The Human Side Of Tree Planting Initiatives

Published on:
by Eric Burdon
KnowESG Tree Planting Initiatives , Reforestation
KnowESG Reforestation

Companies and governments today are hellbent on tree-planting initiatives as a quick solution to climate change. The logic on the surface seems sound and simple enough, replace the emissions of a flight - or other CO2-generating activity - with several trees planted somewhere else. Or, maybe your local community or government started an initiative to begin planting trees. 

As heartwarming and convenient as these solutions might be, the average person can figure out quickly that these solutions aren’t effective at all. This is on top of anyone believing these initiatives are very effective and are only fooling themselves.

Tree planting is obviously needed and helpful, however, there are many issues that these initiatives run into. First, if any company is only planting trees and not trying to reduce emissions to net zero, they’re greenwashing. Second is oversight, as many initiatives and government projects have historically planted trees and have failed to conduct follow-up assessments. The third element is whether the people who live in planting areas even want them in the first place.

The last one is a bit odd because any person would think: 

“These are trees. We need trees and it helps the environment. Who would ever turn down tree planting initiatives?”

And it’s here we run into the very human problem that needs to be addressed.

You’d Think It’d Be Easy

A prime example of resistance against planting initiatives was in 2014 in Detroit. Back in 1989, a local environmental nonprofit called The Greening of Detroit (TGD) was formed where the goal was in the name. In 2014, green initiatives began picking up and, in the case of Detroit, these initiatives focussed on black and brown communities.

At the time, they thought it would be easy. TGD would offer tree planting and people would gather and want to join in. But as TGD, fuelled by massive funding and a plan to plant 1,000 to 5,000 trees per year, found out, their goals would become an uphill battle.

The tree planters were met with stiff resistance. This is on top of a quarter of the 7,500 residents approached who declined to have new trees planted in front of their homes.

The behaviour was enough to catch the attention of Christine E. Carmichael, a researcher at the University of Vermont, who interviewed several residents and published her findings in 2019. The findings showed that people were fully aware of the benefits of having trees in the area.

However, their refusal stemmed from their own historical understanding of how the city has treated trees. With a tinge of racial tension, several residents recalled moments in Detroit history when they had beautiful elm trees being cut down.

In 1967 there was a race riot in Detroit and it was shortly after that the city began cutting down trees in the area. To some residents at the time, they thought this was a way for law enforcement to surveil them better to prevent another uprising.

The reality was the cut downs were a result of stopping the spread of the Dutch elm disease, then surging across the entire country in a devastating wave.

Even though the narratives are twisted, TGD simply faced a large number of people who saw their tree-planting effort in a much different light than those who sanctioned the tree-planting. To those who refused, it looks as if the city cut down those trees decades ago and is finally coming back to plant trees and expects the residents to maintain them.

But There Was No Public Involvement

Distrust in the city can be repaired over time. If the city of Detroit put more investment in black communities, things might’ve gone differently. However, the city isn’t entirely to blame in this situation. TGD is also responsible to some extent, both in the organisation and its planning.

In the organisation portion, TGD had around 50,000 volunteers. The problem was most of them were white and had never been to Detroit until then. Beyond that, they only had a single community outreach person on staff. That one individual didn’t bother to involve the community or plan an urban-forestry programme.

And that was pretty crucial given the magnitude of the project of planting 1,000 to 5,000 trees each year.

I don’t blame the one person for not being able to meet that demand, however, TGD should’ve known in advance they would’ve needed a larger team to plan and do outreach. Beyond that, the fact the staff had few people of colour and weren’t familiar with the area further reinforces that narrative mentioned above.

In the case of planning, that too was lacking. It amounted to a yes or no question and any further details were provided through vague pieces of information and community meetings.

If the resident said yes to tree planting, TGD would decide where to plant the tree, and what species it was. TGD also provided maintenance for three years, but they stressed that in community meetings.

All in all, what the residents were faced with was another majority-white organisation coming into black and brown communities in America and planting a bunch of trees and expecting the residents to look after them.

What TGD was actually dealing with was a race and class issue all revolving around trees. And they failed miserably.

Tree Planting Needs To Begin With Common Ground

When we think of tree planting, we often think of less developed areas and those to run into similar issues. If you’re planting trees around villages that do a lot of foraging, they’ll cut those trees down for firewood.

Or maybe there aren’t many trees in a particular area due to terrible weather around that region. In the case of urban areas and developed countries, people need to be thinking beyond environmental justice. No one in their right mind would stop tree planting as everyone knows pollution is bad and forestry projects are good.

However, these areas have a deep history and there is a distribution of power that needs to be addressed. This is especially the case in America where racial tensions are high.

In the case of Detroit, 83 percent of the population was African-American, and yet they had the highest concentrated poverty amongst the top 25 metros. The city was going bankrupt just as the tree project was starting. 

So it’s not much of a surprise why many residents turned the offer down when a city that was near bankrupt was now going around asking its residents whether they want more trees or not.

What this shows is a lack of common ground. It shows that the city is doing whatever it wants even though these things would’ve been planned months ago. The first step with any kind of plan or initiative is to be spending time in the areas where you want to be making an impact.

TGD learned that in 2014 with the trees they did manage to plant. Even though they were allowed to, the people in the area voiced concerns. This is on top of Detroit's historically poor maintenance record due to not having enough people to prune trees or cut down dead ones.

Want More Support? Make People Feel Included

The reason carbon offsetting programmes work so well is that they’re mindless solutions to our current growing problem. In reality, many of these are distractions that we choose to follow because the actual solutions require more thought. And I don’t blame people.

But we do need to accept the fact that these plans are greenwashing, or at the very least a band-aid solution. Companies need to stop treating these initiatives as simple and convenient solutions. Instead, they need to find a way to get their customers on board along with the communities they’re getting involved with.

And if they can’t do that, then it’s better for someone else to take over the tree planting and community outreach instead.

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