Half a century ago, forests covered most of the Iberian Peninsula. But soon everything changed. Centuries of wars and invasions, agricultural expansion and logging for coal mining and shipping have destroyed much of the forest and turned places like Matamorisca, a small village in northern Spain, into degenerate lands.
The arid climate and depleted soils are not conducive to reforestation, but for Land Life, an Amsterdam-based company, this is an ideal place. “Usually we work where nature will not return on its own. We go where conditions are more severe in terms of weather, with stormy or very hot summers,” says Jurian Rice, CEO of Land Life.
This company covered with its proprietary device 17 barren hectares in Matamoriska, owned by the regional government. The device, called the Cocoon, looks like a large biodegradable cardboard donut that can hold 25 liters of water underground to help seedlings in their first year. Around 16 oak, ash, walnut and rowan trees were planted in May 000. The company reports that 2018% of them survived this year’s scorching summer without additional irrigation, passing a critical milestone for a young tree.
“Does nature return on its own? Maybe. But it could take decades or hundreds of years, so we are accelerating the process,” says Arnout Asyes, Chief Technology Officer at Land Life, who oversees the combination of drone and satellite imagery, big data analytics, soil improvement, QR tags, and more. .
His company belongs to a global movement of organizations trying to save endangered or deforested areas ranging from lush tropical lowlands to arid hills in temperate regions. Spurred on by global biodiversity loss and climate change, these groups are moving forward on the path to reforestation. “This is not a theoretical proposal. It takes the right incentives, the right stakeholders, the right analysis and enough capital to do it,” says Walter Vergara, forest and climate specialist at the World Resources Institute (WRI).
How these factors come together around a particular project and whether it is even possible to save deforested forests depends on what kind of ecosystem you have in mind. Secondary forests in the Amazon are different from the Texas pines regenerating from wildfires or the boreal forests that cover much of Sweden. Each individual case considers its own reasons for implementing reforestation programs and each case has its own specific needs. In the dry conditions around Matamoriska and similar areas in Spain, Land Life is concerned about rapid desertification. Since the focus is on ecosystem restoration, they work with organizations that don’t expect their money back.
With about 2015 hectares replanted globally since 600, with another 1100 hectares planned this year, the company’s ambition fits in with the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to restore the world’s 150 million hectares of deforested and endangered land by 2020. This is an area about the size of Iran or Mongolia. By 2030, it is planned to reach 350 million hectares – 20% more land than India.
These goals include both restoring forest areas that have lost density or look a little weak, and restoring forest cover in areas where it has completely disappeared. This global goal is broken down and shaped in Latin America as a 20×20 initiative to contribute to the overall goal of 20 million hectares by activating small and medium-sized projects with the political support of governments.
Unlike the Land Life Company, this region-wide project offers the economic and business case for reforestation, even if they are being restored to preserve biodiversity. “You need to get private sector money. And this capital needs to see a return on its investment,” says Walter Vergara. The study he did predicts that Latin America will see an estimated net present value of around $23 billion over a 50-year period if it hits its target.
The money can come from the sale of wood from sustainably managed forests, or from harvesting “non-timber products” such as nuts, oils and fruits from trees. You can consider how much carbon dioxide your forest absorbs and sell carbon credits to companies looking to offset their emissions. Or you can even grow a forest in the hope that the biodiversity will attract ecotourists who will pay for lodging, birding tours and food.
However, these sponsors are not the main capital. The money for the 20×20 initiative comes primarily from financial institutions with triple goals: modest returns on their investments, environmental benefits, and social benefits known as socially transformative investments.
For example, one of the 20×20 partners is the German fund 12Tree. They have invested US$9,5 million in Cuango, a 1,455 ha site on Panama’s Caribbean coast that combines commercial cocoa plantation with timber harvesting from a sustainably managed secondary forest. With their money, they repurposed a former cattle ranch, provided high-quality jobs for the surrounding communities, and recovered their investment.
Even on land cleared decades ago and now used by farmers, some crops can coexist with forest if the right balance is found. A global project called Breedcafs is studying how trees behave on coffee farms in the hope of finding crop varieties that manage to grow under the shade of the canopy. Coffee grows naturally in such forests, multiplying so much that the crop reaches the roots.
“By bringing trees back into the landscape, we have a positive impact on moisture, rain, soil conservation and biodiversity,” says coffee expert Benoît Bertrand, who leads the project at the French Center for Agricultural Research for International Development (Cirad). Bertrand analyzes which of dozens of coffees is best suited for this system. A similar approach can be applied to lands with cocoa, vanilla and fruit trees.
Not every piece of land is suitable for reforestation. Walter Vergar’s partners are looking for safe investments, and even Land Life Company manages large projects only in low-risk countries such as Spain, Mexico or the USA. “We tend to avoid large-scale operations in parts of the Middle East or Africa where there is no continuity,” says Jurian Rice.
But in the right place, perhaps all you need is time. In Costa Rica’s central Pacific Ocean, the 330-hectare Baru National Wildlife Refuge is unlike the cattle ranch that stood in its place until 1987, when Jack Ewing decided to turn the estate into an ecotourism destination. Instead of interfering, a friend advised him to let nature take its course.
The former pastures of Baru are now lush forests, with more than 150 hectares of secondary forest reclaimed without human intervention. Over the past 10 years, Howler monkeys (a genus of broad-nosed monkeys), Scarlet Macaws and even migratory cougars have returned to the territory of the reserve, which contributed to the development of tourism and the revitalization of the ecosystem. Jack Ewing, now 75, attributes this success to the words of a friend three decades ago: “In Costa Rica, when you stop trying to control the dry bush, the jungle comes back for its revenge.”