How, where and why does Ecosia plant trees?

Towards one billion trees by 2020: Our Tree Planting Officer's perspective on the types of projects we support

1. Introduction

It is Ecosia’s mission to plant 1 billion trees by 2020. Our leading principle is that the trees should provide value to nature and people and be planted effectively. This raises three fundamental questions:

  1. Why trees?
  2. Where we plant them?
  3. How we plant them?

The “why” is explained in this short article. The “where” and “how” we believe we can plant effectively and provide value to nature and people is described in this article.

The article therefore consists of two sections. The first section describes where we plant trees. In that section we explain where we think trees are most needed. The second section explains how we plant trees, whereby “how” should be understood as what we require from our projects to have in place in order to be a good tree planting project.

2. Where we plant trees

Imagine you had a billion trees to give away and had to decide where you think you could have the biggest impact on people and nature? Where would you go? You probably want to go where nature and/or people are most in need of trees. (Now, it matters a lot how you then work in that place, but that comes in the “how” section). But where is that? The section below describes which compasses we use to determine where nature and/or people are most in need of trees.

2.1. Value for nature

In one sentence: Ecosia looks to support projects in the 25 most threatened forest ecosystems

Where is nature in need of trees? One could say: everywhere where trees are removed and not planted back or regenerating. This is a good start, we do not want to plant trees where there have been none before (see also the “how” section). However, what we are really looking for is “where is nature most in need of trees”? How can we prioritise the one tree planting location over the other? Scientist Norman Myers asked himself the same question and came up with so-called biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity hotspots hold especially high numbers of unique species, yet their combined area now covers only 2.3 percent of the Earth's land surface. Many encompass priority areas in multiple countries. Each one faces extreme threats and has lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat.

Specifically, a region must meet the following criteria to achieve hotspot classification:

  • At least 1,500 species of vascular plants (>0.5% of the world’s total) are endemic
  • At least 70% of the original natural vegetation has been lost

Today, 35 of such hotspots are defined. They represent just 2.3% of Earth’s land surface, but they support more than half of the world’s plant species as endemics — i.e., species found no place else — and nearly 43% of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species as endemics. Ecosia has decided follow this approach and its resulting 35 biodiversity hotspots as its leading compass on where it wants to plant trees. Focussing on these 35 hotspots means Ecosia uses the best strategy to leverage its finance effectively for nature. It gives us the biggest chance to actually have an impact on the planet’s extraordinary nature for the future.

2.2. Value for people

In one sentence: ecosia looks to support poor agricultural communities

As could be read in the “why trees” article, trees have superpowers that are tremendously helpful to create new value to farmers and communities.  There trees can prevent erosion, create a stable microclimate for other crops, restore the water systems or provide new means of income. In the poorer agricultural regions of our planet however, communities and farmers do not have the means and sometimes knowledge to start tree planting and restoration on a larger scale. Furthermore, not much private finance is interested to work in these regions that provides no financial return on investment (at least not within 3 years). Public finance (ODA) is often too complicated to get access to, because of large administrative burdens,  lengthy and uncertain timeframes or mismatch between available and needed financial means.

Ecosia feels that therefore it is exactly here where its finance is most needed from a people perspective. A compass we used to determine the poverty of a region is for example its GDP rank compared to the rest of the world.

A country's GDP and whether the project is in a biodiversity hotspot are no exclusive criteria but compasses. Ecosia takes the freedom to also support projects that do not match with either of these compasses but that we still feel make sense.

3. How we plant trees

Once we understand that we want to plant in areas where nature and/or humans are in strongest need for trees to come back, the next question is how we plant trees in order for the project to sustainably deliver on these desires. How can we make sure that a new forest ecosystem actually gets in place? Are we sure we promote tree planting where local people have decided that it’s in their interest to do so? This sections describes how we aim to achieve that. It is structured around: ‘best-practice tree planting’, ‘value for people’ and ‘value for nature’. It also includes our thinking on the economics of the projects and some other elements like our partners and transparency. This vision is translated in a criteria matrix that we use to evaluate new and existing projects.

3.1. Value for nature

In one sentence: Tree planting creates value for nature if it restores what has been destroyed, follows natural processes and is part of a wider vision.

  • Only where there have been trees before

Ecosia will plant trees where historically there have been trees (often in the shape of a forest, but it could also be widespread savannah trees). This has two reasons. At first we do not want to do anything unnatural; the planet is already way too much the ‘garden of humanity’ and Ecosia wants to listen to nature’s needs. Secondly, if there is an area where trees used to grow naturally, apparently this area offers an environment where trees can actually thrive. This is quite handy if you want your trees to have a chance to survive. So, no tree planting at places where historically there were none. 

