Tree-planting projects are sprouting up worldwide in an effort to sequester carbon. Acres of saplings are quick to plant but don’t necessarily have staying power: many die or are cut down before the trees grow to maturity. A recent study in World Development is among the first to empirically validate early predictors of long-term success for tree-planting projects. “We want to have accountability,” says coauthor Daniel Miller, an environmental social scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. “Stakeholders want to know, is their money being well spent?”
The new work focuses on northern India, where the authors identified several early indicators of long-term conservation success, including 1) the local community’s access to resources in the forest, and 2) local involvement in forest monitoring. Indeed, Forrest Fleischman, an environmental social scientist at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, who was not involved in the new work, says that the study’s clear takeaway is that the chances for success increase “when we work closely with local communities.” That notion is not new to forestry research, but there’s been little empirical work demonstrating its validity in tree-planting specifically, he says.
In India, state forestry agencies have planted trees with government and international donor support for decades, despite uncertainties about seedling survival, says lead author Pushpendra Rana, chief conservator of forests for the Indian Forest Service in Shimla (See also News Feature: The best strategy for using trees to improve climate and ecosystems? Go natural). Rana and Miller scanned the literature for possible proxy indicators of long-term conservation success on tree plantations. They came up with four major categories, which they say may apply to other regions as well: the security of local community property rights, incentives for local communities to protect their trees, effective monitoring and enforcement, and early physical indicators of success such as high seedling survival rates.
Next, the authors randomly selected 23 locations in northern India’s Kangra District where tree planting happened between 2002 and 2006. Rana revisited these communities in 2017 and surveyed townspeople to trace the historical progression of events: how were the tree species selected? Did local communities have a say? Did villagers have rights to harvest leaves and branches from the mature trees for livestock feed and firewood? What were the incentives for locals to preserve the forest long-term? From these interviews, Rana and Miller refined their four major categories into a list of localized indicators of success.
For example, in the Himalayan foothills access to grass on tree plantations, generally for the purposes of animal feed, is a proxy for community property rights— specifically the right to use both current and future resources in the forest. To understand how this works, imagine a plantation of scrawny young saplings interspersed with grass, Rana says. The baby trees are initially too small to be useful to local people, but the grass is useful as fodder for livestock. Over time, as the trees mature and their thickening branches can be lopped off for firewood or their broad leaves become plentiful for livestock feed, the trees themselves become useful. But in the early days of the plantation, it’s the grass that’s the primary resource. Without something useful in the forest from the very beginning, in this case grass, villagers might convert the land to other uses.
Finally, the authors tested which combinations of indicators correlated with changes in forest cover, recorded in satellite data from the Forest Survey of India between 2005 and 2017. The analysis showed that direct benefits to communities, and community-led monitoring, were among the best predictors of forest cover. Fleischman does point out, however, that the accuracy of the satellite data is somewhat questionable. “It’s the best easily available data,” he says, adding that future studies could redo the remote sensing work to verify it. Future work might also look at a larger sample size of locations across a more varied swath of India to see if these indicators apply to more places, he says.
Another follow-up question for future studies: “What’s going on in these communities that have monitoring that works?” notes environmental social scientist J.T. Erbaugh, a postdoc at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. Ethical conservation will require community management for the environment and for people, he says.
But not all communities in India and elsewhere in the Global South can exercise the kinds of land rights that the villages in this study do, notes Prakash Kashwan, a social scientist specializing in international environmental policy at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Additional predictive indicators related to social and economic inequality would further strengthen the framework proposed by these authors, he says. While the factors highlighted in this paper might manifest in different ways depending on location, studies like this one “give you a template,” Kashwan notes. And this, he adds, can help conservationists “figure out if a particular area will have viable restoration potential.”
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