What to Watch Out For When Volunteering Abroad
WorkingAbroad blog writer Tristan Ledger, who is currently volunteering in France, writes about things to look out for during a volunteering trip overseas.
June 27th 2019
Deforestation is one of the things we come up with when we are asked what humanity is doing wrong for the environment. It is like a subconscious notion we all have: deforestation is an issue with negative environmental consequences. Undoubtedly, thinking about rapid and uncontrolled deforestation as something negative is fair. Deforestation leads to land degradation, which in turn contributes to biodiversity and habitat loss, a reduction in ground-water recharge, which can cause natural hazards such as droughts, floods, and dust storms. For humans that can mean food, water, and energy insecurity as well as a forced displacement in case their homeland becomes unsuitable for living.
However, I want to talk today about reforestation – the opposite of deforestation. Not long ago, I stumbled upon an article about human efforts to restore degraded land by planting a forest. It sparked a hope in my heart and made me curious. After doing research, I collected a few more inspiring stories and I would like to share them in this article.
In the late 90s, acclaimed photojournalist Sebastião Salgado and his wife LéliaDeluizWanick Salgado embarked on an ambitious journey of restoring the territory of the former Salgado family’s Bulcão Farm, which was devastated by deforestation and exploitation of natural resources. Sebastião remembered this land covered by lush green rainforest, but when he returned to his childhood’s tropical paradise in the mid-90s, he was met by an almost naked land and silence – trees and wildlife were gone. His wife Lélia, as Sebastião says in the interview for Guardian, “had a fabulous idea to replant this forest.” In 1998, the couple founded an NGO called Instituto Terra dedicated to the restoration of 6900ha of devastated territory in the Valley of the River Doce.
The first plantings of native trees seedlings were carried out in December 1999 and since then Instituto Terra has planted over 2 million trees, which belong to 290 different species native to that region. It was an important emphasis of the NGO, to make sure they recreate the innate ecosystem so that it can actually assimilate well. In the same Guardian’s interview, Sebastião Salgado says:
“You need forest with native trees, and you need to gather the seeds in the same region you plant them or the serpents and the termites won’t come. And if you plant forests that don’t belong, the animals don’t come there and the forest is silent.”
As the result of the reforestation, erosion of the Valley of the River Doce was stopped, fostering a resurgence of natural springs, and flourishing of flora and fauna alike. Many animal species found their new home in the Balcão Farm, which now is declared a Private Natural Heritage Reserve.
Just nearby, in São Paulo state in Brazil, lives Antonio Vicente who bought a patch of land and spent 40 years planting a forest together with a small team. Nowadays his 31 hectares land looks nothing less than a paradise, in my opinion. But what I found especially touching and inspiring were these words of Antonio:
“If you ask me who my family are, I would say all this right here, each one of these that I planted from a seed.”
If you wonder, whether there are even more remarkable examples of reforestation – yes, there is at least one that I know of. It can be found on the other side of the world from Brazil: in India, on the river island called Majuli. In 1979, a 16-years-old Jadav Payeng started planting trees on the eroded ground of his homeland. By 2013 Jadav had devoted three decades to the reforestation of the island and single-handedly planted thousands of trees. At that time, the Molai forest created by him was taking up an area of 550 hectares which was 1,6 times the area of the Central Park in New York. Maybe nowadays Jadav’s forest is twice as big as the famous park, but, unfortunately, I could not find more recent information.
The Molai forest gives shelter to many animals including tigers, deer, monkeys and even wild elephants. Not to mention the diversity of the plants growing there – some of them planted by Jadav, others rejuvenating in the coolness of the forest’s canopy. If you wish to learn more about this extraordinary achievement of an ordinary man, I would recommend watching this documentary called “Forest Man”.
Fortunately, reforestation stories do not seem to be rare nowadays and this is nothing less than great news. As much as I believe in the importance of individual effort and participation, I also think that we need to have natural conservation on the national agendas too. The good news is that there are also both international and governmental programs that promote and prioritize land restoration, which includes reforestation.
For example, Kubuqi desert greening project in China brought back to life an area that was turned into a desert by centuries of cattle grazing. The greening did not happen overnight, however, this project showed that a clear vision, effective legislation, private investments and market-oriented engagement of local farmers and herdsmen can bring incredible results in the long-term.
There are many international initiatives that focus on reforestation as such or as a part of a wider land restoration scope. For example, a global commitment called Bonn Challenge aims to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. Another example is Reforestation Grants by WWF – a comparably smaller international program, which provides financial support to local organizations in selected areas, incentivizing reforestation by giving residents the means to commit to it.
Looking at all these efforts and achievements, one may wonder – aren’t we doing great? Yes, we are. We are doing a great job of restoring devastated lands using reforestation. But we need not forget that there is still rapid deforestation happening in parallel with all the trees planting. On this interactive map, you can see that for some countries rates of deforestation are way higher than the ones of reforestation, but for some, it is the other way around. Of course, those rates depend on many different factors such as, for example, the actual size of a tree-covered area and the size of a country itself. Therefore, we cannot just compare two countries based on those numbers. However, I believe, it is important that we consider both deforestation and reforestation when we speak about a certain region. We cannot plant three trees and take pride in that while forgetting that we cut 10 trees just a moment before.
Another thing I want to point out is that keeping forests standing is, quite obviously, a more effective way of combating all the negative consequences of deforestation. That is to say, reforestation is great and we should keep up the good work, but it is not the way forward. We need to cherish, protect and effectively manage the resources we have right now instead of counting on restoring them later, when every tree has been cut, every spring has dried up, and every bird has left. Instead of fixing issues, we could just avoid creating them in the first place.
But right now we have what we have and there is still work to be done. Planting trees can miraculously transform the landscape, proving that nature can find its way back to thriving when given the needed time and space. All the examples and stories I mentioned above are real-life proofs of that. They are also evidence of what efforts of one human or of a country at large can do.
We can and we should give the Earth a chance to revive. There is a hope even for the barren lands stripped away from all vegetation. And each one of us can make a difference – no matter how big or small. In nature, every seed counts.
By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Veronika Trifonova
To find out more about a UK charity currently working towards reforestation efforts, please click here.