  • Native species and natural processes

For partly the same reasons, Ecosia also works with native species. We want to restore that natural situation, not just plant for the planting. We might accept some exceptions to this rule, for example where exotic species bear fruits that have become important to the local communities or where they are better resistant against climate change. If these exotics are not invasive, we could imagine including those into the native mix for max. 10%

Every natural area in development has their rhythm of species that come and go. On bare land, the first trees prepare the way for other species, because they fix nitrogen or capture water. Certain animals again are attracted by these trees. When restoring an ecosystem, it makes sense to follow the natural succession path of species, as that is the most effective way to get to a new forest eventually. Indeed, let nature do its work - it’s very good at it.

  • Landscape approach

The science and understanding of the functions of trees in a landscape is evolving rapidly. Through an integrated landscape approach, all functions in the landscape (including the trees) form part of a broader landscape vision that supports nature and people, by e.g. building corridors, capturing water or changing the local climate positively. Ecosia aims at making sure it works in such wider plans and that the activities we support do not stand in isolation.

3.2. Value for people

In one sentence: Tree planting provides value to people if it they get a better life with trees than without trees - also long term - and they understand that and want the trees.

  • Functions that people benefit from

Depending on where you are, trees and forests have many different functions that people potentially benefit from. In our projects, we want to be clear on what these benefits are. Do the grown trees provide benefits like shade, fruits, wind protection, increased water availability? It other words, is there a sustainable business case resulting from the new area for the local people? If people most of all benefit from the tree itself, for firewood or timber, can and will the project be pursued sustainably, meaning without running risk of the forest being cut down again?

The trees will only survive if the people in and around the project area understand the benefits the trees bring - which can be a change to the earlier situation that caused the trees to disappear. We want to understand what caused the deforestation and also understand why the project thinks it will not happen again. Assuming that there are benefits, do people understand them and act accordingly? Easier said than done, because often a tree has the unpractical characteristic that you only value it once it is gone. Or do you think of trees every day when you sit in the shade, breathe fresh air or drink water?

  • Wanting it

This should actually be the first point. At Ecosia autonomy of the people comes first. Even if all benefits seem obvious - if the local people do not agree with the way a planting program is planned, forcing a project upon them is certainly not the way to go. In practice, there will be different views within the community, too. With common sense and open mind everyone involved will discuss how and whether we can best work together in the area. The role of women and children is also very important in this process.

  • The financials and the business case

The key driver of Ecosia’s business model is to “donate” at least 80% of its monthly profits to tree planting. Why “donate” with quotation marks? Because we actually buy the service of a planted tree. By being able to report on the impact these tree planting projects have, we hope to convince more people to use ecosia. The beauty of this model, is that our “return on investment” does not have to come from the tree planting project itself. Therefore, we have the potential to make tree planting possible that is too ‘innovative’ for classical tree investors, we can really support cutting edge reforestation concepts. The downside is that our financial support could be  wasted on projects that have no real perspective. Therefore, we do want our projects to also have a ‘business case’  for the local people around the project (see also the previous point). This will often be new and untested models (we love that!), that talk about more value than only ‘return on investment’. But in the end, every part of the equation has to make sense. Once we are able to kickstart or catalyse these planet friendly businesses, we might start to consider a small return for new projects, with the sole objective to be able to reinvest in further tree planting. Of course this will be discussed before we start to engage.

3.3. Best-practice tree planting

In one sentence: Sometimes the best plan is to not plant a tree.

  • Tree planting

If you have been reading all the way to here, you will also be ready for a little shock at the end: planting is not always the best way to get trees back. If you plant trees, you get them out of a nursery, where they have been sowed and grown under ideal circumstances. Then you plant them in bare soil and they instantly have to adapt to the harsh world outside. No wonder that many young saplings die! Other methods, like sowing or Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration are often cheaper and more effective. Ecosia will always look at the best way to get trees growing, we are not bound to planting only!

3.4. Other things

  • Direct relation to the tree planting partner

We aim to have as little organisations as reasonably and practically possible between Ecosia and the tree planters. This is meant to help us avoid unnecessary overhead, but also to keep the working and communication lines as short as possible.

  • Transparency

Ecosia is committed to full transparency around its tree planting activities and we expect the same from our partners. Tree planting is a complicated business that combines nature, people and time. It is therefore unavoidable that things may sometimes go as we didn’t plan them to go, but we will be honest and clear about that.

Transparency also means transparency in costs. We want to pay a fair price to our partners, but in return we demand them to clearly show their different cost drivers.

  • Trade offs

Where conflicts or trade-offs exist between our criteria, we will decide with common sense and in thorough discussion with our partners on how we will deal with it.

  • Leadership and mutual learning

Ecosia believes in the power of tree planting if it adds value to nature and people. We also know that a lot needs to happen still to increase the impact of tree planting. Projects have to learn from each other on what works and what does not, and other companies should get inspired to also finance tree planting according to this concept. Ecosia sees itself as a strong advocate and perhaps inspirator, to make these things happen.

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