One tree at a time

From Peru to West Vir­ginia, peo­ple are restor­ing forests to de­fend against cli­mate change

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Christina Lar­son

MADRE DE DIOS, Peru — De­struc­tion of the forests can be swift. Re­growth is much, much slower. But around the world, peo­ple are putting shov­els to ground to help it hap­pen.

In a cor­ner of the Peru­vian Ama­zon, where il­le­gal gold min­ing has scarred forests and poi­soned ground, sci­en­tists work to change waste­land back to wilder­ness. More than 3,000 miles to the north, on for­mer coal min­ing land across Ap­palachia, work­ers rip out old trees that never put down deep roots and make the soil more suit­able to re­grow na­tive tree species.

In Brazil, a nurs­ery owner grows dif­fer­ent kinds of seedlings to help re­con­nect forests along the coun­try’s At­lantic coast, ben­e­fit­ing en­dan­gered species like the golden lion ta­marin.

They la­bor amid spec­tac­u­lar re­cent losses — the Ama­zon jun­gle and the Congo basin ablaze, smoke from In­done­sian rain­forests waft­ing over Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, fires set mostly to make way for cat­tle pas­tures and farm fields. Be­tween 2014 and 2018, an area the size of the United King­dom was stripped of for­est each year, a new re­port says.

Re­build­ing wood­land is slow and of­ten dif­fi­cult work. And it re­quires pa­tience: It can take sev­eral decades or longer for forests to re­grow as vi­able habi­tats, and to ab­sorb the same amount of car­bon lost when trees are cut and burned.

“Plant­ing a tree is only one step in the process,” says Christo­pher Bar­ton, a pro­fes­sor of for­est hy­drol­ogy at the Ap­palachian Cen­ter of the Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky.

And yet, there is ur­gency to that work — forests are one of the planet’s first lines of de­fense against cli­mate change, ab­sorb­ing as much as a quar­ter of man-made car­bon emis­sions each year.

Through pho­to­syn­the­sis, trees and other plants use car­bon diox­ide, wa­ter and sun­light to pro­duce chem­i­cal en­ergy to fuel their growth; oxy­gen is re­leased as a byprod­uct. As forests have shrunk, how­ever, so has an al­ready overloaded Earth’s ca­pac­ity to cope with car­bon emis­sions.

Suc­cess­ful re­for­esta­tion pro­grams take into ac­count na­tive plant species. They are man­aged by groups with a sus­tained com­mit­ment to mon­i­tor­ing forests, not just one-off tree plant­ing events. And usu­ally, they eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­fit the peo­ple who live nearby by cre­at­ing jobs or re­duc­ing ero­sion that dam­ages homes or crops.

The im­pact could be great: A re­cent study in the jour­nal Science pro­jected that if 2.2 bil­lion acres of new trees were planted — around 500 bil­lion saplings — they could ab­sorb 220 gi­ga­tons of car­bon once they reached ma­tu­rity. The Swiss re­searchers es­ti­mated this would be equiv­a­lent to two-thirds of man­made car­bon emis­sions since the start of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion.

Other sci­en­tists dis­pute those cal­cu­la­tions, while some fear the the­o­ret­i­cal prom­ise of tree-plant­ing as an easy so­lu­tion to cli­mate changes could dis­tract peo­ple from the range and scope of the re­sponses needed. But all agree: Trees mat­ter.

On a spring morn­ing, forestry re­searcher Jhon Far­fan steered a mo­tor­cy­cle through the dense Peru­vian jun­gle, his tires churn­ing up red mud. He was fol­low­ing a nar­row path cut by il­le­gal gold min­ers in the heart of the Ama­zon, but he was not seek­ing trea­sure. In­stead, he was on a quest to re­for­est aban­doned gold mines within the world’s largest trop­i­cal for­est.

Af­ter three hours of dif­fi­cult travel, he reached a broad clear­ing where knee­high saplings stood in rows, their yel­low-green leaves strain­ing for the sun. Far­fan whipped out a clipboard with a di­a­gram of the saplings planted months ear­lier, much like a teacher check­ing at­ten­dance.

