A leading UK ecologist shows how sustainble management of our forests can help to save the entire eco-system from collapse.

by Herbert Girardet

Never has the planet been more in need of forests. Never have the forests been under greater pressure than they are today.

 The history of the growth and spread of civilisation is also the story of deforestation. Farming which started some 12,000 years ago, invariably took place on land previously covered by forests. Agriculture, in turn, was was a precondition for the growth of cities. Right from the very beginnings of urban development in Mesopotamia, cities such as Ur, Uruk, and Babylon contributed to the massive deforestation of surrounding areas. Cities need timber, firewood, and farmland and they all come from the same place: forests.

Athens was to repeat the process. In his book Critias, Plato commented on the deforestation of Attica: "What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left...there are some mountains which have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago, and the rafters from those felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound."

Forest clearance is a sort of capital investment in the agricultural and urban development that follows. Valuable timber and firewood are extracted and the cleared forests become farms to feed the exploding urban populations. Rome came to provide the most notorious example of this process, deforesting land all along the coastline of the Mediterranean: from Italy itself to Sicily, Spain and North Africa.

Agricultural and urban development in Western Europe resulted in the clearance of most lowland forests, where land was particularly suited to agriculture. The same process was subsequently repeated in North America, where old forests are now being cut down and converted into plantations of fast-growing timber.

Deforestation is proceeding at an unprecedented rate all over the tropics. In the last forty years, nearly half the world's tropical rainforests have been cleared. In Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Indonesia, Za‹re, and many other tropical countries, forests are succumbing to the chainsaw and the torch. The Ivory Coast and Ghana, until recently major timber exporters, will soon be logged out completely and, like Nigeria, will have to start importing timber.

In September 1988, probably the largest fire-storms in history swept across the forest and ranch land in the Amazon. The smoke cloud, observed and photographed by astronauts, covered an area the size of the whole of South America. I flew over these fires in a small plane on my way from the capital, Brasilia, to the interior. During the seven-hour flight, fires were burning below us all the way. It was an experience I shall not forget as long as I live.

Of course Brazilians point out that Europeans, too, have cleared some of their forests in order to establish "civilization". Now, they feel, it is Brazil's turn to create more farm and ranch land. How can outsiders dare to interfere in that process? It is not only the tropical rainforests that are suffering. Tropical dry forests, too, are under pressure, particularly in Africa where the open forests of the Savannah are being damaged by overgrazing and by firewood collection. Ethiopia has dropped from a forest cover of some forty per cent a few decades ago to some four per cent today. Most of the countries around the fringes of the Sahara are suffering the same fate.

Urbanization is a major cause of deforestation in Africa. While most people in the world today use kerosene or gas for cooking, a large proportion of Africans continue to rely on firewood, even in the cities. The ring of deforestation around Khartoum in the Sudan extends to over 120 miles; around Nairobi, Kenya, it has reached over 180 miles.

In Europe and North America today, forests are not being decimated any longer by felling, but by air pollution. It is ironic that in the 19th Century, forests in Europe were actually saved by the discovery and rapid expansion in the use of coal. Once coal came into widespread use for heating, smelting metals, and fuelling steam engines, there was a chance for forests to regrow because of the drop in the demand for firewood. Air pollution from coal smoke was a localized problem and did not do large-scale damage to forests.

Today with a dramatic increase in the use of fossil fuels, air pollution and acid rain are causing unprecedented damage to forests. In Western Europe over fifty per cent of forests are now severely damaged. In Eastern Europe the figure is as high as 70 to 75 per cent, particularly as a result of the use of lignite coal in industry and power generation, which has a very high sulphur content. An additional factor is the prevailing westerly winds which blow Western Europe's pollution across to Eastern Europe for much of the year.

Another consequence of our growing use of coal and oil is the increase in the carbon dioxide (C02) content of the Earth's atmosphere: in the last hundred years, it has increased by 25 per cent. There is now widespread concern about the greenhouse effect and its consequences for life on Earth.

At present, some five billion tons of excess carbon find their way into the Earth's atmosphere every year, four billion of this from the combustion of fossil fuels and firewood, and about one billion from the incineration of forests for the purpose of expanding areas of land to be used for cultivation. Most of the carbon released from fossil fuels originates in the industrialized countries. But the developing countries are rapidly catching up with us, particularly China and India, both of which have stores of coal that could keep power stations and factories in these countries running for centuries.

