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COP26: “Work with nature in forest restoration,” says respected journalist

  • Some large top-down reforestation projects are failing because governments aren’t taking their cue from nature, says renowned environmental science journalist and author Fred Pearce.
  • In his new book, “A Trillion Trees,” Pearce argues that it is better to hand over control over forest restoration efforts to local communities who have been working in tune with nature for centuries.
  • Pearce’s book offers numerous proofs that despite humanity’s missteps, nature is quietly rebounding in many places, with forests regrowing in parts of the world, and with much maligned alien species at times helping in the process. These are reasons for hope, he says.
  • In this exclusive interview, Pearce tells Mongabay that COP-26 climate negotiators in Glasgow, Scotland, need to listen to and empower Indigenous and traditional community leaders, and not “degenerate into an orgy of tree planting” which may well be counterproductive.

With many parts of the world assailed by climate change-driven forest fires, hurricanes, flooding or drought, it’s hard for an environmentalist to feel anything but foreboding for the future of the world’s precious ecosystems and the people who inhabit them.

But Fred Pearce, a respected former news editor at New Scientist magazine and currently its environment consultant, who has visited 89 countries to report on a wide range of environmental questions, thinks somewhat differently. Author of 14 books, a regular broadcaster and contributor to the Guardian, YaleEnvironment360, the Washington Post and others, he is a keen observer who enjoys thinking outside the box.

In his recently published book A Trillion Trees — How We Can Reforest Our World (Granta, 2021), he draws on his wealth of experience, and on evidence, to shine a light on sometimes unexpected, and often ignored, ways in which nature is responding — sometimes positively — to the ravages it is enduring.

This has led Pearce to conclude that nature is resilient: “One of the terms I most hate is ‘fragile nature’,” he says. “Nature may come back a bit different from what we’d like, but it isn’t going anywhere. We’re pretty fragile but nature isn’t.”

Fred Pearce on a trip to the Mekong Delta. Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

The best way for us to reduce our vulnerability, says Pearce, is to let nature show us the best strategy and follow it. And, he adds, it is almost always local people who know intimately the secrets of their ecosystem, and who are best equipped to help us in this process.

Pearce’s capacity to look carefully at the facts and reject established truths, leads him to some startling conclusions. In his highly readable new book, he argues among other things: that much of the world is quietly reforesting (with a 20-30% increase in forests in eastern and southern Europe, for instance); that a greater population density in the countryside at times benefits an ecosystem because concerned local rural people can carefully nurture biodiversity; that alien species are at times the best approach for reviving damaged ecosystems; and that governments can do more harm than good if they impose a massive top-down reforestation program without consulting local communities.

Recently, on the eve of the United Nations COP-26 climate summit, Mongabay interviewed Fred Pearce via Zoom:

Mongabay: What is the basic message of A Trillion Trees?

If we’re going to have a global reforestation program, in which we plant a trillion trees — and I think we really need this — the most sensible way of doing it is not to go out, with the best of intentions, and plant everywhere, but to stand back as much as we can and let nature do it. And here we need the involvement of local communities, Indigenous groups, and other rural communities, as we’re only going to be successful in reforesting the planet if it’s done with their consent, and more than their consent, their ownership. And that introduces a whole other layer of activity about forest and land rights and, indeed, carbon rights. All these things have to come together.

I don’t see a contradiction between natural restoration and community ownership. I really don’t believe that’s the case because most communities want to conserve their forests and they want to use their forests. There’s a part of the book in which I talk about how we’ve used forests in the past, and that most forests that we traditionally regard as pristine are really very far from pristine, but as much the result of human artifact as anything else.

These logging trucks, causing chaos on a local road, are in Liberia. Pearce asserts that forests once belonged to local people but were taken from them by “corporate subterfuge.” Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

Mongabay: Can you give an example of a large tree replanting scheme that has gone wrong?

Well, there are many, and I could point to examples here in the U.K. But perhaps one of the largest is in China. I’ve visited the Loess Plateau along the Yellow River. It’s heavily populated and erosion has been rampant. It’s not much of a plateau anymore but a maze of hills and gullies. So Chinese engineers are trying to halt the erosion by turning the slopes into staircases of terraces on which they’ve planted millions of trees. It was breath taking during my visit to look down on thousands — probably millions — of cypress trees.

But how successful has it been? The kind of monoculture method they’ve been using there and in the Great Green Wall in the north around the Gobi Desert has had quite a high failure rate and it’s not clear how long the trees will survive after the initial watering ends. The Chinese Academy of Science has warned that the “the newly restored ecosystem is weak and relatively unstable.”  The problem is that ecosystem wasn’t “restored” at all; it was made from scratch by planting trees where there were none before. The lesson is that just planting trees is not an environmental fix-all.

These trees in Mali are part of a natural resurgence process that has occurred on farmland in the Sahel. Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

Mongabay: Could you give an example of a successful tree restoration scheme?

There’s a wonderful story about what’s been going on in southern Niger. Forty years ago it was a byword for drought, hunger and environmental apocalypse. The deserts, it seemed, were spreading all along the southern fringe of the Sahara and people were migrating to the coast. It was desertification, that’s what we called it.

Well, some of that happened, I’m sure. But there’s been quite an extraordinary revival in agriculture and soils. What happened is that 30 or 40 years ago a couple of poor farmers who couldn’t make a living out of their land went over the border to jobs in a mine in Nigeria. They came back to plant their crops a bit late, after the rains had started. They didn’t have time to clear the land, as everyone did, so they planted their crops among the roots, hoping for the best. And, to their surprise, they got a better crop than their neighbors. So they thought: “Hey, this looks pretty good and it’s easy. We don’t have to do the clearing and we get a better crop.” So they did it again the next year and the same thing happened. The trees might have got in the way of ploughing, but they improved the soils, capturing moisture and fixing nitrogen.

