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Felix Finkbeiner – the public eye doesn’t have to be drawn away from tree planting

Once it was only Felix Finkbeiner child’s dream. Today it is a matter of data, soil chemistry and involving rural communities around the Equator

Felix Finkbeiner and forest restoration

For Felix Finkbeiner, the mission to plant trees must go hand-in-hand with an ecological understanding. Forest restoration strategies range from active planting, with tree planting at regimented spaces throughout an area; to natural regeneration, with the protection of the area and the reseeding, with other planting strategies in between.

«If you intervene, then the question is which species do you select; so that you end up with as much of the biodiversity that would have existed in that place before; whatever destruction event happened there», says Finkbeiner. «There are a lot of these choices in that process where ecological guidance is important». Felix Finkbeiner is the founder of Germany-based tree-planting organization, Plant-for-the-Planet. «When you have a site that you want to restore, the first question you need to answer is which restoration strategy are you going to use. Do you need to plant trees yourself, or can natural regeneration be effective?».

Plant-for-the-Planet’s project 

Based in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, the project boasts a ninety-four percent success rate of trees that progress from germination to mature growth. This comes down to a determination to test and refine planting strategies and discover what is most effective. «There are restoration strategies that we have tested in our project in Yucatan to try to figure out how we can increase our survival rate and growth rates with what we have planted», says Finkbeiner. «One strategy that we are testing right now, is what proportion of the trees we plant are nitrogen fixers». Nitrogen-fixing plants, often legumes, absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and deposit it into the soil; providing an essential nutrient for other vegetation to flourish. However, an overabundance of nitrogen-fixing plants could be damaging. So the team is tracking data to get the number of nitrogen fixers just right.

«What we are testing in our current experiment is to see how we can optimize; in tropical dry forests, the proportion of nitrogen fixers among the total population of trees planted. Do we plant ten percent, thirty percent, or sixty percent nitrogen fixers to optimize the growth? It is not just the nitrogen fixers but of all the trees planted there. There are lots of these ecological questions we are investigating». Testing and the resulting data will help to boost planting success for future projects; both for Plant-for-the-Planet, and other tree-planting organizations.

Lampoon, Increasing Lemur Habitat Connectivity in Ankarafantsika National Park
The program Increasing Lemur Habitat Connectivity in Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar

United Nations Environment Program’s project of planting one billion tree

In 2007, when he was nine years old, Felix Finkbeiner held a class presentation on the climate crisis; ending by saying «Let us plant in each country of Earth a million trees». He shared this presentation in other classes, then schools, and within a few months, the Plant-for-the-Planet foundation was born. In 2011, Plant-for-the-Planet was handed the United Nations Environment Program’s project of planting one billion trees. Plant-for-the-Planet took this task on at a point where it was succeeding. There was room for growth, but the foundation wanted to know what that progress should look like. «We wanted to know how many trees could be planted globally», says Finkbeiner, who was thirteen years old at the time. The Plant-for-the-Planet team searched for an ecologist to help them answer this question; eventually working with Tom Crowther, a postdoc student at the time.

Plant-for-the-Planet partening with Tom Crowther

Tom Crowther and his team decided that to understand how many trees could be planted; they would need to figure out how many trees we have on the planet. The results showed that there are approximately three trillion trees on the planet. With fifty percent of trees lost since the beginning of human civilization. The data was released in Nature journal in 2016, which achieved unexpected media attention; including recognition by natural historian David Attenborough. It was the first step in Plant-for-the-Planet’s mission to quantify how many trees could be planted across the earth; and what difference that could make to the impact of carbon emissions on climate change. 

After the success of the paper, «we worked with Tom to find funding», says Felix Finkbeiner. «So that he could set up a lab dedicated to these global ecological questions. That turned into the Crowther Lab at ETH [in Zurich]». In 2019, the Crowther Lab published a striking estimate. Planting one trillion trees could be one way of solving climate change. The research and resulting awareness produced some high-profile support; including United States President Donald Trump committing to planting trees in the US towards this goal. Coupled with the momentum of the Fridays For Future youth movement, 2019 was a progressive year for worldwide consciousness of the climate crisis.

Deforestation record highs in 2019

Despite the success of the Crowther study, the research received criticism in the media and from other scientists and ecologists. This was in regards of the potential fallout of a gung-ho approach to tree planting without planning and ecological understanding. The world’s attention focused on wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, while at the same time, fires raged throughout the tropics. This resulted in a record loss of tree cover and biodiversity in some of the world’s richest areas of wildlife. According to thinktank Climate Focus, deforestation remained at record highs in 2019. With an area of tree cover the size of the United Kingdom lost each year. As trees are burned and cut down in the tropics, they release carbon emissions equal to the total greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union.