The C02 concentrations in the atmosphere look set to increase dramatically in the coming years. Do we have any possibility at all to reverse the trends? It is clear that energy conversation and greater energy efficiency could achieve a great deal, but it will take time to implement such measures. In the meantime the only option we have is to plant trees on a massive scale.

Every tree that is planted soaks up many tons of carbon from the atmosphere while it grows. Large-scale planting could buy us several decades to redesign our lifestyles in a long-term effort to counter the greenhouse effect.

The fact that growing trees absorb C02 has not gone unnoticed among concerned scientists and decision-makers. In the United States particularly, researchers have investigated the potential for major tree-planting projects to counter the greenhouse effect. Gregg Marland of Oak Ridge Laboratories prepared a detailed report for the U.S. Department of Energy in 1988 on the "Prospect of solving the C02 Problem Through Global Reforestation." His conclusion is that if large-scale reforestation was taken seriously by governments and individuals worldwide; it would be feasible to fully counter the increase in atmospheric C02.

Marland estimates that an area of approximately seven million square kilometres, equivalent to the area of the U.S. minus Alaska, would have to be planted with trees to soak up the annual surplus of five billion tons of carbon. He suggests that newly bred fast-growing species of trees ought to be used wherever possible in order to maximize carbon uptake. He considers spruces, pines, eucalyptuses and sycamores as particularly appropriate for the job. He also mentions the potential for fertilizing existing forests in order to make them grow faster, and thus absorb carbon more rapidly.

Environmentalist Norman Meyers calculates that the area required to absorb surplus carbon from the atmosphere would be rather less, about four million square kilometres. He estimates the cost of such an enterprise as US$ 160 billion or $16 billion per year, if the work is spread out over ten years. As reported by Meyers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which met in November 1989 in the Netherlands, proposed a plan for planting 120,000 square kilometres of trees per year for the next 20 years in various parts of the world, making an ultimate total of 2,400,000 square kilometres.

There is no doubt that proposals for countering the annual increase in atmospheric carbon by large-scale tree planting are compelling. We are becoming increasingly aware that more forests are desperately needed to fight the spread of wasteland and deserts. So why not combine the fight against land degradation with efforts to counter the greenhouse effect? So far so good. But as soon as I read the proposals for extensive plantations of genetically-engineered super-trees grown with artificial fertilisers, the alarm bells started ringing in my mind. It sounds just like the technological fix of the 1960's Green Revolution that has caused do much environmental and social havoc in large parts of the developing world.

There is no doubt that we must seriously concern ourselves with ways in which we can grow trees, many more trees, to soak up C02 from the atmosphere. But it is very important that this is done in ways which are not simply a "carbon numbers game". we should not think in terms of planting tree monocultures by the square kilometre, all identical, all regularly doused with fertilizers and pesticides to keep off the inevitable bugs that invade monocultures.

Tree monocultures have often been found to be rather unpleasant and counterproductive. India's "social forestry programme" created large-scale Eucalyptus plantations that often took crop lands away from the rural poor. Eucalyptus leaves are unsuitable as animal fodder and as they drop off, they do not fertilize the soil. Eucalyptus trees use up enormous quantities of water as they grow, drying out the soil and, outside their native habitat, Australia, are of no benefit whatsoever to wildlife. Such plantations can now be seen throughout Africa, in Peru, Thailand, Spain, Portugal, and in the "cerrado", the Savannah region of Brazil.

I believe that there is a better way to grow trees that could help to counter the greenhouse effect.

A few years ago I visited the Chagga people who live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. For hundreds of years they have been cultivating their land using a very special technique. The land they settled on was dense tropical forest. They thinned out the forest, and the trees they cut provided them with timber for building houses, and sheds for their cows. But they did not cut all the trees, just a few. By opening up the canopy of the forest they let in light for new saplings which they planted next to the stumps of the trees they had cut down. The new trees they had cultivated were mostly fruit and nut trees such as mango, avocado and bread fruit, as well as a range of palm trees. They also planted bananas and nowadays they grow coffee bushes below . the trees as well as taro and yams. Today the Chagga grow most of Tanzania's export coffee in this multi-story farming system. It also happens to support the highest population density in the whole of East Africa.

