Are all tree planting projects good for the planet?
Planting and growing trees is one of our best defenses against climate change. However, this is a nuanced solution, as certain types of tree planting projects can actually threaten our planet’s biodiversity. Despite forestation efforts that help strengthen and sustain ecosystems, specific biomes are facing the severe consequences of unsustainable agriculture. The following practices are known to reduce annual carbon footprints in the short-term, but are established through poor management and planning which result in their own secondary negative impacts.
Monoculture tree plantations are “intensively-managed, even-age” planting projects that focus entirely on the cultivation of one crop. Compared to natural ecosystems, poorly-managed plantations can lead to environmental degradation while undermining provision of vital ecosystem services, and therefore contribute to entrenchment of poverty. A study from 2001-2011 on the socioeconomic effects of tree plantations in Chile explains, “...large-scale tree plantation firms have sometimes taken advantage of poor regulatory schemes as well as cheap land and labor.” The goal of many monoculture projects is to turn a quick profit with minimal investment. Factors such as pollution, fair compensation for tree farmers, and impacts on local ecosystems and human communities are often unaccounted for, leading to unintended consequences that affect the entire planet.
Monoculture, or monocropping, is the practice of growing a single plant “in the absence of rotation through other crops or growing multiple crops on the same land.” Large-scale tree plantations can sometimes fall under the category of monoculture, but this term can also refer to plantations with multiple crops growing alongside each other. Common crops used for monoculture include corn, coffee, cotton, and various fruits. Despite increasing productivity and efficiency for profit-makers, this form of farming contributes to a significant decline in biodiversity.
Poorly-managed tree plantations can be unsustainable due to their reliance on human intervention and stark lack of biodiversity. For example, Mongabay reported, “The reality is that [mismanaged] timber plantations have a negative impact on biodiversity, communities, and local economies.” Tree plantations that are designed solely for harvest only provide a temporary fix to mitigating climate change. Any carbon sequestration that may occur is reversed upon deforestation.
Because the same crop is being grown on the same land continuously, the soil underlying monoculture plantations only receives a small sample of nutrients. In such situations, there is little to no chance that the soil can restore itself adequately. The United Nations states that "one-third of the planet's soils are degraded due to inconsiderate methods used in modern agriculture." As a result, significant amounts of nutrients are stripped from the soil, and ultimately the lack of crop rotation disrupts soil fauna. This lack of nutrients forces farmers to use more fertilizers, which can be a double-edged sword, as it can contribute to further soil degradation.
An increase in the use of chemical additives leads to severe consequences from harmful chemicals. Not only do pests become resistant to pesticides, but these chemicals can continue to make their way into crops sold for human consumption. While monocropping is sometimes necessary to meet human demands, it is incredibly water-intensive; coupled with relentless groundwater pollution from the use of these chemicals and outside sources, the impacts are grave. Human communities surrounding farms that use pesticides frequently have been linked to higher incidences of Parkinson's disease, reproductive issues, and even pesticide poisoning.
Palm oil is an increasingly popular product that is often grown in plantation settings. Used commonly in food and cosmetics, palm oil is a productive crop that destroys ecosystems and increases pollution when it is harvested. Rapeseed oil is another popular oil used for cooking and baking worldwide. Its plants are also monocropped, with mismanaged projects giving way to destruction of the environment, since these plantations yield lower-quality products at meager costs. This exploitation of land and labor detrimentally impacts the livelihoods of South American indigenous groups. “The introduction of monocropping into an ecosystem also causes rural depopulation through displacement, destroying local communities and economies. Monoculture plantations usually provide only temporary labour, for which workers are often hired from outside the region.” Therefore, single-crop plantations that do not take locals’ needs into account may fail to enrich their surrounding communities.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that an area of about 300 American football fields, around 400 acres or 1,618,745 square meters (m²), is cleared each hour in tropical rainforests for palm oil production. Considered a high-yield crop at a low cost, it is easy for consumers to be blinded by the staggering effects of deforestation resulting from palm oil. Farmers in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, who are leading producers of palm oil, must clear peatlands to make room for monoculture plantations. Peatlands are incredibly efficient carbon sequesterers, but the degradation of these landscapes results in stored carbon being released into the atmosphere. This environmental destruction routinely strips ecosystems of their resilience, leaving socioeconomically vulnerable communities to experience the worst of the climate crisis.
Maintaining biodiversity depends on sustainable consumerism. Reducing our need for resource-intensive crops such as palm oil and rapeseed will decrease production rates. Buying organic products, which are created through natural means of fertilization, can also prevent significant soil erosion. Crop rotation practices should be put in place to preserve nutrients in the soil. Reducing the use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers can also aid in protecting crops against pests and diseases. Integrating the practice of intercropping, which consists of having multiple crop types grown simultaneously on the same field, can also benefit farmers and consumers in the long run.
Climate- and forest-based policy initiatives around the world must adopt a “systems thinking” approach to ensure that nobody is left behind. Reforestation, including thoughtful plantation projects, can be a great restoration tool if it is implemented properly. Decision makers must consider a world of possible repercussions from their actions; will new policies encroach on local biodiversity? How will they affect surrounding human communities? Will they help us create more resilient ecosystems? No single environmental issue is a monolith. Collaboration between disciplines, sectors, and countries is vital for sustainable restoration of our planet.
Greenstand supports reforestation practices that benefit farmers that care for trees, as well as the environment as a whole. Tracking the successful growth of trees through the Treetracker app ensures that each tree planted will thrive. Through continuous uploaded photos from tree growers, the Greenstand team keeps a close eye on survival rates based on over 1 million tree photo captures in our system.
Our forthcoming Tree Value Matrix is a framework for valuing tree growth that prioritizes sustainable tree growing practices. We plan to take factors such as biodiversity, ecological appropriateness (i.e. whether a tree is native to the area it has been planted in), and management methods used by tree planting organizations. Trees from sustainable, well-run projects, which can include monocropped plantations, should be worth more than improperly managed monocropped trees because, ultimately, trees that are not receiving adequate care will not provide as many ecosystem services as their responsibly-grown counterparts. Trees grown with more environmentally-friendly practices, such as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), would be assigned a higher value Impact Token to reflect that these trees required less resources to produce positive environmental impacts. Considerate, sustainable tree growing practices will not only protect the environment, but also aid in providing communities the food and products they need for everyday life.