Paying people to replant tropical forests – and letting them harvest the wood – can pay off for climate, justice and the environment

Tropical forest landscapes are home to millions of indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers. Virtually every square meter of land is spoken for, even though claims are not formally recognized by governments.

These local landowners hold the key to a valuable solution as the world tries to slow climate change – restoring deforested tropical landscapes for a healthier future.

Tropical forests are vital to the planet’s climate and biodiversity, but today an area the size of a football field of mature tropical forest is burned or cleared about every five seconds to clear space for crops and livestock.

While those trees may have been lost, the land still has potential. The combination of year-round sunshine and high rainfall in tropical forests can lead to high growth rates, suggesting that areas where tropical forests once grew could be valuable sites for reforestation. In fact, a large number of international agreements and declarations provide for exactly this.

However, if reforestation projects want to make a dent in climate change, they must work with and for the people who live there.

As forest ecologists involved in tropical forest restoration, we have studied effective ways to compensate people for the ecosystem services that flow from their lands. In a new study, we show how compensation that also allows landowners to harvest and sell some of the trees can provide powerful incentives and ultimately benefit everyone.

The extraordinary value of ecosystem services

Tropical forests are celebrated for their extraordinary biodiversity, with their conservation considered essential for protecting life on Earth. They are reservoirs of enormous carbon stocks, which slow climate change. However, when tropical forests are cut down and burned, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change.

Programs that offer payments for ecosystem services are intended to keep those forests and other ecosystems healthy by compensating landowners for goods and services produced by nature that are often taken for granted. For example, forests moderate stream flows and reduce flood risks, support bees and other pollinators that benefit neighboring croplands, and help regulate the climate.

Deforested hills seen from the air, showing the light green color of newly planted saplings.

Burned or logged tropical forests can be restored, such as these newly planted (top left) and naturally regrowing (bottom right) watersheds at Agua Salud in Panama. Marcos Guerra/Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

In recent years, a cottage industry has emerged that pays people to reforest land for the carbon it can contain. It has been driven in part by companies and other institutions looking for ways to fulfill their promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by paying for projects to reduce or prevent emissions elsewhere.

Early versions of projects that pay landowners for ecosystem services have been criticized for focusing too much on economic efficiency, sometimes at the expense of social and environmental concerns.

Win-win solutions – which take into account both environmental and social interests – may not be the most economically efficient in the short term, but they can lead to longer-term sustainability as participants feel a sense of pride and responsibility for the success of the project.

That longer-term sustainability is essential for trees’ carbon storage, because many decades of growth are needed to build stored carbon and combat climate change.

Why wood can be a triple win

In the study we looked at ways to maximize all three priorities – environmental, economic and social benefits – in forest restoration, with a focus on infertile land.

It may come as a surprise, but most soils in the tropics are extremely infertile, with concentrations of phosphorus and other essential nutrients an order of magnitude or even lower than in crop-producing areas of the Northern Hemisphere. This makes the restoration of tropical forests through reforestation more complex than just planting trees; these areas also require maintenance.

Looking up from the base of a tall tree to the canopy and the sky.Looking up from the base of a tall tree to the canopy and the sky.

In our research, we used approximately 1.4 million tree measurements taken over 15 years at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud site in Panama to map carbon sequestration and potential timber revenues. We looked at naturally regrowing forests, plantations of native tree species and an attempt to rehabilitate a failed teak plantation by planting high-quality native trees known to grow on low-fertility lands to test routes to profitability.

One set of solutions stood out: we found that providing both carbon sequestration payments and the opportunity to generate income through on-land timber production could lead to vibrant forests and financial gains for the landowner.

It may seem counterintuitive to propose logging when the goal is forest restoration, but giving landowners the opportunity to generate income from timber can give them an incentive to protect and manage planted forests over time.

Regrowing trees in a deforested landscape, whether through natural regrowth or plantations, is a net benefit to climate change, because trees remove enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. New forests that are selectively logged or plantations that are harvested within 30 to 80 years can help slow climate change as the world cuts emissions and expands carbon capture technologies.

Reliable payments are important

The structure of the payments is also important. We found that reliable annual carbon payments to rural owners to regrow forests can match or exceed the income they could otherwise get from clearing land for livestock, enabling the transition to growing trees.

When cash payments are instead based on measurements of tree growth, these can vary widely from year to year and between planting strategies. The associated costs can hinder effective land management to combat climate change.

Three graphs, all rising rapidly in the first ten years, but then falling.Three graphs, all rising rapidly in the first ten years, but then falling.

Instead, the use of fixed annual payments guarantees a stable income and will help attract more landowners to register. We now use that method in the indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca in Panama. The project pays residents to plant and care for native trees for twenty years.

Shifting risk to buyers of carbon offsets

From a practical perspective, flat annual carbon payments and other cost-sharing strategies for tree planting shift the burden of risk from participants to carbon buyers, often companies in wealthy countries.

The landowners get paid even if the actual growth of the trees falls short, and everyone benefits from the ecosystem services provided.

While win-win solutions may not initially seem economically efficient, our work helps illustrate a viable path forward – where environmental, social and economic goals can be achieved.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Jefferson S. Hall, Smithsonian attitude; Katherine Sinacore, Smithsonian attitudeand Michiel van Breugel, National University of Singapore

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Jefferson S. Hall receives funding from the U.S. Government through the Smithsonian Institution, Stanly Motta, Frank and Kristin Levinson, the Hoch family, U-Trust, and the Mark and Rachel Rohr Foundation.

Katherine Sinacore receives funding from the Mark and Rachel Rohr Foundation, Stanly Motta, Frank and Kristin Levinson, the Hoch family, and the Smithsonian.

Michiel van Breugel receives funding from the Singapore Ministry of Education and the Future Cities Lab Global Program of the ETH-Singapore Centre, which is funded by National Research Foundation Singapore.

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