How to con­vince some­one to plant a for­est

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Ben­jamin Redd

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

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