Replanting monoculture plantations are not the same as reforestation projects. Often the case in tree replanting, plantations are eventually harvested, which does not contribute to the restoration of biodiversity. Reintroducing entire ecosystems from tree species to animals are needed for successful reforestation and having businesses push for greater discourse. 

A common misconception – perhaps due to the broadness of the word ‘reforestation’ – is that replanting what you plan to use is in the future, is reforestation. To put this into context, every Christmas around 30-40 million Christmas trees are bought in the UK and US. Each year they replant the same Christmas trees in the same fields, which will be felled again the next year – these are not reforestation projects. This is simply replanting recurring crops.

As such, one should approach any company’s promise of ‘reforestation ’ with a certain amount of scepticism. Replanting monoculture plantations, as with Christmas trees, does not offset carbon emissions. Neither does it help rebuild ecosystems destroyed by deforestation.

What Do Reforestation Projects Really Mean?

Reforestation is a container concept – very much like deforestation. The term has several different meanings, with the broadest meaning to replant trees, as shown with the Christmas tree example above. But this is not the image people probably have in their minds when they see or engage with deforestation and reforestation stories in the news. The image people are more likely to have is of tropical birds flying over closed primary forest canopies – not a monoculture plantation like Christmas trees. It’s one of the reasons why you should read the small print, as they say, in any marketing term or message from companies claiming to be involved in reforestation. 

On the other extreme, we have natural restoration, which is when you try to restore the original landscape. Again – restoring natural landscapes is quite a broad topic. It depends mainly on two factors. One, what is your starting point? And two, how actively are you involved?

Let’s give an example to explain. Sometimes there’s no blanket deforestation, but selective logging or maybe forest degradation. In this situation, the forest is not completely gone and forest restoration would be to let the forest recover itself. The starting point could be the result of forest fire, illegal deforestation or selective logging. Now to look at your involvement – some may think if we don’t do anything as humans, the world will be covered with trees again. Sure, but it will take thousands of years. For example, if you have a slightly degraded or disturbed tropical forest and you do nothing, it will recover within 10 to 20 years. This was shown in a recent study from Trillion Trees, which stated 59 million hectares of forest has regrown naturally over the past two decades. Although it pales in comparison to the amount of deforestation occurring each year. On the other hand, if you have completely bare ground perhaps due to forest fires or clear cut logging, you will need to introduce active measures to kick start the restoration process. 

What Reforestation Projects Looks Like 

The good news is these kinds of reforestation projects are going on. An area in Indonesia that was completely deforested 15-20 years ago was reforested through the work of an NGO in order to bring back the natural habitat. This area was completely logged, so grassland remained. The NGO reintroduced tree species, shrubs, and also animals. Now it’s regrown to become more or less a mature tropical forest. This is a really small scale effort of huge provinces that have been reforested. To extend these measures, in December 2020 the government and local NGOs launched the AZ Forest programme, “committing to support a healthy environment and improve socioeconomic development and livelihoods for Indonesians by planting 20 million trees in the country over the next five years.”

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Common Misconceptions Around Reforestation

Some company reforestation promises include investing in commercial tree plantations in the tropics, which is technically reforestation – if using the broader term – and does sequester carbon. But, those plantations will be harvested, which means they are neither adding or offsetting their carbon emissions or restoring biodiversity.

In Europe, and especially in the Nordic countries, there is some reforestation going on. But, is this monoculture replanting of production forests? Are they harvesting the forest by selective logging for logs to build in cabins – such as Brewdogs cabins in their replanted forests – or are they using these forests for furniture production? It’s not clear. Or in Eastern Europe, you can see biomass harvested as fuel for energy production. If we’re coming from an environmental protection point of view, this is not reforestation, it’s just industrial production forests, which happen to have a natural component as a resource. You can hardly call that a natural forest as the biodiversity is very low.

Why Businesses Should Care

We’ve all seen the headlines around 10 football pitches of forest disappearing every day. What we don’t often hear about is the fact that 3-4 football pitches are restored every day as well. In the tropics, the growing conditions for nature are perfect, which means if you initiate restoration activities, you will also get results quite quickly.

If companies that depend on trade or use commodities based on their natural resources don’t make sure that the ecosystem in which those commodities are grown is stable or resilient, it will get to a turning point where there’s no turning back. The commodity production will go to zero and they won’t have any business anymore. We’re looking at 30+ year time scales, which can be difficult for some to focus on, but they have to care about forest restoration if they want to have a business in the future. It’s a broader outlook on the shorter term. 

Thankfully, carbon, biodiversity and biomass are becoming economically valuable to business. And that fits within the general economic discourse in which companies operate. First, we need to translate reforestation efforts into preventing the loss of money – and as we know, money is the only universal language of business. Second, highlight how businesses can make money by trading or sequestering carbon and biomass growth. 

In truth, most if not all people care about biodiversity. You go to the park with your family to enjoy nature around you; looking at the birds, the deer, all sorts of animals in their natural habitat. But there’s a discourse when you then sit in an office operated by governments and business models that are completely drawn and dependent on economic indicators. There’s no wildlife parameter in the business model – yet – but there is a dollar or a euro parameter. As such, if we can attach a monetary figure to wildlife – just as we are with carbon – we can influence the direction of the business.

Whilst reforesting promises currently being made are better than nothing, they must change to create and make promises to reforestation that restores natural habitats, not just plantations. To truly make a change, we must reintroduce an entire ecosystem – the tree species, shrubs, and animals – not just monoculture plantations to be harvested each year or so. For companies wanting to future-proof their business, reforestation must become as important as stopping deforestation. Or there won’t be a planet left for them to do business on.