What do these diverse entities – PayPal, Capgemini, Cyient Foundation, Vanarai, NMDC, Amrita University – have in common?

You guessed it. Yes, they have all issued press releases informing that they have planted s0-and-so number of saplings, and will keep doing so until such-and-such number is reached.

Which begs the question: is that all there’s to it, more or less? The numbers, that is. Most tree planting-related press releases issued by corporates and NGOs focus almost entirely on the number of trees being, or to be, planted in so-and-so locations. Rarely does the content mention the expected ‘survival rate’ – which necessarily involves the strategy and mechanisms for nurturing, monitoring, and assessing impact, which by the way also means that the planting is preceded by extensive exercises to understand the lay of the land, climate conditions, soil factors, what trees will be best suited given the local conditions, local biodiversity dynamics, and not in the least the equation between the land and the communities who live there (it is absolutely critical that local communities develop a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for the trees planted).

Going by the numbers, budgets, scale of campaigns and media coverage, tree planting is more popular than ever. On the face of it, it’s a simple, straightforward and appealing response to a crisis – or crises, since there is climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, soil erosion, and so on. For corporates and non-profits, it also makes for persuasive messaging – one that stakeholders and the public will readily grasp and empathise with. When one says they are planting a million trees, what’s there to be not impressed about?

That’s one of the things – the numbers (again). For many large-scale tree-planting programmes, the focus is on the number of new trees that end up in the ground, not on planting the right trees in the right places or caring for them after planting to ensure they survive. The numbers can be hugely distracting and somewhat misleading with regard to the eventual impact.

Sure, the fate of a tree-planting programme cannot be clear in the immediate future. Obtaining long-term outcome data on forest cover remains a challenge. Precisely the reason why such programmes must have transparency, monitoring and reporting built into their very design.

Here are some key questions to be clear about and criteria to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of a tree-planting programme.

-What is the goal (forest restoration, biodiversity restoration, carbon sequestration to mitigate global warming, protecting water resources, improving agriculture, generating income)?
-What is the strategy for achieving the desired survival and growth rate for the planted trees?-Who are the stakeholders?
-How are the needs and interests of local communities being addressed? (Involving local communities and getting them on the same page about objectives can go a long way in making the programme successful and sustainable. Not only are local communities best placed to undertake nurturing duties, such work also create employment opportunities and improve livelihoods.)
-Are the locations for the planted trees mapped (as GPS coordinates for each tree, as an area outlined on a map, or some such)? (A benefit to having the specific locations mapped is precise monitoring using high-resolution satellite imagery.)

Fact is better than fiction
In the meantime, let us not get carried away by the numbers game. And by all means, let us call out the hypocrisy of, for example, a mining corporation planting trees. Causing soil erosion on the one hand and saying that you are planting trees to stem soil erosion are mutually exclusive, don’t you think? There’s the irony too, of course.

In January this year, scientists at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the UK pointed out that tree planting was often being presented as an easy response to the climate crisis, and a way out for businesses to excuse their carbon emissions.  

(Read these lines from a press release: ‘The  fruit-bearing trees add to the family income when the produce is sold in the market. Thus, the organisation helps increase green cover, reduces carbon impact, provides income-generation options and mitigates rural migration. The underlying principle is to empower rural families so that they can participate in the growth and development story of the mainstream society.’)

Fact is that the wrong trees in the wrong place can cause considerably more damage than benefits.  

Hence, time to jot down some facts (and thereby clear misconceptions).

-There is no certainty that planting trees on a massive scale will result in more rainfall or lesser soil erosion – for example, if the land is being (mis)used for activities such as sand mining, dam building and real estate development.
-Tampering with existing landscapes, ecosystems and land-use patterns to plant trees will, more likely than not, be self-defeating. For example, planting trees where forests did not historically occur may end up destroying the natural habitats of plants and animal species adapted to open ecosystems.
-Planting non-native trees could cause problems for local species.
-Planting trees without addressing the root causes that brought about forest degradation in the first place is not the best course of action because those root causes may destroy the planted forests as well.
-Reforesting an area with only a single type of species (known as monocultures) might result in ecosystems that won’t function as efficiently as they did before – which means they may not grow the same.
-Reforestation is a promising climate change-mitigation tool, but planting trees is not a substitute for decreasing fossil-fuel emissions.
-The rate at which trees store carbon varies up to 100-fold, depending on factors like climate and soil quality. Whether naturally regrowing forests can do that job better compared to new trees needs greater attention and consideration.

