Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. So in 2014, hundreds of governments and corporations made a landmark pledge to cut the rate of natural forest loss by half and restore 150 million hectares of land by 2020. But five years later, the global state of forests has dramatically worsened.

It's in this setting the World Economic Forum unveiled a plan to "plant a trillion trees." (For context, there are roughly 3 trillion trees worldwide today.) The United States, among others, endorsed the plan.

The project is a large-scale ambitious idea with the potential to absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide to combat climate change and provide other benefits. Individual companies are also making commitments. The Priceless Planet Coalition, for example, led by Mastercard and advised by WRI and Conservation International, will grow 100 million trees over five years. However, it's not just the scale of this and similar initiatives that is challenging. Growing trees also needs to be done right, and the priority should always be conserving and protecting our existing trees.

Here are five lessons from the ongoing movement to restore land and grow trees.

1. Start with People

Any approach to planting trees has to start by learning about people's challenges and their relationship with their land. Understanding the social landscape is as important as understanding the physical landscape when it comes to restoration.

Restoring land can have substantial returns—natural benefits like increased groundwater and biodiversity and socioeconomic benefits like jobs and improved yields. These can accelerate interest and investment in restoration as well as maintenance once trees are in the ground. Simply put, if trees are valuable for people, there is a better chance everyone will work together to restore and protect them. Collaboration and good governance are key ingredients for success.

Examples can be found across Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world, such as in Malawi, where a program to create jobs for young people by planting trees also provides a sustainable source of wood for fuel and regenerates forests.

2. Choose Right Trees, Right Place

Planting trees that are not native to an area can create huge challenges for humans and biodiversity. A better understanding of the landscape helps to identify the best tree and vegetation choices to benefit people and the ecosystem.

When trees are introduced where they are not supposed to grow, they can become invasive. In the 1970s, mathenge or mesquite—a shrub native to Mexico—was introduced in Kenya to combat desertification, provide firewood and feed livestock. This environment was too favorable, and it spread very fast. The mesquite grew so aggressively that it killed native vegetation and devastated grazing land, harming livestock. It even blocked roads, irrigation canals and riverbanks. All this caused significant economic damage and losses to biodiversity.

3. Use Smart Approaches

Stakeholder discussion in Tshopo province in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angel Cibemba/WRI
Stakeholder discussion in Tshopo province in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angel Cibemba/WRI

Relatedly, a good strategy will vary depending on the goals of local stakeholders and geography of the landscape. People restore land for a wide spectrum of reasons that range from feeling social responsibility to generating income to being required by local law.

In the tropics, forests will regenerate naturally if protected from fires and grazing livestock, often better than any tree-planting effort could achieve. In other cases, a return on investment may drive restoration; many local entrepreneurs are already making a profit by restoring land and creating opportunities for their communities through the Land Accelerator. And if the right policies are in place, such as the PROBOSQUE law in Guatemala, landowners may add trees to their property to access incentives meant to support public investment in public goods.

4. Plan, Nurture, Monitor

In November 2019, Turkey planted 11 million trees as part of a national mass planting campaign. The problem: 90% of the saplings have reportedly died since then.

According to experts, better planning could have increased the saplings' rate of survival. Tree-planting campaigns should be guided by objectives based on science and accompanied by robust monitoring plans before shovels hit the ground.

Relatedly, monitoring where and how trees grow provides essential information on how to direct efforts and resources more effectively, helping implementers share important knowledge and data to scale restoration efforts. This information can also help stakeholders secure additional financing for their efforts by enabling them to transparently measure and share the results of their work.

5. Consider the Landscape

Deciding how to use land to satisfy different human needs can be challenging, especially because traditional agricultural and development practices often result in deforestation or land degradation. A "landscape approach" seeks to balance how people use land to grow food, generate energy or build infrastructure with the natural environment. This could mean preventing the expansion of agriculture into nearby forests, limiting potential leakage from restoration efforts, or even integrating trees within existing farmland.

In the Peruvian Amazon at Madre de Dios, a partnership between the community, non-governmental organization Aider and leading natural capital fund manager Althelia is helping farmers to incorporate cocoa plants on their farms by the Tambopata National Reserve buffer zone—which is being actively preserved as part of a program to reduce emissions by deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) project. Though agroforestry, cocoa serves as a sustainable source of income that helps restore land that had been degraded mainly due to mining, while protecting one of the most ecologically valuable forests in the world.

Cattle in Costa Rica. Photo by Luciana Gallardo Lomeli/WRI
Restoration by silvopasture – combining cattle and growing trees – in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Photo by Luciana Gallardo Lomeli/WRI

There are already numerous initiatives to plant trees and restore land worldwide. Countries have committed to restore more than 170 million hectares through the Bonn Challenge and regional partnerships like AFR100, Initiative 20x20 and ECCA30. And as the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, countries, communities, civil society organizations and companies are stepping up their ambition. It is crucial for and similar initiatives to add value to existing country-led efforts already underway, many of which have already convened multiple sectors or committed significant resources.

Growing trees can help stop or even reverse climate change, but only when the right steps are taken. By incorporating these lessons, Trillion Trees and similar initiatives can make a meaningful contribution to stopping and even reversing climate change.

If you are interested in learning more, starting or contributing to a tree planting campaign that follows the tenets above, please follow us on Twitter at @restoreforward.

  • EDITOR'S NOTE, 10/19/20: This post was updated to reflect the latest information on the Priceless Planet Coalition.