There was no looking back. Now planting crops without clearing has spread throughout southern Niger and into Mali. Today there are something like 200 million extra trees in the region. And the farmers are getting better crops, for the trees provide shade and windbreaks, along with fruit and firewood.

So this region that we thought was going to ecological hell actually has come back from the inferno and it’s looking [improved]. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. Everybody doesn’t have a great standard of living, but it’s a lot better than it was.

People and even institutions are learning — or relearning — from this. The history of West and North Africa over the past 60 years is littered with failed efforts to halt the spread of the desert by planting trees where there were none before. But it’s better, this experience shows, to nurture the roots of trees already in the ground. These trees are naturally adapted to the region.

And the lessons of Niger have been applied in countries quite far away. Kenya has many more trees today than it had 30 or 40 years ago, with demonstrable gains in the number of people the land can support and the crops they can grow.

Farmers in Aceh, Indonesia, are planting mangroves in their shrimp ponds as part of a forest restoration program. Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

Mongabay: And as you point out in your book, sometimes nature itself shows us what needs to be done, which is the case in Puerto Rico.

Yes, what happened there shows that alien species aren’t always the ecological carpetbaggers that they’re often seen as. Most of the forests there were cleared for agriculture over a long period, since colonial days. Well, about 40 years ago farmers decided there was a better living to be had in cities, and abandoned the land. Trees came back, but they weren’t, initially at least, native species but African tulip [trees] which had been grown in back gardens in the towns. They could cope better with the really badly damaged soils. And, with them, came birdlife and the birds ate the berries on native trees and dropped the seeds. So now we have a much more mixed system. Some people think that the native species will eventually dominate because they are the only ones that can survive the cyclones. So it seems that the African tulips may do the pioneer work and then lose out.

I’m not saying that all alien species are great. But what we’re seeing, I think, is nature’s dynamism — its ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to come up with innovative solutions. And sometimes they will be solutions that involve alien species.

Loggers amuse themselves by “pirouetting” heavy machinery, as they chop down rain forest trees in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo, in the mid-1990s. Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

Mongabay: But aren’t there situations in which local ecosystems have been so damaged that they pass “tipping points” and can’t recover? For example, what is happening in the Amazon with the clear-cutting of forests and their replacement with pasture and soya?

There is a bit of tension in my book between narratives that say that stuff will come back and narratives that say there are tipping points. It varies from region to region. But I also think that some simplistic things are said about the Amazon, as if the Amazon was one unit and it would sort of flip one day and the whole forest would disappear.

Of course, there are certain boundaries where things are changing. Some tropical rain forest ecosystems are becoming untenable because the rain is lost as the trees are felled, and without the rain the trees won’t regrow. And so there are tipping points. But I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it is not necessarily so bad if part of the forest becomes savanna. We shouldn’t think of tropical rainforests as “good” and savanna as “bad.” Some savanna is quite biodiverse.

I’m not saying let’s rip up the rainforest and let it all go. We clearly want the rainforest and not only for its importance for the global climate. But we have to look at what actually happens in a fairly clear-eyed way and recognize that change does happen, and not all change is necessarily bad. In fact, the whole concept of “good” and “bad” as related to change in ecosystems is a difficult concept. Change is not intrinsically bad, but it has consequences and some of them we may not like.

An artisan logger at work in Ghana, cutting timber for local markets. Pearce believes that this kind of small-scale tree cutting does much less damage to forests than industrial-scale logging by businesses exporting timber. Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

Mongabay: We’re hearing quite a lot about the 30 x 30 plan, that is, for at least 30% of the globe’s land and 30% of its sea to be fully protected by 2030 so nature can recover. What do you think of this plan?

It’s potentially very dangerous. It depends how it’s done. Land grabbing isn’t something that just palm oil planters and mining companies do. Environmentalists do it and have done it on a very large scale, taking land from local communities. And many ecologists now recognize that the people they evicted know how to manage the land much better than they do. They’re recognizing the wisdom of local knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, for managing the land while enhancing wildlife and reaching accommodations with nature.

A real landmark moment was the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Congress in Marseille this September. They made a declaration that no more protected areas should be created without free, prior and informed consent from local people. It didn’t go far enough, for it didn’t say that local people should be in charge, but it went a long way.

The whole idea of “fortress conservation,” — [a preservation model which contends that biodiversity protection is best achieved by creating areas where no human settlements are permitted] — lives on in some conservation agencies but there is increasing recognition that there’s a lot of expertise, knowledge and wisdom in the local communities and they also have the ability to deliver things on the ground.

Mongabay: We are currently in the midst of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), the results of which are considered crucial if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. Many world leaders are saying that reforestation must play a key role. What do you say?

Restoration of forests — and other carbon-rich ecosystems such as wetlands, come to that — is essential if we are to close off warming at anything like 1.5 degrees [Celsius, the limit set in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement]. We have to do it as well as ending fossil fuel emissions. So I hope the Glasgow COP won’t allow industrial emitters to get away with postponing the ending of their emissions by funding forest offsets. That would be dangerously counterproductive.

I also hope that it doesn’t degenerate into an orgy of planting. Because we know that naturally restored forests both contain much more carbon and are much more resilient to changing climate, droughts and fires than plantations.

Finally, it is imperative that local communities and Indigenous peoples are in charge of forest restoration and the land on which it happens. That is not just a matter of ecological justice, important though that is, it is also demonstrably the most successful route to delivering nature-based solutions. Many indigenous leaders will be in Glasgow. I hope their voices are heard.

Banner image: Trees in Mali, Africa, part of a natural resurgence process that has occurred on farmland in the Sahel. Image courtesy of Fred Pearce.

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