Save Our Wilderness: uMfolozi Municipality Spatial Development Framework Indicates Mining at Fuleni by iButho Coal Taken as Given

6 September 2019; Originally published by Save Our Wilderness on 5 September (link here).

Picture credit and additional information: Map 18: Mining Areas indicates that the most potential mining land within the municipality is along the coast where most of the illegal and legal mining activities occur. Furthermore, the far western portion of the municipality, (within wards 17, 12 and 13) is dominated by coal mining activities. Currently iButho Coal mining has undergone negotiations to propose an open cast mine on the boundary of iMfolozi Wilderness Area.

The final Spatial Development Framework for the uMfolozi Municipality has been released. 

The uMfolozi Municipality stretches from the southern borders of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park to the coast. Map 18 on mining areas shows the area identified for coal mining running along the southern border of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

Especially problematic is the following paragraph, from page 102 of the Spatial Development Framework:

The Fuleni area consists of large exploitable anthracite deposits which fall under the Fuleni Coal Mine project by iButho Coal. iButho Coal has undertaken an environmental assessment as part of the pre-feasibility study, and are still set to conduct further environmental assessments once they attain the mining licence for the area. In order for the mining operations to commence, one river will be blocked for the use of the mine and certain households will be relocated for safety reasons.

[Italics added for emphasis]

It is clear that the Municipality has endorsed iButho Coal’s mining application even though the Department of Mineral Resources had rejected iButho Coal’s application on grounds that they cannot adequately mitigate the impacts their mine would have on the iMfolozi Wilderness area.

iButho Coal is currently appealing this decision.


Call to Action:

Make a difference! Donate below or become involved, on our You Versus page here.

The Crowd vs. Destructive Mining in Zululand

Coal companies and the South African government have to stop with coal mining that puts Zululand and its people in danger and threatens the world’s greatest concentration of rhinos in the wilderness area of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve.  Read more …

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Evidence Transnational Campaigns on Human Rights Can Really Work

Originally published 20 August 2019 in Business & Human Rights Resource Centre; Author: Bama Athreya, Fellow at Open Society Foundations & an advisor to C&A Foundation

A recent study finds that global campaigns on labour rights work – but need continued support to bring about real change. 

Human rights advocates have worked across borders to pressure global corporations and others for many years – but it’s hard to measure results. Is there evidence that transnational campaigns actually work? I recently had the opportunity to work with USAID and a team of independent researchers to review the evidence and consider this question.

The report – led by Dr Marissa Brookes of U-C Riverside – focused on global labour campaigns targeting transnational companies and industries. Dr Brookes has been compiling a database on such campaigns for many years. In addition to summarizing the literature more generally, the review took an in-depth look at four campaigns, each in a very different country and focused on a very different industry.

The four cases were Raffles Hotel in CambodiaRussell Athletic in HondurasBridgestone-Firestone tire company in Liberia, and the cut flower industry in Colombia. Importantly, we were able to examine evidence about the long-term effects of these campaigns in the years since they were initiated.

We convened an experts’ discussion on July 24 to discuss the findings with leading advocates, academics and donors, including some who had been directly active in at least one of the four campaigns. We were even able to include Edwin Cisco, a Liberian labour leader who was one of the initiators of the Firestone/Liberia campaign. 

Top take-aways from this discussion, as follows, may be relevant for advocates everywhere:

All transnationalism is local. Local grassroots actors – representing workers and communities and their demands – must be at the centre of effective campaigns. Without a strong and legitimate local voice, there cannot be lasting change. For example, in Cambodia hotel workers have protected gains over many years because they were able to build power locally.  In contrast, in Colombia flower workers still struggle to maintain small wins.

But sometimes local is transnational. It used to be that campaigns feared companies would shift production to avoid organizing drives in a ‘race to the bottom’. But the new race to the bottom is not the movement of production, it’s the movement of workers. Increasingly, migrant workers are taking over industries with hard-fought gains, such as the Malaysian electronics sector. Therefore transnational organizing of migrants needs to be elevated, and campaigns need to span geographies and industries.

