1. Deforestation usually in poorer countires
  2. Access to water is key
  3. Regrowing a rainforest in a ‘wet’ area might be technically easy, but must include the local population in the plan
  4. Reforestation — repairing the damage we have already done
  5. The Great Green Wall of Africa
  6. The Great Green Wall of China
  7. Afforestation: planting new forests that have not been there for millennia

1. Deforestation usually occurs in poorer countries

Deforestation occurs for many reasons. Logging old growth forests is an economic opportunity for poorer nations that might not have access to cheap industrial means of planting forestry management. Slash and burn agriculture, pasturelands, alternative crops and other farming requirements also cut down many forests. As the wiki says:-

The removal of trees without sufficient reforestation has resulted in habitat damage, biodiversity loss, and aridity. It has adverse impacts on biosequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Deforestation has also been used in war to deprive the enemy of vital resources and cover for its forces. Modern examples of this were the use of Agent Orange by the British military in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency and the United States military in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. As of 2005, net deforestation rates have ceased to increase in countries with a per capita GDP of at least US$4,600. Deforested regions typically incur significant adverse soil erosion and frequently degrade into wasteland.

Disregard of ascribed value, lax forest management, and deficient environmental laws are some of the factors that allow deforestation to occur on a large scale. In many countries, deforestation – both naturally occurring and human-induced – is an ongoing issue. Deforestation causes extinction, changes to climatic conditions, desertification, and displacement of populations as observed by current conditions and in the past through the fossil record. More than half of all plant and land animal species in the world live in tropical forests.

Between 2000 and 2012, 2.3 million square kilometres (890,000 sq mi) of forests around the world were cut down. As a result of deforestation, only 6.2 million square kilometres remain of the original 16 million square kilometres of forest that formerly covered the Earth. An area the size of a soccer football pitch is cleared from the Amazon rainforest every minute, with 136 million acres of rainforest cleared for animal agriculture overall.

2. Access to water is key

In poorer tropical areas where rainfall can return as a tropical rainforest is planted out, reforestation is technically easier than some borderline desert areas where rainfall is low. However, the project must include economic incentives for the locals, or the same economic forces that drove them to chop down the forest in the first place might have them returning to the same old practice. See Dr Willie Smits includes the locals below.

As we saw on the water page, some desert nations like Israel have population groups right next to a desert. Israel recycles more of their waste water than any other nation, pumping it from local Kibbutz or cities out to local agricultural products in the desert with drip feeders for efficiency. Israel are greening their deserts this way, but other nations have larger cities vast distances from their growing deserts, so this option may not be practical or economic.

3. Dr Willie Smits includes the locals

In Borneo Dr  Willie Smits wanted to save Orangutans. But he learned how to build a rainforest that gave the locals a living.

Smits quickly saw that protecting orangutans in their habitat not only benefits orangutans but also the environment, biological diversity, the poor in Borneo and all the world’s people. The activities of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation expanded from rescuing, rehabiliting and releasing orangutans to monitoring, conserving and rebuilding rainforest, along with the social engagement that made this sustainable. Smits also took on an increasing campaigning and advocacy role, to make the plight of the orangutan and its habitat more widely known, along with the message that something could – and was – being done. (Wikipedia)

Please do yourself a favour, grab your favourite brew, and watch his TED talk. The world needs more creative, systems thinking people like him that love and value the natural world and find ways for local ecologies and economies to support each other!

4. Reforestation: repair the damage we’ve already done

Human activity is responsible for most of the world’s desertification. It’s time to fix the damage we have already done. The first step seems to be replanting areas where there once was enough rainfall to have some kind of vegetation cover. The UN says:

What can be done?

  • Reforestation and tree regeneration
  • Water management — saving, reuse of treated water, rainwater harvesting, desalination, or direct use of seawater for salt-loving plants
  • Fixating the soil through the use of sand fences, shelter belts, woodlots and windbreaks
  • Enrichment and hyper-fertilizing of soil through planting
  • Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), enabling native sprouting tree growth through selective pruning of shrub shoots. The residue from pruned trees can be used to provide mulching for fields thus increasing soil water retention and reducing evaporation.

5. Great Green Wall of Africa

One is example is an African coalition planning the Great Green Wall to repair the damage we did in expanding the Sahara desert. Note that I have not included this project under “Greening the deserts” as that page is for areas of extremely low rainfall. This page is not about moving into ancient dry deserts, but re-greening areas that naturally have just enough rainfall to have once supported some trees or scrub before we mucked it up.

Plans to plant a nine-mile width of trees on the Southern Border of the Sahara Desert. The Great Green Wall initiative is a pan-African proposal to “green” the continent from west to east in order to battle desertification. It aims at tackling poverty and the degradation of soils in the Sahel-Saharan region, focusing on a strip of land of 15 km (9 mi) wide and 7,500 km (4,750 mi) long from Dakar to Djibouti.
(The Reforestation wiki.)

