India has attempted large scale forest restoration for decades. We have just published one of the first systematic evaluations of these efforts. We find that decades of tree planting have had almost no impact on forest canopy cover or rural livelihoods. A Thread.
These results are pretty disappointing: These plantations failed to achieve their goals. This failure also raises questions about the aims of global restoration and tree planting initiatives: Can they deliver on their ambitions plans?
The full paper is here.… and I will post a link to the author's version (ungated) at my university repository once it is available (in a few hours)
We used a combination of remote sensing, household surveys, and extensive ground-truthing to map over 400 plantations, planted between 1980 and 2017, and measure land cover change and their impacts on livelihoods of 2400 households living near the plantations.
We did this all in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Its beautiful there. Image
On average, there was no change in canopy cover after plantations - even decades after (when we would expect the planted trees to be fully grown - and thus adding to the canopy cover). So at the most basic level, planting trees didn't accomplish an increase in forest cover.
Our paper doesn't delve into why this happened, but based on other work I've done, I think there are 2 reasons: (1) many trees that are planted die quickly. Other studies from the same region report very low survivorship…
And we have another paper under review that shows that many trees are planted in areas where survival prospects aren't good (e.g. rocky south facing slopes that are hot and dry). Perhaps some of these places would naturally be shrub or grassland.
Anecdotally, I can add that when people living near plantations aren't happy with them (e.g. because they infringe on their former grazing land), those plantations seem to be alot more likely to catch fire or get eaten by domestic animals.
(2) Many trees are planted where canopy cover is already dense. That same paper under review shows that this is widespread. This could be a good thing if enrichment plantings aim to improve biodiversity or forest resilience, and maybe some do.
But our data also show that the tree planting shifts species composition towards needle-leaf species - mostly Pinus roxburghii, which while native & easy to grow, supports less biodiversity & livelihood benefits than mixed broadleaf species…
Another paper that I hope to submit soon shows that most plantations are high density (1,100 stems per hectare) which is not exactly consistent with increasing biodiversity or resilience in existing forest stands.
My prior work shows that foresters are under a lot of pressure to plant trees, following a target driven approach, often with little concern with the plantation's outcome.…
So plantations in this landscape failed to achieve the most basic of India's forest restoration goals: improve forest cover. But what about their impact on people?
Qualitative research in the same landscape revealed a lot of concern about negative impacts on livelihoods from tree planting, particularly among pastoralists.…
There is also a lot of good journalistic documentation of land conflicts and displacement caused by forest restoration projects elsewhere in India
The good news is that in his particular landscape, we did not find that negative impacts were widespread. We also didn't find much positive impact from plantations either. This rather neutral finding may be related to the relatively high human development index of our study area
In other words, Kangra is a place where people are not strongly dependent on forests, and thus the potential for changes in forests to have a big impact on people's lives is limited.
In the big picture, our study raises serious questions about India's tree planting and forest restoration programs. Kangra is of course one of hundreds of districts in India, but there are reasons to think its a best-case scenario for tree planting:
The state has a relatively high human development index and a reputation for good delivery of public programs, so we would expect forest programs to be well run. Limited forest dependence might mean less pressure on the forest for subsistence uses (as noted above), and
Kangra also doesn't have a lot of industries that damage forests (e.g. like mining - although hydropower development is a threat).
We haven't seen alot of evaluation of similar programs elsewhere in India, but we think skepticism of Indian tree planting programs is definitely warranted.
As for broader dialogues about forest restoration - e.g. the Bonn Challenge, Forest Landscape Restoration, The UN decade of restoration - our study shows that well resourced forest restoration programs can fail to achieve their goals. We need to be more skeptical of big claims.
In a wonderful commentary on our article, @_rosepritchard points to the importance of paying attention to the social aspects of restoration, which are often ignored.…
We can't do restoration well unless we understand the reasons why people invest in - or resist restoration.
link to my ungated author version now available!
I want to extremely gratefully acknowledge the financial support of @LCLUCProgram and my coauthors @ProfEricColeman @BillSchultzPhD @_vijayramprasad @hfischer_slu @_PushpendraRana @Claudiasayil, Burak Guneralp, Tony Filippi, Andong Ma, Rajesh Rana & Vijay Guleria
(can someone please tag these last 5 if they are on Twitter? I can't seem to find their accounts) as well as a team of energetic field assistants.
Finally, I want to reflect on the process that brought me here. These research questions come out of my doctoral fieldwork. 11 years ago I was wandering around Central India wondering what became of all of those plantations I saw everywhere.
6 years after that I was writing a grant to find an answer to these questions. Its been a long road, and I hope the fact that it took me 11 years to answer my questions (at that in a very small way) gives hope to all those who think big and work to build foundations.

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More from @ForrestFleisch1

14 Sep
2 pieces of advice for writing academic cover letters: (1) your cover letter (and any accompanying statements) is an essay about your accomplishments & agenda. It should have a clear thesis statement & each paragraph should contain a specific piece of supporting information
We all tend to write these things chronologically, or to list off things we've done, but letters that shine instead describe a research (or teaching, or diversity) agenda that is specific, focused, and can be broken down into subcomponents that provide evidence.
(2) show don't tell. I actually got this advice from my high school guidance counselor. If you say "I encourage active learning in my classes" describe specifically how you do this in a class you teach (or plan to teach) using a specific example.
Read 5 tweets
12 Jan
@reddmonitor has a great post summarizing a number of recent articles about "plant for the planet," which raise a host of interesting questions about the potential for tree planting & forest restoration to serve lofty goals.…
I got involved in this because I've done fieldwork in the area where Plant for the Planet's Mexican forests are. I was last there in 2015, so around the same time Plant for the Planet got started there. I can't report direct observations.
Much of @reddmonitor's post is a summary of an excellent piece of journalism by @herrfischer and @hannahknuth which you can read in the original German (or using a translator) here.…
Read 19 tweets
12 Jan
When the lofty goals of forest landscape restoration are put into practice, the rhetoric is replaced by a focus on planting trees, often in places where they don't belong.…
I've had a bunch of arguments with FLR advocates about this. Mostly, they boil down to a believe on the part of FLR advocates that their complex science-based prescriptions will be translated into careful on-the-ground action.
My own observations from S. Asia have always led me to be skeptical of this. Here are a set of similar cases from Africa.
Read 6 tweets
16 Sep 20
These days everyone seems to thinks that "planting trees" is an important solution to the climate crisis. They're mostly wrong, and in this paper we explain why. Instead of planting trees, we need to talk about people managing landscapes. 1/x…
We highlight 10 pitfalls of tree planting, and discuss how a focus on people who manage landscapes will work. 2/x
The first pitfall is that it is ecosystems, not tree planting campaigns, that capture and store carbon. Tree planting campaigns have high failure rates, and many ecosystems with sparse tree cover store large amounts of carbon below the ground - e.g. see… 3
Read 22 tweets

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