the Forests, Save the Planet
by Herbert Girardet
Never has the planet been more in need of
forests. Never have the forests been under
greater pressure than they are today.
The history of the growth and spread of civilisation
is also the story of deforestation. Farming
which started some 12,000 years ago, invariably
took place on land previously covered by forests.
Agriculture, in turn, was was a precondition
for the growth of cities. Right from the very
beginnings of urban development in Mesopotamia,
cities such as Ur, Uruk, and Babylon contributed
to the massive deforestation of surrounding
areas. Cities need timber, firewood, and farmland
and they all come from the same place: forests.
Athens was to repeat the process. In his book
Critias, Plato commented on the deforestation
of Attica: "What now remains compared
with what then existed is like the skeleton
of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having
wasted away, and only the bare framework of
the land being left...there are some mountains
which have nothing but food for bees, but
they had trees not very long ago, and the
rafters from those felled there to roof the
largest buildings are still sound."
Forest clearance is a sort of capital investment
in the agricultural and urban development
that follows. Valuable timber and firewood
are extracted and the cleared forests become
farms to feed the exploding urban populations.
Rome came to provide the most notorious example
of this process, deforesting land all along
the coastline of the Mediterranean: from Italy
itself to Sicily, Spain and North Africa.
Agricultural and urban development in Western
Europe resulted in the clearance of most lowland
forests, where land was particularly suited
to agriculture. The same process was subsequently
repeated in North America, where old forests
are now being cut down and converted into
plantations of fast-growing timber.
Deforestation is proceeding at an unprecedented
rate all over the tropics. In the last forty
years, nearly half the world's tropical rainforests
have been cleared. In Brazil, Mexico, Costa
Rica, Malaysia, Indonesia, Za‹re, and
many other tropical countries, forests are
succumbing to the chainsaw and the torch.
The Ivory Coast and Ghana, until recently
major timber exporters, will soon be logged
out completely and, like Nigeria, will have
to start importing timber.
In September 1988, probably the largest fire-storms
in history swept across the forest and ranch
land in the Amazon. The smoke cloud, observed
and photographed by astronauts, covered an
area the size of the whole of South America.
I flew over these fires in a small plane on
my way from the capital, Brasilia, to the
interior. During the seven-hour flight, fires
were burning below us all the way. It was
an experience I shall not forget as long as
Of course Brazilians point out that Europeans,
too, have cleared some of their forests in
order to establish "civilization".
Now, they feel, it is Brazil's turn to create
more farm and ranch land. How can outsiders
dare to interfere in that process? It is not
only the tropical rainforests that are suffering.
Tropical dry forests, too, are under pressure,
particularly in Africa where the open forests
of the Savannah are being damaged by overgrazing
and by firewood collection. Ethiopia has dropped
from a forest cover of some forty per cent
a few decades ago to some four per cent today.
Most of the countries around the fringes of
the Sahara are suffering the same fate.
Urbanization is a major cause of deforestation
in Africa. While most people in the world
today use kerosene or gas for cooking, a large
proportion of Africans continue to rely on
firewood, even in the cities. The ring of
deforestation around Khartoum in the Sudan
extends to over 120 miles; around Nairobi,
Kenya, it has reached over 180 miles.
In Europe and North America today, forests
are not being decimated any longer by felling,
but by air pollution. It is ironic that in
the 19th Century, forests in Europe were actually
saved by the discovery and rapid expansion
in the use of coal. Once coal came into widespread
use for heating, smelting metals, and fuelling
steam engines, there was a chance for forests
to regrow because of the drop in the demand
for firewood. Air pollution from coal smoke
was a localized problem and did not do large-scale
damage to forests.
Today with a dramatic increase in the use
of fossil fuels, air pollution and acid rain
are causing unprecedented damage to forests.
In Western Europe over fifty per cent of forests
are now severely damaged. In Eastern Europe
the figure is as high as 70 to 75 per cent,
particularly as a result of the use of lignite
coal in industry and power generation, which
has a very high sulphur content. An additional
factor is the prevailing westerly winds which
blow Western Europe's pollution across to
Eastern Europe for much of the year.
Another consequence of our growing use of
coal and oil is the increase in the carbon
dioxide (C02) content of the Earth's atmosphere:
in the last hundred years, it has increased
by 25 per cent. There is now widespread concern
about the greenhouse effect and its consequences
for life on Earth.
At present, some five billion tons of excess
carbon find their way into the Earth's atmosphere
every year, four billion of this from the
combustion of fossil fuels and firewood, and
about one billion from the incineration of
forests for the purpose of expanding areas
of land to be used for cultivation. Most of
the carbon released from fossil fuels originates
in the industrialized countries. But the developing
countries are rapidly catching up with us,
particularly China and India, both of which
have stores of coal that could keep power
stations and factories in these countries
running for centuries.
