Who are you calling barren?

Lauren Sneade reads Rosetta Elkin's "Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation" and asks a controversial question: is the very concept of afforestation rooted in colonial violence?
Photo taken by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash
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Climate solutions often throw up more questions than answers. For example, there’s considerable doubt as to whether there is enough suitable land on Earth for the arrays of renewable energy installations consistent with many models of Net Zero. And many countries’ climate commitments are banking on Direct Air Capture (DAC) plants which don’t yet exist. When solutions are rolled out by richer countries, they can make life worse for those in poorer countries. As American social scientist Neil Smith best once put it, “Disasters don’t simply flatten landscapes, washing them smooth…they deepen and erode the ruts of social difference they encounter.”

Of course, many negative emissions technologies are in their infancy so it’s to be expected that there are many unknowns. It can be refreshing, therefore, to focus on a technology which has been around for 385 million years: Trees. Sacred in many religions, an increasingly versatile building material and a cheap source of  (albeit frequently environmentally damaging) fuel, some even have it that hugging trees increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

One of the comparatively recent revelations in the talents of trees is their potential for carbon sequestration. Almost all countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement pledge to plant trees in some capacity. This is defined as reforestation, or as afforestation. Reforestation, such as in the Amazon rainforest, involves planting trees in a forest where trees are being cut down or are dying back. Afforestation, meanwhile, in places like the Sahara Desert, involves planting trees on arid, treeless land.

Research associate at the Harvard Arnold Arboretum Rosetta Elkin’s new book ‘Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation’ is an in-depth look at afforestation. Elkin examines three examples of afforestation projects to try and see the wood for the trees. Her premise is that large-scale afforestation disrupts natural biomes and she argues that, although in afforestation projects “aridity” is equated with “lifelessness”, drylands can house all manner of fungi, insects, grasses, herbs, shrubs, mammals and birds. Afforestation projects, very often, introduce a new ecology, destroying the original dryland biome.

This, in fact, chimes with the position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, while arguing that some degree of afforestation will certainly be needed if the world is to remain below 1.5 degrees of average temperature rises, notes that (in contrast to reforestation) “when poorly implemented, [afforestation] can have adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts, including on biodiversity, food and water security, local livelihoods and on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially if implemented at large scales and where land tenure is insecure.”

Elkin looks at the African Great Green Wall Initiative, a project initially conceived as a way to combat desertification in the Sahel, holding back the expansion of the Sahara by aiming to grow an 800km long new wonder of the world in the form of a continental wall of trees spanning the entire width of Africa. The project dates back to the 1970s, but Elkin argues that the deserts and drylands earmarked for planting are not, in reality, ruined landscapes. She investigates the history of the word “desertification”, finding that it was invented in 1949 by the French in West Africa, referring to how colonial forestry policy accelerated soil scarcity by harvesting too many trees to the detriment of the topsoil, causing the forest to dry out. The term “desertification” creates a process which tree-planting can supposedly reverse. Trees being seen (in contrast to deserts) as verdurous and profitable – demonstrating the stability of the planters. Elkin points out that while Indigenous populations do plant trees in dryland, it is only after three decades of careful cultivation and human attention to the dynamics of the landscape that the trees begin to emerge. Afforestation projects plant so many trees at once that this level of care of impossible.

“This has nothing to do with technical innovation, conservation policy, or natural resources management and everything to do with patient collaboration between plant and human life.”

In the example of the Great Green Wall, first-hand and practical knowledge is replaced by yield metrics and classification maps. Elkin demonstrates how “The Vegetation Map of Africa” published by UNESCO in 1986 elides semidesert and shrubland.

A hallmark of afforestation projects, Elkin finds, is often the erosion of local jurisdictions over their land. Substituting in technical manuals, suitable species lists, and machinery types: an index of experience. In the example of the Prairie States Forestry Project, where 217 million trees were planted under the New Deal to combat the effects of the Dust Bowl, increased federal regulation overcame the challenge of the American drylands with new legislation. But this ended up shoring up industrial agricultural policy, rather than the prairie grasslands themselves. Elkin gives the example of the Pawnee tribe of Nebraska and North Kansas. Before the forestry project, the tribe thrived in the drylands, listening to spring lightning as the first sign to plant crops, moving on with the bison herds and leaving their crops to ripen unattended in the heat of summer, before returning with the herd. The advent of the new tree units completely disrupted these traditions.

Large scale tree-planting projects, Elkin argues, can even facilitate land grabs, where the state or businesses lay claim to the land for the purposes of tree planting. For Elkin, climate agendas are propagated by the “humanitarian elite” along the same lines as colonialism – encouraging external agencies to descend upon local territories, claiming that native populations have not been serving the land.

Elkin is opposed to the trend towards conservationism, writing rather provocatively that “models of conservation transform the past from being a fertile ground in which to cultivate the future into a collection of items to be admired, seemingly crystallised in time, much like an artefact locked in a museum or an animal held in captivity.” She takes aims at forestry practices which consider young trees more disposable than old growth, preferring to see the age of a tree as “senescence”: a process rather than a cut-off point. Although, from a carbon perspective, the older the tree of the same species, the more carbon it stores, and the more carbon is released back into the atmosphere when the tree is cut down. But Elkin’s point is that conservation allows the conservationist to choose what is being conserved. For example, in the case of responses to “desertification” that recommend tree planting to promote sedentary farming rather than to serve the needs of travelling cultures.

Planting trees as an answer to climate change is too often a blanket solution in a space where it’s been proven that solutions are never simple. Afforestation policy often divides up vast areas of land into tree-units – in these projects, trees are just statistics. But these statistics do not take into account the specificities of the ground the trees cover, or the state of the trees themselves. Reforestation and afforestation efforts often favour single-species plantings over restoring native forests, leading to the global spread of monocultures, decreasing biodiversity with invasive tree species.

In a rich and wide-ranging book that covers many aspects of “plant life”, the central theme – that afforestation policy is often too blanket and convenient solution – sings through. While afforestation projects are often reductive, slicing and dicing up huge tracts of land, Elkin spends hundreds of pages complicating the picture. She focuses on the wealth – rather than poverty – of so-called barren land and of tree networks themselves in a way simple tree-units never can: tree behaviour, life span, chemical signals, root life. The overall impact is to make one question whether a forest monoculture may indeed be environmentally ‘better’ than the land it replaces. A controversial argument, but one that will only likely to grow in salience as the worlds of ecosystem biodiversity and atmospheric carbon removal collide and the climate emergency deepens. 

Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation was published by the University of Minnesota press this year and can be purchased here.

Lauren is an Assistant Editor at LCR. Her work has focused on geopolitics & climate policy, emissions solutions in the buildings sector, and reviews of new environment titles. Find her LinkedIn here, or email her at lauren@elc-insight.org

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