Will this year’s World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa, recognize the benefit in planting trees outside the forest?

It’s an important question. While a few extra trees in a forest crowded with them won’t have much impact, planting several trees on a farm in the sub-Saharan drylands can make the difference between life and death for a family when drought sets in.

Outside the forest, trees are often scattered or rare. Consider the world's agricultural landscapes, where sometimes no trees are seen at all. Think of urban areas, particularly in the tropics, where trees are the only means of cooling the poor can afford. Think of the world’s gigantic drylands such as those just south of the Sahara Desert.

Every tree outside the forest matters.

As a forester, why did it take me so long to come to this seemingly obvious conclusion?

The main reason, I think, is professional bias: my experience in forestry made me more inclined to see treeless lands as uninteresting and not worthy of my attention.

And I am not alone. Foresters and environmentalists often disagree, but this is a bias that they share. They care for the forest, albeit for different reasons. Their interest often doesn’t reach beyond its edge. A forester may dismiss trees outside the forest as, "not a collection of big trees and therefore inferior." An environmentalist may dismiss the same trees’ significance as "not a pristine ecosystem and therefore inferior."

Agronomists, too, have little interest in forests or in trees at all. Many agronomists, I am told, do not even see the trees in the agricultural landscape. Their professional perspective and focus on annual crops filters them out. Traditional engineers and urban planners who deal with streets and underground infrastructure tend to think of trees and roots as more of an obstacle than an asset.

Few would deny that trees outside the forest receive significantly less attention than they deserve. The land between forest and field is a professional fly-over space: no one profession owns it, so it has no voice and it is being ignored.

Many countries classify them as “other lands” in their forest inventories, yet no less 40 percent of the world’s land area is drylands with few or no trees. Even more jarring is that roughly a third of the world’s population lives in these lands (more than 2 billion people). Most of these people are poor and hungry. These “other lands” are where starvation, war and terrorism can grow. The drylands may be a blind spot, but they are neither small nor unimportant. The world ignores its “other” lands at its peril.

Would having more trees help the people in the drylands? Evidence suggests that they would. The contrast between southern Niger and northern Nigeria is a telling example. The natural conditions in these two regions are similar, but the former has consistently higher food security. The reason is that farmers, emboldened by governance reform, have restored trees to their farms.

The trees do help. Not so much by producing more timber or better habitats — although trees do that too — but by making the land produce more food and communities more resilient. Women save time by having firewood nearby. People and animals alike cherish the shade; the animals also appreciate the fodder. Trees can be cut and sold when cash is needed. Trees outside the forest improve life.

This is why I would plant my tree outside the forest. And this is why I will go to the World Forestry Congress with one big question in mind: Will it see the trees for the forest?

Read about WRI’s events at the World Forestry Congress here.

Lars Laestadius conducts research on forest landscape restoration, monitoring of forest resources and the legality of forest management and trade as Senior Associate of the Global Restoration Initiative in WRI’s Forests Program. Previously, he served in the European Commission and was responsible for coordinating nationally funded European forestry and forest products research.