Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

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Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth: Conserving and Rebuilding Soils

Protecting the earth’s 3.9 billion hectares of remaining forests and replanting those lost are both essential for restoring the earth’s health, an important foundation for the new economy. Reducing rainfall runoff and the associated flooding and soil erosion, recycling rainfall inland, and restoring aquifer recharge depend on simultaneously reducing pressure on forests and on reforestation. 3

There is a vast unrealized potential in all countries to lessen the demand pressure that is shrinking the earth’s forest cover. In industrial nations the greatest opportunity lies in reducing the quantity of wood used to make paper, and in developing countries it depends on reducing fuelwood use.

The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely, from China and Italy on the low end, recycling 27 and 31 percent of the paper they use, to Germany and South Korea on the high end, at 72 and 66 percent. The recycling rate in Germany is high because the government has consistently emphasized paper recycling to reduce the flow to landfills. If every country recycled as much of its paper as Germany does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by one third. 4

The United States, the world’s largest paper consumer, is far behind Germany but is making some progress. Twenty years ago, roughly one fourth of the paper used in the United States was recycled. By 2003, the figure had reached 48 percent. 5

The use of paper, perhaps more than any other single product, reflects the throwaway mentality that evolved during the last century. There is an enormous possibility for reducing paper use simply by replacing facial tissues, paper napkins, disposable diapers, and paper shopping bags with reusable cloth alternatives.

The largest single demand on trees—the need for fuel—accounts for just over half of all wood removed from forests. Some international aid agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), have begun to sponsor fuelwood efficiency projects. One of AID’s more promising national projects is the distribution of 780,000 new, highly efficient wood cookstoves in Kenya. Investing public resources in replacing outmoded inefficient cookstoves can earn handsome dividends in forest protection and regeneration, including the restoration of forest services. 6

Over the longer term, developing alternative cooking fuels is the key to reducing forest pressure in developing countries. As the world shifts from a fossil-fuel-reliant economy to one based on wind, solar, and geothermal energy, it will be much easier for developing countries without fossil fuels to develop indigenous sources of renewable energy. Replacing firewood with solar thermal cookers, with electric hotplates fed by wind-generated electricity, or with some other energy source will lighten the load on forests.

Kenya is also the site of a solar cooker project sponsored by Solar Cookers International. These inexpensive cookers, made from cardboard and aluminum foil and costing $10 each, cook slowly, much like a crockpot. Requiring three hours of sunshine to cook a complete meal, they can greatly reduce firewood use at little cost. They can also be used to pasteurize water, thus saving lives. 7

Earlier definitions of sustainable forestry focused only on the sustained production of forest products, but they now include sustaining forest services such as flood control. Despite the high value to society of intact forests, only about 290 million hectares of global forest area are legally protected from logging. An additional 1.4 billion hectares are economically unavailable for harvesting because of geographic inaccessibility or low-value wood. Of the remaining area available for exploitation, 665 million hectares are undisturbed by humans and nearly 900 million hectares are semi-natural and not in plantations. 8

Forests that are protected by national decree are often safeguarded not so much to preserve the long-term wood supply capacity as to ensure that the forest can continue to provide services. Countries that provide legal protection for forests often do so after they have suffered the consequences of extensive deforestation. The Philippines, for example, has banned logging in all remaining old-growth and virgin forests largely because the country has become so vulnerable to flooding, erosion, and landslides. The country was once covered by rich stands of tropical hardwood forests, but after years of massive clearcutting, it lost both the forest’s products and its services and became a net importer of forest products. 9

Reed Funk, professor of plant biology at Rutgers University, believes the vast areas of deforested land can be used to grow trillions of genetically improved trees for food, mostly nuts, and for fuel. Funk sees nuts used to supplement meat as a source of high-quality protein in developing-country diets. He also sees trees grown on this deforested land, much of it now wasteland, being used for conversion into ethanol for automotive fuel. 10

Although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have worked for years to protect forests from clearcutting, the World Bank has only recently begun to systematically consider sustainable forestry. In 1998, the Bank joined forces with the World Wide Fund for Nature to form the Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use; by 2005 they had helped designate 50 million hectares of new forest protected areas and certify 22 million hectares of forest. In mid-2005, the Alliance announced a goal of reducing global deforestation rates to zero by 2020. 11

There are several forest product certification programs that link environmentally conscious consumers with sustainable management of the forest where the product originates. Some programs are national while others are international; some originate with importing countries and others with exporters.

