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Thursday, 17th June 2021

Planting for the Future: SEED’s Long-term Commitment to Reforestation

By Sam Ambler

Scientists say that reforestation is a top climate change solution, but how can you know if these reforestation projects are having a real positive impact on both the climate and the local environment in which these trees are planted? In this blog, we take a look at the development of Project Ala’s (‘forest’ in Malagasy) long term goals and how reforestation isn’t just about the now, but is a long-term responsibility delivered through careful planning, implementation and monitoring.

The author Nelson Henderson said that ‘the true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit’ and this is certainly the philosophy that underpins Project Ala, SEED’s reforestation project based in Sainte Luce.

Reforestation is achieved over decades and has two main stages: the first, an initial ‘establishment’ phase which Ala is currently in and then, a longer ‘building’ phase. For Ala, this initial establishment phase involves our team building a solid understanding of the ecological form of the land. This process includes studying the different habitat types, ground cover species present in the area, and their potential invasiveness. For example, grasses are some of the world's most invasive species which compete with young seedlings for light, water and soil nutrients. When given the chance these grasses will out-compete seedlings by growing and in-taking these elements extremely quickly. By ensuring a thorough establishment phase, the Project Ala team is able to put a plan into action to avoid these threats and give seedlings the best possible chance at life!

Within the establishment phase, pioneer and fast-growing tree species are planted to both aid in shading out invasive weeds and to develop a protective canopy for the slower growing, more shade-tolerant species to establish in the corridor. For Ala, pioneer species, such as the non-native Acacia mangium, were not only used as they are fast growing, but also as they have the potential to fix nitrogen into the nutrient-deficient soils of overused or abandoned arable lands between the forest remnants.

C4_ 1 Year Comparison.png
Corridor four one year after planting of the Acacia mangium

Project Ala’s reforestation efforts in Sainte Luce are targeted towards the use of native tree species which are adapted to this environment and are specifically chosen because of their use by lemur species for resting and feeding. A combination of data on existing lemur habitat use and the abundance of tree species  was used to help develop a corridor reforestation plan that benefits both our target Endangered lemur species, along with other species which will use the corridors to cross between the fragments of forest. Ala is a small-scale project, both in terms of the area covered and the number of trees planted, compared to other corridor reforestation projects in Madagascar.  As it is small, the team are able to monitor all of the trees, replant where necessary, and monitor weed growth throughout the growing season. This level of after-care ensures the initial establishment and subsequent growth of the pioneer species in this phase which ultimately helps to speed up canopy formation, necessary to plant the native species.

Hoby, SCRP’s team leader, collecting data on survival rates in corridor one

SEED’s approach in Ala also differs from other large-scale reforestation projects, as we have a targeted approach to reforestation implementation, working closely on the ground with land-owners. This is done through a balance between the suitability of an area which will benefit from tree planting, where tree planting will not affect the natural function of a given habitat, and the availability of land needed for reconnection. Ala also ensures that the monitoring of corridor survival and growth and the creation of long-term strategies for sustainability are put in place for an effective and holistic response to conservation, instead of focusing solely on the number of trees planted.

Reforestation is a long-term process with the long-term aim to create a functioning ecosystem. However, many reforestation projects only report on short-term indicators such as the number of trees planted and ignore the more challenging and longer term indicators of survival and growth rates or tree species diversity. To make real impactful change, a change in focus and reporting is needed on long-term growth and maturation stages, environmental and socio-economic successes.

A view of corridor four connecting to remnant four
A view of corridor four connecting to remnant four

Right now, we are at the stage of planting trees, but the big question is: What is next? How to protect those young trees, so we don’t plant them in January and then destroy them in July? If the authorities do not have a clear and efficient strategy to fight against deforestation and fires, then Madagascar won’t return to forests

Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Head of Groupe d’Étude et de Recherche sur les Primates (GERP)

Long-term monitoring is needed in order to understand the successes and failures at each stage of reforestation. Along with the limitations of the techniques and methods implemented, it is important to have the time to use all of these learnings to continually adapt and create a more successful project. Transparency within this monitoring is a signal that an organisation is aware of the complexities involved in a successful reforestation project. By creating the capacity to monitor project development and report on results, they are ensuring that reforestation is not thought of simply in terms of this initial establishment phase only.

SEED’s SCRP team on a herpetofauna transect in S8

There is not a simple, one-size-fits-all way to restore forests, but scientists have found that projects that use a localised approach on an individual forest or community level have greater successes than those that don’t. Finding a balance between the needs of the environment for restoration, biodiversity and those of the community is key. Measures of success will also differ throughout the different phases of reforestation and between projects, depending on the goals that the project is aiming to achieve. SEED has created a five-year Conservation Programme Strategy and a 10 to 15year Forest Conservation Programme Strategy which have helped to build a long-term locally led, holistic and adaptive programme for the conservation and restoration of the Sainte Luce Littoral Forests (SLLF). These strategies have helped shape Ala Phase II by setting achievable goals for the next three years. Phase II has been developed to help to continue to grow SEED’s reforestation efforts and strengthen its vital research, by working together with key stakeholders and the local community in Sainte Luce. Research which monitors the progress of such reforestation efforts has been reviewed and will continue in Phase II with increases in the amount of transects needed for lemur encounters, but to also now understand forest resource uses and community needs. During Phase II, we will see progression from the initial ‘establishment’ phase, which saw the successful establishment of pioneer species Acacia mangium, to a greater ‘building’ phase, with the Acacia forming a canopy, the establishment of native species and the decrease in fast growing, invasive ground cover.

Over the coming years Project Ala will continue to monitor, learn, adapt and through the dissemination of reports, learning and research, add to the growing body of knowledge on reforestation in Madagascar.

Reports can be found on our website, along with progress reports for Phase I.