Towards one billion trees by 2020: Our Tree Planting Officer's perspective on the types of projects we support
It is Ecosia’s mission to plant 1 billion trees by 2020 and to do so in the most effective way. But what do we mean by “effective”? And why trees and why so many of them? Because trees can have a hugely positive impact on the environment and people alike. Feel free to read more about the details in this short article. Rather than planting trees randomly, we want to use their superpowers with care and grow trees smartly. For example we want to make sure that a new forest ecosystem actually gets in place. Furthermore, we want to promote tree planting where local people have decided that it’s in their interest to do so. We want to plant where it provides value for people and nature. This paper describes what ‘value’ means for us and 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 paper is translated in a criteria matrix that we use to evaluate new and existing projects.
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.
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.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!
- 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.
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.