees with respect with value of forests
The number of trees planted is frequently used as a measure of a reforestation project's success. We've all seen advertisements promising that if we purchase a product, the corporation will plant a tree to offset the cost of production. Trees are generally simple to count and, if planted in the appropriate location, can indicate successful restoration. However, reforestation takes hundreds of years, and badly managed initiatives that plant millions of trees can result in the majority of the plants dying.
That's why successful forest restoration initiatives need a long-term approach, comparing progress to existing forests, capturing "before and after" photographs, and calculating the societal costs and benefits. Counting trees, on the other hand, cannot capture any of this. The health of the ecosystem, soil, insect, bird, or animal populations will not be revealed by a tree census. It also won't tell you if local communities are losing or gaining economic prospects, their health, or their spiritual well-being. We need new ways to evaluate initiatives, but none of them are as straightforward or as easy to convey to investors as a tree census.
Synergy between science and local knowledge
Forest restoration requires a mixture of scientific knowledge, experience, and understanding. Regrow Borneo's extensive local knowledge helps us to forecast how quickly specific species grow, which plants offer food for animals (such as orang-utans), and which species are flood tolerant. The most successful local projects rely on this knowledge for the duration of their existence. However, incorporating knowledge into project success criteria is difficult because it is frequently impossible to quantify. Demanding scientific rigour in local programmes might lead to communities abandoning their knowledge, reducing the programmes' usefulness. The issue is that science is lagging behind and must devise new ways to incorporate this knowledge into its experiments.
The goals of community forestry programmes and those of funders don't often coincide, putting a significant strain on the community. Funders are sometimes just concerned with paying a preset amount, which may cover the cost of planting a tree but not the cost of ensuring that a healthy tree thrives. Other donors who are concerned about their reputation seek assurances from projects through checks, certification, and monitoring, which, while admirable, may not capture the entire picture of "success."
Companies that emit carbon, for example, can offset their emissions by compensating forest projects for the carbon they store. Companies, in turn, want assurances, so they will seek out initiatives that have been independently certified. Certification requirements are intended to conserve forests, but they can often restrict local access to forest resources and benefits. The expense of accreditation and staff training is also borne by the projects.
Models in which funders cooperate and pay for monitoring could help small projects overcome some of their budgetary challenges. Our commitment to fair salaries, monitoring growth, and restoring trees lost to flooding or devoured by monkeys has made it difficult to develop a feasible pricing for reforesting a healthy hectare inside Regrow Borneo.
Riskier reforestation areas, such as carbon-rich peat swamps and nature reserves, require more frequent biodiversity monitoring, which adds to expenses and drives prices considerably above the rate at which carbon is traded. A fixed price per tree or every tonne of carbon is an unrealistic expectation because every community has different pay expectations and every forest requires different resources to repair.
We believe in a paradigm shift as a restorative community. By lowering the barriers to small-scale project finance, we can close the gap between funders and initiatives. More pragmatic growth of community-based forestry initiatives is aided by flexible funding structures and less strict certification processes. Projects like Trillion Trees and Restor, which aim to connect and fund community-based projects all around the world, are great examples of effective operating models. We should think about sponsoring a million forests instead of a million trees.