28 Aug 2018

Instead of stopping deforestation, let's reverse it

Can we end deforestation once and for all? Here’s why we all need to get behind the Trillion Trees Vision.

© Ferry R Tan / Picfair
By Shaun Hurrell

A tree stands near the edge of a Colombian rainforest. Not too much to look at: quite small, a few delicate branches catching dappled light, a simple spray of leaves – some with brown crispy edges nibbled by insects. But this tree is one of the first of its kind – not because of how it looks, but because of what is happening in the world around it.

Imagine this tree a human generation from now. It’s 2050, the tree has birds nesting in it, a few scars, perhaps has its seeds harvested, but it stands in a world with a different atmosphere; a world with many, many more trees than in 2018 – in fact one trillion trees regrown, saved from loss or better protected.

Today, to imagine this tree evokes a gut feeling of vulnerability, because of what we know about our society. We’ve seen how forest clearance is often followed by unsustainable agricultural practices, leading to soil depletion, driving further forest loss in a catastrophic spiral; witnessed difficulties with economies, greed and failed pledges. But the people of 2050 see the tree differently, because they live in a world without deforestation, where forests continue to grow, not shrink, where their gut reaction is to imagine this tree as safe. Perhaps you’ve dismissed this possibility before, but is it such an unrealistic vision for our modern society? Whether it becomes a reality or not all comes down to one small gap.

We know how bad deforestation rates are, and how important reversing this trend is as a solution to many of the planet’s major problems. This is not news. Deforestation and forest restoration is, rightly, firmly on the global political agenda, rooted in initiatives like the New York Declaration on Forests, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Bonn Challenge and the Paris Agreement. There has been a wave of corporate and government commitments to end deforestation, and there’s more public and private funding available than ever before, but something isn’t working.

In short, commitments aren’t becoming canopies; finance isn’t turning into forest. Companies and countries are struggling to deliver on their pledges. Funders are not finding the right projects, and frontline conservation programmes are finding it difficult to secure funding. The Trillion Trees programme calls this the ‘implementation gap’.

The White-necked Rockfowl © Michael Andersen

The Trillion Trees Vision

Trillion Trees was founded to bridge this implementation gap once and for all. Launched in November 2016 with seed funding from Restore Our Planet, Trillion Trees draws on decades of experience of three of the world’s largest conservation organisations: WWF, BirdLife International and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). These three ‘great oaks’ of conservation have presence in over 120 countries and are already leading successful forest protection and restoration, but our shared Trillion Trees commitment gives us a platform to be more persuasive and powerful than we could individually.

Together, and with tailored support from a dedicated team, we can connect funders with the ventures capable of turning the world’s forest pledges into reality, and we help project teams on the ground think bigger and find the resources and audiences they need to scale up.

The Trillion Trees Vision is of a world where “one trillion trees have been re-grown, saved from loss, and better protected around the world by 2050, thanks to determined and collective action by all sectors of society.” It’s a big goal, but achievable. The key part is the latter: determined and collective action by all. It’s not possible to do this by ourselves. We must work with others, and recognise the good work already underway. Together we need to inspire the world to change: starting new projects, supporting existing ones and bringing the right funding to the right action.

“The trillion is the result of doing what we must to stop climate change”, says Tim Rayden, Sustainable Landscapes Unit, WCS. “This means maximising the land sector’s contribution to the Paris Agreement, by arresting forest loss, and restoring sufficient land to meet the Bonn Challenge commitments.”

Why the trillion?

The Trillion Trees Vision has a nice ring to it, but it wasn’t chosen for alliteration. It is an accurate estimate of the scale of change that is required to keep the planet stable, according to the best current science. Research has shown that there were once six trillion trees on our planet; now there are three trillion left (Crowther et al. 2015), and we’re still losing ten billion trees per year. Human activity was the main driving force for this decrease and humans can, and must, be the main driving force to increase it again.


“It’s about the right trees in the right places”, says Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International. “With responsible land-use comprising almost 25% of the global climate solution… Trillion Trees is our contribution to one of the largest societal priorities of the 21st century.”

With better agricultural practices backed by corporate and public policy changes, large areas of land can be left as, or restored to, forests. Many forests have been degraded and have space for more trees to regrow. Abandoned, degraded lands exist where natural forests can return. Well-managed plantations or woodlots can provide sustainable fuel, food and, fibre. And while our vision is certainly very ambitious, we hope it will inspire influential individuals and institutions to aim higher than they might otherwise have done. And the benefits for all will of course be enormous.

How it works

To see a world where forests grow, rather than shrink, Trillion Trees works at a landscape-wide scale, combining better protection, natural re-growth and targeted planting. We already have a series of pilot Landscape Initiatives underway: Gola Rainforest Cocoa in Sierra Leone is truly deforestation-free, with farmers getting a fair price for their produce, improving local standards of living. Around protected areas in Cambodia, rice farmers are adopting wildlife-friendly standards in return for a premium price on their crops, through an enterprise called Ibis Rice. Between the Trillion Trees partners, we have over 20 of these Landscape Initiatives in the pipeline.

© B Horvath

As we zoom from the global Trillion Trees Vision back to our single tree in the rainforest, we can now see why this tree is one of the first of its kind. It stands near the edge of Colombia’s Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park, an area that world headlines proclaimed has just been expanded by 4.3 million hectares, making it the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park, as well as the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is thanks to Trillion Trees Partner, WWF, and our Trillion Trees team negotiating and influencing the process.

The future management of the park, through Herencia Colombia (Heritage Colombia – an initiative led by National Parks of Colombia with NGO, philanthropic and government funding support) is a fantastic current example of what the future of forest protection will look like: it combines protected areas with the surrounding landscape in a grand vision that secures its long-term financing. It’s a perfect example of government and NGO cooperation, government commitment being fulfilled, and the ‘implementation gap’ bridged. It represents the very essence of the Trillion Trees Vision, implemented, for the world to see.

Right now, we have the opportunity to create an alternative future for the world’s forests. All we need to do is to think big, stretch our ambitions and work together.

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*This is one scenario to deliver on this grand vision which we use for illustration purposes. Using sound analysis we have identified a range of scenarios that have emphasis between the three components - save, protect, restore. Find out more at: