Forest News #13

This month: a chinese app and 100million trees, how the "Global tree restoration potential" study ignited a global tree discussion (and why that's good), the role of technology in connecting people to restoration work, and why urban greening needs to be in the global toolbox.

What happens if a financial company creates a mobile app where users can get points for behaving in a “good eco-conscious” way and, with enough points, can trade them for a virtual tree which is also linked to a real tree (paid by that financial company)? Is it social conditioning or a contribution for a better world? Maybe both.

New members

  • Our latest member hails from Kenya. BICO (Biodiversity Conservation) is focused on planting and capacity-building work to help restore the Mau Forest complex. This mountain watershed forest has a critical role since it stores rain during the wet seasons and pumps it out during the dry months, feeding major rivers and lakes in the region. This ensures the water supply for millions of people to drink, grow food and generate hydro-power year-round. 25% of the forest has been destroyed in the past decades, directly and visibly impacting live in Kenya and surrounding countries, as reported by the BBC and better detailed in this CIFOR article.

Big numbers get people’s attention

900 million hectares of forest can be restored now, without affecting agricultural or urban areas”. This was the key headline from the Global Tree Restoration Potential study by the Crowther Lab team, published in the prestigious Science journal and quickly in the news around the world, spreading like wildfire. Besides giving a global number and potential effect on atmospheric CO2, the study also provided a map indicating where this can be done (nice overview at the Crowther Lab’s research page).

All in all, this was a tremendous piece of science and a communication success, with very good timing. But what are the impacts of restoring so much forest? Are people prepared to do this well? How will it affect other ecosystems (some even better at storing CO2), the balance of different landscape uses and even the water circulation between countries?

Many scientists, practitioners and other stakeholders have been dealing with such questions for a while and this study brought the discussion to the front stage, which is good. Several scientists offered their opinions and critiques of the study in Science (subscription link) and other publications. We would like to highlight two pieces: “Trees and water: don’t underestimate the connection” and “Why there’s more to ecological restoration than ecology”, both published by CIFOR.

In the meantime, other scientists from the Crowther Lab team published a global map of earthworm distribution, also in Science (subscription link) magazine, adding another piece to our understanding of the world life web. Earthworms are a key part of healthy, living soils and seem to fascinate scientists. Charles Darwin, famous for his treaty On the Origin of Species, spent 40 years of his life studying them at length, with fascinating insights (read more here). The results where published in 1881, in a scientific best-seller of the time nicely titled: The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms Darwin library link).

Connecting people to restoration work through technology

Planting a tree can (still) be done in a very low-tech way but the role of technology in forest restoration efforts is becoming more and more present. Small drones are becoming a common tool to collect data near the ground, even in remote locations, while satellites monitor larger changes in real-time, day after day. Computer models can take this data to track growth rates and diseases – even in individual trees – and advise on measures needed. At the same time, people can connect and engage around the world, sharing detailed knowledge and individual stories. All these powerful tools create a huge potential for positive change and a more sustainable use of resources, helping to address the global concern we see in the media and on the streets.

Our work at Reforestation World brings us in touch with many different organisations and ideas. We would like to highlight a few – for us – noteworthy examples, where technology is used to create a deeper understanding and even an emotional connection to all these projects and actions.

  • Maps and stories: OpenForests is a small, multinational team based in Germany that works with forestry, agroforestry and conservation projects around the world. One of their specialities is using visual data and maps to better manage the projects and to enrich the communication with investors and donors. Their tool connect maps with text and media updates from the projects, turning a map into a canvas for a story (as detailed in their interesting blog post). The team also helps organisations to make detailed surveys with drones and to combine data from different sources (drones, satellite, field data, etc.), giving them tools that improve the analysis and management of their efforts.
  • Tree and the city: SUGi is a young global re-wilding community, dedicated to making urban spaces greener through quick projects. It is also a mobile app that allows people to discover and fund these projects directly. Besides their catchy design, an interesting aspect is their focus on projects that use the Miyawaki method. This is an approach pioneered by Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki, which can create dense and highly diverse mini-forests with low maintenance needs in a very short-time span (detailed in this JSTOR article).
  • Good behaviour + virtual tree = real tree: one of the great promises of web-based technologies is how fast they can scale-up, increasing the number of users reached by their product. Many companies see a potential to cause large-scale change. With its 500 million users and over 100 million trees planted so far, as presented in the video above, Ant Forest is a dramatic example of this potential. Ant Forest is a app created by Ant Financial, a mobile payment provider that is part of the Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group. As the company explains, this is a way to combine its social engagement by rewarding its users for adopting low-carbon choices in everyday life while contributing to the Great Green Wall effort in China. This is one of the largest afforestation efforts in the world, which has been highlighted by NASA although there are also serious concerns about choosing monoculture plantations instead of natural regeneration methods.
  • Eyes in the sky, fire on the ground: wildfires were a dramatic news topic of this Summer. Images of remote areas in the news showed not only the extent of the tragedy but also how powerful and useful current satellite monitoring systems can be to track these events and guide the response effort. The Earth Observatory, run by NASA, is a great example and it’s also notable that this data can be integrated in interactive maps like the Global Forest Watch – Fires online tool or Planet’s products. The combination of broad satellite coverage with making the data accessible to the general public almost in real-time (in some cases) has enabled its usage by scientists, NGOs, public agencies and businesses for everyday processes.

Urban Nature

As heat waves become longer and more frequent in the age of climate change, cities around the globe are making efforts to expand their green areas, which can minimize the urban heat island effect. A recent study in a midsized city in USA showed that temperatures can be up to 5 C cooler during the day in parts of the city where there is significant tree coverage – about 40 per cent canopy cover -, versus areas that are heavily paved.

However, planting more trees is easier said than done, as the city of Boston (USA) learned after its failed attempt to plant 100,000 new trees. Many trees perish due to poor maintenance or lack of watering, or fall to development. Fortunately, new  approaches and strategies are being developed to overcome these obstacles.

Planting trees in cities, however, is not something new and we should also look to the past and learn from it. For example, already during the 1900’s, New York City began planting trees systematically to improve the urban climate. Before that, trees could be entirely absent from a neighbourhood. To overcome bureaucratic obstacles, citizen organizations helped homeowners plant trees in front of their residence and along tenement blocks, giving origin to some of the first citizen environmental movements. 

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