10 Questions All Funders Should Ask Before Supporting Tree Planting Campaigns

In recent years, as the impacts of climate change have become more pronounced, tree planting has often been touted as a “natural climate solution” to capture and store global warming carbon dioxide emissions while conserving biodiversity and improving people’s quality of life. .

Environmental studies professor Karen Holl, who has studied forest restoration for nearly three decades, can attest to the importance of protecting existing forests and restoring forest cover where it has been lost. But true forest restoration is a complex undertaking that requires careful planning and long-term maintenance and investment.

Holl and his frequent research collaborator, Professor Pedro Brancalion of the University of São Paulo in Brazil, worry that the widespread fervor for tree planting is ignoring best restoration practices. Tree-planting efforts have reached crazy proportions, with large-scale organized campaigns, carbon offset credits, corporate responsibility pledges and individual donors all contributing to a largely unregulated global enterprise.

“Billions of dollars are being spent on this, and if we’re going to see positive results, it’s important to think carefully about where all that money is going,” Holl said. “Otherwise, the risk is that we could waste money on projects that will fail or, worse, have adverse effects.”

That’s why Holl and Brancalion recently published the following set of research-based questions that all potential funders should ask before deciding to support a reforestation campaign:

  1. What do you hope to achieve by growing trees?
  2. Do the proposed arboriculture strategies correspond to these objectives?
  3. How were the initial drivers of deforestation and forest degradation assessed and addressed?
  4. How are local actors involved in the project?
  5. What benefits will they receive?
  6. How will the potential negative consequences of the project be minimized?
  7. How will the project be maintained and supported after the first years?
  8. How will project results be monitored and guide adaptive management?
  9. What are the results of previous arboriculture efforts overseen by this organization?
  10. How will funding be distributed across organizational scales?

Some of the questions are designed to ensure that funders appropriately assess the risks and benefits of projects. Planting trees in the wrong places can reduce limited water supplies and destroy other types of biodiversity-rich ecosystems, such as grasslands and savannahs. And launching projects without proper engagement and buy-in from local communities can lead to social conflict, loss of income and displacement of people, which can actually increase deforestation.

Even when projects are going well, there are usually trade-offs between objectives such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity and benefits for local stakeholders, which is why it is important to have a clear vision from the start. start. Donors also need to be realistic about what tree planting can accomplish.

“Everyone wants to plant their way out of climate change, but trees are no substitute for the need to quickly and quickly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions,” Holl said.

Holl and Brancalion also want to make sure tree planting groups plan for the long term. Research shows that poorly planned tree planting efforts often fail to produce the desired benefits because the trees do not survive long enough. So instead of measuring impact by the number of trees planted, projects should set targets for the number of trees alive in five, 10, or 20 years, and then collect data on the results. This type of monitoring is essential for identifying and correcting problems as tree planting efforts continue to gain momentum.

The number of organizations leading these projects has also increased rapidly, and not all have the same level of experience or qualifications. Some of the recommended questions can help funders get a better idea of ​​the track record of organizations they are considering supporting. Often a large global intermediary organization secures funding for smaller implementing organizations, in which case it is also important to understand how funding is distributed, to ensure that local stakeholders will be adequately compensated.

Holl asked herself these questions when she served on advisory boards for investment groups and environmental organizations. She and her students are also beginning to systematically assess how well different tree organizations can respond. If others also start asking these questions, she hopes that funding for forest restoration projects can be used for its most productive purposes.

“I’m always looking for organizations that clearly state their goals, have a long-term plan, and tell me how their project is stakeholder-driven,” she said. “These are all questions that organizations should be able to answer, and that’s the key to success.”