That many countries have lost their forest cover as they developed is entirely true. That those which have developed have regained it is also true – the US now most certainly has more forest cover than it did in the 1920s – the low point in the development process and arguably more than it did in the 1300s, before the arrival of Europeans.
The process being that inefficient agriculture requires a lot of land, efficient much less. So, as agriculture becomes more efficient – one of those definitions of development itself – then less land is needed for such agriculture. And so the abandoned land grows trees just by being abandoned. Those New England forests peeps go to gawp at in the autumn are all new growth, none (OK, few) of them were there in the 1920s.
Ethiopia is hoping to kick start this process and little wrong with that. Significant problems can indeed come through erosion and the fast runoff of water and planting trees can alleviate some to most of them. However:
In an unparalleled move to go greener, Ethiopia is intent on marking a new world record by planting 200 million seedlings on a single day. The tree-planting campaign is part of the Ethiopian government’s ambitious initiative, to plant four billion trees before the end of the rainy season. Kicking starting the effort on May 26, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dubbed the project “Green Legacy”. So far, India holds the world record for most trees planted in a single day, which stands at 49.3 million. This record was set on July 11, 2016. Ethiopia, before dusk today, is on the move to set a new record, staggeringly quadrupling this amount. The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture on Friday announced 200 million tree seedlings have been successfully distributed throughout the country to make today’s tree planting move a success. Most of the trees to be planted are indigenous species, the ministry noted.
As a bit of a gee up to kick start the process then why not? A bit of PR behind a good idea doesn’t hurt. But is the larger plan actually a good idea?
The Green Legacy project is a national project that aims to see four billion trees planted, with an expectation for every Ethiopian to plant a minimum of 40 trees. So far, in the last few months, over 2.6 billion trees have been planted. This amounts to 60 percent of the Green Legacy target.
You see, the actual desired outcome isn’t to have 4 billion trees panted. It’s to have, in some years, 3 or 3.5 billion actual trees. And planting 4 billion now under some form of near compulsion doesn’t guarantee that, not by any means. Nor, of course, is it necessarily going to lead to their being in the right places.
What this reminds of is Mao’s idea that China should become self-sufficient in steel. So, every back yard was turned into a steel plant, melting down extant steel in order to meet the targets. This was not a success – almost all produced was valueless and not worth using for anything at all. But the target had been met!
Or, as we put it more colloquially, tractor production targets aren’t the point – being able to plough the fields is.
Rather a better manner of regrowing Ethiopia’s forests would be to cordon off the desired areas from the goats and just wait. That is, after all, what created those New England ones we all go gawp at.