Rebuilding Forests Help Climate, Habitats

20 October, 2019

Forests can be destroyed quickly. Regrowth happens much, much slower.

But around the world, people are working to help it happen.

In the Peruvian Amazon, illegal gold mining damaged forests and poisoned the ground. Now scientists work to change this wasteland back to wilderness.

Aerial view over an area deforested by illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios province of Peru, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019
Aerial view over an area deforested by illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios province of Peru, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019

Almost 5,000 kilometers north are former coal mining lands across Appalachia, in the American state of West Virginia. Workers there tear out old trees that never put down deep roots. They make the soil better so native trees can grow there once more.

In Brazil, a plant business owner grows different kinds of young plants to help reconnect forests along the country's Atlantic coast. Such efforts also help endangered animals, like the golden lion tamarin.

Rebuilding woodland requires patience. It can take several decades or longer for forests to regrow as true habitats.

"Planting a tree is only one step in the process," says Christopher Barton. He is professor of forest hydrology at the University of Kentuckty's Appalachian Center.

And yet, there is urgency to that work. Forests are one of the planet's first lines of defense against climate change. They collect as much as 25 percent of manmade carbon released into the air each year.

Trees and other plants use carbon dioxide, water and sunlight to produce chemical energy to fuel their growth. They then release oxygen. As forests have shrunk, however, so has Earth's ability to deal with carbon releases.

Successful reforestation programs pay attention to native plants. They are also overseen by groups with a proven commitment to monitoring forests -- not just for tree-planting events that happen only once. And, successful programs help people living nearby. They may create jobs or reduce the effects of erosion, which may damage crops and homes.

The effects of reforestation could be great. A recent study in the publication Science reported that if around 500 billion young trees were planted, they could take in 205 gigatonnes of carbon once they were fully grown.

The Swiss researchers who carried out the study estimated this is equal to about two-thirds of manmade carbon emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Other scientists have disagreed with those numbers. And, some fear that mass tree-planting events will be seen as an easy solution to climate change. This could prevent people from looking for other needed action.

But all agree that trees matter – a lot.

In southeastern Peru, forestry researcher Jhon Farfan works in the Amazon to reforest old gold mines. He inspects lands where the forest has already been lost to illegal mining. The mining activity was fueled by the major increase in gold prices following the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. The gold mining left the land poisoned.

Since the project began three years ago, the team has planted more than 42 hectares of native trees. It is the largest reforestation effort in the Peruvian Amazon to date.

In the United States, activists deal with poor past attempts to heal the land after mining. Heavy machines had pushed soil into West Virginia's Cheat Mountain in the 1980s. The soil was packed so hard that tree roots could not expand.

The non-profit Green Forest Work is working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore native Appalachian forests. They do this by tearing down other trees in a process called "deep ripping."

In Brazil, a woman named Dona Graça runs a tree nursery that grows seedlings of species native to the country's Atlantic coastal rainforest. Local replanting efforts often use her seedlings. They aim to reconnect broken pieces of forest.

Dona Graça says she is angry at what has happened to the coastal forest, which has shrunk as Rio de Janeiro and other cities have expanded.

She raises many kinds of rare, native trees from seed. She does this, she says, for future generations.

"In the future when I pass away ... that memory I tried to leave for the people is: It's worth it to plant, to build," she said.

I'm Anne Ball.

The Associated Press reported this story. Anne Ball adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

habitat – n. the place or type of place where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows

hydrology – n. the part of science concerning the properties of the earth's water, and especially its movement in relation to the land

erosion – n. the gradual destruction of something by natural forces (such as water, wind, or ice): the process by which something is eroded or worn away

biomes – n. a biological community that has formed in response to a shared physical climate; can include more than one habitat