By Fred Pearce
Greystone Books, 2021. 335 pages
In a world where climate change catastrophes increasingly dominate the headlines, Fred Pearce’s A Trillion Trees is a powerful message of hope. There are many affirming messages about tree power overcoming frenzied greed, but my favorite might almost be science fiction. That is a story Pearce tells of an island in the middle of the south Atlantic, more than seven hundred miles from any other shore. In 1843 the British botanist Joseph Hooker arrived on this arid barren volcanic cone, known as Ascension Island. Water was in short supply for the British garrison that occupied the strategic island, at midpoint between South America and Africa.
In two decades, Hooker was able to reverse the Ascension water shortage by securing the British government’s support to plant trees on the island’s highest, cloudless point. As Hooker predicted, a torrent of rainfall followed, and as a result, the lush peak became known as the Green Mountain. Included in the “cacophony of trees” are those which produce edible fruits such as cherries, dates, and bananas.
Pearce comes up with several examples to show how the miracle of Ascension is no fluke. A similar great transformation took place in response to tree planting in the southeastern Australian Monarto Plateau. It has increased rainfall in the region by a third. Areas of Western Australia impacted by deforestation have had rainfall diminished, drying up the water reservoirs of the region’s largest city Perth, whose sprawl has contributed to the region’s severe drought.
Where Pearce does find hope is in the reforestation efforts and sound forest protection in democratic North America and Europe. One of the few criticisms I have of his book is that, despite his meticulous concern to bring in the tree-protecting accomplishments of native nations of the Americas, he is unaware that this process started in Canada with the Mohawks of Oka, Quebec in the start of the 20th century.
Pearce’s compelling Chapter Six describes “America’s Forest Renaissance” as emerging from “stumps and ashes.” Pennsylvania, for instance in 1895 had only “a few hundred thousand acres, clinging on to rapidly eroding hillsides.” Today it has seventeen million acres, largely healthy native forests of valuable species such as Red Maple and Black Cherry. This process is still ongoing throughout the United States with former cotton fields of slave plantations being reforested. This has been a real but modest departure from climate change, despite the increase of forest fires in the western United States. Forests absorb eleven per cent of the carbon emissions of the United States.
In a small quibble, I do not find, as Pearce concludes, the regreening of Europe “strange” but a logical result of its democratization, pushed by ecological activists on both sides of the vanished Iron Curtain. Part of the credit for this should go to Mikhail Gorbachev since when he came to power trees in Europe were dying from acid rain, but then, as Pearce explains, “After the collapse of communism and the closure of its filthy industrial complex air pollution was much reduced.”
The democratizing force of civil society also prevented the forested buffers from being lost by urban sprawl through protection as nature reserves. On both sides of the dismantled curtain former military training grounds have been turned into sanctuaries of the wild. Impressively, a Russian military training ground near Dresden has become a pine forest which provides a sanctuary for wolves. The end of ill-considered agricultural subsidies led to an impressive expansion of forest cover in the former Communist bloc. Of these the most impressive has been Latvia’s conversion of 42 per cent of its farmland into forests.
One of the most moving aspects of A Trillion Trees is that Pearce details how tyrants who profit from forest destruction use it to finance their wars and personal dictatorships. One such infamous figure was the mercifully ousted dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor. His timber trade financed sixteen wars to stay in control. It collapsed, Pearce explains, “in May 2003, when the UN Security Council finally imposed a trade embargo.”
Pearce mentions another grim example in Cambodia, where a surviving dictator, Hun Sen, is propped up by illegal timber plunder. This has given Cambodia the fifth-fastest rate of forest loss in the world.
Logging plunder helps cement the ties between the dictatorships of Russia and China. A Russian wood processor, Vladimir Baranov, who tried to uphold Russian laws, was shot dead on his doorstep in 2005. Some 350 million cubic feet of timber annually cross the border to Mazhouli. It is, Pearce observes, “a once-desolate border town that is now a gleaming Chinese metropolis of a quarter of a million people.” He is skeptical of Chinese claims of success in reforestation, finding it common for 85 percent of plantings to die. In other areas best suited for grasslands, trees only survive by artificial watering and then cannot reproduce naturally.
