Planting a tree is arguably one of the most iconic conservation actions. Its beauty and power lye in its simplicity and accessibility. It represents the small deed everyone can do to invest in a greener future. It is also the classic unit of forest restoration measures. Naturally, conservation efforts go further than planting trees… and it also goes further than restoring damaged ecosystems. This is something that conservation groups are aware of, but that often gets lost in translation when it comes to public opinion. Maybe due to selective hearing or due to oversimplification of the message, a perception that ecosystems can (to some extent) be restored is leading to procrastination in taking the necessary measures to prevent further anthropological impact. This subconscious mentality is prevalent across society and influences decision leaders, industries, and the domestic household. As a result, rates of forest loss continue to increase, despite all the goalsetting and international conventions in the past decades. Protecting the remaining pristine ecosystems and tackling the causes of ecosystem loss is a priority and delaying doing so has irreversible consequences.
WHEN PLANTING TREES IS HEALING AN ECOSYSTEM
Planting trees is more than iconic. As a restoration tool, it is a fundamental boost in the recovery of a forest, especially when paired with other measures. Trees are ecosystem engineers, as they grow, they not only create a habitat for themselves but also for other species to thrive on. Trees also have the potential to remediate and contain long-lasting impacts such as soil pollution by mine tailings containments and industrial contaminants1.
With the current rate of destruction of natural ecosystems and the ever-increasing threats of climate change, restoring all forms of ecosystems is a necessary course of action. Forests, particularly tropical rain forests, are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet and provide habitat for countless species, many of which endemic. Deforestation of tropical rain forests, particularly pristine primary forests, has increased over the past decades, despite the efforts to tackle the main causes. In the 2010’s decade, the loss of primary forests was 30% higher than the previous decade2. Reversing the damage requires a holistic application of restoration strategies, conservation measures and implementing sustainable alternatives to the underlying social needs that are driving deforestation.
The green belt movement, led by Professor Wangari Maathai in Kenia, is a success story on how having an integrated approach to ecosystem restoration can lead not only to the recovery of local ecosystems and water sources but with it revitalise the livelihood of local communities. It encouraged women to grow seedlings and plant them, to counteract the environmental changes that they were experiencing in the rural areas: a decrease in the flow of streams, in the availability of firewood, and in food security. The simple act of planting trees in the watershed led to the successful reversal of the pattern, reviving 65 springs, enhancing the microclimate and the availability of associated resources. The more beneficial effects returned from the efforts, the more public opinion changed, catalysing the success of the movement3.
WHEN PLANTING TREES IS HITTING THE SNOOZE BUTTON
Ecosystem restoration success stories provide some comfort and hope for the future. It is important to be aware that they do not justify procrastinating conservation efforts with a mentality of “it can be fixed later”.
The preferable ecosystem protection strategy is preventing damage, as healing that damage implies investing more resources (time being one of the most limited ones) than protecting it, for far less desirable results.
As a metaphor, the process of restoring an ecosystem is like cleaning and suturing a deep cut: Better than nothing, but far worse than getting cut in the first place. Restoration is simply assuring that the environmental conditions are favourable to the cure. But just like a body, its nature itself that cures, and that cure takes time. During that process, there is less resilience against other threats (such as an infection in a wound) and a high risk for permanent scars (the loss of endemic species, loss of genetic diversity and profound alteration of ecosystem guilds).
HOW MUCH TIME FOR A RAINFOREST TO RECOVER?
After a rainforest is disturbed, the ecosystem will respond with the succession of plants and associates to fill the void created by the disturbance. A rainforest going through that period of succession is called a secondary forest, and while this succession confers resilience to the forest, it is not equivalent to the primary state of the forest. It has different species composition such as a decrease of endemic species. It also results in a change of the ecological guilds, as there is a decrease in non-pioneer plants and a decrease in the dispersion of seeds by animals. These changes can take between 1 and 4000 years to recover to the original state of the rainforest, depending on the degree of disturbance. It is possible that due to the severe depletion of a rainforest, such recovery may take even more time. Beyond that, the restoration of a rainforest’s original form may never be complete, due to irreversible loss and change in biodiversity4.
With such perception in mind, it is easy to understand how protecting a rainforest from disturbance could be a far more efficient use of time and resources than restoring it. In the case of rainforests that have already been disturbed, the sooner protection and restoration efforts are applied, the less the extent of irreversible damage and easier the recovery.
