Tree-planting is the talk of Davos: why this dangerous narrative must be challenged

13 February 2020

Tree-planting is the talk of Davos: why this dangerous narrative must be challenged

Interview with Sara Lickel, Caritas France by Nicole Gérard

The world of commerce seems endlessly creative when it comes to devising means of protecting business as usual, and in getting governments to sign on the dotted line. Davos’ latest idea? Planting 1 trillion trees by 2030 – meaning no need for a carbon tax, or other solutions that might rein in current business models.

But there is a need, and it is urgent.

“Davos is just the latest example of a dangerous narrative we’re seeing everywhere – the resurgence of off-setting,” says Sara Lickel, of Secours Catholique – Caritas France, a Catholic social justice organisation.

“Airlines are doing it, too – Easy Jet wants to be ‘carbon neutral’ through afforestation projects, British Airways and Air France aim for carbon neutrality for domestic flights.

“But they’ve succeeded in putting the cursor exactly where it shouldn’t be: It makes domestic flights and the carbon they generate sound acceptable!” Lickel says.

False carbon offsetting solutions are surging back into political discourse, despite the fact that we’ve already blown our carbon budget! To keep the overall temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, we need to immediately reduce emissions as well as protecting and restoring forests.

“Many businesses want you to believe that, with offsetting, emissions can continue as before. But what is needed is a complete transition of society. Societies must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases – less carbon, less nitrous oxide, less methane.”

The dinner table is a good place to start. “Our food production systems are especially polluting, in terms of deforestation, emissions linked with meat production, chemical fertilizers …. We’re degrading the land and destroying the soil.”

Caritas France promotes an alternative to industrial agriculture, working in coordination with partners in the Global South on small-scale projects. In Senegal, their partner works with small farmers to implement agroecological techniques that improve food security and increase sustainability. In Bolivia, CIPCA (Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado) is training local communities to use ‘peasant seeds’ in order to improve resilience in the face of local climate impacts.

“We must secure the right for small farmers to use their seeds.” Lickel explains, “Hybrid or GMO seeds tend to trap small farmers in indebtedness.” They have to buy new seeds every year, and those are often not even adapted to local conditions. Peasant seeds offer a more positive solution, in terms of social justice clearly, but also environmentally.  

“Local communities and small farmers already shoulder 70 per cent of global food production, often using sustainable solutions that protect the soil for future generations,” Lickel says. “But to encourage small-scale agriculture and family farms, you have to sort out land tenure.”

Caritas France works on land security and on protecting Indigenous Peoples’ and small farmers’ rights and resources.

“To preserve small-scale production, farmers need security. They need to be able to project themselves into the future without fear of losing access to land. In Bangladesh, where people feel that their tenure is under threat, they do not make long-term plans for the land they work on and it makes them choose to use chemical fertilisers. Even they tell us they are obliged to increase these chemicals constantly because the soil quality is worse each year – they can see that they’re in a vicious circle.”

Given the reality experienced by a great portion of humanity, the business-centred solutions currently circulating at forums such as Davos are, at best, misguided.

“Even the term ‘reforestation’ is vague. It can mean planting trees that may be foreign to local ecosystems and will disturb them or could negatively affect local water and food sources. In addition, local and Indigenous populations lose the richness of their forests – often the source of their livelihoods. By encouraging massive reforestation, the foundation of their culture and their income is placed at risk.”

“And when you see how fragile such plantings are … In Turkey, just a few months after the record-breaking tree-planting, most of the saplings are dead. It seems that tree planting is for cosmetic effect. Companies just want to say, ‘you can continue as before – just plant some trees’.”

But we don’t have to fall for it this time.

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