In 2008, over 5,000 seedlings were sowed in the Batukaru rainforest of Bali’s central mountains. A lush forested region which was once home to the illustrious Bali tiger, the area is now known to be the largest remnant rainforest on the island. Its natural prominence in the landscape drove local decision makers to grant it protected status earlier in the decade. Soon after, one of its custodian villages was approached by a multinational bank to facilitate a large carbon offset reforestation project.
Although the intension behind it was likely to further the bank’s promotability and add to the overly ‘greenwashed’ marketing approach of corporate entities, the end result was all in all positive. On a visit 12 years later, I was happy to see a canopy which has largely been restored in a once clear block of rainforest. Native trees seeded, cared for and planted by local villagers now stretch over 15 meters to the sky, making the block near unrecognisable from the native forest.
Overall a success. However, getting to this point wasn’t as simple as it seems. It would be ideal if growing a forest simply meant throwing seeds in the ground and coming back 10 years later to bird watch, but, this does not reflect reality. In reality, the success of this planting program was reached by the hard work of a few villagers employed to maintain and care for the saplings until they were strong enough to shrug off invasive vines and shading weeds. I remember tagging along on these maintenance trips as a young boy and, looking back on those memories the gravity of change in this rainforest community is clear.
For roughly 2 years a privately owned local business, which was involved in the program financed this to ensure the survival of the plot once the bank had packed up. Without this effort, I would argue that the dominating nature of constricting and smothering vines would outcompete most saplings, further prolonging or even preventing the reforestation process. In this scenario the thousands of dollars and days of effort spent planting the site would reap little reward for the forest. The bank, however, would still receive a promotional boost for a seemingly beneficial act of environmental accountability.
At the current rate, reforestation projects are spreading like wildfire through much of the developing world, and so we must stay true to the facts. Saplings aren’t trees, and until they grow big and strong, a tree planting is not yet successful. To correct for this, the benefit of a tree planting should be judged by the end result, not by the eye-catching figures released the day after planting.
To ensure the success of extensive reforestation in the tropical world, a great deal more care needs to be taken when managing planted areas. Considering that reforestation is a crucial element to all four of the IPCC’s pathways to a liveable future, I think this greater effort is more than justified. Afterall, is planting trees to offset carbon worth the effort if their chance of survival is so limited?