Trees: The Natural Answer to Climate Change, Food Insecurity, and Global PovertySeptember 30, 2009 By Brian Klein
Some advocates of geoengineering have touted fake, plastic “trees” as a promising technology for absorbing carbon. But other experts are promoting a solution that also filters water, encourages rainfall, prevents erosion and desertification, offers economic opportunities, and provides a vital source of food for a growing global population: real trees.
“Trees are one of nature’s most ingenious answers to many of our problems,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at the recent World Congress of Agroforesty in Nairobi. Agroforestry—the practice of integrating trees into farmland—could be one solution to the challenges of climate change, food insecurity, and global poverty.
Storing Carbon, Mitigating Climate Change
In the lead up to Copenhagen, international climate negotiators are devising a scheme to compensate countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), which account for 15-20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“All REDD requires is making forests worth more alive than dead,” explained Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, at a recent event on REDD and local communities hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and several other environmental groups. Climate experts hope that assigning a monetary value to trees’ carbon stock will encourage states and citizens to better protect and maintain forest areas and plant trees to earn income through the carbon financing market.
The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) estimates that agroforestry alone could remove “50 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere over the next 50 years, meeting about a third of the world’s total carbon reduction challenge.”
Buffering Food Security
“Food security is not just about food,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative Closing Plenary, “it is all about security – economic security, environmental security, even national security.” In an “unprecedented initiative,” the Obama administration has made sustainable access to adequate nutrition a top development priority.
“If we can build partnerships with countries to help small farmers improve their agricultural output and make it easier to buy and sell their products at local or regional markets, we can set off a domino effect,” Clinton explained. “We can increase the world’s food supply for both the short and the long term; diminish hunger; raise farmers’ incomes; improve health; expand opportunity; and strengthen regional economies.”
Trees and agroforestry are critical to this effort. “The right kind of trees in the right place can be enormously important for helping to increase the yield of fruit crops,” said ICRAF Director Dennis Garrity at the Nairobi conference.
“Trees often withstand drought conditions and allow people to hold over until the next season,” added ICRAF Deputy Director Tony Simmons.
As Miranda Spitteler, chief executive of Tree Aid, told BBC News, “‘Conventional’ crops are often not native and require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest,” she said. “Trees, on the other hand, often survive when other crops fail” and provide sustenance in the form of fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals, and sap.
Research also suggests that the practice of agroforestry improves depleted soils and thus lessens the need for chemical fertilizers to increase crop yield.
“Trees throughout the world provide new opportunities for farmers to generate cash by growing fruit trees and other high value trees for both local and international markets,” Garrity told the conference.
If a REDD regime decreases illegal logging, planting and harvesting trees in a sustainable manner also “offers an opportunity for timber production and thus alternative livelihoods” for the rural poor, Steiner elaborated.
If REDD is done right, said Steve Panfil of the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Alliance at the UCS event, it could benefit local communities by safeguarding essential ecosystem services; providing employment, income, and a sustainable supply of forest products; and strengthening the land rights of indigenous peoples.
However, Panfil warned, it could exclude vulnerable populations from land and resources, increase government or elite control of target areas, and displace the livelihood activities of the rural poor.
Johnson Cerda, a Quichua indigenous leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon working with Conservation International, worried that government elites bent on winning REDD funds might neglect to consult with local communities, disregard pre-existing local plans, and proceed without the free, prior, and informed consent of affected groups.
These concerns are coming to a head in Uganda, where a project intended to reduce global carbon emissions by planting 25,000 hectares of trees in Mount Elgon National Park is accused of displacing indigenous people from their homes.
A spokesman for the indigenous Benet communities, Moses Mwanga, told IPS News that “the evictions have caused indescribable suffering to the Benet who are now living as squatters, having lost their land and other belongings to armed park rangers.”
The tree-planting effort, a partnership between the FACE Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority, is designed to offset the carbon emissions of a new 600 MW coal-fired power plant in the Netherlands.
In Kenya, the government is considering a measure that would force farmers to plant trees on at least 10 percent of their land. The move comes as Nairobi struggles to evict impoverished, landless settlers from the Mau Forest Complex, a critical water source for the region. Earlier this year, a Kenyan conservation group, Rhino Ark, completed a 250-mile electric fence around the Aberdare mountain range north of Nairobi. The fence is meant to discourage settlers and safeguard the region’s critical water and forest resources.
“[S]imply locking away forests to secure their carbon as if they are the Queen’s jewels, or putting up the modern equivalent of a Berlin Wall between forests and people, is almost certainly folly and almost certainly a recipe for disaster,” UNEP Executive Director Steiner urged in Nairobi.
To realize the full benefits of trees and avoid conflict, Panfil said that planners and policymakers should guarantee that in all REDD projects and similar efforts:
- Rights to land and resources are respected;
- Benefits are shared;
- Sustainable livelihoods and poverty reduction are explicit goals;
- The project is coherent with broader sustainable development goals;
- Ecosystem services are maintained;
- Full participation of all interested groups is assured;
- Affected communities are given timely and full access to all information;
- The project is in compliance with local, national, and international laws.
Photo: Kokerboom trees survive in the desolate landscape around Keetmanshoop, Namibia. Courtesy Flickr user ibeatty.
Map: “Where the undernourished live.” Courtesy U.S. Department of State and Worldmapper.