• Trees do a lot more for us than you probably think. Their roots prevent soil from eroding, their canopies provide shade and their leaves decompose into nutrients for crops, which feed livestock. Trees provide homes for a diverse range of wildlife and tree crops, such as coffee, rubber, and hardwoods, support countless livelihoods and entire economies. Trees also mark boundaries and hold immense spiritual, cultural and social value for smallholder communities around the world.

  • It’s now over 50 years since the world was first warned that resources were being used at an unsustainable rate. It has now been estimated that almost one quarter to one third of the world’s land is degraded to some extent.

  • Through the cacophony of the UN’s global climate talks, an Australian farmer is quietly spreading his plan to reforest the world.

  • Hundreds of rows of giant bamboo grow about an hour outside of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. It’s an unexpected sight—Malawi has lost nearly 10 percent of its forests since 2001, and bamboo isn’t even native to the country. But that’s exactly the reason Grant Blumrick knew he had to start the AfriBam giant bamboo farm.

  • In the 2015 Paris climate agreement, 195 nations committed to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. But some, like Eelco Rohling, professor of ocean and climate change at the Australian National University’s research school of earth sciences, now argue that this target cannot be achieved unless ways to remove huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are found, and emissions are slashed.

  • I was shocked to read about the sudden closure of a well-known luxury safari operation in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. My dismay was not only because I personally know the owners of this wonderful operation and know what a terrible blow this must be to them.

  • A black beetle the size of a sesame seed is killing South Africa’s trees, and no one knows how to stop it. After arriving from Southeast Asia about four years ago, the polyphagous shot-hole borer has spread a thousand miles across South Africa, from the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, where it was discovered in 2017, to indigenous forests on the west coast near Cape Town. An unwelcome side effect of globalization, the pest is believed to have arrived along with wood pellets on a ship.

  • If a tree falls in the forest, will another replace it?

    Of the roughly 3 million square kilometers of forest lost worldwide from 2001 to 2015, a new analysis suggests that 27 percent of that loss was permanent — the result of land being converted for industrial agriculture to meet global demand for products such as soy, timber, beef and palm oil.

  • On this new global map, huge swaths of land are dotted in green pixels. These are the areas that could potentially be recovered with forests that have disappeared, according to a new study—and in total, could help capture as much as two-thirds of the carbon that humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

  • The land to the north of the village of Foros de Vale Figueira in southern Portugal has been owned and farmed through the centuries by Romans, Moors, Christians, capitalists, far rightists, even the military. It has been part of a private fiefdom, worked by slaves as well as communists.

  • Tree planting has been widely promoted as a solution to climate change, because plants absorb the climate-warming gases from Earth’s atmosphere as they grow.

  • There are two important answers to the question “why do we need more trees in farmland?” One is global and one is local.

    Globally, trees are often recognized as the ‘lungs of the world’ because they exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. However, this is an understatement. If we think in these terms, trees are also the kidneys of the world as they regulate the flow and use of water by intercepting rain and releasing it slowly to the ground where it can either run off into rivers, or enter the groundwater. Plants can then absorb it for use in photosynthesis. This absorbed water is then transpired back to the atmosphere and blown on the wind until it falls as rain somewhere else.

    Similarly, trees are like the intestines of the world exchanging nutrients between the soil and the vegetation, fueling the nutrient and carbon cycle.

    Finally, they are like the heart of the world, as they drive the ecosystems that make the world healthy and function properly. They do this by providing a very large number of niches for other organisms to inhabit, both above and below ground. Recent evidence has reported 2.3 million organisms on a single tree – mostly microbes – but also numerous insects and even bigger animals like mammals and birds. Others also live in the soil or, due to the microclimates created by the physical stature of the tree, on the associated herbs and bushes. It is all these organisms that provide the ecological services of soil formation and nutrient recycling, feeding off each other and creating an intricate web of food chains.

    All this is important for the maintenance of nature’s balance that prevents weed, pest, and disease explosions. They also provide services like pollination, essential for the regeneration of most plants, not to mention the very topical regulation of carbon storage essential for climate control.

