Carbon Offset Spotlight — Reforestation

Rows of young trees planted in Bolivia with slightly blurry overlay

Welcome to our third instalment of the ‘spotlight’ series in which we’ll be profiling a broad range of nature-based offsets and carbon removal technologies. In each edition, we explore how one of our partner projects or technology works, its features and benefits, and some of the challenges it presents.

This edition is all about reforestation, which is one of the most widely adopted nature-based carbon removal offset options. 

What is reforestation?

Reforestation is when an area that was once naturally forested but now isn’t, is repopulated with trees. This can happen naturally, but more often it’s done with human intervention. A reforestation project consists of planting trees in areas in which forests have been destroyed by human activities such as logging, or natural disasters such as wildfires. Reforestation should not be confused with afforestation which is when trees are planted in areas which have never been covered by forest. Behaving as carbon sinks, forests are a nature-based weapon to combat climate change .

How is reforestation managed? 

An effective reforestation program requires careful planning, execution and management. These include:

Land analysis

Surveyors will conduct a thorough evaluation of the land, with a particular focus on soil depth, texture and fertility, moisture levels, as well as the flora and fauna that can be found in the ecosystem. It’s unlikely that land that was once forested and then used for agriculture will have the correct soil pH and nutrition level as pristine forest. This can impact the species of plants best suited to regenerate the soil to its optimal state.

Selection of plant species

Reforestation projects should only plant local species as they are most likely to thrive and promote biodiversity, while it also minimises the unbalancing impact invasive species can have on ecosystems. This is an important factor that promotes longevity. Some projects  focus on using fast-growing species that are compatible with the local climate and soil. Using fast-growing plant species can lead to faster carbon removal rates as long as they are native to the region.

Planting method

Soil preparation and how trees and other plants are planted is crucial to the success of a reforestation project. Different species have different planting requirements, soil aeration needs and maturity rates. The best projects take these factors into account when reforesting land. Using seeds genetically resistant to  disease and severe weather conditions can increase the chances that the new forest will thrive.

Creating a protection plan

One of the biggest challenges for a reforestation project is how they ensure the area’s long-term protection. Carbon credits purchased as part of a reforestation initiative symbolise carbon dioxide absorbed by the trees over its lifetime — a process that can take up to 100 years. Illegal logging, forest fires, illegal land clearance and policy changes such as political regime changes are all potential risks that threaten the longevity of protected reforested land. Reforestation projects put in place measures to monitor and prevent each of these potential scenarios.

The benefits of reforestation

Reforestation absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but this isn’t the only major benefit it provides. 

Increase soil fertility

Tree roots improve the ability of soil to absorb water while fallen leaves create new organic matter in the soil, enhancing its health. Trees also protect soil from erosion by holding back wind and absorbing wind and rain. All of these factors boost soil fertility and quality, promoting the growth of new trees and plants. 

Restore biodiversity

The State of the World's Forests 2020 Report reveals that forests across the globe house more than 60,000 species of tree, 80% of the world’s amphibians, 75% of birds and 68% of mammals. Deforestation is a major threat to many of these animals and plants. Biodiversity helps increase natural ecosystems' ability to support and sustain populations of pollinating insects and marine life. If humans want to continue to hunt, fish and harvest crops, the biodiversity crisis needs to be averted before it’s too late.

Support for local communities

Poverty is a key driver of deforestation. Isolated communities often clear land for farming, charcoal, firewood and living space. Timber processing is also commonly used to supplement income — particularly when opportunities from other income streams have been exhausted. Reforestation projects through the sale of carbon credits can provide new sustainable sources of income that encourage local communities to protect their wild spaces.

All of Pledge’s reforestation partners work closely with local people to help support and sustain their communities using high-quality reforestation carbon credits

Partner spotlight: ArBolivia

Our partner, ArBolivia, implements reforestation projects across Bolivia. Their work positively impacts over a thousand smallholder families belonging to around 165 different communities.

We spoke with David Vincent, director of The Cochabamba Project, a social enterprise that implements the ArBolivia directive to find out more about how the project is implemented and its plans for the future. 

How long has the project been running?

We’ve been running since 2007, following a 5 year R&D project funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which involved all four of the current senior management teams in Bolivia.

What issues did you face before the project was implemented?

Settlement and subsistence agriculture is encroaching on Bolivia’s unique National Parks, which lie between the Andean plateau and the Amazon basin, removing habitat for a large number of threatened species. For several decades, the tropical lowlands of Bolivia have been the scene of aggressive deforestation.

Driven by desperation, communities have moved down from the Andes and have laid claim to virgin rainforest, exploiting the valuable timber and establishing smallholdings to eke out a living from the land and natural resources.

After decades of adopting poor agricultural practices and without the capital to invest in a viable alternative, those smallholders are being forced to continue their slash and burn methods in order to maintain their meagre existence. In addition, land clearances and deforestation have led to changes in the local climate. The bare earth dries out much more quickly in the dry season and the lack of trees to absorb water in the wet season leads to flash flooding and soil erosion, generating a vicious cycle of destruction and misery.

How has the ArBolivia project affected these issues?

The ArBolivia project has been established to tackle the multiple problems of poor land management, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and poverty, and is the culmination of many years of consultation between local cooperatives, regional and international development agencies, and ecological consultants.

These problems are outlined fully in a number of project design documents which have been prepared for certification initially under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and again, following Bolivia’s withdrawal from CDM, to both Plan Vivo and Gold Standard.

How do local communities benefit from the project? 

Payments for tree planting and maintenance not only generate an additional farm revenue, but they are also a reliable and flexible insurance policy for families when other income sources are  not sufficient to sustain themselves.

Tree maintenance is a much less labour-intensive activity for ageing or single-parent households.

Access to professional, data-driven technical advice on farm planning reduces risks and improves farm yields, thereby improving food security.

What economic impact on the local community?

This has proved extremely difficult to measure due to the fact that most of the shorter-term benefits are indirect and therefore difficult to isolate from other contributing factors. 

The most obvious of these are the improved crop yields experienced by all participating families. Farmers everywhere are notoriously defensive about declaring their incomes and also have a right to privacy. Most of their economic activity is unofficial and can also include a high level of informal mutual support.

In addition, the Bolivian and international aid programmes have also played a very substantial part in raising the living standards of poor rural communities over the same period, so it is difficult to attribute or quantify specific improvements to one individual party.

Does the project help reduce deforestation rates in the area?

Absolutely! This is the main purpose of the project – but one for which we do not receive a single penny in monetary compensation. It is only by providing smallholders with a viable economic alternative to “slash and burn” subsistence farming that deforestation can be arrested.

However, under its original CDM model, carbon credits could only be awarded for afforestation – and even then only in monocultures, so only our timber production provides a form of financial subsidy. We are only now developing our agro-forestry methodology for mixed planting and we still do not have one for conservation, let alone one for “avoided deforestation”.

In principle we can say that:

On average each family owns about 30 hectares of land.

However, without mechanisation, the area they can actively farm at any one time is likely to be only 3-5 hectares, depending on family demographics, geography and logistics.

Although not easily verifiable, it is likely that without intervention, the 1000 families taking part in the project might have considered clearing half a hectare or more every year to provide fresh land for crops or grazing.  

After the withdrawal of Bolivia from CDM, what plans do you have to scale your activities in the future? 

We are still intent on reaching at least the original scale planned under CDM – 5,000 hectares of commercial forestry, 1,200 hectares of agroforestry, and 1,000 hectares of conservation planting.

Thank you David.

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