The cultivation system of the Chagga is one of the many variants of "agroforestry", the combination of tree crops with other food and fodder crops. Today it is considered by an ever growing number of "experts" as probably the most promising approach to food security for people throughout the tropics. I believe that we should also look at agroforestry also as a promising tree-planting method by which to absorb large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.

The main way in which agroforestry differs from tree monocultures is that it actively benefits, and involves, people. Wherever agroforestry has been tried with sufficient support it has helped people to gain food security. In Rwanda, for instance, agroforestry development is now official government policy. After trial projects on small hillside farms, where all forest cover had gone, it was possible to show that the establishment of tree belts could be of enormous benefit to farmers, preventing soil erosion and the run-off of rain. The integration of trees for food and fodder into the layout of the farms was soon seen as a great success, giving farmers far greater food security than "bare earth" farming. Today the greening of Rwanda, as well as Burundi and Malawi, is making rapid progress.

In Kenya, too, small-scale tree planting is energetically supported by the government. By 1983 there were 1300 government nurseries stocked with 83 million seedlings. Since then these figures have gone up considerably. Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Greenbelt Movement, has motivated the women of Kenya to fight erosion and desertification by setting up village nurseries and planting indigenous trees wherever possible. Her influence today reaches well beyond the borders of Kenya.

These are some of Africa's success stories. However, it is true that in most African countries, tree-planting efforts are still at a rudimentary stage. Many billions of trees will still have to be planted to counter galloping deforestation, particularly along the southern edge of the Sahara.

This is precisely where concern about climate change should link up with concern about hunger and environmental degradation. Until now, helping the poor in the tropics was often considered as not very cost effective by Western governments and banks.

Environmental deterioration was their concern and not ours. Only when mass starvation occurred and was widely reported by the media, as in the case of Ethiopia, was there reason to be seen to help. But help came mostly in the form of short-term food-aid rather than long-term projects concerned with re-establishing environmental security.

Today we, all the world's people, badly need long-term climate security. What better way to achieve this than by planting trees all over the world in agroforestry projects?

Last summer I saw, and filmed, some very interesting tree-planting projects in the Brazilian Amazon. A village in the state of Para had been pointed out to me where, as I was told, destitute farmers from the south and the north-east of Brazil had taken over land on which the trees had been burned by cattle ranchers. With financial help from the Catholic church in Italy and with advice from an Italian agronomist, the settlers set about replanting their 5000 acres with all kinds of tree crops. Today Uraim, as the village is called, looks like a green oasis in a wasteland of unproductive cattle ranches. The 5000 acres support 200 people. One of the nearby cattle ranches that is still operable supports only five families on the same acreage. The villagers of Uraim have become expert agroforesters. They have planted dozens of different tree crops to feed themselves and to sell in a nearby market. There are many kinds of trees, hardly known outside Brazil, that produce delicious fruits and nuts: cupuaca, assai, babacu, andiroba, as well as better known trees such as avocado, mango, coconut, and cacao. Rubber trees are being grown in a mixed cropping system that also includes rows of pepper. Elsewhere, manioc is being grown together with all kinds of squashes, oranges, grapefruit and papaya. Being in Uraim confirmed to me that it is possible to re-establish tree cover in parts of the Amazon where the forest had been cleared.

An area of the Amazon forest larger than France has been denuded over the last couple of decades, mostly by cattle-ranchers, and much of that land is now lying waste. With some financial support and careful advice, large areas of this land could be replanted with trees in sustainable agroforestry systems, helping millions of destitute people in Brazil gain a foothold on the land they so desperately want, and planting the billions of trees the planet so desperately needs. Many a cattle rancher would be only too happy to sell his unproductive grasslands for a few dollars an acre, having made a great deal of money from government subsidies and tax incentives that have now been withdrawn. Brazil's destitutes cannot afford to raise even this sort of money but aid agencies in Europe and America can.

It is often said that the land from which tropical rainforest has been removed is unsuitable for cultivation. There is little doubt that it is not very suitable as grassland, the main reason for this being that grass is quite shallow-rooted. But to re-establish trees on cleared forest land is another matter. The supposedly nutrient-poor land of the Amazon is particularly well suited for growing trees and, given good understanding of environmental conditions, trees can be replanted on cleared land in the Amazon. This is of crucial importance for settlers who want to establish themselves on "wasteland" in the Amazon. And it is extremely important for people who might be concerned with replanting such land with trees for reasons of climate control.