Time Magazine reports:

Trees use water, but they can also spread leaf matter and nutrients that restore soil health so that the soil saves water and prevents rare rainfall just washing away. In Senegal, the village wells are filling up again, all due to the Great Green Wall! As the Wiki says: A main component of desert greening is the planting of trees. Trees store water, raise water from underlying aquifers, reduce evaporation after a rain, attract animals (and thereby fertility through feces), and they can cause more rain to fall (by temperature reduction and other effects), if the planted area is large enough.

6. The Great Green wall of China

National Geographic explains:-

Deforestation, overgrazing, and overuse of water by people are some of the leading factors responsible for desertification. In China, the problem has been occurring along four types: “aeolian desertification,” which is caused by wind erosion after vegetation is destroyed; “water and soil loss,” due to water erosion that is mainly distributed in the Loess plateau; “salinization” due to poor water management; and “rock desertification,” distributed in the Karst region of southwestern China. Currently, 27.4 percent of China is desertified land, affecting about 400 million people.

Or as the wiki terrifyingly reports:  China has seen 3,600 km2 (1,400 sq mi) of grassland overtaken every year by the Gobi Desert. Each year dust storms blow off as much as 2,000 km2 of topsoil, and the storms are increasing in severity each year. These storms also have serious agricultural effects for other nearby countries, such as Japan, North Korea, and South Korea.

So what’s the good news?

 The Green Wall project was begun in 1978, with the proposed end result of raising northern China’s forest cover from 5 to 15 percent and thereby reducing desertification.  As of 2009, China’s planted forest covered more than 500,000 square kilometers (increasing tree cover from 12% to 18%) – the largest artificial forest in the world. Of the 53,000 hectares planted that year, a quarter died. In 2008, winter storms destroyed 10% of the new forest stock, causing the World Bank to advise China to focus more on quality rather than quantity in its stock species.
Some rave about the Elion company’s successes in the Kubuqi desert, such as this video.
But it’s a comparatively local success funded by a very large solar power station. As Time reports:
Kubuqi, for one, boasts China’s largest single-stage solar farm, boasting 650,000 fixed and sun-tracking panels, which together channel 1,000 megawatts of electricity into the national grid — about half the power-generating capacity of the Hoover Dam. A team of 47 households are employed to maintain the panels. “Everyday each household can clean more than 3,000 panels using high pressure water jets,” says chief engineer Tian Junting. “And the run-off water feeds the crops that grow underneath.”
You’re not going to spread that particular success story across the 2.68 million square kilometres of China’s desert area, or even a percent of that! (Figures from here say China is 9,596,960 square kilometers and deserts cover 28%). The methods Israel uses of recycling sewer waste water out into local desert agriculture don’t work in a nation where the deserts are in the North West, while most of the population are a thousand kilometres away on the East Coast.
China’s deserts are in the North West of the countrychina.jpg
While their population is in the South East
As Time Magazine said, there are 740,000 people trying to rejuvenate 18,600 sq km of Kubuqi desert! Israel does not have scattered peasant grazer / farmers, but concentrated Kibbutz villages with hyper-efficient effluent recycling watering their local agricultural needs. Over 50% of Israel’s own water comes from reliable desal, not unreliable desert rainfall. It’s a very different picture to the scattered Chinese peasant farmers who (mostly, apart from the solar plant above) do not have the money to desalinate water from distant oceans and pump it all the way inland! The same Time article even sums it up this way: “The Kubuqi model cannot be applied to turn any patch of desert into lush oases; it restores only recently degraded land.”
However the wiki also reports that there are concerns about planting such vast quantities of trees without the water infrastructure to support them, eating into underground water aquifers which may be disastrous for some of the remaining desert farmers. Again, for the truly vast areas they are covering, artificial desalination without a high local population just isn’t practical or economic. They need to plan to trap the naturally occurring rainfall as best they can, maybe using a Tal-Ya water box every few trees or bushes to help collect morning dew where appropriate. At least such a plastic box is passive, and not energy intensive.
Also, mass mono-culture forests are not as good for ecosystem biodiversity and birds and other species are not as attracted to them as they would be to more natural forest plantings, which of course are more expensive and difficult to arrange.


7. Afforestation: planting new forests that have not been there for millennia

With Afforestation we plant a whole new forest where there was no forest.  The Afforestation wiki says this can soak up carbon and sustain biodiversity. There are small scale projects around the world that are growing new forests where there were none before. See the wiki for details by country.

A company called Afforestt claims that instead of growing a mature forest in natural timescales of 600 to 1000 years, they can do it in 10. How? Add locally sourced biological compost to the soil and then plant a whole bunch of saplings close together to encourage competition for sunlight. This thick forest becomes self-sustaining within a few years, and then matures in 10 years. This seems to be in areas of more normal rainfall, and is probably more accurately classified as reforestation.