Misguided tree-planting threatening ecosystem in Africa

Tree-planting initiatives in Africa are jeopardizing vital ecosystems, warn scientists. Research indicates that an area equivalent to the size of France is at risk due to inappropriate forest restoration projects.

The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, aiming to plant trees over 100 million hectares by 2030, is singled out for potentially disrupting non-forest ecosystems like savannahs and grasslands. Approximately 52% of tree-planting projects in Africa target savannahs, with nearly 60% employing non-native tree species, posing a risk of introducing invasive plants.

The misclassification of grassy ecosystems as “forests” under current UN definitions could lead to misguided reforestation, threatening ancient grasslands and impacting wildlife and communities dependent on these ecosystems.

The researchers emphasize the urgent need to revise definitions to avoid unintended consequences and stress that ecosystem restoration should be tailored to each specific environment. They caution against hastily funded projects that may have limited benefits and could cause social and ecological harm.

Kate Parr, a professor of tropical ecology at the University of Liverpool and co-author of the study published in the journal Science, emphasized the necessity of ecosystem restoration but stressed that it must be approached with appropriateness for each system. The misclassification of non-forest ecosystems, such as savannahs, as forests has the potential to compromise the integrity and persistence of these grassy landscapes.

The researchers call for an urgent revision of definitions to ensure that savannahs and other open-spaced ecosystems are not mistakenly considered forests. The current UN definition, which designates areas with trees higher than 5 meters and canopy cover of at least 10% as forests, may inadvertently encourage reforestation efforts in areas where they are not ecologically suitable.

Dr. Nicola Stevens, a researcher in African environments at the University of Oxford and co-author of the paper, highlighted the urgency in implementing large-scale tree planting but cautioned against inadequately assessed projects that could result in negligible carbon sequestration benefits and potential harm to both society and ecology.

The authors underscore the need for a nuanced and context-specific approach to ecosystem restoration, considering the diverse landscapes within Africa. They stress that misguided tree-planting projects not only risk ecological damage but also pose threats to wildlife, such as rhinos and wildebeest, and local communities that rely on these ecosystems.

In conclusion, the scientists advocate for a careful and well-informed strategy that ensures the conservation of diverse ecosystems in Africa. They recommend collaboration between researchers, policymakers, and local communities to develop sustainable restoration plans that respect the unique characteristics of each region. This approach aims to avoid unintended consequences and contribute positively to the conservation of Africa’s rich biodiversity and the well-being of its people.

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