The C02 concentrations in the atmosphere look
set to increase dramatically in the coming
years. Do we have any possibility at all to
reverse the trends? It is clear that energy
conversation and greater energy efficiency
could achieve a great deal, but it will take
time to implement such measures. In the meantime
the only option we have is to plant trees
on a massive scale.
Every tree that is planted soaks up many tons
of carbon from the atmosphere while it grows.
Large-scale planting could buy us several
decades to redesign our lifestyles in a long-term
effort to counter the greenhouse effect.
The fact that growing trees absorb C02 has
not gone unnoticed among concerned scientists
and decision-makers. In the United States
particularly, researchers have investigated
the potential for major tree-planting projects
to counter the greenhouse effect. Gregg Marland
of Oak Ridge Laboratories prepared a detailed
report for the U.S. Department of Energy in
1988 on the "Prospect of solving the
C02 Problem Through Global Reforestation."
His conclusion is that if large-scale reforestation
was taken seriously by governments and individuals
worldwide; it would be feasible to fully counter
the increase in atmospheric C02.
Marland estimates that an area of approximately
seven million square kilometres, equivalent
to the area of the U.S. minus Alaska, would
have to be planted with trees to soak up the
annual surplus of five billion tons of carbon.
He suggests that newly bred fast-growing species
of trees ought to be used wherever possible
in order to maximize carbon uptake. He considers
spruces, pines, eucalyptuses and sycamores
as particularly appropriate for the job. He
also mentions the potential for fertilizing
existing forests in order to make them grow
faster, and thus absorb carbon more rapidly.
Environmentalist Norman Meyers calculates
that the area required to absorb surplus carbon
from the atmosphere would be rather less,
about four million square kilometres. He estimates
the cost of such an enterprise as US$ 160
billion or $16 billion per year, if the work
is spread out over ten years. As reported
by Meyers, the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, which met in November 1989
in the Netherlands, proposed a plan for planting
120,000 square kilometres of trees per year
for the next 20 years in various parts of
the world, making an ultimate total of 2,400,000
There is no doubt that proposals for countering
the annual increase in atmospheric carbon
by large-scale tree planting are compelling.
We are becoming increasingly aware that more
forests are desperately needed to fight the
spread of wasteland and deserts. So why not
combine the fight against land degradation
with efforts to counter the greenhouse effect?
So far so good. But as soon as I read the
proposals for extensive plantations of genetically-engineered
super-trees grown with artificial fertilisers,
the alarm bells started ringing in my mind.
It sounds just like the technological fix
of the 1960's Green Revolution that has caused
do much environmental and social havoc in
large parts of the developing world.
There is no doubt that we must seriously concern
ourselves with ways in which we can grow trees,
many more trees, to soak up C02 from the atmosphere.
But it is very important that this is done
in ways which are not simply a "carbon
numbers game". we should not think in
terms of planting tree monocultures by the
square kilometre, all identical, all regularly
doused with fertilizers and pesticides to
keep off the inevitable bugs that invade monocultures.
Tree monocultures have often been found to
be rather unpleasant and counterproductive.
India's "social forestry programme"
created large-scale Eucalyptus plantations
that often took crop lands away from the rural
poor. Eucalyptus leaves are unsuitable as
animal fodder and as they drop off, they do
not fertilize the soil. Eucalyptus trees use
up enormous quantities of water as they grow,
drying out the soil and, outside their native
habitat, Australia, are of no benefit whatsoever
to wildlife. Such plantations can now be seen
throughout Africa, in Peru, Thailand, Spain,
Portugal, and in the "cerrado",
the Savannah region of Brazil.
I believe that there is a better way to grow
trees that could help to counter the greenhouse
A few years ago I visited the Chagga people
who live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro
in Tanzania. For hundreds of years they have
been cultivating their land using a very special
technique. The land they settled on was dense
tropical forest. They thinned out the forest,
and the trees they cut provided them with
timber for building houses, and sheds for
their cows. But they did not cut all the trees,
just a few. By opening up the canopy of the
forest they let in light for new saplings
which they planted next to the stumps of the
trees they had cut down. The new trees they
had cultivated were mostly fruit and nut trees
such as mango, avocado and bread fruit, as
well as a range of palm trees. They also planted
bananas and nowadays they grow coffee bushes
below . the trees as well as taro and yams.
Today the Chagga grow most of Tanzania's export
coffee in this multi-story farming system.
It also happens to support the highest population
density in the whole of East Africa.
The cultivation system of the Chagga is one
of the many variants of "agroforestry",
the combination of tree crops with other food
and fodder crops. Today it is considered by
an ever growing number of "experts"
as probably the most promising approach to
food security for people throughout the tropics.
