Since 1990, the Earth has lost 420 million hectares of forests through land conversion for agriculture, urbanization, mining, and industry.
Fortunately, deforestation rate now shows a downward trend – down from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 10 million hectares per year (2015 -2020). Still, 10 million hectares per year in a heating world is a massive loss for the biosphere, climate stability, and ultimately, humanity.
The loss of forests exacerbated climate change, which, in turn, exacerbated forest loss. Mega-fires and mass tree die-offs are now a major threat to forests both in the northern and the southern latitudes.
As a response to the global deforestation crisis (related: Small-scale Deforestation is on the Rise in the Amazon), many countries, organizations, and influencers have started mega-tree planting projects. Globally, mass tree plantings became a popular symbol of the world uniting against climate change and environmental destruction, with governments starting to compete on who will plant more trees.
Let’s overview the most prominent mass tree planting events in the last few years, their successes, and their drawbacks.
India’s Viral Mass Tree-Planting Efforts
India was probably the first country whose mass tree-planting project went viral. India’s forests and other habitats chronically face pressure from population rise and industrial development. After the Paris agreement (2015), in July 2016, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh set a world record in mass tree planting – 800,000 volunteers planted 50 million trees in a single day. The record was broken the following year by the state of Madhya Pradesh, which had 1.5 million volunteers planting 66 million tree saplings in just 12 hours.
The efforts continue each year. This year, respecting all the social distancing measures, 2 million volunteers gathered at farmlands, government buildings, and riverbanks in Uttar Pradesh to plant 250 million saplings distributed by the officials. Also, this year trees are being tagged to keep records of their survival.
The overall goal is to increase the forest cover to 235 million acres by 2030 – a number India pledged to in Paris in 2016.
Mass Planting Trees in Ethiopia
India didn’t hold its record for mass tree plantings for long. In 2019, Ethiopia, the country whose forest cover declined from 35% in the early 20th century to only about 4% in the 2000s, decided to put a stop to deforestation. Ethiopian government’s Green Legacy Initiative placed innumerable volunteers – around 23 million of them – at 1000 planting sites across the country. Together they allegedly managed to plant more than 350 million saplings in just 12 hours.
The Ethiopian government claims that from June to August 2019, 4 billion new trees were planted to combat “soil erosion, drought, biodiversity decline, and water and air pollution.” However, there are many doubts surrounding the official numbers since no official government counts took place in the field. Instead, organizations and teams that did the planting reported their own figures.
Combating Desertification with Tree Planting in Turkey
Faced with desertification and increasing wildfire threats, Turkey has initiated its own mega-planting project. Last year, the government declared that November 11th would become the National Forestation Day. In the first year, volunteers planted 11 million trees in more than 2,000 locations across Turkey. Northern Anatolian city of Çorum broke the world record for the most trees planted at a single site in one hour – 303,150 saplings.
This year’s event didn’t get as much publicity, but Erdogan stated that Turkey had set a goal to plant a total of 7 billion young trees by the end of 2023.
The Digital International – #TeamTrees
Some of the world’s most famous YouTubers have teamed up with The Arbour Day Foundation and other organizations for the #TeamTrees project, aiming to plant 20 million trees by 2022 on all continents and ensure their survival.
Unlike the national projects, this mega-YouTube planting challenge relies on crowdfunding and also gathered millions of virtual onlookers in real-time.
The #TeamTrees project had its first anniversary on October 23. The team declared that they have managed to overcome challenges brought on by the COVID crisis and massive wildfires, managing to plant 4.6 million trees in the first year of the project.
So far, the most generous donors of TeamTrees are Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke, and Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, with one million donated trees each (actually, Tobias Lütke is the first on the list with 1.000.001 trees, one tree more than Musk – sorry, Elon).
Critique and Controversy Surrounding Mass Tree Planting Efforts
While the overall intention is positive, all national projects were criticized – validly – in several points.
Planting millions of trees at once is challenging, but tracking them and ensuring the young tree’s survival is even more so.
Naturally, the more massive the mega-planting effort, the harder it is to track and take care of the saplings.
For all the listed national efforts – India, Ethiopia, and Turkey – the official numbers of planted and surviving saplings are being disputed. And the difference in estimations is sometimes staggering. While Turkey’s agriculture and forestry trade union claims that up to 90% of planted saplings have died a couple of months after planting, the Turkish Ministry of agriculture and forestry denied the claims, saying that “95% of the more than 11 million saplings planted are healthy and continuing to grow.” Due to the political tensions and the lack of objective international monitoring, the truth remains elusive.
In Ethiopia, a number of possible irregularities have surfaced. This May, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated that 84 percent of the saplings continue to grow, but failed to provide any detail about how that was determined. There was no independent survey.
This year’s planting in India included tagging the trees in an effort to track them – estimates are that only about 60% of previously planted saplings survived.
Planting trees is often presented as a cure for all environmental ills by the parties that conduct the mega-planting projects. However, scientists warn that things are not that simple.
Although mass plantings can stop soil erosion and desertification, plus fight climate change in the long run, they can do little to address pollution and can do nothing about mining and other environmentally degrading development activities.
A good example is the Cauvery river in India. The spiritual Isha Foundation and Sadhguru’s Rally For Riversinitiated 46 million tree planting effort along the Cauvery River basin. Restoring the natural vegetation along one of the subcontinent’s most degraded rivers is certainly a good thing. However, the hype created around tree plantings promises that they can completely restore a stressed ecosystem, instilling a false hope that the main environmental problems are being taken care of.