There is a school of thought that tells us that the best way to protect our forests is by protecting the rights of the people who depend on those forests – let there be no encroachment on these lands, and the forests will stand. After all, they have cared for their lands and forests and the biodiversity therein for generations. If at all, efforts should be to empower them.

Restoration ecologists have cautioned that tree planting should not be equated with forest restoration – instead, diverse restoration strategies should be adopted in diverse ecosystems. There are important benefits forests provide, and it’s right that there is a growing effort to reforest the world. Attention to how we are reforesting and replacing existing biodiverse land covers will prove to be as critical as the need to give to our planet what has been robbed of it.

A recent paper – ‘Limited effects of tree planting on forest canopy cover and rural livelihoods in Northern India’, published in September 2021 in Nature Sustainability – suggests that large-scale tree plantings may not improve forest cover or provide livelihood benefits to local people. Based on a study of tree plantings done in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra from 1965 to 2018, the paper claims that the projects actually shifted tree composition from broad-leafed varieties used by local people for fodder and firewood to needle-leaf species which are not as useful.

The researchers used satellite imagery to study two aspects of the plantings: forest canopy cover and forest composition. Forrest Fleischman, associate professor at University of Minnesota and one of the co-authors of the study, suspects that some of the trees may have died quickly because they were planted in poor-quality habitat. Also, farm animals could have destroyed the saplings if they were planted in former grazing lands. Fleischman notes: ‘On average, there was no change in canopy cover after plantations – even decades after (when we would expect the planted trees to be fully grown – and thus adding to the canopy cover). So, at the most basic level, planting trees didn’t accomplish an increase in forest cover.’

Survival rate is the percentage of living saplings against the total saplings planted. After summarising field data (dead/missing and living), survival rate is calculated by dividing the number of living saplings by the total number of seedlings planted, and multiplying the same by hundred.  

Survival rate = Number of living saplings/Number of saplings planted multiplied by 100

What they told CB Impact
So, Team CB Impact, the research and assessments arm of CauseBecause, was tasked with finding the universally accepted methodology to  

  • count the number of saplings planted,
  • assess the survival rate of the planted saplings,
  • assess their average growth rate, and  
  • assess their overall environmental (including CO2 sequestration) and socio-economic impact if any.

Seems quite simple on the face of it, right? But what if the assessment is to be carried out for nearly 4 million saplings planted at over 200-odd locations across the country? If a justifiable minimum sample size of about 30 per cent (which we reached at after consultations with officials at Forest Research Institute and Indian Council of Agricultural Research) is to be considered for assessment, the team would have to go out there to see, touch, and measure not less than 1,200,000 trees – an exercise involving considerable human and capital resource.  

We wondered how those typical planting entities – for and not for profits – were managing such assessments. Of course we wondered. Have they found out a simpler methodology or are they simply talking numbers based on their assumptions? In order to get a handle on the situation, we shot emails to some of the organisations that claimed to have planted millions of trees across India.  

Bikrant Tiwary, CEO of Grow-Trees, the company that claims to have planted over 96 lakh trees with support from corporates and individuals, said: ‘We make a few sample plots (to cover 25% of the plantation) and extrapolate the number from the same. This happens when the project size is in lakhs and scattered in a large area.

‘We count row by row (over 50% sample) when it is planted in a continuous landscape. However, to confirm whether trees were planted or not, we have many more ways to check, like the attendance register of the labours, nursery database, transportation database, etc.

‘The above-mentioned practices are used for our internal audit but external auditors may use their own techniques (not influenced or directed by us).’