I believe that we should also look at agroforestry
also as a promising tree-planting method by
which to absorb large quantities of carbon
from the atmosphere.
The main way in which agroforestry differs
from tree monocultures is that it actively
benefits, and involves, people. Wherever agroforestry
has been tried with sufficient support it
has helped people to gain food security. In
Rwanda, for instance, agroforestry development
is now official government policy. After trial
projects on small hillside farms, where all
forest cover had gone, it was possible to
show that the establishment of tree belts
could be of enormous benefit to farmers, preventing
soil erosion and the run-off of rain. The
integration of trees for food and fodder into
the layout of the farms was soon seen as a
great success, giving farmers far greater
food security than "bare earth"
farming. Today the greening of Rwanda, as
well as Burundi and Malawi, is making rapid
In Kenya, too, small-scale tree planting is
energetically supported by the government.
By 1983 there were 1300 government nurseries
stocked with 83 million seedlings. Since then
these figures have gone up considerably. Wangari
Maathai, the founder of the Greenbelt Movement,
has motivated the women of Kenya to fight
erosion and desertification by setting up
village nurseries and planting indigenous
trees wherever possible. Her influence today
reaches well beyond the borders of Kenya.
These are some of Africa's success stories.
However, it is true that in most African countries,
tree-planting efforts are still at a rudimentary
stage. Many billions of trees will still have
to be planted to counter galloping deforestation,
particularly along the southern edge of the
This is precisely where concern about climate
change should link up with concern about hunger
and environmental degradation. Until now,
helping the poor in the tropics was often
considered as not very cost effective by Western
governments and banks.
Environmental deterioration was their concern
and not ours. Only when mass starvation occurred
and was widely reported by the media, as in
the case of Ethiopia, was there reason to
be seen to help. But help came mostly in the
form of short-term food-aid rather than long-term
projects concerned with re-establishing environmental
Today we, all the world's people, badly need
long-term climate security. What better way
to achieve this than by planting trees all
over the world in agroforestry projects?
Last summer I saw, and filmed, some very interesting
tree-planting projects in the Brazilian Amazon.
A village in the state of Para had been pointed
out to me where, as I was told, destitute
farmers from the south and the north-east
of Brazil had taken over land on which the
trees had been burned by cattle ranchers.
With financial help from the Catholic church
in Italy and with advice from an Italian agronomist,
the settlers set about replanting their 5000
acres with all kinds of tree crops. Today
Uraim, as the village is called, looks like
a green oasis in a wasteland of unproductive
cattle ranches. The 5000 acres support 200
people. One of the nearby cattle ranches that
is still operable supports only five families
on the same acreage. The villagers of Uraim
have become expert agroforesters. They have
planted dozens of different tree crops to
feed themselves and to sell in a nearby market.
There are many kinds of trees, hardly known
outside Brazil, that produce delicious fruits
and nuts: cupuaca, assai, babacu, andiroba,
as well as better known trees such as avocado,
mango, coconut, and cacao. Rubber trees are
being grown in a mixed cropping system that
also includes rows of pepper. Elsewhere, manioc
is being grown together with all kinds of
squashes, oranges, grapefruit and papaya.
Being in Uraim confirmed to me that it is
possible to re-establish tree cover in parts
of the Amazon where the forest had been cleared.
An area of the Amazon forest larger than France
has been denuded over the last couple of decades,
mostly by cattle-ranchers, and much of that
land is now lying waste. With some financial
support and careful advice, large areas of
this land could be replanted with trees in
sustainable agroforestry systems, helping
millions of destitute people in Brazil gain
a foothold on the land they so desperately
want, and planting the billions of trees the
planet so desperately needs. Many a cattle
rancher would be only too happy to sell his
unproductive grasslands for a few dollars
an acre, having made a great deal of money
from government subsidies and tax incentives
that have now been withdrawn. Brazil's destitutes
cannot afford to raise even this sort of money
but aid agencies in Europe and America can.
It is often said that the land from which
tropical rainforest has been removed is unsuitable
for cultivation. There is little doubt that
it is not very suitable as grassland, the
main reason for this being that grass is quite
shallow-rooted. But to re-establish trees
on cleared forest land is another matter.
The supposedly nutrient-poor land of the Amazon
is particularly well suited for growing trees
and, given good understanding of environmental
conditions, trees can be replanted on cleared
land in the Amazon. This is of crucial importance
for settlers who want to establish themselves
on "wasteland" in the Amazon. And
it is extremely important for people who might
be concerned with replanting such land with
trees for reasons of climate control.
