Taking Root’s social reforestation program design recognizes how much carbon is present at the forest landscape level, not just within individual trees. While perhaps counterintuitive, selectively harvesting trees actually creates room for the remaining trees to grow bigger, sequestering more carbon over time. These harvests also provide a sustainable source of income from forest products for participating smallholder farmers, encouraging project participation.
How are the trees sequestering carbon in the long run if you’re cutting them down?
Wood is made up of approximately 50% carbon by dry weight, so when trees grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their woody tissue. So, when a tree decomposes or burns, that same carbon is released back into the atmosphere. While the long-term carbon balance of that individual tree may be zero, it’s important to see the forest for the trees and think from a landscape perspective. This means considering the amount of carbon sequestered in the entire landscape over time, and not just in each individual tree.
Working from a landscape level
Taking Root’s reforestation projects are designed to optimize long-term carbon sequestration while providing smallholder farmers financial incentives in the short, medium and long run. Without these incentives, smallholders face continuous pressure to clear the forest for other more lucrative land-use activities. This is how the project sustainably manages the forest while optimizing long-run carbon sequestration over the long run:
1. Smallholders begin by planting a well-designed, high-density mixture of native tree species on land with little forest cover, meaning that the area starts off with very little carbon. Some tree species are fast growing but will never become large trees, and other species are slow growing at first but, if allowed the time to grow, will eventually become large trees.
Above: At stage 1, new trees are planted and no carbon has been sequestered.
2. As the trees grow, they remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their plant tissue. Because the trees are planted at a high density, the faster growing trees start crowding out the slower growing trees, closing the forest canopy and blocking the light for the smaller trees.
Above: At stage 2, faster growing species begin to crowd out slower growing trees, and some carbon has been sequestered.
3. Smallholders are then able to remove some of the faster growing trees, which provides them with a merchantable harvest. By removing some faster-growing trees, the slower growing trees can access the light and get larger, and new seedlings can naturally regenerate on the forest floor.
Above: At stage 3, some of the faster-growing trees are harvested and replanted, making room for the slower-growing trees to reach the light. Some carbon is removed from the area.
While this harvest results in a small decline in sequestered carbon, the total amount of carbon in the forest eventually exceeds what was there before the harvest. This is because the remaining trees have the room to grow much bigger then when they were so crowded. At this stage, the plantation looks more and more like a forest due to the variety of trees species, tree ages, and diversity in the stand’s canopy structure.
4. As the growth rate of the forest stand starts slowing down, smallholders can make periodic harvests and replanting the trees. This way the forest stays productive and smallholders can continuously receive revenues from keeping a forest on a portion of their farm.
Above: At stage 4, the slower-growing trees are much bigger now. Additional faster growing trees are harvested and replanted and overall carbon sequestered continues to rise.
The forest now looks more like a native forest due to the great diversity in tree species, canopy structure, tree sizes and ages. This diversity is attractive to many other local plant and animal species, greatly increasing overall biodiversity.
To create incentive for farmers to plant and maintain these forests, Taking Root is developing local markets. Read about two of our pilot projects.