Success is not in what you can measure. While campaigners may have been looking for specific outcomes (such as winning a collective bargaining agreement, or a change in wages or benefits), in the long run the cases all revealed that success was broader and deeper than these immediate outcomes. Indeed, it may be the case that even where specific targets were not achieved, local activists saw gains through their participation in the campaigns.

Years after the Bridgestone/Firestone campaign had ended, Liberian labor leader Edwin Cisco was able to point out important long-term gains that had not been captured by the ‘evidence’. He could recall a time prior to the campaign when unions had no role in the country’s broader civic life. Today, he said, consultations with unions over relevant policy matters, while not always honored in practice, are expected to take place. This represents a subtle but profound shift in the power dynamics around labor unions far beyond campaign demands.

We need deep coalitions no matter what, but this means addressing new threats to civil society. It’s impossible to know when solidarity campaigns will be needed, but campaigns can only kick in if local actors have ongoing relationships with transnational networks and actors.  Those relationships can’t be built around one-off corporate campaigns. The civic ‘infrastructure’ has to be in place, and it has to be built on a fundamental shared vision regarding ‘rules of the game’ and worker empowerment that goes beyond corporate accountability.

Global trade union structures, while imperfect, provide some architecture for this. These structures need to become more inclusive of other civil society actors. And they need to take note of the changing environment for civil society globally, including the use of new forms of surveillance and disinformation. We all need to up our game on digital protection for unionists and rights advocates.

Donors: Don’t be discouraged! The evidence is real: These campaigns do make a difference in the long run. However, we need to be patient and be flexible in our consideration of what constitutes ‘results’. It’s hard to capture long-term shifts in power dynamics or movement cohesion in a logframe.

Link to further reading here.

Brazil: Vale Company to pay for damages caused by Brumadinho dam collapse

26 August 2019; originally published here by BBC 10 July 2019

A judge in Brazil has ordered mining giant Vale to pay compensation for all damages caused by the collapse of the Brumadinho dam in January. The collapse was Brazil’s worst industrial accident. The judge did not set a figure for the compensation but said that the company was responsible for fixing all the damages including the economic effects.

At least 248 people were killed as a sea of mud engulfed a staff canteen, offices and nearby farms. Twenty-two people are still missing following the collapse of the Feijão dam on 25 January.

Judge Elton Pupo Nogueira also said that $2.9bn (£2.3bn) of Vale’s assets frozen by courts should remain blocked. He said the funds should be used to make compensation payments to affected families and businesses. Explaining why he had not specify an amount for Vale to pay out, he argued that technical and scientific criteria were not enough to quantify the effects of the collapse. 

“The value [of the compensation] is not limited to the deaths resulting from the event, it also affects the environment on a local and regional level as well as the economic activity in the affected region.”

Judge Nogueira

Thus far according to the BBC article, and please find the entire article here.

What is interesting to note, is the indication that Judge Nogueira leaves room for the impact of this environmental disaster to be determined in the future for the environment as well. This gives hope for a different view of how corporations are going to have to rectify the ramifications of a disaster from their operations.

Along those lines is how The Crowd Versus works: we believe legal change will create societal change. Because we think that a company has a social duty to the people surrounding its location and to the environment.

Call to action:

Consider supporting one of our cases by becoming a monthly donor: find out more here or donate below to a fund that distributes your entire donation equally between all 4 cases pending at The Crowd Versus.

Alternatively, you can donate your time and/or artistic product in support of one of our cases, check here.

All Cases Fund

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Pablo Fajardo: Lawyer of the people and the Amazon

15 August 2019; originally published 12 June 2019 in Vatican News

Authors: Manuel Cubías – Jean Charles Putzolu

Below follows an unofficial translation:

Transnational companies have often shown their contempt for the so-called Third World countries by plundering their resources. The struggles of peasants and indigenous people against these giants seem destined to fail. Not to fight would be to accept collective suicide.

