The past two years have seen huge advances in the global movement to restore degraded and deforested land. Regional restoration programs like Initiative 20x20, a country-led initiative to restore 20 million hectares of degraded land in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020, and AFR100, an analogous effort to restore 100 million hectares in Africa by 2030, have drawn tremendous political support. But, as the movement transitions from inspiring political commitments to implementing restoration activities on the ground, some difficult questions must be asked, like: What do we mean by forest and landscape restoration? What counts as restoration? And can plantation forests play a role?
A productive plantation forest, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is a “forest of introduced species and in some cases native species, established through planting or seeding mainly for production of wood or non-wood goods.” Small-holder plantations produce wood for cooking and construction; industrial plantations produce wood for paper-making and construction. Productive plantation forests, in other words, are created and managed, often intensively, in order to be useful. They can be seen as a form of agriculture that grows trees instead of food crops.
And just like industrial agriculture, industrial plantations and the companies associated with them often have bad reputations. Unless they’re sustainably managed, plantations run the risk of expanding onto neighboring (and perhaps protected) land. Plantations are sometimes planted as large monocultures with little concern for biodiversity, competing land uses, traditional land rights or governance, and other factors. The result can be conflicts with local people and problems like poor soil health, degradation of native grasslands, loss of critical habitat or higher risk of insects and disease.
Rather than ignore the challenges associated with plantations, it is the responsibility of government agencies, academics and civil society to ensure their forest plantation practices are sustainable for people and the planet. Fortunately, there are options available to help plantation managers do this, including certification schemes, promoting community-managed and small-scale forestry, or targeting already degraded or deforested land for planting. An example of this is an initiative called the New Generation Plantations Platform, which seeks to find sustainable ways to produce needed commodities through plantation forestry.
Industrial plantations by themselves are unlikely to support all aspects of a sustainable landscape. They need a balancing context, and this is where forest and landscape restoration (FLR) comes in. FLR is the process of restoring functionality and ecosystem services to degraded land by increasing the number of trees in the landscape. It takes a holistic approach that monoculture plantations by themselves are unable to provide, and has proven economic, social and environmental benefits like increasing household income, improving food security and creating new habitat.
When adding trees to the landscape—whether on plantations or other areas—looking through the lens of the landscape approach is critical, which is defined by principles that call for adaptive management, working towards multiple benefits, involving stakeholders and much more. Although planted forests will never replace natural forests, they are needed to meet various consumer demands, and can often reduce and discourage the need to clear or extract from standing forests. By following the guiding principles of FLR, companies and farmers can create sustainable, biodiverse and well-managed plantations that do have a place within the broader forest and landscape restoration approach. The principles recommend restoring entire landscapes rather than individual sites to meet a variety of human needs, embracing a range of strategies for restoring trees through planting or natural regeneration, and adapting the project to the local context.
This FLR approach to plantations is one that Form International and Kofi Annan will discuss at their upcoming conference called Forests for the Future: New Forests for Africa being held in Accra, Ghana later this week. Form International, which recently joined the AFR100 Initiative, is gathering 10 of the most forward-thinking forest plantation companies in Africa to discuss the future of plantation forestry on the continent. The companies are seeking guidance on how to improve their approaches and practices. Annan will deliver the keynote address, where he will highlight his message that reforestation efforts can help address climate change in Ghana and globally.
Forest and landscape restoration is gaining serious momentum across the globe as a practical and cost-effective solution to address the impacts of climate change, improve rural livelihoods, generate economic outputs, increase biodiversity and much more. Under the Bonn Challenge, the New York Declaration on Forests and other international goals, countries have already committed to restore more than 90 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, and this commitment continues to grow each year. In order to achieve this goal, everyone must be given a seat at the table –especially private companies responsible for supplying commodities to a growing population.