Ethiopia plants 350 million trees in a day

You may have seen it reported that Ethiopia has planted 350 million trees in one day as part of their “green legacy” initiative. You might also find this to be a hard number to believe, especially when comparing to England’s modest target of 11 million trees over five years.  Of course, so soon after the day itself, this number must be an educated guess – so we await the word of Guinness World Records (Yes, it was an official attempt). Whatever the true number, it is undoubtedly large, and it is only part of Ethiopia’s ambition – they aim to plant 4 billion trees before the end of the year!

Actually, it is worth taking a look at the other world records for tree planting.   On 30 June 2001 Ken Chaplin planted 15,170 red pine saplings in Canada.  And on 22 June 2013 a team of 300 planters planted 847,275 trees in Pakistan (847,275 / 300 = 2824).  On 2 June 2015 49,675 trees were planted in just one hour in Bhutan, by a team of one hundredThe record for one hour’s planting for a team of unlimited size in a single location is 232,647 trees – which was set in Indonesia on 28 November 2016 (they actually finished in half an hour).  I don’t think the 50 million trees planted in 24 hours in India, 11 July 2016, got listed as an official world record yet but it is reported that about a million volunteers took part.

So the actual planting of trees (not simple scattering of seeds) can be done rather quickly – by huge numbers of people planting a few trees, or a small number of experienced tree planters working very fast.  An experienced planter can do 1500 a day routinely.  Ethiopia also did a huge amount to prepare the ground for this day – both metaphorically and literally.

The main difficulty for tree planting is having the the saplings to plant, and the land to plant them on. Ethiopia has a population of some 100 million and about 80% of employment is in agriculture – so mobilising a huge number of capable volunteers is logistically challenging, but not as hard as it would be in a country like the UK. This is not to diminish this achievement. Indeed, it is quite easy to be so excited by the number of trees to forget about the number of people involved – and in cities as well as rural areas. Those people are as important to the success of this as the trees. This was about tree planting and the environment but also about building a sense of unity, shared purpose and common destiny. This required many days of preparation but it will require many more to care for those trees in the years to come – a task made easier when people care about those trees because they put them there. Forestry is about trees – but also about people – and this “green legacy” is not just about the environment, resilience, adaption and mitigation of climate change, wildlife protection and water conservation – it is also about social productivity, education, improving public health, food security, energy, and economic benefits for forestry and agriculture. All over the world forest restoration and afforestation must also create socio-economic incentive for the people who depend on the landscape for their livelihoods, and include some control for local communities over that land. Ethiopia has been revising its forest laws to this end – recognising the importance of participatory forestry management.

There is also the very tricky question of what kind of trees to plant.  Even in wet countries like the UK, we need to pay attention to the affects of climate change and the possibility that trees might not get enough water all year round.  Not all trees are the same, and some species are more tolerant to drought than others.  The right trees can also help reduce the risk and the impacts of drought. Apparently Ethiopia’s plan covers indigenous trees and non-natives chosen for four main purposes: farmland, soil erosion protection, cattle fodder, and ornamentation. Species mentioned include the native Dovialis abyssinia and non-native Cupressus lusitanica. There are different views about this of course, and concerns about the huge financial cost, and the risk that many of the trees will not survive – so it is fair to say that we should focus more on quality of action than quantity… but in this one day Ethiopia not just inspired its own people, but in their grand ambition of scale grabbed the attention of the world. This was needed.

But one thing we should be careful to understand – impressive as this number is – it is not enough. And planting trees does not excuse us from behaving badly to the environment in other ways.  We still need a lot more trees.  Another recent news story is that the UK Government has been told it needs to plant 1.5 billion trees to tackle climate change.  At record Ethiopian planting rates that would take about a week – but at current UK rates… about 500 years. There is talk of needing a trillion more trees globally. Even at 350 million new trees a day that would take almost 8 years.

With huge thanks to Anna Ploszajski for asking for a quote for her Guardian Science article.

I spoke to 2ser radio (Sydney Australia) about this story.
The quote appeared in The Guardian first, but was also used by The Hill, Smithsonian Smart News, The Irish Times, Taipei Times, and others, including also translations to Chinese, Polish, Finnish, French, Slovenian, Greek, Vietnamese, Czech, Slovakian, Lithuanian and Indonesian. Hopefully this level of worldwide interest in what Ethiopia achieved on this day translates into action elsewhere.

Trees not only help mitigate climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide in the air, but they also have huge benefits in combating desertification and land degradation, particularly in arid countries. They also provide food, shelter, fuel, animal fodder, pollinators for crops, medicines, materials and protection of the water supply.

This truly impressive feat is not just the simple planting of trees, but part of a huge and complicated challenge to take account of the short- and long-term needs of both the trees and the people. The forester’s mantra ‘the right tree in the right place’ increasingly needs to consider the effects of climate change, as well as the ecological, social, cultural and economic dimension.

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