“The goal is to look for the sur­vivors,” he said.

Within the thick jun­gle, only a sliver of light es­capes to the for­est floor. Of­ten more can be heard than seen: a cho­rus of howler mon­keys, the chat­ter of red­crowned para­keets — re­minders that the Ama­zon is home to more species di­ver­sity than any­where on the planet.

But the rain­for­est is un­der in­creas­ing threat from il­licit log­ging, min­ing and ranch­ing. In a re­gion of south­east­ern Peru called Madre de Dios, Far­fan’s job in­volves in­spect­ing lands where the for­est has al­ready been lost to il­le­gal min­ing spurred by the spike in gold prices fol­low­ing the 2008 global fi­nan­cial crash.

To re­cover the gold, the floor of the jun­gle was turned up­side down. There are no gold seams in the low­land ar­eas of the Ama­zon, but only flakes of gold washed down from the An­des moun­tains by an­cient rivers, buried be­neath the soil.

Af­ter cut­ting and burn­ing cen­turiesold trees, min­ers used diesel pumps to suck up deep lay­ers of the earth, then pushed the soil through fil­ters to sep­a­rate out gold par­ti­cles. To turn gold dust into nuggets, they stirred in mer­cury, which binds the gold to­gether but also poi­sons the land.

Left be­hind are patches of de­sert­like land — dry, sandy, stripped of top­soil and ringed by trunks of dead trees.

Last De­cem­ber, Far­fan and other sci­en­tists with the Peru-based non­profit CINCIA planted more than 6,000 saplings of var­i­ous species na­tive to this part of the Ama­zon, in­clud­ing the gi­ant shi­huahuaco, and tested dif­fer­ent fer­til­iz­ers.

“Most tree deaths hap­pen in the first year,” Far­fan said. “If the trees make it to year five, typ­i­cally they’re go­ing to be there a long time.”

Since the project be­gan three years ago, the team has planted more than 115 acres with na­tive seedlings, the largest re­for­esta­tion ef­fort in the Peru­vian Ama­zon to date. The group is in dis­cus­sion with Peru’s gov­ern­ment to ex­pand their ef­forts.

“It’s very hard to stop min­ing in Madre de Dios, since it’s a ma­jor ac­tiv­ity,” said Far­fan. The chal­lenge now: to plant a tree that can grow in this soil.

While sci­en­tists struggle with tainted land­scapes in the Ama­zon, ac­tivists a con­ti­nent away are reck­on­ing with flawed past at­tempts to heal the land.

Af­ter min­ers left West Vir­ginia’s Cheat Moun­tain in the 1980s, there was an ef­fort to green the coal min­ing sites to com­ply with fed­eral law. The com­pa­nies used heavy ma­chin­ery to push up­turned soil back into place, com­pact­ing the moun­tain­side with bull­doz­ers. The re­sult was soil so packed in that rain­wa­ter couldn’t seep down, and tree roots couldn’t ex­pand.

Com­pa­nies planted “des­per­a­tion species” — grasses with shal­low roots or non­na­tive trees that could en­dure, but wouldn’t reach their full height or re­store the for­est as it had been. On Cheat Moun­tain and at other for­mer min­ing sites across Ap­palachia, more than a mil­lion acres of for­mer forests are in sim­i­lar ar­rested de­vel­op­ment.

“It was like trees try­ing to grow in a park­ing lot — not many could make it,” said Michael French, di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions for the Ken­tucky-based non­profit Green Forests Work.

The Ap­palachian high­lands once sup­ported a large and unique ecosys­tem, dom­i­nated by 500,000 acres of red spruce for­est a cen­tury and a half ago. But com­mer­cial log­ging in the late 1800s and later coal min­ing in the 20th cen­tury stripped the land­scape, leav­ing less than a tenth of the red spruce forests in­tact.

Now French and col­leagues at Green Forests Work are col­lab­o­rat­ing with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice to re­store na­tive Ap­palachian forests and the rare species they sup­port — by first tear­ing down other trees.

