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Can a climate vulnerable community become 6x more sustainable?

July 26, 2022

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues we are currently facing. The current decade in particular is a critical one for us to take action in order to protect life. We urgently need to reduce the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Rural villages are the frontlines of climate change. Communities with pervasive poverty and a high population dependent on agriculture stand to face the harshest effects of an unhealthy planet. But that’s not the only reason they are the frontlines of climate. They also represent a powerful opportunity to reverse climate change by reducing and sequestering carbon emissions.

This is Wona, Tanzania.

Plant With Purpose has worked in Wona since 2005, partnering with local families to become climate resilient through tree planting and sustainable agriculture.

At the beginning of our partnership in Wona Tanzania, the area saw heavy deforestation and vegetation loss, which contributed to notable land degradation in forested areas and farmlands. Since then, community members have participated in whole-ecosystem restoration projects that reverse land degradation.

We’ve known that these activities should help sequester carbon, but how much exactly? Carbon is sequestered in the trees planted by community members, as well as in the soil. Improving the overall soil health should result in even greater carbon storage potential.

We worked with an outside consultant to find out, REGID International. 

We measured changes in Wona Tanzania over the span of fourteen years– 2005 to 2009– including changes in tree cover and in how land was being used. But we wanted to make sure that these changes we saw were actually the result of Plant With Purpose’s activity, and not other factors.

In order to do this, we also measured the changes taking place in a community that had very similar conditions to Wona Tanzania in 2005. We selected Makuyuni, which is located in the same watershed.

Makuyuni had socio-economic status and a reliance on agriculture similar to Wona. However, Plant With Purpose community activities had not been launched in Makuyuni. Makuyuni can provide an example of Wona’s likely trajectory if not for Plant With Purpose activities.

At the time Plant With Purpose began program activities in Wona, deforestation and land degradation was heavy. The majority of land was being used for farming, however it was largely being farmed exhaustively through conventional methods. One of the biggest shifts seen in 2019 is an increase of forest areas, where it now occupies 21% of the space.

Agroforestry is emphasized in Plant With Purpose’s environmental curriculum. This practice integrates tree planting and farming, highlighting the benefits that trees have on the soil and how they can support more productive crop growth. The greater integration of croplands and forest areas may be anticipated in a community that has taken to agroforestry with enthusiasm.

Makuyuni’s grasslands have long been a large part of its use, however that decreased by around 10% between 2005 and 2019. Bushland increased during this time. Bushland refers to land that may have been disturbed but still overall supports some remaining natural vegetation. Roughly 7% of Makuyuni was covered by croplands, and this stayed consistent between 2005 and 2019.

Forest cover in Makuyuni was sparse in 2005 and remained that way fourteen years later.

One of the biggest observable changes between 2005 and 2019 for Makuyuni was the increasing spread of barren lands, particularly in the southern part of the community. This increasing desertification represents a lost opportunity to apply those lands towards carbon sequestering purposes.

Tree cover in Wona Tanzania increased significantly.

A lot of that large boost in tree cover occurred during the earliest phases of Plant With Purpose’s presence, between 2005 and 2012. Some of that increase leveled off in the years since, resulting in an aggregate increase of 4%. 

The dominance of green pixels over yellow and red on the 2019 image indicate an effective positive shift towards reforestation over time. In Wona Tanzania, bushlands also saw significant increase in tree cover as well attributed to more land previously in bushland converting into forests between 2005 and 2019.

Plant With Purpose’s tree-planting model goes beyond putting an emphasis on the act of planting, but rather, the role a tree plays in the broader ecosystem.

Makuyuni also saw an increase in forest cover, albeit a more modest one. Tree cover increased in Makuyuni by 2.1%, in comparison to 4% in Wona. When it comes to land cover in Makuyuni, grasslands, bushlands, and barren land remained dominant, accounting for nearly 4/5ths of available land space.

The initial tree cover of Makuyuni at 2005 was a very low 3.5%, but the increase over the past fourteen years brings its current level to around 5.6%

Both Makuyuni and Wona Tanzania fare better than the global trend, which is around 350,000 hectares of tree cover lost each year. Given that negative rate, however, and the urgency of our climate crisis, it is essential for places that can expand their tree cover sustainably do so at a rate to compensate for this loss.

What does this look like to a local?

Plant With Purpose’s model is community-led. It makes sure that reforestation isn’t something that happens to people, but through people.

Haika, a mother from Wona Thailand, witnessed the visible difference.

“I believe that planting trees and taking care of the land is the best method of sustainable development and restoring the environment to its original condition at both a personal and country-wide level. If you had visited our area before, you would notice the environment was losing its quality as people randomly cut down trees, our water sources were depleted during the summer, there were bare lands with no trees and low soil fertility. 

Now, my community’s relationship with the environment has changed enormously as a result of Plant With Purpose’s activities. This has been impactful to my life and community because through planting trees, we experience changes of water availability in our village and improved weather conditions.”

REGID’s study also measured biomass carbon in the two sites over time. Their method used the data surrounding trees, land use, and related activities to determine changes in biomass carbon during the fourteen year timespan.

Over time, Wona became more occupied by forest land. Farmland saw an increase in trees, and wooded areas were more resistant to deforestation. To the south, the area around Makuyuni predominantly consisted of grasslands and barren space.

Makuyuni did see a modest increase in sequestered carbon due to the expansion of wooded bushland- about  2.16tC/Ha. In contrast, however, Wona saw an increase of 10.99tC/Ha.

This implies Plant With Purpose program activities have generated 6 times the amount of biomass carbon versus the control site. That’s a very exciting and encouraging study result!

Here’s a summary of some of the biggest things we learned from our study with REGID:

• Wona has had additional CO2 emissions reductions 6 times that of the

control site.

• Bushland is being converted into forest land

• Tree cover is increasing on crop land

• Forest has increased (as well as trees on crop land)

• It’s common around the world for forests to be cut down in order to create farmland. This report shows that in Wona’s case, forest land has increased while cropland has also increased.

We are frequently surrounded by stories of climate related natural disasters and statistical projections that show us how much worse things can get. It’s important not to dismiss these concerns, because it is important for us to understand the urgency and impact of our response. However, we must also pay attention to stories of solutions that work.

These case studies signal to us that we are not helpless, that we can still have a positive impact on our environment, and that the right coordinated efforts can result in the change we need.

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