Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Protecting Forest Products & Services: Reclaiming the Earth

Reforestation is essential to restoring the earth's health, a cornerstone of the eco-economy. Reducing flooding and soil erosion, recycling rainfall inland, and restoring aquifer recharge depend not merely on slowing deforestation or arresting it, but on reforesting the earth. Planting trees helps to reduce topsoil loss caused by erosion to or below the level of new soil formation. 

Historically, some highly erodible agricultural lands have been reforested by natural regrowth. New England, a geographically rugged region of the United States, was reforested beginning a century or so ago. Settled early by Europeans, this mountainous region was having difficulty sustaining cropland productivity because soils were thin and vulnerable to erosion. As highly productive farmland opened up in the Midwest and the Great Plains during the nineteenth century, pressures on New England farmland lessened, permitting much of the land that was cropped to return to forest. Although the share of New England covered by forest has increased from a low of roughly one third two centuries ago to perhaps over three fourths today, this reforested area still has not regained its original health and diversity.46 

A somewhat similar situation exists now in the republics of the former Soviet Union and in several East European countries. After the economic reforms in the early 1990s, which replaced central planning with market-based agriculture, farmers on marginal land simply could not make ends meet and were forced to seek their livelihoods elsewhere. Precise figures are difficult to come by, but millions of hectares of farmland are now returning to forest, much as happened in New England.47 

Perhaps the most successful national reforestation effort is the one undertaken in South Korea beginning more than a generation ago. By the end of the Korean War, South Korea was almost totally deforested by a combination of heavy logging and reliance on fuelwood during the Japanese occupation. Despite being one of the world's poorest countries, it launched a national reforestation program. Trees were planted on mountainsides throughout the country. While driving across South Korea in November 2000, I was thrilled to see the luxuriant stand of trees on mountains that a generation ago were bare. It made me even more confident that we can reforest the earth. 

This model reforestation program helps explain why North Korea regularly has floods and droughts, while South Korea does not. South Korea benefits from the flood control services of reforested mountains, and with the forests' capacity to store water and recharge aquifers, the nation rarely faces serious drought. Environmental degradation is contributing to chronic famine in one country while environmental restoration helped set the stage for economic success in an adjacent nation. 

In Turkey, a mountainous country largely deforested over the millennia, one leading environmental group, TEMA (Turkiye Erozyonia Mucadele, Agaclandima), has made reforestation its principal activity. Founded by two prominent Turkish businessmen, Hayrettin Karuca and Nihat Gokyigit, TEMA has launched a 10-billion-acorn campaign to restore tree cover and reduce runoff and soil erosion. In 1998, it mobilized forestry ministry staff, army units, and volunteers to plant 45 million acorns, 15 million of which were expected to emerge as seedlings. Aside from the planting of acorns, this program is raising national awareness of the services that forests provide.48 

China also is engaging in a reforestation effort. In addition to planting trees in the recently deforested upper reaches of the Yangtze River basin to control flooding, China is planting a belt of trees across its northwest to protect land from the expanding Gobi Desert. This green wall, a modern version of the Great Wall, is some 4,480 kilometers (2,800 miles) long. An ambitious, long-term plan, it is projected to take 70 years. One local village leader said, "We'll plant trees every day for five years. And if that doesn't work, we'll plant for five more. That's what they tell us." Residents in this region are no longer permitted to burn wood for heating or cooking. The raising of animals, other than for household use, is also banned.49

But this green wall treats the symptoms of declining rainfall and desertification in the northwest, not the need to restore rainfall in the region by restoring the forests in the southern and eastern provinces that help recycle rainfall inland. An official within the Ministry of Agriculture's ecology section worries that Beijing lacks a cohesive, comprehensive plan. He sees tree planting as a positive step, but thinks grasses need to be planted first to stabilize the soil. He says, "But everything is going fast now and there is no master plan."50 

In response to water shortages in the north, China is now planning to construct two major south-north water diversions, each of which will cost tens of billions of dollars. If completed, they will bring water from the south to the north, but they will not restore the rainfall that is desperately needed in the northwest if the vegetation and ecological health of the region is to be restored.51 

Wang Honchang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has proposed reforestation and tree planting wherever possible to recycle more water to the interior. This might well carry more water from south to north than the diversion canals that are being planned, and at a lower cost.52 

Shifting subsidies from building logging roads to tree planting would increase tree cover worldwide. The World Bank has the administrative capacity to lead an international program that would emulate South Korea's success in blanketing mountains and hills with trees. 

In addition, FAO and the bilateral aid agencies can work with individual farmers in national agroforestry programs to integrate trees wherever possible into agricultural operations. Aptly chosen and well-placed trees provide shade, serve as windbreaks to check soil erosion, and fix nitrogen, which reduces the need for fertilizer. The only forest policy that is environmentally acceptable is one that expands the earth's tree cover. 

A successful effort to reclaim the earth calls for a global reforestation effort, coordinated country by country, integrated with population planning and improved efficiency of fuelwood burning. Reducing wood use by developing alternative energy sources as well as systematically recycling paper and using fewer forest products are integral components of the campaign to lighten pressure on the land. With such an integrated plan, humanity can arrest the spread of deserts that threatens agriculture and human settlements in so many countries.


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