Moreover, the spillover from protected areas can have positive effects on the surrounding non-protected areas5. In other words, the “health” of the ecosystem spills into its boundaries under the form of biodiversity, catalysing the recovery of nearby rainforests and increasing their resilience to disturbance.
THE DECREASE OF AFRICAN RAINFOREST IS OF GLOBAL IMPORTANCE
Primary rainforests are the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem. African rainforests, such as the West Africa rainforest and Congo Basin rainforest are biodiversity hotspots of global and local importance, hence the urgency in assuring its protection, particularly the locations that are still pristine.
Forests continue to decline globally, and primary forests take the highest rates of loss. In tropical Africa, shifting agriculture and commodity-driven deforestation are the most prevalent causes of forest loss 6. In West Africa, 1.4 million hectares of primary forest was lost between 1990 and 2005. In 2020, the rate of primary forest loss rose 36% in comparison with the previous year. In the Congo Basin similar tendencies are observed: In Cameroon, Africa’s most biodiverse country in plant species, deforestation of primary forest doubled in 2020, in comparison to 2019. Since 2002, Cameroon has lost 708 000 ha of primary forest. Between 2002 and 2020, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has lost 5,318,708 hectares of primary forest, an amount second only to Brazil. In 2020 alone, DRC lost 490 000 ha of primary forest7,8.
A recent increase in shifting agriculture in the congo basin is thought to be associated with the loss of jobs in urban areas due to the pandemic, and consequent migration towards rural areas. An increase in the price of commodities such as palm oil and cocoa are also thought to have driven the increase of the activity. These recent effects highlight how intimately the health and needs of local communities are correlated with the impacts felt on nearby ecosystems. Conservation efforts need to consider these needs and take initiative in implementing sustainable alternatives. Resolution of the current environmental crisis is only as successful as the remediating approach is holistic.
GROWING AWARENESS ON A HOLISTIC APPROACH
While restoration efforts are a crucial part of the work that needs to be done to reverse the damage done to natural ecosystems, it is not the panacea of conservation.
The loss of primary forests not only threatens biodiversity but also jeopardizes carbon sequestration and severely undermines resilience to the growing climate change effects and multiple anthropological impacts. The consequences that such loss has on humanity are felt first by local and indigenous communities but ultimately have global implications7.
Assuring the health of existing ecosystems is the most urgent and time-effective measure, for it protects not only full-grown trees at the climax of their function but all the biodiversity and ecological guilds that are associated with it as well – a value that if translated into restoration effort would be priceless. The spillover and ecosystem services resulting from such protection will also catalyse the restoration of nearby areas.
Protecting existing ecosystems goes beyond the creation and enforcement of protected areas: the fundamental causes of disturbance should be tackled. Hence the need to apply an integrated approach in conservation to guarantee long-term success and health of the natural environment. That approach needs a change in awareness and action from every single one of us.
“Restoration is not a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. It is just one of a huge portfolio of solutions that we so desperately need.” – Thomas Crowther
1. Prausová, R., Michal, Š., Rauch, O. & Kovář, P. Trees as Ecosystem Engineers Driving Vegetational Restoration/Retrogradation of Industrial Deposits in Cultural Landscape. J. Landsc. Ecol. 10, (2017).
2. Indicators of forest extent: Primary Forest Loss. World Resources Institute Available at: https://research.wri.org/gfr/forest-extent-indicators/primary-forest-loss. (Accessed: 27th April 2020)
3. The Green Belt Movement. Available at: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are/our-history. (Accessed: 25th April 2021)
4. Liebsch, D., Marques, M. & Goldenberg, R. How long does the Atlantic Rain Forest take to recover after a disturbance? Changes in species composition and ecological features during secondary succession. Biol. Conserv. 141, 1717–1725 (2008).
5. Fuller, C., Ondei, S., Brook, B. W. & Buettel, J. C. First, do no harm: A systematic review of deforestation spillovers from protected areas. Glob. Ecol. Conserv. 18, e00591 (2019).
6. Curtis, P. G., Slay, C. M., Harris, N. L., Tyukavina, A. & Hansen, M. C. Classifying drivers of global forest loss. Science (80-. ). 361, 1108–1111 (2018).
7. Weisse, M. & Goldman, E. Primary Rainforest Destruction Increased 12% from 2019 to 2020. World Resources Institute Available at: https://research.wri.org/gfr/forest-pulse?utm_medium=media&utm_source=article&utm_campaign=globalforestreview. (Accessed: 22nd April 2021)
8. Global Forest Watch. Available at: https://www.globalforestwatch.org/. (Accessed: 23rd April 2021)
Author : Nadja Velez