Faking the forest: can tree planting help the environment?

This article was first published on the Roving Reporter blog by World Land Trust

How does tree planting help the environment? Recreating a complex forest is far from easy – but done properly and the investment pays conservation dividends.

Cerro Blanco Protected Forest is one of largest and best conserved areas of tropical dry forest in Ecuador. Yet it is only 15 kilometres from the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, and the reserve is under constant threat. One of the greatest threats comes from forest fires.

“The protected area is surrounded by open pasture,” explains Eric Horstman, Chief Executive of Fundación Pro-Bosque, the non-governmental organisation that manages the reserve.

“During the dry season this causes a huge fire hazard. Here it’s customary for hunters to start fires intentionally; they’ll burn off an area and return to hunt when the grass starts to regrow, as this attracts deer and other animals.”

To tackle this threat, Pro-Bosque has acquired pasture on the edge of the reserve to create a buffer zone around the protected forest. In these open areas, Pro-Bosque staff are planting trees to help speed up the process of natural regeneration. With the support of World Land Trust (WLT), an international conservation charity, Pro-Bosque staff have planted up to 90,000 trees per year since 2008.

Once the saplings in Pro-Bosque’s nursery are ready, the reforestation team and their volunteers have just a short time in which to plant them all during the rainy season. Thereafter the ongoing maintenance of young trees is painstaking and an expensive water irrigation system is needed.

Recreating the forest, ensuring there are enough ecologically significant species to provide food for birds, bats and other mammals, is an enormous challenge, and far from easy.

So, where do you start?

Matching biodiversity

Open pasture is the most adverse environment for growing trees: “The grass will just swallow the tree and outcompete it,” explains Eric, “and then there’s the secondary vegetation – like vines and creepers that thrive in this kind of disturbed area – and they will grow up a tree and literally bend it over and kill it. Their strength is quite amazing.”

The easy answer would be to rely on planting fast growing, pioneer trees that quickly outgrow the grasses and vines, or to cover the area in pesticides to kill the competition. But this is not Pro-Bosque’s approach.

“Our aim is to match the species composition and biodiversity of the original forest,” says Eric. “We had a botanical inventory carried out and they identified between 500 and 700 vascular plant species, and between 80 and 90 native trees – species that are only found within this ecosystem. To recreate this diversity is our challenge and we haven’t yet reached our goal.”

Native trees

Throughout the year, the reforestation team along with volunteers from the local community spend a great deal of time within the protected forest identifying strong tree specimens and collecting their seeds to grow on in Pro-Bosque’s nursery.

The nursery produces a maximum of 35 species at any one time and some are infuriatingly hard to germinate. “There is absolutely no information available in books on a lot of these species here in Ecuador,” explains Eric.

“The germination process is trial and error, a nonstop effort. But it is such important work; many native tree species within the country are being lost and there is no knowledge of how to reproduce them in the nursery, or when there is, this information is not shared.”

Pro-Bosque is working to change this trend, improving methods to reproduce rare species in the nursery and holding workshops so others can learn from their techniques.

Saving species

The process of reforestation is time consuming, labour intensive, and expensive. So, is all this hard work and investment really worth it?

For the past three years camera-traps in the reforested area of Cerro Blanco have regularly captured images of Jaguars. Imagine, top predators roaming the outskirts of the city – the largest urban area within the country – and finding enough prey in this protected forest to survive.

For the past three years, camera-traps in the reforested area of Cerro Blanco have regularly captured images of jaguars. Imagine, top predators roaming the outskirts of the city – the largest urban area within the country – and finding enough prey in this protected forest to survive.

When it’s done right, reforestation is about so much more than planting a few trees – it’s about recreating the complex ecology of the surrounding forest, providing a greater safe haven for wildlife, and ensuring that rare, native species are not lost forever.

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