Planting projects closer to the equator

For Plant-for-the-Planet, the way to move forward is to collaborate, both with planting organizations and with scientists. «These projects have some sort of collaboration with academia, for an ecological understanding of the site that you are restoring», says Finkbeiner. Academic collaboration has led Plant-for-the-Planet to pursue planting projects closer to the equator; rather than temperate areas, such as North America, Europe, and most of Asia. «First of all, because these areas tend to have a lot of forests anyway», says Felix Finkbeiner. «Second, a tree in the tropics grows faster than a tree in Germany or Northern Italy, and because of that, a tropical tree will capture a lot more carbon. In addition, planting a tree in Mexico tends to be cheaper than planting a tree in the Pacific Northwest; which is why with the same amount of funding we can end up restoring far more forest».

Rural workers clearing the land before planting

In the Yucatan project, it costs one euro to plant a tree; which covers the labor cost of growing the sapling; clearing the land before planting, and post-planting clearing to ensure grasses do not compete for light with saplings. This job is done by rural workers. «We pay above-average wages for that community. We now employ around 100 people on our site. Meaning that with their entire families about 500 people benefit from the money that we invest there. It contributes to local well-being», says Felix Finkbeiner.

«The majority of reforestation potential is in countries of the global south around the equator; where we need to spend a lot of money in reforestation. Since it is so labor-intensive, it means that this money is spread across a community of people and creates jobs in local communities». For instance, tree planting costs vary between projects, states Felix Finkbeiner. «There are some organizations that focus on planting trees in high altitudes; like a partner project of ours in the Andes in South America, that have higher costs».

Lampoon, The Yucatan project
The Yucatan project, a reforestation area

Plant-For-The-Planet app 

Plant-for-the-Planet’s data-driven approach was a key driver in the development of an app, launched in September 2019. It hosts the United Nations Environmental Program world tree counter. It also provides data-tracking software for all other tree planting programs that use it. Until now, there has not been a model for tracking where trees are planted; what methods are used; and what level of success planters are having. There is also no reliable data on tree survival rates across projects. However Finkbeiner describes how survival rates can vary between twenty percent and the low ninety percent range. «A lot of tree planting organizations do not do a great job at collecting data about their projects», says Felix Finkbeiner.

«It can be tedious to collect this data and to go back and set up plots; to have an understanding of the impact of your work. One of the things that we are doing with the Plant-For-The-Planet app is creating a tool that the tree planters on the ground can use without any expert knowledge or training; with their own phone to collect sample data on some of the trees they have planted. Our goal is to make it easier for them to showcase the impact of their work. To then increase the willingness of people to fund their work».

Felix Finkbeiner’s vision is that the Plant-For-The-Planet app can provide a place for projects to register their work and share data. «For each project, you will see where they plant; what the average tree costs there; and a lot of other information, and you can donate to this project. As a consequence, we at Plant-For-The-Planet do not take any of the money. However 100% of the money goes from you to that tree planting organization».

Say Trees in Bangalore

This open-source app provides a way for donors to connect with projects that would otherwise have been too obscure to donate to. Finkbeiner shared the story of Say Trees in Bangalore. «A lot of these organizations that do work on the ground are not good at fundraising internationally», says Felix Finkbeiner. Only donors in India can receive a tax receipt for their money sent. In addition it can be difficult and expensive to send money internationally. Through the Plant-for-the-Planet app, donors from around the world can access Say Trees and donate with low transaction costs. Soon, all donations through the Plant-for-the-Planet app will be tax-deductible for donors from around the world. To concluse, Say Trees represent one of thousands of organizations that would benefit from collaboration with the Plant-for-the-Planet app.

Plant-For-The-Planet

Felix Finkbeiner has journeyed with Plant-For-The-Planet as its influence has grown in Germany, Europe, and now worldwide. He is driven to move forward: train children in more countries as climate activists, plant trees, employ workers, reach decision-makers, support planting projects. In the face of this enthusiasm, and the momentum of climate crisis awareness built during 2019, the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 threatens to slow this progress.

Finkbeiner shared his hopes that the public eye would not be drawn away from the mission of tree planting to fight the climate crisis. The Plant-for-the-Planet tree counter shows that over 13.6 billion trees have been planted to date, but in order to meet the trillion tree goal, it is essential that support for the cause keeps growing. Perhaps equally important is the increased collaboration of tree planting projects, in order to meet their common goals, «To get towards that goal of a trillion trees, we at Plant-for-the-Planet will not be able to plant these trees ourselves. We will be more effective if we help other tree-planting organizations scale up their work as well», says Finkbeiner.

Felix Finkbeiner

A German environmentalist and the founder of the international tree-planting and environmental advocacy organization Plant-For-The-Planet.

Alice Clarke

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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