Addressing Common Concerns about Planting Trees

Large scale efforts planting trees are growing more popular! Everyone from YouTube influencers to government leaders across the political spectrum are making pledges and launching campaigns to plant large quantities of trees. Countries like Ethiopia and India have broken single day records to plant trees while sustainable lifestyle brands like Tentree have made it an increasingly common practice to plant trees with every purchase.

Plant With Purpose is of course enthusiastic about tree planting. We recently celebrated planting our 40 millionth tree, and we continue to plant over 5 million trees a year. But as this enthusiasm is surging, concerns about how trees are planted are also starting to emerge. There are many valid questions about tree planting programs. Here are a few of the most common concerns we hear about tree planting programs and how they are addressed in our program:

Does Plant With Purpose plant native tree species?

This is a great question and a popular one. Broadly speaking, native trees offer a lot of advantages, including adaptations that help it better withstand pests, weather conditions, and other challenges local to the places where they are native. They also provide benefits to the local ecosystem and promote biodiversity by providing shelter and nourishment to a variety of species in the area.

The short answer is yes. Yes, we do plant native tree species, and a great deal of them!

In Tanzania, our partners were trained on seed harvesting and managed to harvest over 150kg of seeds from native trees in their natural environment! These seeds will go to locally-managed nurseries, where they are nurtured into saplings and later planted in the watersheds where our partners live.

That said, we don’t plant native trees exclusively. We work in damaged ecosystems, and sometimes intermediary species can be very beneficial in nursing degraded soil and landscapes back to health. We also work with local populations, and allow them to lead their environmental efforts, so ultimately they determine which species are planted. They are continually learning and receiving education through our program, which helps our partners seek the right trees for the right places, taking into account how they interact with their surrounding ecosystem.

Our Tanzanian director, Richard Mhina, notes, “Plant With Purpose promotes native tree planting among participants. We advocate for ‘smart reforestation’ where participants plant native tree species that are found in their natural environment. This is a huge achievement.”

I’ve heard about cases where communities of people are displaced by conservation efforts. Does Plant With Purpose take local populations into account?

This is a common critique and concern over large-scale efforts to plant or protect large quantities of trees, and it’s a valid one. Historically, efforts to protect natural landscapes through conservation sites and national parks have often overlooked and harmed marginalized populations, Indigenous people groups in particular. This continues to be a concern as modern-day excitement around tree planting as a climate solution surges.

One of the most important things that makes Plant With Purpose’s approach distinct is that we are completely dedicated to the autonomy and empowerment of these populations. In many of our partnering countries, we work with Indigenous groups and ethnic minorities who live in the forest that they rely on. The communities we work with are typically some of the most marginalized populations in their countries, and we work with them to build resilience. In some cases, especially in our Southeast Asian partnerships, we help community members secure land rights. By helping local communities demonstrate their proficiency in managing and restoring their land, they are often able to change the attitude of local governing bodies.

It’s important to note that we do not plant trees solely for the sake of planting trees. Our bigger vision aims for restored ecosystems and healing the relationship between people and their environment. Models of conservation that displace people are frequently based on an antagonistic relationship between humans and nature. We believe that human communities are also part of Creation and that their flourishing is connected.

A woman in Tanzania celebrates an award after participating in a tree planting competition

How are trees planted? Does Plant With Purpose make use of any new technologies to support reforestation, like drone-enabled seed spreading?

All our tree planting efforts are led by local communities. This is perhaps the most important aspect of how we plant trees. We not only seek to restore the ecosystems of marginalized communities, but to position these local leaders to be the ones in charge of these efforts.

Our partners apply a variety of tree planting methodologies. Some of the most prominent tree planting methods include multistrata agroforestry on farms, where trees are integrated with crops in order to establish mutually beneficial relationships between the species. We also promote techniques like Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR, a method where trees and shrubs are regenerated from existing roots, seeds, or stumps to assist with food production), or riparian zone planting to prevent flooding and protect water sources.

While we are open to the potential benefits that new technologies offer, we would not adopt a technology-enabled approach that limits the involvement and decision-making capacity of our local partners. Ultimately, our target is not just to have a large quantity of trees planted, but to see restored communities where both people and the planet are thriving. We do use satellite imagery to monitor the progress of reforestation and the health of an ecosystem through a tool called NDVI.

How are the trees monitored? Do you know about the survival rate of tree species? 

Our local partners and staff members based in each partnering country work to monitor the health of planted trees. Tree planting sites are routinely visited, and the health and survival of trees are monitored. This is one of the many ways that our local partners play a valuable role in the process.