It is heartening to see the impressive litany of success stories of reforestation among democratic countries. South Korea has doubled its forest cover since the end of the Korean War. While wealthy democracies have increased their forest cover, one wealthy dictatorship, oil rich Brunei, has seen it decline. Under the inspiring leadership of Costa Rica’s President, Rafael Calderon, and continued by five successors including those of different political parties, Costa Rica’s forest cover rose from 20 to 50 percent. Farmers have converted cattle ranches into ecotourist lodges. Its neighbor Panama followed suit after the end of its dictatorship through successfully planting 1.5 million trees and rescuing its canal from drying up. One surprising aspect of East Timor’s democratic liberation has been that farmers are using coppicing techniques, which allow trees to be harvested for timber through pruning, without being killed.
The European Union has a formal plan, directed by its Vice-President, Frans Timmerman, to grow its forest cover by three billion trees by 2030, “with ecological principles favorable to biodiversity.” This plan could double Europe’s current role, absorbing ten per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions.
While Pearce extends cautionary notes about failed Chinese-like authoritarian methods of reforestation in Africa, he comes up with promising examples of agro-forestry driving back the Sahara sands by farming communities. This has worked well in southern Niger through the tending of farmers, who benefit from selling wood and fruit, and obtaining higher yields on forest protected lands.
Tyrants who profit from forest destruction use it to finance their wars and personal dictatorships
Pearce’s optimistic title “Three Trillion Trees” is taken from a scholarly article written by the British ecologist Thomas Crowther and his colleague, Jean-Francois Bastin, in the prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal, Science. They found that our planet has room for 1.2 trillion more trees on 2.2 billion acres of treeless lands that supported forests in the recent past. These lands, they found, are not currently in use for either agriculture or human settlements. These trees would have the ability to soak up 200 billion tons of carbon, exactly what the International Panel of Climate Change predicts is needed by 2050 to limit global warming to 2.5 degrees. What is most encouraging is that the cost of such afforestation could be borne by a handful of well-directed and committed billionaries.
What I find inspiring in Pearce’s calculations is how it corresponds to what needs to be done on the ground to restore forests in southern Ontario. Instead of billionaires properly buying out abandoned farmland for future forests, such tracts have been acquired by speculators pursuing impossible dreams. One example was the ill-fated Walton group, which acquired a vast tract of Carolinian forests and regenerating woodland in the Fort Erie area. Since the company’s holdings were so distant from urban service boundaries it became bankrupt, a fate which a few decades earlier befall a similar ill-suited venture of the doomed Revenue Corporation.
A surprising example of patient and principled political leadership needed to make the Trillion Trees dream a carbon-sucking reality, is in the South American nation of Guyana. It is one of the most heavily forested nations on the earth and has the lowest rate of deforestation. Most of it is guarded by the indigenous Wapichan, whose 8,000 people guard a traditional territory the size of Wales.
Guyana’s success in forest conservation has much to do with the global democracy wave and the end of the Cold War sparked by the determination of Gorbachev. For 28 years the democratic socialist leader Cheddi Jagan had been kept out of power by two foreign military interventions and continual manipulation from Western powers in the Cold War. Finally, however, in fair internationally supervised elections, he was able in October 1992 to be elected president.
One of Jagan’s first moves in office was to meet with representatives of the Wapichan nation. They agreed to his terms to control their traditional territory based on documenting and mapping their existing uses and drawing up plans. One result of their detailed mapping work was a discovery that “a small bright-orange finch called the red siskin” was not, as believed, extinct.
Pearce’s A Trillion Trees is precious since it sends outdated dogmas that clog effective actions for climate change to the dust bins. If read widely, it will inspire more determination to expand the green mantle which protects our earth *
Reviewed by John Bacher, environmentalist