How to convince someone to plant a forest
BEIRUT: If you were a Lebanese landowner, what would convince you to plant a forest on your property?
If you said “nothing,” you may be high-minded, but also not recognize the often prohibitive costs of planting and caring for trees – not to mention the opportunity cost of not planting, say, apple trees that would give you income for years to come.
This is the conundrum facing Lebanon’s policymakers, who have been attempting to reverse centuries of deforestation.
“This dates back to the Phoenicians harvesting timber a couple millennia ago,” Arbi Sarkissian, a lecturer in forestry at Bangor College of China in Changsha’s Central South University of Forestry and Technology, told The Daily Star. Deforestation became more acute with population growth and wars over the past century.
Today, about 13 percent of Lebanon is covered by forests, but the government’s goal is 20 percent.
Past attempts to reverse the trend haven’t always been resounding successes. The first two phases of the Environment Ministry’s National Reforestation Plan managed to reclaim just 580 hectares. You can think of a hectare as a fat football pitch that’s as wide as it is long. The ministry reckons about 100,000 hectares need to be planted.
But even when programs were successful, they failed to draw on the rich tapestry of Lebanese flora. “The issue that came up time and time again was the limited use of native species – in essence focusing on planting mostly conifers: cedars, cypress and pine, mostly stone pine,” Sarkissian says.
A 2000 study of global biodiversity “hot spots” ranked the Mediterranean Basin second in plant diversity. “Lebanon is a center for plant diversity, and there are essentially many different species to choose from,” Sarkissian said. “But very few have direct use value.”
So what’s the best way to replant a diverse forest? And can private landowners help? These are the questions Sarkissian and his research team look at in a new study published in the journal Forest Systems.
Researchers gave Lebanese landowners three options to choose from. The first was a loan to plant forest trees on their land, but the owners would only have to pay back money for trees that didn’t survive, about $7 each. Some two-thirds of owners said they would be willing to try this scheme.
The second option was a simple grant to plant, with no follow-up to ensure the trees survived. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they would sign up for such a program.
Finally, landowners were offered the same grant, but with annual $3 payments for surviving trees. Despite the addition of extra payments, the same 80 percent said they would sign up.
“We had assumed that very few would probably subscribe to [the loan], whereas if you give them a grant, you would get a lot more because these conditions are more relaxed,” Sarkissian said. The surprise was that the third scheme wasn’t more popular, indicating any attempt to put such a plan into action might require significantly higher payments and thus a much larger budget.
There are, however, other issues to be addressed before implementing any of these “payments for ecosystem services” or PES schemes, Sarkissian said.
One is biodiversity versus other goals like carbon sequestration. Not all species are equally efficient at taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Yet ironically, “when you have landscapes of largely monocrops, they are more vulnerable to diseases; [the plants] aren’t able to adapt to climate change,” Sarkissian said.
Another is cost. “Both the resultsbased PES schemes require monitoring,” he says. Pointing out that landowners would probably be planting in areas they wouldn’t normally plant with crops – perhaps far out of the way and hard to access – he said, “They’d have to pay or have some sort of arrangement set up so people go out and check to make sure trees are alive. This is costly and time-consuming.”
Estimates put reforestation costs at roughly $7,000 per hectare – although a 2014 study from the Environment Ministry, the United Nations Development Program and the Global Environment Facility suggests it could be done at a fraction of the cost.
Finally, there’s the question of who benefits. PES schemes target landowners, who are often already rich, and it is more efficient to target large landholders than tracking down lots of smaller landholders – meaning the richest of the rich could stand to benefit.
“There’s these theoretical tradeoffs between cost-effective PES and PES that is equitable. PES that’s targeting poverty alleviation and therefore reducing the risk of future deforestation, and PES that essentially pays people to plant trees or to leave forests alone,” Sarkissian said.
These are all issues to be worked out before PES is used to help reforest Lebanon, according to Sarkissian. “This is just one small study. I’m hoping that this will encourage more studies of this kind, lead to some pilot projects in PES, and then eventually become a long-term program,” he said. “We’re talking about long timescales. … It all really ties into sustainable land management, and reforestation is just one aspect of it.”
And those long timescales may become even longer.
The Environment Ministry told The Daily Star it has no active reforestation programs.
Lebanon is about 13 percent forested, the goal is 20 percent