COP26 delegations dream of a trillion trees but on whose land?

13 October 2021

COP26 delegations dream of a trillion trees but on whose land?

As COP26 nears, the UK is promoting Nature-Based Solutions as a get out of jail card. But planting trees without respecting local rights will do more harm than good, says Chiara Vitali.

Fires, floods and heatwaves were already pushing the climate crisis ever more dramatically into our lives when COP26, the global climate forum, was delayed by the pandemic. In such times, hope can seem in short supply, but some are finding it in the growing interest in efforts to save and restore forests.

With their ability to store carbon dioxide, protect nature, restore soils and so much more, forests are a crucial weapon in the fight against climate change. As such, efforts to save, protect and plant trees – loosely grouped under the broad banner of Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) - are receiving unprecedented political and financial support.

From the Bonn Challenge (which aimed to revive the world’s lost forests by planting and restoring deforested and degraded land across an area bigger than India), to the New York Declaration on Forests (which aspired to halve global deforestation by 2020); and from the African Restoration Initiative AFR 1000 (whose goal is to restore 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded African landscapes by 2030), to the United Nations’ Billion Tree Campaign (which encouraged a grassroots campaign to plant trees around the world), forests have never had so much attention.

‘Put away the trowels and bulldozers’

As the COP26 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow at the end of October draws closer, the spotlight on forests and stopping deforestation will intensify.

The host, the UK government, is enthusiastically promoting NBS as part of its own net zero ambition, while campaigning for other countries to put more funding towards nature, and calling “on all developed countries and climate finance providers, public and private, to increase their financing of nature and nature-based solutions.”

Boris Johnson put his stamp on the policy by personally announcing that £3bn of UK taxpayers’ money will be committed to nature and biodiversity over the next five years. At the same time, the UK government has initiated a scheme to drive private investment towards nature projects.  

But, while restoration done correctly could deliver crucial benefits for carbon absorption, livelihoods and biodiversity, throwing money at nature is not a silver bullet to end the climate and biodiversity crises. Particularly if the definition of ‘nature’ underpinning these efforts is broad enough to include mass monoculture tree plantations.

In fact, as a riveting new book, A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World, by the author, journalist (and Fern Board member) Fred Pearce shows, unless NBS recognise the rights of local communities, as well as their well-documented role in protecting forests, they can do more harm than good.

Citing evidence from his interviews with forest peoples in more than 40 countries, Pearce writes: “From the journeys I have made through the world’s forested, deforested – and reforested – landscapes, the lesson seems to be consistent: we can put our trowels and bulldozers away. 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: to ensure that ownership of the world’s forests is vested in the people who live in them, and to give nature room. Rewilding the Earth does not mean replanting; it means the exact opposite.”

Pearce’s book couldn’t be more timely, and it coincides with growing momentum among civil society groups to highlight the risks and hopes associated with NBS.

The former includes tree-planting schemes which too often means industrial-scale monoculture plantations, and carbon offset projects based on the false premise that they can atone for the permanent release of fossil fuel emissions.

The latter involves restoring natural biologically diverse forests, and nurturing trees on agricultural land: a process that, to succeed, has to be done in tandem with the people who live in and depend on forests. It must also be considered as fundamental in its own right; it is not an alternative to dramatic reductions in fossil fuel emissions.

It is impossible to ignore the evidence that to protect and restore forests in the long term we must respect customary land rights. And if we heed this – the trillion trees dream that politicians long for might actually come true. And actually do some good as a crucial climate change mitigation strategy.

The Rights Path, a scrollytelling selection of inspiring examples of community-led forest restoration by Fred Pearce, adapted from his book A Trillion Trees: How We Can Reforest Our World, has been published by Fern.

Category: News

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