When it comes to restoring forests, we can often hear two terms: reforestation and afforestation. The difference between the two is not always immediately clear, especially since sometimes the terms are used interchangeably concerning the same area.
What is the real difference between reforestation and afforestation?
The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) defines reforestation as an establishment of a forest cover in a location where the forests have been cleared in the recent past, usually to repurpose the land for activities like agriculture or mining.
Afforestation stands for the establishment of forests where previously there have been none, or where forests have been missing for a long time.
It should be noted that some areas are afforested even if they have not been known to sustain forests at any time in recent history. However, this practice remains controversial because it inevitably leads to the destruction of an original non-forest ecosystem (e.g. natural grassland).
So, both reforestation and afforestation represent a conversion of non-forested areas into new forests. The only difference is the length of time that has passed since the area has been deforested. The IPCC views these processes as activities directed by human action. Other definitions may include natural forest cover regeneration or establishment as well.
Notable examples of reforestation and afforestation
The Green Belt Movement was founded in 1977 by Professor Wangari Maathai, and since then, it has been using reforestation as an entry point to tackle larger environmental and social issues – poverty, inequality, food and water insecurity, land grabbing and ecosystem destruction.
Since its foundation, the movement planted over 51 million trees and has trained over 30,000 women in forestry, beekeeping, food processing, and other sustainable trades.
The Green Belt Movement is one of the most well-known global symbols of reforestation.
This polar island has been stripped of its forests for almost ten centuries, and the ecosystem hasn’t healed since.
Powerful dust storms are the main hallmark of Iceland’s ongoing soil degradation crisis. The persistence of the crisis is the reason why Iceland’s reforestation program was established such a long time ago – at the end of the 19th century.
The success has been modest due to a large number of factors. However, Iceland is not giving up on its forestry ambitions and plans to grow 5% forest cover in the next 50 years. More: Iceland’s Long Road to Reforestation
The country that has invested the most in reforestation and afforestation is probably China.
It is estimated that the government has spent more than 100 billion dollars on planting trees in the last decade alone.
Large floods in 1998 revealed the hidden dangers of deforestation. Since then, the government has imposed many bans on logging primary forests and has financed the multibillion-dollar national afforestation programs.
Although many trees have been planted successfully, a group of healthy trees doesn’t automatically equal a forest. According to satellite-powered research, despite its new tree cover China still remains deficient in actual functioning forests.
China and Iceland are good examples of how difficult it can be to artificially establish a forest, and that we can’t rely on reforestation and afforestation only to restore the natural balance lost by deforestation.
Sustainable forest management must also include forest conservation as much as possible – since there is no way to truly replace the lost primary forests.
Smart integration of all of these methods is an excellent way to help biodiversity and local communities, as well as to mitigate both the causes and the consequences of climate change.
Afforestation and Reforestation. World Atlas: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/afforestation-and-reforestation.html
Land Use and ARD. IPCC (document currently unavailable): https://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/land_use/113.htm (Waybacl Machine link)
“New Look At Satellite Data Quantifies Scale Of China’s Afforestation Success”. World Agroforestry: http://www.worldagroforestry.org/news/new-look-satellite-data-quantifies-scale-chinas-afforestation-success
“Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?. 2017. New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/20/climate/iceland-trees-reforestation.html