On a recent field visit to Madagascar, we found fewer trees than expected. We’d like to share our perspective on what happened, what we learned, and what we’re doing now.
Planting trees in Madagascar
We have been planting trees in Madagascar, one of the world’s most precious biodiversity hotspots, since 2016. With one of our partners, Eden Reforestation Projects, we have planted mangrove trees along the island's north-western coast. Mangroves absorb an exceptional amount of CO2 and are vital for marine life. Further inland, we financed the planting of dry-deciduous trees to create much-needed habitat for Madagascar’s unique wildlife.
We monitor our tree-planting projects remotely by analyzing planting locations, geo-tagged photos and satellite images, and by cross-checking nursery inventories with planting numbers. Additionally, we usually visit the planting sites to talk to our partners, get to know the local communities, and count the trees ourselves.
We do the latter by measuring tree density across our sites (excluding old trees that predate our planting), which lets us accurately estimate how many of our trees are still growing. This informs our global tree counter, which only shows how many trees we expect to survive for more than three years across all of our projects.
Because of COVID-19, we weren’t able to visit Madagascar as early as we had scheduled. This spring, at the end of the rainy season, we were able to reach the planting sites with Eden’s team’s support, after quarantining in a hotel.
What we found
On our site visit to north-west Madagascar, we found fewer trees than we expected across both our mangrove and dry-deciduous planting sites. There are a number of reasons for this.
In December 2019, Cyclone Belna destroyed many mangrove sites. Some are showing signs of recovery, but it is too early to tell how many trees will be able to regenerate naturally. While other mangrove sites are doing better, we still found 65% fewer trees than we expected.
While the south of Madagascar experienced the most severe droughts, dry-deciduous saplings planted in the north-east suffered from heat and dehydration as well. Furthermore, these projects were repeatedly destroyed by fires started by local cattle farmers, and the pandemic impeded our partner’s firefighting efforts. It also seems that most of the trees planted with an experimental seedball technique did not germinate in the dry conditions.
What we’re doing now
In total, we consider that 21.6 million trees have been lost to force majeure. We don’t hold any of our partners responsible for natural disasters or other unforeseeable circumstances, which means the trees destroyed by fires and Cyclone Belna will not be replanted and won’t contribute to our tree counter.
Eden Reforestation Projects has agreed to counterbalance all other trees with an adapted approach. They will do this by replanting mangrove trees on new sites, as well as planting trees in a project with a strong track record. They will no longer plant dry-deciduous trees for us in Madagascar, and all replanted trees will be carefully monitored.
We’d like to stress that we remain committed to working in Madagascar with TBSE and Centre Valbio. Both of these partners plant trees in areas critical to endemic wildlife, and collaborate with academics to monitor and study local biodiversity.
Our global tree counter
Planting trees where they are needed most means working in environments where climates are already changing, and where forests are under immense pressure. We don’t expect that every planted tree survives, and our counter takes this into account.
Fortunately, our tree counter also has a twenty percent buffer for unanticipated losses, and current reporting of survival rates is showing that around ten million more trees are growing in Burkina Faso and Uganda than expected. This means you won’t see the global tree counter change.
Monitoring trees is key
Our visit to Madagascar has reinforced the importance of thorough monitoring. We’ll continue to hold ourselves and our partners to high tree-planting standards — planting native and biodiverse species that are monitored continuously. We (or an external auditor) aim to visit our projects within their first year, unless extraordinary circumstances like a global pandemic prevent us from doing so.
At the beginning of the year, we switched to twenty-year tree-planting contracts ensuring that we can monitor trees over the course of two decades, and that their long-term survival is built into the project’s design. Finally, we are constantly improving our satellite monitoring, and will be even more diligent about the planting evidence we require from our partners.