    Cacao agroforest with fruit tree shade. Photo courtesy of Roger Leakey.At the local level, in addition to these ‘bodily functions,’ trees produce a wide range of products useful to us, and are often traded in local markets. There are literally tens of thousands of trees that produce edible and/or useful products – sources of items of day-to-day importance for us. So, we can also think of trees as shops, civic services, and industries. Thinking in this way, a treed landscape becomes similar to a town made up of supermarkets full of everyday needs; a bank providing annual interest on investment; a drug store or health clinic for medicines; a water tower; an art gallery; a zoo full of wildlife; a guardian of culture like a museum; a hotel providing rest for migrants; a tourist center for over-wintering or summer breeding habitat; a nightclub for nocturnal creatures; factories for fertilizers, pesticides and drugs; an energy provider, and even a skyscraper affecting the flow of wind around the other buildings.

    Using this analogy, we can see that by destroying trees we destroy facilities and functions important for life. Conversely, by planting trees we can multiply the products and services we need for a ‘good life’ in many different ways. In some places, trees are grown in large monoculture plantations, replicating the concept of a housing estate or industrial complex. This can be very productive but isn’t necessarily good for the environment. Alternatively, they can be grown at different densities and in different species configurations and for different products in association with food crops, livestock and cash crops.

    This mixed cropping is known as ‘agroforestry’, a farming system which thrives off diversity and maximizes the availability of all the different benefits of trees and their services. In this way, agroforestry is highly beneficial to us – Homo sapiens – a dominant species in this agroecosystem. Agroforestry harnesses numerous environmental, social and economic benefits for our complex lifestyles.

    This is especially important in the tropics and sub-tropics where poverty-stricken subsistence farmers struggle to feed their families and scratch a living off highly degraded land. In this situation, it can be described as hunger busting since it can improve food crop yields on exhausted soils; farmer-friendly as it has numerous social benefits including enhanced livelihoods; wildlife-friendly as it provides habitat; climate friendly as it mitigates climate change and controls water flows; wealth-promoting by producing marketable products for businesses and industries, and health-giving by producing nutritious and medicinal products. So, we could create a new, green, and much more sustainable economy.

    Looking to the future, there are easily enough useful tree species for agroforestry to play all of the above roles in any corner of the inhabited world, very few of which have been cultivated to date. Interestingly, each of these species contains inherent 3- to 10-fold genetic variability at any one site, so it is easy to find and propagate individual trees that display an infinite number of useful and marketable traits suitable for a new array of businesses and industries.

    However, we have hardly begun to identify the economic possibilities and need to do much more to explore all this potential. Maybe if we pursue this line of thinking, we can create useful and environmentally healthy rural landscapes which are as diverse as their urban counterparts, and create win–win–win scenarios combining better land husbandry, social empowerment, and income generation. I believe agroforestry has a bright future, but we need to learn how to manage this resource so that all people can share the benefits in harmony.

    I hope this colloquial expression of the value of trees explains why agroforestry is becoming increasingly recognized as being critical if we are to manage our planet sustainably. This is particularly vital where currently the land has been deforested and degraded because trees are considered to get in the way of modern mechanized agriculture, in which monocultures are the order of the day.

    Roger Leakey is Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation, Vice President of the International Society of Tropical Foresters, and is author of “Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture” (2012) and “Multifunctional Agriculture – Achieving Sustainable Development in Africa.” Learn more about his work at

  • Trees’ services to this planet range from carbon storage and soil conservation to water cycle regulation. They support natural and human food systems and provide homes for countless species – including us, through building materials.

  • In recent years, climate change has loomed like a dark specter over the globe, contributing to everything from gentrification in Miami to refugees fleeing drought and crop shortages in Guatemala.

  • For thousands of years, trees and humans have maintained an intimate connection. It’s therefore not surprising that many tree species were moved around the world, following the footprints of human civilisation.

  • The amount of material consumed by humanity has passed 100bn tonnes every year, a report has revealed, but the proportion being recycled is falling.

  • To have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, society needs to reach net-zero emissions by 2050—meaning that if we can’t transition to an emissions-free economy by that time, we’ll need to find ways to remove everything we’re still pumping into the atmosphere.

  • More than two years have passed since the detection of what is arguably the most damaging tree pest ever to arrive in South Africa: the polyphagous shot hole borer (Euwallacea fornicatus). The beetle kills trees and there are no proven remedies.



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