There are some locations in the Amazon where tree crops have been grown continuously for hundreds of years. I went to visit Combu island in the mouth of the Amazon, near the city of Belem, where "caboclos", people of mixed race who have learned a great deal about the cultivation techniques of their Amerindian ancestors, grow a large range of tree crops. Their favourite is Acai palm, which produces a small fruit rich in minerals and vitamins. The caboclo families make a good living from their tree crops, which they sell in the Belem market. Their average annual earnings are US$3000 from 80 acre plots--good by Brazilian standards.

The futility of converting Amazon forest into cattle ranches is at last being recognised by the Brazilian authorities. The president, Fernando Collor, has appointed the country's best-known and most outspoken ecologist, Jose Lutzenberger, as his Special Secretary for the Environment. Resulting from this appointment all subsidies and tax incentives for "developing" forest land have been withdrawn. Profits from farming in Brazil are now taxable for the first time. Lutzenberger is determined to encourage sustainable cultivation methods in the areas of the Amazon where the forest has already been cleared. Agroforestry is very high on the agenda for the first time. The potential of large-scale tree planting by peasant farmers for combating the greenhouse effect has been recognized in unlikely quarters. The American power company Applied Energy Services has recently built a new 180megawatt power station in Pennsylvania. This will release about 387,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. The company has worked out that some 52 million growing trees would be able to
worst deforestation occurs in poor countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, continues to suffer disastrous deforestation, resulting from a combination of overgrazing, overcutting for firewood, and economic and environmental mismanagement. Most developing countries carry a horrendous burden of debt which makes it all the more difficult for them to undertake major environmental restoration projects.

In Europe, the scope for large-scale tree planting is limited. Most of the land is spoken for. However, we do have a major task on our hands regenerating the vast area of forests damaged by air pollution. Trees that are thus damaged are far less able to photosynthesise, i.e. to absorb that amount of carbon. The management decided to contribute US $2 million to the Guatemala Agroforestry Project that has been initiated by the international relief and aid agency CARE. Another US $18 million will come form US government aid funds. Peasant farmers are being funded to plant agroforestry crops and wood-lots on their holdings. This story has been widely publicised in the press and other power station companies are now contemplating similar projects. Governments, too, are themselves undertaking major tree-planting projects. For years, Algeria has quietly been planting trees at the edge of the Sahara in order to stop the spread of the desert. Saudi Arabia, too, has initiated large-scale tree-planting projects, as has South Korea. Last year Australia's prime minister, Bob Hawke, committed his government to planting one billion trees by the year 2000. This project is being undertaken mainly to counter environmental deterioration, but while these trees grow they will absorb the CO2 of some 200 Pennsylvania-type power stations.

It is the rich countries that can afford major tree-planting projects, but the absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Investigations in many areas show that bees are now growing far less vigorously than they would if they were healthy. It is therefore of crucial importance to combat air pollution by fitting power stations, factories and cars with filters and scrubbers. Considerable investments in energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies are also crucial in this context. More and more countries in Europe are now committed to such spending although Britain is, as often, dragging her heels. The opening up of Eastern Europe has given us a glimpse of the horrendous scale of forest dieback there. Replanting the dead forests of Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany will require cleaning up the sulphurous fumes of the power stations in those countries. It will also mean treating the highly acidified soils, particularly in the mountainous regions, where only acid resistant grasses still manage to grow. In Erzgebirge in East Germany I saw some trial plots that had been treated with lime and magnesium where young pines appeared to be holding their own. It will be of vital importance to re-establish trees in such places, not only for the sake of carbon dioxide uptake, but also for erosion control and for maintaining water quality.

Never before has the planet been more in need of trees. Never have trees been under greater pressure than they are today.

Reviving and replanting trees worldwide is of crucial importance for the future of life on Earth. It is not only our lives that depend on it. Most trees that we plant today will be young when our children are grandparents.

Forests have been called the skin of the Earth. One way or another we have been skinning the Earth alive and in doing so we have removed the homes of untold billions of our fellow beings. At the same time, a large proportion of humanity have been deprived of the necessary conditions for a dignified life.

Now that the greenhouse effect is about to become a reality in all our lives the need for planting trees on a huge scale all over the planet is becoming overwhelmingly apparent. In a few places a start has been made. But the real work has hardly begun.

Herbert Girardet is a film-maker and the author of several books on ecology. This article originally appeared in The Gaia Magazine, London, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.2, No.2