Million-tree mission hopes to fix reforestation flaws

Joensuu, Finland: It’s an environmental policy embraced by heads of state, multinational businesses and even leading climate sceptic Donald Trump: plant more trees to help the planet and slow global warming.

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But experts claim some recent mass tree-planting schemes have failed to reduce greenhouse gases when not done properly, and even harmed the environment.

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Now a pair of Finnish environmentalists believe they have created a reforestation initiative that will avoid these problems and allow for millions of new trees every year, tracked by a smartphone app.

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Former schoolteacher Mika Vanhanen has overseen the planting of 30 million trees across the globe via a network of 10,000 schools, the result of two decades work.

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But “some of the trees died because we didn’t have the resources to care for them”, Vanhanen, founder of tree-planting charity ENO, told AFP in his hometown of Joensuu, eastern Finland.

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Last year Turkey’s forestry trade union said almost all of the 11 million trees planted during the country’s National Forestation Day in 2019 had died after just a few months.

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And in Chile, a study found landowners were taking advantage of financial tree-planting incentives by cutting down established, carbon-absorbing forests and replacing them with new ones.

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25-year tree care

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So last year Vanhanen teamed up with “environmental technology” expert Pekka Harju-Autti to launch an innovative model for large-scale tree-planting with the emphasis on sustainability.

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Their “TreeBuddy” scheme invites businesses and individuals to “buy” one or more trees, for instance as a gift to customers, employees or friends.

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But unlike other initiatives, the consumer also pays for the upkeep of the tree for up to 25 years.

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“When they plant a tree, locals take a photo which is geo-positioned and get one euro for the community. After one year … they make a status update of the tree with another photo and they get again one euro, the same after five years and 10 years and so on,” Harju-Autti told AFP.

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The euro covers upkeep during the year, with care ranging from watering to, in Tibet for example, protecting the trees from yaks and wild horses.

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A smartphone app enables users to keep track of their own “virtual forest”, but most importantly the maintenance payments incentivise communities to keep their forests alive, Harju-Autti said.

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Millions a year

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With each community seeing 7,000 to 10,000 trees planted, the sums add up over time.

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“One reason the Amazon is burning is that locals do not always feel they get economic benefits from their forests, so some not-so-wise decisions are made.”

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So far TreeBuddy has seen 30,000 trees planted in the Philippines, Tibet and India, and has secured investment to scale up to “millions a year” in the near future, across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

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Vanhanen and Harju-Autti say that because they already have a relationship with their 10,000 tree-planting communities around the globe, the scheme should also avoid problems such as introducing non-native species or damage to the existing ecosystem.

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In January, a British study set out 10 ‘golden rules’ of tree-planting to avoid the failures of some large-scale schemes, including for local people to be at the heart of projects and for the natural regrowth of forest to be prioritised wherever possible.

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“We are getting questions from tree-planting organisations all over the world that would like to adopt the TreeBuddy model,” Harju-Autti said, adding that he expects the focus to move away from planting towards “giving locals their fair share for efforts to preserve their trees”.

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