“A major reason for the Cauvery’s degradation is it has five to six large dams for hydropower, irrigation, and drinking water provision. The operation of these large dams drastically changes the river’s hydrology and sediment transport,”says Shishir Rao, an ecology doctoral student at the University of Georgia. “Restoring riparian vegetation is no doubt important, but without addressing the root causes of river degradation, Rally for Rivers is completely missing the point.”
It is not hard to conclude that mega-planting efforts have great potential to be misused. In the business dictionary, “greenwash” stands for “an attempt to make your business seem interested in protecting the natural environment, when it is not.”
Tree planting is sometimes misused by governments or companies with an otherwise bad environmental and political track record to rebrand themselves as conscientious, progressive, and well-intentioned, distracting the public from other environmental issues they are causing.
In the same manner, India’s mega-plantings can serve as a distraction from other destructive endeavors. Such is the plan to destroy four huge chunks of the Hasdeo Arand ancient forest and turn them into 40 new coal fields.
By falling ancient trees in a biodiversity hotspot and endangering livelihoods of local indigenous tribes – all in the name of burning more fossil fuels – the project goes against all principles that modern reforestation stands for. Additionally, the significance and diversity of ancient forests cannot be compared with sapling plantations whose faith is still uncertain.
The world desperately needs more forests. Mass planting projects help meet the global reforestation goals but also perform a huge educational role. Because mega-planting events are also public stunts, the message about the importance of forest restoration can reach a wide audience.
However, that same perk has its dark side – in cases when mass plantings are used for greenwashing. Although new living trees are an excellent result in spite of the underlying intentions, in the long run, badly handled mega-planting efforts can instill public mistrust in this type of action. Mega tree plantings should not be done for the sake of breaking records or for virality – but for sustainability.
When it comes to national projects, good practice examples include South Korea, whose 40-year-long reforestation program shows that successful landscape remediation is not an impulsive act of enthusiasm but a systematic, long-haul effort.
The advantage of independent international projects like #TeamTrees is that they don’t have a bad record to clean up; hence – they are less likely to fall victims to greenwashing. If done right in cooperation with experienced environmental organizations, their impact is undoubtedly positive. It remains to be seen how it will all work out in the long run.
Besides forest restoration, we must not forget about the importance of forest conservation and preserving the existing, irreplaceable wilderness.
800,000 People Attempt to Plant 50 Million Trees to Break Guinness World Record. Ecowatch. 12 July 2016. https://www.ecowatch.com/plant-50-million-trees-guinness-world-record-1917368877.html
1.5 Million Volunteers Plant 66 Million Trees in 12 Hours, Breaking Guinness World Record. EcoWatch. 3 July 2017 https://www.ecowatch.com/india-trees-world-record-2452569239.html
Indians keep their distance in mass tree planting campaign. AP News. 5 July 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/indians-keep-their-distance-in-mass-tree-planting-campaign/2020/07/05/1a398b42-be9d-11ea-8908-68a2b9eae9e0_story.html
India plans to fell ancient forest to create 40 new coalfields. The Guardian. 8 August 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/08/india-prime-minister-narendra-modi-plans-to-fell-ancient-forest-to-create-40-new-coal-fields
Mass tree planting along India’s Cauvery River has scientists sceptical. 23 January 2020 https://www.eco-business.com/news/mass-tree-planting-along-indias-cauvery-river-has-scientists-sceptical/
Deforestation: Did Ethiopia plant 350 million trees in a day? BBC News Reality Check. 10 August 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49266983
Did Ethiopia plant four billion trees this year? BBC News Reality Check. 20 December 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50813726
Despite snags, Ethiopia scales up massive tree-planting campaign. Bankok Post. 5 Jun 2020 https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1929964/despite-snags-ethiopia-scales-up-massive-tree-planting-campaign#
Some 84 Percent of the 4 Billion Tree Seedlings Survived: Premier. ENA. 18 May 2020 https://www.ena.et/en/?p=14527
Diplomats do their bit on Turkey’s Afforestation Day https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/diplomats-do-their-bit-on-turkeys-afforestation-day/2040572
Turkey’s mass tree planting campaign goes international with 35 countries. Daily Sabah. 16 October 2020. https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/turkeys-mass-tree-planting-campaign-goes-international-with-35-countries/news
Most of 11m trees planted in Turkish project ‘may be dead’. The Guardian. 30 January 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/30/most-of-11m-trees-planted-in-turkish-project-may-be-dead
Climate Change: What is being done around the world to plant trees? BBC Newsbeat. 24 Septemeber 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-48884165
Most trees planted in one hour by a team of unlimited size (single location)
Guiness World Records https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-trees-planted-simultaneously
How the Republic of Korea Successfully Implemented a Country-Wide Reforestation Policy within 40 Years. Development Asia. 5 October 2018 https://web.archive.org/web/20200311213921/https://development.asia/policy-brief/how-republic-korea-successfully-implemented-country-wide-reforestation-policy-within-40
YouTubers’ #TeamTrees campaign overcame big hurdles in its first year. The Verge. 23 October 2020 https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/23/21529258/youtube-team-trees-campaign-one-year-anniversary