Is Reforestation the Answer to Deforestation?

Doubts persist about whether planting trees can make up for those we're chopping down.

Farmer Bedebo Banta walks near his land in Abela Longena, Ethiopia. The hillside in the background was recently almost entirely deforested. (Photo: UNFCC)

Apr 27, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Markos Takiso remembers the traditional approach to forest management practiced when he was a boy growing up in a mountainside village in southern Ethiopia. Out of charcoal for your oven? Chop down a tree from the nearby forest. Need some quick cash? Chop down a tree, and sell the charcoal by the side of the road. Need a new hut for your brother’s growing family? Chop down a few trees. The more the better—it’ll save you the trip next time you need something.

“We had no awareness,” Takiso, now 28 and a part-time truck driver, explains over orange sodas at a roadside stand near his village of Abela Longena. “We cut everything down.”

Over the years, as the village grew, Takiso saw the nearby forest begin to shrink and felt the powerful mountain winds whip through, blowing dust across town. With fewer trees, Abela Longena received less rain for cattle and crops. Life became more difficult.

Abela Longena is no exception: Ethiopia has lost more than 95 percent of its native forests to agriculture, grazing for livestock, development, and the making of charcoal for traditional ovens. The situation became so desperate in recent years that the Ethiopian government tried to ban chopping down trees, to little effect: Without charcoal to cook and boil water with, and without lumber to build and maintain homes, many would die.

So about seven years ago, the World Bank came to Ethiopia with a new strategy for combating deforestation. Abela Longena would be its proving ground.

The idea was simple: Instead of punishing poor villagers, incentivize them to save the forests by paying them to become tree farmers. Their product would not be timber, but rather the sequestered carbon dioxide living trees soak in—which could be sold by the ton on the global cap-and-trade carbon market established by the Kyoto Protocol. Villagers like Takiso would see their quality of life improve, and carbon-polluting nations could reduce their impact and help mitigate global warming by equalizing emissions.

Sales of carbon credits the planted trees generated brought the village $700,000—roughly $23 per villager per year in a country where the annual per capita income is $410.

It took time to organize, but three years ago, three Ethiopian villages in the Humbo region, including Abela Longena, began planting trees under a program called the Humbo Carbon Project. Covering roughly 2,800 hectares, the project is the largest of its kind in Africa and the second largest in the world.

Unlike some other reforestation projects, and similar “avoided deforestation” projects, in which carbon emitters pay locals for not cutting down existing trees, villagers are not banned entirely from using the protected forest. As part of the program they receive training in forest management and are permitted to enter the woods to gather downed branches and to sustainably trim trees for material for their homes, or for charcoal. Takiso says he planted more than 200 trees, and though his crop is no more than three to six meters high, he is happy with the early results. “The village is cooler,” he says, “and we get more water during the rainy season.”

Mirko Serkovic, who supervises the program for the World Bank’s Climate Change Policy and Finance Department and is charged with selling the carbon credits on the cap-and-trade market, says Humbo carbon credits were an easy sell. Credits for carbon sequestered by the new trees until 2017 have been sold; as they mature and sequester more carbon, it’s expected emitters will pay more—and a higher price—for the credits.

“The Humbo carbon contract sold for $700,000,” he says. “All of that money will be distributed to villagers.” That works out to roughly $23 per villager per year in Abela Longena—in a country where the annual per capita income is $410. Not exactly life-changing, but a nice supplement. Income from the trees also paid for a new grain storage facility in the village, so farmers don’t have to travel miles to sell to a miller and can wait out temporary drops in commodity prices.

Serkovic says the World Bank, buoyed by Humbo’s initial success, will be pursuing other tree-farming cap-and-trade endeavors.

“Humbo taught us to incentive these projects on the ground,” he says. “Now we’re trying to make them larger.”

The Humbo program, and the concept behind it, is not without its critics: With tropical forests being destroyed at a rate of an acre per second, how effective can planting a few thousand trees be in fulfilling its broader mandate of reducing global warming? Many environmentalists have likened carbon offsets to “papal indulgences,” which provide cover for carbon polluters to continue with business as usual while doing little to combat climate change.

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the social justice think tank Oakland Institute, which has been critical of the World Bank’s cap-and-trade programs in countries such as Sierra Leone, notes that only a few dozen miles to the south of Humbo, in the Omo Valley, the World Bank is supporting deforestation to make way for industrial-scale cotton and sugarcane farms.

“These projects will not only contribute to social and economic injustice but also climate change,” she notes. “In that sense, the cap-and-trade projects [like Humbo] are little more than Band-Aids.”

Laurie Wayburn, president of the American forest conservation organization Pacific Forest Trust, says that while there is reason to be skeptical of creating a new carbon-based financial instrument, “done right, CO2 trading can be very effective. Just like any financial market, there need to be regulations. If you want absolute perfection in the financial market, why use that as an excuse to prevent otherwise good actions? When you look at where we are in the climate crisis, we have to act immediately.”

Wayburn notes that revenue generated from California’s cap-and-trade market, for instance, which has robust financial regulations and enforcement mechanisms, is being used to protect 1 million acres of forest around the country that would otherwise be in danger of being logged or cleared for development.

Regarding the potential carbon sequestration benefits, Wayburn is supportive but realistic.

“Tree planting is an important component in combating climate change, but it takes time,” she says. “Older forests absorb more carbon. Forty percent of CO2 in the atmosphere came from forest loss and degradation. So immediate action in forest loss prevention and forest management is really crucial. Reforestation needs to be pursued along with improved management of existing forests, and avoided conversion.

Enforcement, to ensure the trees realize their potential for carbon sequestration, has been tasked to an NGO called World Vision, which declined to comment for this story. The group has an office near the project site that works with local villagers, and it also hired an armed guard to stand watch over the lone road coming into the forest area. He checks the identification of those he doesn’t recognize and makes sure livestock and other animals don’t eat the saplings.

For the moment, Humbo appears to have generated plenty of local buy-in. “We’re famous!” Takiso says of Abela Longena’s regional renown since the program was implemented.

He says that because of the Carbon Project, the lessons of forest stewardship have begun to spread to neighboring villages. He cautions, however, that the program is not perfect.

“The money is barely enough to live off of,” says Takiso. “It’s enough for food. But things are still the same in our village.

“If a program like this paid just a little more money, it could change Ethiopia,” he says.