Paying people to replant tropical forests – and letting them harvest the wood – can pay for the climate, justice and the environment

Millions of Indigenous people and small farmers live in tropical forest landscapes. Almost every square meter of land is claimed, even if governments do not formally recognize claims.

These local landowners are the key to a valuable solution as the world tries to slow climate change – restoring deforested tropical landscapes for a healthier future.

Tropical forests are vital to the Earth’s climate and biodiversity, but a soccer-sized area of ​​mature tropical forest is burned or cut down every 5 seconds to make way for crops and livestock today.

Although those trees may be gone, the land still has potential. Tropical forests’ combination of year-round sunshine and high rainfall can result in high growth rates, suggesting that areas where tropical forests once grew may be valuable sites for reforestation. In fact, this is what many international agreements and declarations are about.

However, for reforestation projects to tackle climate change, they must work with and for the people who live there.

As forest ecologists involved in tropical forest restoration, we are studying effective ways to compensate people for the ecosystem services that flow from their land. In a new study, we show how compensation that allows landowners to harvest and sell some of the trees could provide powerful incentives and ultimately benefit everyone.

The extraordinary value of ecosystem services

Tropical forests are celebrated for their extraordinary biodiversity, and their preservation is considered essential to protecting life on Earth. They are reservoirs of huge stocks of carbon, which slows down climate change. However, when tropical forests are cleared and burned, they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that drives climate change.

Programs that offer payments for ecosystem services are designed to help keep these forests and other ecosystems healthy by compensating landowners for goods and services produced by nature that are often taken for granted. For example, forests moderate stream flows and reduce flood risks, support bees and other pollinators that benefit nearby croplands, and help regulate the climate.

Deforested hills visible from the air, with a light green coloring of the newly planted saplings.

Burned or clear-cut tropical forests can be restored, such as the newly planted (upper left) and naturally growing watersheds (lower right) at Agua Salud in Panama. Marcos Guerra/Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

In recent years, a cottage industry has grown up paying people to reforest land for the carbon it holds. It is driven in part by corporations and other institutions looking for ways to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by paying for projects to reduce or prevent emissions elsewhere.

Early iterations of projects that pay landowners for ecosystem services have been criticized for focusing too much on economic efficiency, sometimes at the expense of social and environmental concerns.

Win-win solutions – where environmental and social concerns are accounted for – may not be the most economically efficient in the short term, but may lead to longer term sustainability as participants feel a sense of pride and responsibility for the success of the project.

That longer-term sustainability is essential for tree carbon storage, as many years of growth are needed to build up stored carbon and combat climate change.

Why wood can be a triple win

In the study, we looked at ways to maximize the three priorities – environmental, economic and social benefits – in forest restoration, focusing on barren land.

It may come as a surprise, but most soils in the tropics are extremely infertile, with concentrations of phosphorus and other essential nutrients an order of magnitude or lower than in the crop-producing areas of the northern hemisphere. This makes restoring tropical forests through reforestation more complicated than planting trees – these areas also require maintenance.

Looking up from the base of the tall tree towards its crown and the sky.Looking up from the base of the tall tree towards its crown and the sky.

In our study we used approximately 1.4 million tree measurements taken over 15 years at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud site in Panama to predict carbon sequestration and potential timber income. We looked at naturally growing forests, plantations of native species of trees and an attempt to rehabilitate failed plantations by planting high-value native trees known to grow on low-fertility soils for profitable ways to test.

One set of solutions emerged: We found that payments to landowners for carbon storage and the ability to generate income through on-land timber production could lead to vibrant forests and financial gains for the landowner.

It may seem counterintuitive to recommend timber harvesting when the goal is to restore forests, but allowing landowners to generate timber income can incentivize them to protect and manage planted forests in the future time.

Regrowing trees on a deforested landscape, whether natural regrowth or plantations, is a net win for climate change, as trees remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. New forests selectively logged or plantations removed within 30 to 80 years can help slow climate change as the world reduces emissions and expands carbon capture technologies.

It is a matter of reliable payments

The structure of payments is also important. We found that reliable annual carbon payments to rural landowners for reforesting could match, or exceed, the income they could otherwise receive from clearing land for cattle. the transition to raising trees.

When cash payments are instead based on tree growth measurements, they can vary from year to year and among planting strategies. Given the costs involved, this can hinder effective land management to combat climate change.

Three charts, all rising rapidly in the first 10 years but then declining.Three charts, all rising rapidly in the first 10 years but then declining.

Using flat annual payments instead ensures a stable income and will help encourage more landowners to sign up. We are now using that method in the Ngäbe-Buglé Indigenous Region of Panama. The project pays residents to plant and nurture native trees over 20 years.

Carbon offsets transfer risk to buyers

In practical terms, fair annual carbon payments and other cost-sharing strategies for planting trees shift the burden of risk from participants to carbon buyers, often companies in rich countries.

Landholders are paid even if actual tree growth declines, and everyone benefits from the ecosystem services provided.

While win-win solutions may not seem economically efficient at first, our work helps to demonstrate a viable path forward – where environmental, social and economic objectives can be met.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Jefferson S. Hall, Smithsonian Institution; Katherine Sinacore, Smithsonian Institutionand Michiel van Breugel, National University of Singapore

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Jefferson S. Hall receives funding from the US government through the Smithsonian Institution, Stanly Motta, Frank and Kristin Levinson, the Hoch family, U-Trust, and the Mark and Rachel Rohr Foundation.

Katherine Sinacore receives funding from the Mark and Rachel Rohr Foundation, Stanly Motta, Frank and Kristin Levinson, the Hoch family, and the Smithsonian.

Michiel van Breugel receives funding from the Singapore Ministry of Education and the Future Cities Lab Global Program of the ETH-Singapore Centre, which is funded by the National Research Foundation of Singapore.

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