Raj Mohan of Sustainable Green Initiative has a different approach. He explains: ‘All our trees are nurtured and managed by local communities and farmers – they are the first stakeholders as well as the beneficiaries of the same. They are the ones who count them for us, mark their locations along with pictures on Google Maps, and keep us updated on the growth and health of the saplings. If an independent assessor has to measure the impact of our plantings, all that s/he has to do is to engage with the community members, who will take them around and introduce them to all the trees, which are their babies.’

On the other hand, three emails and multiple text messages from us to Peepal Baba, or Swami Prem Parivartan (of Give Me Trees Trust), who claims to have planted more than 2 crore trees (highest claim so far by any organisation in the country), did not receive any revert. The team even filled a query form on their website, with no response.

CB Impact methodology to assess large-scale planting under CSR/funded projects

 Step 1: Desk review of available documents

As a first step, a thorough desk review of all available material related to each programme is done. This includes literature provided by company/donor as well as planting partner.  

The documents include:

  1. Baseline survey study/reports  
  2. Project concept notes, implementation framework, project proposals  
  3. Monitoring, internal assessment and past evaluation reports
  4. Funds utilisation certificates from partners
  5. Receipts/bills of sourced saplings
  6. Transport bills or saplings supply/delivery log reports
  7. Receipts/bills for additional resources such as manure and sprays
  8. Maps or geo tags  of locations

This review allows the research team to zero in on the following aspects/key stakeholders for conducting focused interviews and focused group discussions:

    1. Planting locations  
    2. Local communities  
    3. Government officials, panchayat leads, opinion leaders, other community members  

Step 2: Field research – planting sites

The field research for planting will primarily assess:

  1. Species of saplings  
  2. Approximate width and height  
  3. Canopy size
  4. Overall health (if infected or suffers with some infestation/disease)  
  5. Long-term survivability possibility
  6. Other challenges/disadvantages – with regard to, for example, soil quality, climatic conditions, animal fodder, and suchlike
  • Method of assessment of survival rate of saplings planted in rows and columns

For areas where planting is done in less than a hectare of land, the survival rate of saplings is generally measured by manually counting all the living saplings. However, for areas of more than a hectare, the assessment is done by counting the number of saplings planted in the sampled number of rows.

The methodological sampling for conducting the assessment of living saplings/trees is done on the basis of the size of the area where the planting has been done. In areas less than 2 hectares, surviving saplings in every fifth (5th) row are to be counted. In areas more than 2 hectares (20,000 sq. metre), manual counting of every tenth (10th) row is done. The surveyor assesses every sapling planted in the 5th row (10th if area is more than 2 hectares).  

  • Method of assessment of survival rate of saplings where they are ‘not’ planted in rows and columns

If the area is less than one hectare, counting for all the saplings is done by following the simple ‘mark all trees’ technique.  

In a planting area of more than 2 hectares, random sampling is done by dividing the overall area as a virtual graph. Depending upon the size of the area, the surveyors divide the area into virtual plots with virtual rows and columns, and assess every sapling planted in the tenth (10th) row. Assessment is done for every 5th row where the planting is done in a scattered manner.  

For example, if the total planted area is 2 hectares (20,000 square metre) and has dense planting, then the same is divided into 5 virtual plots of about 4,000 metres each, and then further divided into virtual rows (if necessary, lines are drawn on the ground with chalk or limestone powder), of which every 5th row is assessed by the surveyor.

  • Survival rate to be segregated according to species

If the planting consists of more than one species, survival count should be checked species-wise. Hence, apart from the total survival rate, the surveyor also segregates and assesses which species has how much survival rate in which planting area.

Step 3: Assess impact on communities around the planting sites

To assess the benefits of the planting programme for communities living in the vicinity of the planting sites, focused interviews and group discussions are held with community members, panchayat leaders, forest officials, opinion leaders and other relevant stakeholders. This helps in assessing the direct impact of the planting on the communities as well as on the local environment.  

Some aspects that should become clear in course of the exercise are:

      1. Their involvement/role in the planting programme
      2. Their role in monitoring, nurturing and supervising saplings
      3. Involvement and role of panchayats  
      4. Livelihood generation/socio-economic impact on local communities
      5. Opinion on survival rate
      6. Their ideas, suggestions, remarks for future course of action