The most rigorous international program, one that is certified by a group of NGOs, is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Some 57 million hectares of forests in 65 countries are certified by FSC-accredited bodies as responsibly managed. Among the leaders in certified forest area are Sweden, with 10 million hectares; Poland, with 6 million hectares; the United States, with nearly 5 million hectares; and Brazil and South Africa, with 3 million and 2 million hectares respectively. 12

Forest plantations can reduce pressures on the earth’s remaining forests as long as they do not replace old-growth forest. As of 2000, the world had 187 million hectares in forest plantations, an area less than 5 percent of the total 3.9 billion hectares in forest and equal to nearly one fourth of the 700 million hectares planted in grain. Tree plantations produce mostly wood for paper mills or for wood reconstitution mills. Increasingly, reconstituted wood is substituting for natural wood in the world lumber market as industry adapts to a shrinking supply of large logs from natural forests. 13

Production of roundwood on plantations is estimated at 414 million cubic meters per year, accounting for 12 percent of world wood production. This means that the lion’s share, some 88 percent of the world timber harvest, comes from natural forest stands. 14

Five countries account for two thirds of tree plantations. China, which has little original forest remaining, is the largest, with Russia and the United States following. India and Japan are fourth and fifth. Brazil is further back, but is expanding fast. As tree farming expands, it is shifting geographically to the moist tropics. In contrast to grain yields, which tend to rise with distance from the equator and the longer summer growing days, tree plantation yields rise with proximity to the equator and year-round growing conditions. 15

In eastern Canada, the average hectare of forest plantation produces 4 cubic meters per year. In the southeastern United States, where U.S. plantations are concentrated, the yield is 10 cubic meters. But in Indonesia, it is 25 cubic meters, and in Brazil, newer plantations may be close to 30 cubic meters. While corn yields in the United States are nearly triple those in Brazil, timber yields are the reverse, favoring Brazil by nearly 3 to 1. To satisfy a given demand for wood, Brazil requires only one third as much land as the United States, which helps explain why growth in pulp capacity is now concentrated in equatorial regions. 16

Projections of future growth show that plantations are constrained by land scarcity. They can sometimes be profitably established on already deforested, often degraded, land, but they are more likely to come at the expense of existing forests. There is also competition with agriculture, since land that is suitable for crops is also good for growing trees. Water scarcity is yet another constraint. Fast-growing plantations require abundant moisture.

Nonetheless, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that as plantation area expands and yields rise, the harvest could more than double during the next three decades. It is entirely conceivable that plantations could one day satisfy most of the world’s demand for industrial wood, thus helping to protect the world’s remaining forests. 17

Historically, some highly erodible agricultural land in industrial countries has been reforested by natural regrowth. For example, New England, a geographically rugged region of the United States, was reforested beginning a century or so ago. Settled early by Europeans, this region was suffering from cropland productivity losses because soils were thin and the land was rocky, sloping, 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 cropped land to return to forest. New England’s forest cover has increased from a low of roughly one third two centuries ago to perhaps three fourths today, slowly regaining its original health and diversity. 18

A somewhat similar situation exists now in parts of the former Soviet Union and in several East European countries. As central planning was replaced by market-based agriculture in the early 1990s, farmers on marginal land 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. 19

South Korea is in many ways a reforestation model for the rest of the world. When the Korean War ended, half a century ago, the mountainous country was largely deforested. Beginning around 1960, under the dedicated leadership of President Park Chung Hee, the South Korean government launched a national reforestation effort. Relying on the creation of village cooperatives, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized to dig trenches and to create terraces for supporting trees on barren mountains. South Korea not only reclaimed denuded areas, it also supported the effort with the establishment of fuelwood forests. Se-Kyung Chong, researcher at the Korea Forest Research Institute, writes, “The result was a seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land.” 20

Today forests cover 65 percent of the country, an area of roughly 8 million hectares. While driving across South Korea in November 2000, it was gratifying for me to see the luxuriant stand of trees on mountains that a generation ago were bare. We can reforest the earth! 21

In Turkey, a mountainous country largely deforested over millennia, a leading environmental group, TEMA (Türkiye Erozyona Mücadele, Agaclandirma), has made reforestation its principal activity. Founded by two prominent Turkish businessmen, Hayrettin Karuca and Nihat Gokyigit, TEMA launched in 1998 a 10-billion-acorn campaign to restore tree cover and reduce runoff and soil erosion. During the years since, 850 million oak acorns have been planted. The program is also raising national awareness of the services that forests provide. 22

China is engaging in its own 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 to protect land from the expanding Gobi Desert. This green wall, a modern version of the Great Wall, is projected to reach some 4,480 kilometers (2,800 miles) in length, stretching from outer Beijing through Inner Mongolia. An ambitious, long-term plan, it is expected to take 70 years to complete and to cost up to $8 billion. 23

Shifting subsidies from building logging roads to planting trees would help protect forest 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. Well-chosen, well-placed trees provide shade, serve as windbreaks to check soil erosion, and can fix nitrogen, reducing the need for fertilizer.

Reducing wood use by developing more-efficient wood stoves and alternative means of cooking, systematically recycling paper, and banning the use of throwaway paper products all lighten pressure on the earth’s forests. A global reforestation effort cannot succeed unless it is accompanied by the stabilization of population. With such an integrated plan, coordinated country by country, the earth’s forests can be restored.

 

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