Burning Issues

Can Money Bring Back Forests

                                 Can Money Bring Back Forests

-Usha Nair

Print some money and give it to us for the rain forests-Vivienne Westwood

There is an all pervading belief the world over that every crisis has a quick fix solution, and money is the panacea to all problems. Several countries are daily battling critical levels of air pollution, and globally 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record. The Heads of State from 196 countries, recognising the increasing threat of air pollution and the importance of preserving forests, agreed at the recently concluded Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015, to help developing countries by providing $100 billion a year from 2020 onwards for protecting their forests, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+), and as incentives to replant.

These lofty aspirations have been met with scepticism from several quarters, as it is alleged that the devil lies in the detailing. While the world is struggling today to limit global warming to below 2degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, none of the countries are legally accountable in case of default in complying with the goals detailed in the Paris agreement. Further, providing of funds may falter at the altar of other overriding priorities of developed nations. Responsibility is now voluntary and shared between all countries. Moreover, the money to be made available is not guaranteed from the public purse. Instead, finance will come largely from unpredictable “market mechanisms” such as carbon offsets. Nearly all developing countries have put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDC), to show what they plan to do over the next 20 years to reduce their emissions. These range from planting tens of millions of trees and developing solar power, to reducing emissions from coal and cutting subsidies for fossil fuels. Most are dependent on money being made available from carbon financing via the Green Climate Fund.

If we examine the plans for afforestation and reforestation, it begs several questions. Can afforestation and reforestation bring the forests back? Are money/funds the only requisite to restoration of the ecological equilibrium?  What exactly is deemed as a forest? Under United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism, forests consists of trees with at least a height of 2-5metres,with crown density of 10-30%  over an area of 0.05- 1 hectare. One section of conservationists cites the success of AR projects undertaken in Africa, S America, and India. Thus Hyder El Ali, through his NGO Oceanium planted 500,000 trees in 2007 in Senegal and 6.3million saplings across its 156 villages in 2008. Sebastian Salgado and his wife Leila, bought in 1997, 700 hectares of deforested land in Brazil and planted 1.5 million trees and over 10 years transformed the area into a natural reserve. In India, Sadhguru sought to restore the ecological balance in Tamil Nadu State, and as part of his project Greenhands, planted 850,000 trees in 2006.

Tiger hiding among Dhonk Trees in Ranthambhore
According to others, while reforestation is the right way forward, afforestation is fundamentally flawed in that it assumes that the loss of forests or other natural habitats as a result of development projects can be ‘compensated’ by simply planting trees. Paul Dirac comments that ‘God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world’. Forests and other natural habitats are extremely complex ecosystems that have evolved to a state of ecological equilibrium over millions of years, with their full complement of pollinators, seed dispersers, predators and prey. These natural habitats are the repositories of rich biodiversity, which is already under extreme stress. The ‘compensatory afforestation’ that countries have adopted so far predominantly consists of raising artificial plantations of non-native species of trees, with zero biodiversity value. Even where plantations of mixed species of native trees have been raised, they do not come anywhere close to replicating the natural habitat that was destroyed. Commercial afforestation is a cause of major environmental degradation and social problems in many parts of the world. Effects of large-scale monoculture tree plantations, especially on grassland biodiversity, can be disastrous. 

Thus in India, from 1980 to 2005, the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited (KIOCL) strip-mined hill slopes and dumped over 150 million tonnes of tailings into a pristine, 100 metre deep, forested valley. To ‘compensate’ for this loss of natural habitats, KIOCL planted millions of non-native species on adjoining areas, destroying the natural grasslands. In China, large swathes of land were cleared for agricultural and developmental purposes. In the current millennium, China recognised the dangers of deforestation and annually increased its forest cover by 11,500 square miles, according to a UN2011 report. But recent studies by conservationists tell a different story. Luoma   in a 2012 analysis titled ‘China’s Reforestation programs –Big Success or Just an Illusion’ has summarised on- the- ground findings which question the long-term viability of large acreages under non-native tree species and monoculture plantations. 

An ambitious project, tipped to be the world’s  largest ecological restoration exercise ‘The Great Green Wall”, which commenced in 1978 and will continue till 2050,  designed to eventually plant nearly 90 million acres of new forest in a band stretching 2,800 miles across northern China, has come under scrutiny. Millions of saplings sown, have largely failed to take root.85% have failed, according to Beijing Forestry University scientist Shixiong Cao and five co-authors. David Shankman ,  a co-author of the study, says over the years the plantings have tended to eventually deplete local soil moisture and die en masse simply because the planted species “are not native to the region’. In the process they also destroy the native underbrush which are unable to access sunlight (because of the thick canopy overhead), and water (owing to depleted water table).

Attempts to control desertification and soil erosion by afforestation have had little success,” Cao and his fellow researchers conclude. South Africa already has more than 1.5 million hectares of alien tree plantations, mostly composed of eucalypts, pines and wattles. Timber companies are, however, increasingly acknowledging the negative effects of afforestation. In South America, the depletion of 20% of the Amazon rain forests in the past 4 decades, surpassing the previous 450 years, have compelled some of the countries, particularly Brazil, to take stringent measures against deforestation.

Decades of experimentation have established that regeneration and forest management, avoidance of deforestation, reduction of forest degradation translates directly into reduction in greenhouse emission that can be measured, monitored and verified for carbon sequestration and carbon revenue.  So while there is unanimity on the benefits of reforestation, there are fewer votaries for afforestation as a sustainable option.  

Afforestation runs several risks including financial, administrative and governance issues. The choice of land, soil and trees are critical to the success of an afforestation project. Wrong choices could contribute to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, harmful impact on local livelihood. Water intensive forest plantations utilise scarce local groundwater and monoculture plantations render the soil nutrient-deficient, all of which will adversely impact food crops. Besides natural hazards, financial risks are immense, as it requires substantial financing at the beginning and takes time to deliver revenue and benefits. Investors face high initial costs and delayed returns. These projects demand qualified consultants with expertise on biodiversity, hydrology and land ownership structures. The social and legal impact can make it expensive with potential for conflict. Instances of misuse of funds and shifting of financial risks to the farmers are many. Long- term sustainability is not guaranteed and hence the reservations expressed against deployment of scarce funds in afforestation projects.
In an incentive driven world, the mere planting of trees will not bring the forests back. The availability of funds as incentives for increased forest cover has to be judiciously allocated and utilised towards sustainable forest growth.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The greater challenge is whether Man can undo the damage he has done and restore the ecological equilibrium in time to arrest rising temperatures and climate change .Otherwise doomsday is just around the corner!!

Usha Nair is a nature lover and can be reached at  ushaenvironment@gmail.com

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