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Regrowing a tropical forest – is it better to plant trees or leave it to nature?


The destruction of tropical forest is a major contributor to biodiversity loss and the climate crisis. In response, conservationists and scientists like us are debating how to best catalyse recovery of these forests. How do you take a patch of earth littered with tree stumps, or even a grassy pasture or palm oil plantation, and turn it back into a thriving forest filled with its original species?

Foresters have traditionally relied on planting trees, which seems obvious enough. Yet this approach has attracted criticism from some restoration ecologists, who argue that planting and caring for young trees is expensive and an inefficient use of scarce resources. They also point out that the carbon locked up in growing trees is quickly released into the atmosphere if plantations are harvested and used for short-lived wood products such as paper or cardboard.

There are even some well-documented case studies where tree planting has had negative outcomes. For instance, when forest cover was expanded on the Loess Plateau in China, soil erosion increased and there was less water available for people and agriculture. In Chile, subsidies for tree planting created a perverse incentive to plant trees instead of conserving natural forests. In the period between 2006 and 2011, the policy triggered a loss of natural forest cover and no net change in the amount of carbon stored in trees across the country. MORE

Header image: toucans use their big beaks to disperse seeds around Brazil’s Atlantic forest. Credit: Rafael Martos Martins/Shutterstock.