A forest is not just a large collection of trees

Why tree planting projects cannot replace the value of old growth forests 

By Lucy Radford


Tree planting initiatives are gathering pace around the world as individuals, corporations and governments look for ways to address the impacts of deforestation on climate change. It sounds simple – find land where there is no forest and fill it with seedlings – but a growing body of research shows that tree planting is much more complicated than it seems.


There is more than one way to run a tree planting programme, and unfortunately not all of those ways contribute to solving environmental problems. When it’s done properly – well-planned and with consideration for the local environment, biodiversity and socio-political context – tree planting can provide a whole host of benefits for wildlife and people. A recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology (https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.13725) outlines the key factors that need to be taken into account to ensure that tree planting initiatives are successful. 


One of the most important of these is addressing the drivers of forest loss. Old-growth forests are irreplaceable and it takes decades or even centuries for newly planted trees to develop into a complex forest ecosystem. It is therefore vital for those interested in forests and trees as a method of addressing climate change and biodiversity loss to prevent existing forests being cleared in the first place – perhaps by providing sustainable livelihood options for people who have forests on their land, or by improving legal enforcement for forest protection.


It is also important to reconcile different people’s motivations for planting trees and ensure they are not at odds with each other. There are many reasons why individuals or groups might want to plant trees (from providing shade to offsetting corporate carbon emissions) and those planting the trees might not always be in agreement with others who need to use the land. This is why tree planting is not simply an exercise in plant biology – the social factors and the time spent talking to anyone who might be affected are equally important (if not more so!) Following on from this, monitoring and evaluation of tree planting projects is crucial to ensure that well-intentioned planting initiatives don’t begin to cause problems further down the line. Forests take a long time to recover and develop, and a long period of monitoring to ensure success is also necessary and must be taken into account when planning. 


As we all know, a forest is not just a large collection of trees. A forest includes myriad other plants, along with fungi, insects, birds and mammals. Everything in a forest has its role, so planting trees without thinking about the ecosystem as a whole will not be effective. Some tree planting projects are more like plantations – so yes, they provide tree cover, but they are essentially monocultures and will never function as an old-growth forest does. This is why we are so proud to support projects like SËRA Foundation to ensure that we don’t continue to lose irreplaceable ecosystems like those found in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We hope that by shining a spotlight on amazing projects like this, we can be part of the solution – keeping old forests standing and giving newly planted forests more of a chance to thrive in a world where not all is lost.