“We lit­er­ally go in with a gi­ant plow-like ma­chine and rip the guts out of the soil,” by drag­ging a 4-foot rip­ping shank be­hind a bull­dozer, said Bar­ton, the Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky pro­fes­sor and founder of Green Forests Work. “Some­times we call it ugly.”

This “deep rip­ping,” as it’s known, gives rain­wa­ter and tree roots a bet­ter chance to push down into the soil. Af­ter five grow­ing sea­sons, trees planted on “ripped” sites had more roots com­pared to those where deep rip­ping didn’t oc­cur. Trees also grew taller.

The idea of rip­ping up the ground seemed star­tling at first.

“When we first started, a lot of our col­leagues thought we were crazy. But 10 years later, we’re well on our way,” said Shane Jones, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist for the U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

Ear­lier ef­forts at re­for­est­ing old min­ing sites within West Vir­ginia’s Monon­ga­hela Na­tional For­est hadn’t fared so well; some­times, the ma­jor­ity of seedlings died. But in ar­eas where the team has deep-ripped over the last decade, the sur­vival rate of saplings has been around 90%.

Green Forests Work has re­for­ested around 800 acres within the Monon­ga­hela, and it is tak­ing a sim­i­lar ap­proach to other for­mer min­ing sites across Ap­palachia, hav­ing re­for­ested around 4,500 to­tal acres since 2009. Their ul­ti­mate goal is to restart the nat­u­ral cy­cle of the for­est.

Other re­for­esta­tion cru­sades are more per­sonal.

Maria Coelho da Fon­seca Machado Mo­raes, nick­named Dona Graca, runs a tree nurs­ery that grows seedlings of species na­tive to Brazil’s lesser-known jun­gle — the At­lantic coastal rain­for­est. She col­lab­o­rates with a non­profit group called Save the Golden Lion Ta­marin, which works to pro­tect and re­store the for­est habi­tat of the en­dan­gered name­sake mon­key.

“The At­lantic rain­for­est is one of the planet’s most threat­ened biomes, more than 90 per­cent of it was de­for­ested,” said Luis Paulo Fer­raz, the non­profit’s ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary. “What is left is very frag­mented.”

As she nears 50, Dona Graca says she is fu­ri­ous at what has hap­pened to the for­est, whit­tled down to al­low for the ur­ban ex­pan­sion of Rio de Janeiro and other cities.

She de­plores “the stu­pid­ity and ig­no­rance” of peo­ple who have “de­stroyed most of the trees and con­tinue de­stroy­ing them. So I’m try­ing. I can’t do too much, but the lit­tle I can do, I try to do it prop­erly to res­cue those trees.”

And so, be­tween feed­ing her chick­ens and rak­ing the leaves, she grows seedlings of rare species — pau pereira, per­oba, “trees that peo­ple have dam­aged al­ready, they don’t ex­ist any­more.” She mixes lime­stone and clay, places it in plas­tic nurs­ery bags and plants seeds in them; she ir­ri­gates them with wa­ter and cow urine.

Lo­cal re­plant­ing ef­forts — which aim to re­con­nect frag­mented parcels of for­est — of­ten use the seedlings from Dona Graca’s nurs­ery, which gives her both in­come and great sat­is­fac­tion.

She does this, she said, for pos­ter­ity. “In the fu­ture when I pass away, that mem­ory I tried to leave for the peo­ple is: It’s worth it to plant, to build,” she said.


Shown is the de­struc­tion of a jun­gle caused by il­le­gal min­ers in Peru’s Tam­bopata prov­ince. Suc­cess­fully re­for­est­ing such ar­eas takes pa­tience, re­sources and many, many years.


Forestry re­searcher Jhon Far­fan car­ries saplings to re­plant a field dam­aged by il­le­gal gold min­ers in Madre de Dios, Peru, on March 29. The rain­for­est is un­der in­creas­ing threat from il­licit log­ging, min­ing and ranch­ing.


Michael French and col­leagues at Green Forests Work are col­lab­o­rat­ing with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice to re­store na­tive Ap­palachian forests.


Golden lion tamarins sit on a branch in the At­lantic For­est in Silva Jardim, Brazil.

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