Our tree-planting survival rate is 65% over three years.

Survival rate is an important statistic when it comes to measuring efforts to plant trees. Low survival rates of massive tree planting campaigns promoted nationally have been the cause of both skepticism and criticism. One study in Rwanda found that trees planted in public spaces only had a survival rate of only 30% over 1-4 years.

In order for trees to significantly protect and nourish soil while sequestering large amounts of atmospheric carbon, they need to hit a certain point of maturity. Planting a seedling is just the beginning. It needs to have sufficient water, and weather conditions. It needs to be protected from wildlife. It needs care.

Plant With Purpose participants are not just mobilized to plant trees. They are trained on how to best care for them.

The number of trees planted and their survival rate are just two components of our more in-depth monitoring and evaluation process. We use a tool called NDVI to measure the quantity and quality of an ecosystem’s plant life by monitoring infrared reflections through satellite imagery. Our local partners also monitor soil health, crop diversity, crop yields, and water access to gain a multidimensional perspective on an ecosystem’s health.

Dieulet in Haiti holds up an armload of trees.

Why does planting trees through Plant With Purpose cost a dollar? I’ve seen different prices at other places.

Plant With Purpose’s tree-planting success isn’t just reflected in the number of trees planted, but also the survival rate of these trees, the health of the soil beneath these trees, and the empowerment of the communities planting the trees. All of this is packaged into the one dollar price point to plant a tree.

The raw materials to plant a tree, and the cost of nurturing a sapling from a seed generally costs about 60 cents. 15 additional cents cover the mobilization of our partners to plant trees.

Because our trees are planted with a mindset that considers how they contribute to the overall health of the whole ecosystem, our partners also take extra time to prepare the soil where trees are planted. This can be done through building soil with compost, mulch, or natural fertilizers, as well as practicing regenerative agriculture techniques that contribute to reduced soil erosion. This process costs about 10 cents out of the dollar.

An additional 15 cents helps with the monitoring, maintenance, and reporting on tree health and survival. This allows us to confidently ensure an 65% survival rate.

I’ve read that planting trees is not the answer to solving the climate crisis that we think it is … should we still be planting trees to heal the environment?

This is true. Sometimes, a single environmental solution will be hailed as a silver bullet that can reverse climate change or prevent major catastrophes, but in reality the necessary work revolves much more around restoring our relationships throughout creation rather than finding a single solution.

Healthy trees do not exist in isolation but form relationships with the soil where they are planted—the microfungal networks around their roots; the crops and smaller plants that grow in their shade; the water sources that nourish them; and the bird, insect, or animal species that interact with a tree by exchanging pollination, food, pest control, or shelter. In order to promote whole-ecosystem health, we need to consider and apply a diversity of tactics so that all these interconnected parts of life can thrive.

One concern voiced by many is that the ability to plant many trees to offset environmentally harmful behaviors will be seen as an opportunity to allow these behaviors to persist. Tree planting is not a substitute for other necessary actions to take care of the Earth, like reducing pollutants and carbon emissions and rethinking our habits of consumption, but it is a valuable component of a broader strategy. In some cases, shrubs or grasses can be more appropriate carbon sequestration methods that keep whole ecosystem health in mind.

While all these concerns are valid, planting trees—the right trees in the right places to be specific—is still by and large one of the best things you can do to help the planet and restore creation. They serve as the lungs of the planet, the pillars of a vibrant ecosystem, and guardians of a healthy livelihood for billions of people.

Do you have volunteer opportunities where I can plant trees in your partner communities?

The short and simple answer to this question is no. While on rare occasions a few visitors have been given the chance to experience a tree-planting day hosted by our partners, this is not the way Plant With Purpose trees are planted.

We greatly value the role empowerment plays in our work. It is a valuable moment when our partners can look over improvements in their community and ecosystem and recognize that they do have an ability to improve their lives. Our work is not simply about planting trees but rather empowering rural communities to care for creation.

That said, we do have regular volunteer opportunities to contribute toward our mission by supporting our partners. Such opportunities are based on an individual volunteer’s skill sets, interests, and availability to commit.

We also encourage dedicated supporters to build lasting relationships with the communities they support. Vision Trips allow people to see the impact of their support firsthand, to meet and interact with our partners, and to gain a deeper sense of how the environment and people’s well-being are interconnected. (Of course, Vision Trips are on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

To plant a tree in partnership with our programs, click here!

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