There are some locations in the Amazon where
tree crops have been grown continuously for
hundreds of years. I went to visit Combu island
in the mouth of the Amazon, near the city
of Belem, where "caboclos", people
of mixed race who have learned a great deal
about the cultivation techniques of their
Amerindian ancestors, grow a large range of
tree crops. Their favourite is Acai palm,
which produces a small fruit rich in minerals
and vitamins. The caboclo families make a
good living from their tree crops, which they
sell in the Belem market. Their average annual
earnings are US$3000 from 80 acre plots--good
by Brazilian standards.
The futility of converting Amazon forest into
cattle ranches is at last being recognised
by the Brazilian authorities. The president,
Fernando Collor, has appointed the country's
best-known and most outspoken ecologist, Jose
Lutzenberger, as his Special Secretary for
the Environment. Resulting from this appointment
all subsidies and tax incentives for "developing"
forest land have been withdrawn. Profits from
farming in Brazil are now taxable for the
first time. Lutzenberger is determined to
encourage sustainable cultivation methods
in the areas of the Amazon where the forest
has already been cleared. Agroforestry is
very high on the agenda for the first time.
The potential of large-scale tree planting
by peasant farmers for combating the greenhouse
effect has been recognized in unlikely quarters.
The American power company Applied Energy
Services has recently built a new 180megawatt
power station in Pennsylvania. This will release
about 387,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere
every year. The company has worked out that
some 52 million growing trees would be able
worst deforestation occurs in poor countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, continues
to suffer disastrous deforestation, resulting
from a combination of overgrazing, overcutting
for firewood, and economic and environmental
mismanagement. Most developing countries carry
a horrendous burden of debt which makes it
all the more difficult for them to undertake
major environmental restoration projects.
In Europe, the scope for large-scale tree
planting is limited. Most of the land is spoken
for. However, we do have a major task on our
hands regenerating the vast area of forests
damaged by air pollution. Trees that are thus
damaged are far less able to photosynthesise,
i.e. to absorb that amount of carbon. The
management decided to contribute US $2 million
to the Guatemala Agroforestry Project that
has been initiated by the international relief
and aid agency CARE. Another US $18 million
will come form US government aid funds. Peasant
farmers are being funded to plant agroforestry
crops and wood-lots on their holdings. This
story has been widely publicised in the press
and other power station companies are now
contemplating similar projects. Governments,
too, are themselves undertaking major tree-planting
projects. For years, Algeria has quietly been
planting trees at the edge of the Sahara in
order to stop the spread of the desert. Saudi
Arabia, too, has initiated large-scale tree-planting
projects, as has South Korea. Last year Australia's
prime minister, Bob Hawke, committed his government
to planting one billion trees by the year
2000. This project is being undertaken mainly
to counter environmental deterioration, but
while these trees grow they will absorb the
CO2 of some 200 Pennsylvania-type power stations.
It is the rich countries that can afford major
tree-planting projects, but the absorb carbon
from the atmosphere as they grow. Investigations
in many areas show that bees are now growing
far less vigorously than they would if they
were healthy. It is therefore of crucial importance
to combat air pollution by fitting power stations,
factories and cars with filters and scrubbers.
Considerable investments in energy efficiency
and alternative energy technologies are also
crucial in this context. More and more countries
in Europe are now committed to such spending
although Britain is, as often, dragging her
heels. The opening up of Eastern Europe has
given us a glimpse of the horrendous scale
of forest dieback there. Replanting the dead
forests of Czechoslovakia, Poland and East
Germany will require cleaning up the sulphurous
fumes of the power stations in those countries.
It will also mean treating the highly acidified
soils, particularly in the mountainous regions,
where only acid resistant grasses still manage
to grow. In Erzgebirge in East Germany I saw
some trial plots that had been treated with
lime and magnesium where young pines appeared
to be holding their own. It will be of vital
importance to re-establish trees in such places,
not only for the sake of carbon dioxide uptake,
but also for erosion control and for maintaining
Never before has the planet been more in need
of trees. Never have trees been under greater
pressure than they are today.
Reviving and replanting trees worldwide is
of crucial importance for the future of life
on Earth. It is not only our lives that depend
on it. Most trees that we plant today will
be young when our children are grandparents.
Forests have been called the skin of the Earth.
One way or another we have been skinning the
Earth alive and in doing so we have removed
the homes of untold billions of our fellow
beings. At the same time, a large proportion
of humanity have been deprived of the necessary
conditions for a dignified life.
Now that the greenhouse effect is about to
become a reality in all our lives the need
for planting trees on a huge scale all over
the planet is becoming overwhelmingly apparent.
In a few places a start has been made. But
the real work has hardly begun.
Herbert Girardet is a film-maker and the author
of several books on ecology. This article
originally appeared in The Gaia Magazine,
London, and is reprinted here with permission
of the author.
This article was published in New Renaissance
magazine Vol.2, No.2