Seven Times Size of Manhattan: The African Tree-Planting Project Making a Difference

tree planting in africa

In a world dominated by monoculture cash crops, an extraordinary initiative is taking root in Africa. Trees for the Future (TREES) is encouraging farmers to cultivate biodiverse forest gardens that not only sustain their families but also protect the soil and expand tree coverage. Could this be the rare reforestation campaign that actually makes a difference? The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) certainly thinks so, recently awarding TREES the prestigious status of World Restoration Flagship.

A Mass Reforestation Success Story

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Since its inception in 2015, TREES has been planting tens of millions of trees each year in nine African countries, including Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, and Kenya. In less than a decade, they have reportedly restored over 41,000 hectares of land, an area seven times the size of Manhattan. As part of the ambitious Great Green Wall initiative by the African Union, TREES is contributing to the creation of an 8,000 km-wide barrier of vegetation to combat encroaching deserts in the Sahel region. This game-changing project aims to become the largest natural structure on the planet, although it is still a work in progress.

Combating Poverty and Restoring Ecosystems

TREES has set ambitious goals to combat poverty through reforestation. By 2030, they plan to create 230,000 jobs and plant an astounding one billion trees. Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, emphasizes the importance of restoration, stating that merely protecting Africa’s remaining fertile land is no longer enough. With Africa projected to be home to a quarter of the world’s population in just a few decades, many areas have already degraded into semi-barren drylands.

Andersen believes initiatives like TREES play a vital role in reversing decades of ecosystem degradation, particularly in the Sahel region. They are effectively pushing back desertification, enhancing climate resilience, and improving the well-being of farmers and their communities. The World Restoration Flagship recognition solidifies the impact TREES is making.

Overcoming Historical Challenges

There have been historical doubts about the effectiveness of large-scale tree-planting campaigns. Expectations often exceed reality. For instance, a 2019 study suggesting that planting a trillion trees worldwide could significantly alleviate the climate crisis was later debunked due to the lack of suitable land. Many governments have initiated tree-planting campaigns in the past, only to fall short due to insufficient irrigation, protection, and follow-up measures to ensure saplings grow into thriving trees. In many cases, these national initiatives are merely distractions from larger-scale deforestation happening elsewhere.

Kenya serves as an example, with numerous tree-planting initiatives launched over the years. However, despite these efforts, the country has lost 11% of its tree cover since 2000. While the situation has somewhat stabilized in recent years, thanks to the current president’s initiatives, the logging ban was lifted to stimulate economic growth, putting additional strain on forests. Areas like Mau Forest, Migori Forest, and Nyanza Forest face ongoing deforestation for various agricultural purposes.

The Power of Forest Gardens

While protecting primary forests remains crucial for the global climate, local biodiversity, and regional water cycles, reforestation projects like TREES can alleviate ecological and economic challenges in already degraded areas. In western Kenya’s Kesouma region, for example, TREES has supported 17,000 smallholder farmers in transitioning from monocultures to “forest gardens.” These gardens consist of tightly spaced agroforestry trees that provide firewood and fodder, surrounded by a protective wall of Acacia polyacantha. The gardens also include vegetable plots and orchards filled with mangoes, avocados, oranges, apples, and other fruits. The goal is to ensure families have enough nutrition to sustain themselves with surplus crops to sell at the market.

To further support income generation, one pilot area in the Lake Victoria basin is earning cash from carbon credits based on soil organic carbon gains, measured by experts from the University of Nairobi and the Wangari Maathai Institute of Peace and Environmental Studies.

A Sustainable Approach

Monitoring and maintenance are critical aspects of any reforestation project, especially in remote areas. Many large-scale projects have attempted to address this challenge by distributing seeds via plane in uninhabited areas. Unfortunately, these efforts often fail due to unsuitable species and the absence of irrigation. Forest gardens offer a more promising solution, as farmers live in or near the fields and have a financial incentive to ensure soil quality and the healthy growth of diverse trees.

Vincent Mainga, the Kenya director of TREES, predicts rapid expansion with UNEP’s endorsement. He views this as a massive restoration movement that utilizes regenerative agriculture. The model is easily adoptable, as farmers work closely with TREES for four years, learning the necessary skills and techniques to transform their farmlands into thriving ecosystems. Once established, these forest gardens become self-sustaining, providing a sustainable future for both communities and the environment.

Tips Tree Planting is dedicated to sharing knowledge and practical advice on tree planting, sustainable agriculture, and ecological restoration. Let’s join hands and make a significant impact on the planet together!


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