A future with more forests is possible

Canada needs a more ambitious tree-planting goal. A new Indigenous seed-saving initiative is a step in the right direction.

Indigenous land back forest

People are among the most powerful forces of change in forests, and can become the most restorative force.

I’ve witnessed this transformation here in the Zanzibar archipelago, a delicate string of islands in the Indian Ocean where my colleagues have been planting millions of trees over the past decade. This week, I visited dry and rugged coral areas where tree cover is now returning to the land and witnessed how this is repairing the local ecosystem and creating jobs and wealth for the people who live within it. Our team recently expanded this same approach to nearby Mozambique – and it is crucial work increasingly in demand around the world.

Forests and people aren’t thriving together today. Forest loss accelerated in 2020, increasing more than 12% even while overall economic activity declined globally due to COVID-19. According to a recent big-picture analysis by Our World in Data, however, “[a] future with more people and more forest is possible.”

Making the necessary transformations at scale is the idea behind the Canadian government’s 2 Billion Trees program. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t reached much of this goal yet, according to The Globe and Mail. The most recently available numbers suggest that only 8.5 million trees have been planted so far, and 7.6 million of those are spruce and lodgepole pine planted in British Columbia. In the rest of the country, 28% of the total trees can be attributed to the relatively small charity that I work for, Community Forests International, and I can assure you we were not expecting to score so high on the leaderboard. The final totals for 2021 will be available soon, but the overall story of lagging results remains the theme

And Canada needs a much more ambitious goal than planting two billion trees over 10 years if we are going to realize the potential our forests offer for climate security. For example, requiring forestry companies to store more carbon than they emit through their harvest operations would be far more significant. In fact, Canada’s managed forests currently emit more carbon than they store, because of overharvesting and the increased impacts of climate change, such as fires.

A new Indigenous seed-collection initiative, just announced as part of the 2 Billion Trees program and to be delivered by the National Tree Seed Centre in New Brunswick, is an exciting step in the right direction. The initiative aims to partner with Indigenous communities to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into seed saving and to gather seeds from species of special cultural and economic value to First Nations. Proceeding with care, especially in respecting and protecting the invaluable Indigenous knowledge shared through this process, is critical to ensuring that justice is upheld in this forest effort and that the same extractive mistakes on the land are not repeated in the realm of knowledge and culture.

Canada needs a much more ambitious goal than planting two billion trees over 10 years if we are going to realize the potential our forests offer for climate security.

People will become a positive force for forests and for the climate when we achieve justice in how forests are cared for. That means empowering rural and Indigenous communities that live and work most closely with forests with the rights to decide how their home ecosystems are respected and managed. Too often those decisions are made by companies with prevailing short-term profit motives and no rooted place in the ecosystems and communities they’re impacting. 

Deforestation in the Amazon reached a record high last month, and new research based on two decades of satellite images published in Nature Climate Change warns that the world’s largest rainforest is now approaching a “tipping point.” Among the worst drivers of not just the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions but also the displacement of forest-dependent communities are multinational agribusinesses and their foreign financiers. The same satellite record also reveals vibrant areas of the Amazon that have remained healthy and intact, with distinct boundaries matching areas where Indigenous rights have been upheld.

We have to get beyond the idea that people are necessarily the problem. People have always been a part of forests. We are not separate. There’s roughly the same area of “wild” land on Earth today as there was 12,000 years ago. It’s shocking to those of us immersed in colonial narratives of “pristine nature,” but people have always shaped forests in significant ways. The difference today is that the ways in which colonial societies and economies shape land is overwhelmingly devastating.

Today, more than 97% of land on Earth is no longer intact and has lost the required richness and biodiversity to maintain ecological integrity. Our life-support systems are collapsing. Protecting and restoring more forests as biodiverse cultural landscapes – by respecting local and Indigenous land rights and knowledge as a first priority – is not only ethically necessary but one of the most important contributions we can make to stabilizing the climate. Because the history, wisdom and science are clear: Indigenous and other collective communities do a better job of keeping forests and their vital carbon stores intact over the long-term.

I see this here in Zanzibar, where community groups are time and time again the best protectors of coastal mangrove forests. Mangroves grow half on land and half in the ocean and are the most carbon-dense forests in the world. At-risk coastal communities we have the honour of working alongside have been taking it upon themselves to safeguard and restore these special mangrove ecosystems. They’re doing it without any carbon-offset financing or payment for ecosystem services because they understand that mangroves provide their nearby homes with irreplaceable protection against rising sea levels and that the work is simply necessary.

And I see it in my home province of New Brunswick, where the Wolastoqey Nation is striving to assert the right to care for and benefit from millions of acres of traditional lands, much of which was sold illegally for $1.50 an acre to companies that have profited from their destruction. This movement is so important right now – most significantly for justice and reconciliation, but also for the forests of New Brunswick and for the global climate. No tree-planting strategy could match the climate and economic benefit offered by transitioning these lands back under the care of Indigenous communities with ongoing reparations to practise restorative management optimized for carbon drawdown.

The International Day of Forests happens to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and this invites us to reflect on all the ways forests and justice are woven together today and every day – and then to take action.

Daimen Hardie is co-founder of Community Forests International.

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