The words poverty, struggle and commitment are a fundamental part of Latin American history. Many men and women have believed in them and have given their lives day by day, or definitively, to make them a reality in their countries or in their local communities.

Pablo Fajardo is one such case. A man who came from the periphery of Ecuadorian society and who wanted to serve the inhabitants of the social margins of his country.

He came to live in the middle of the world, in Ecuador. It is a South American country with 31 active volcanoes and nearly 17 million inhabitants.

Since his youth, the struggle for the defense of indigenous peoples has been present in the life of Pablo Fajardo. In 2011, together with the Union of People Affected by Texaco (UDAPT), an institution that brings together more than 30,000 people of indigenous and peasant origin, they obtained a ruling in their favor for 9,500 million dollars for social and environmental reparation.

The Texaco transnational left Ecuador and has not complied, not even today, with the legal ruling of the Sucumbíos Court. What is still present is the indelible imprint of death and contamination.

Pablo Fajardo nos cuenta su historia (tells us his story)

The mark of origin

In Pablo Fajardo’s own words:

“I was born on the Ecuadorian coast, in El Carmen, Manabí. We lived in the countryside, my family lived in extreme poverty. Everything we produced and ate was natural. We produced it with our labor. We ate what my father and my brothers produced.

Poverty drove us north to the province of Esmeraldas, where we were looking for better living conditions. After a few years, we migrated to the Amazon region. First it was my brothers, then my parents and me with them.

When we arrived in the Amazon, I experienced a strong contrast, because I was faced with two realities: one was the Amazon full of spirits, whispers, smells and tastes, full of heat, water, insects and animals, in short, full of life. The other Amazon was the polluted one, which had difficulties, which died.

Alongside these two contrasts were the indigenous peoples, the original peoples, who have lived here for thousands of years and whose relationship with nature, with water, with the air, with animals is much deeper. I came across the spirituality of the jungle, the trees. This is a much deeper experience. These are the memories I have of what life was. What I remember.

I am the fifth of ten siblings. My father is a peasant, now 91 years old. He never learned to read or write. I am fortunate because he is still alive. My mother is 84 years old, she also lives and is a peasant. She can only read and write a little. We all work for a living. None of my siblings managed to study at university. Unfortunately, some only managed to finish high school, others didn’t even do that. This happened for economic reasons. Because of poverty. She was the one who was determining who could and couldn’t study.

In my case, I was able to study at the university and graduate because I could count on the support of the people of my community, with the support of the Capuchin Franciscan Fathers and several villages that supported me so that I could study.

There’s one important thing I want to tell you. My father never learned to read or write. Written documents were of no value to him. Courage is given by the word. He said that documents can be broken, but that the given word cannot be broken. He saw this at every moment: when they wanted to do something, a job, they always made word agreements.

In today’s world, many things have changed: if it is not a written document, it is not valid. It would be nice if we could go back to that, so that the word really has its value and is respected by everyone!”

For further reading, in Spanish, please link here.

Call to action!

The Crowd vs. Chevron Oil Spill in Ecuador

Amazon people want access to justice in the Supreme Court of Canada for the reparation of their lands. Read more…

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Do you want to help by either donating (see above) or becoming an online activist (here)?

We welcome the opportunity to help you. On our Be The Difference page, after the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi, we enable your creative ideas and work to be showcased to help this case.

Share your art and inspirations to make the world a better place for all of us!

Link to website.

CEDHU: Effects of Mining in the Cóndor Mountain Range, Ecuador

First published by Comision Ecumenica de Derechos Humanos on 23 July 2019

Photograph credit: Ecuador’s Minister of Hydrocarbons Carlos Perez (C) talks to the media as copper output begins at the Chinese-owned Mirador mining project in Tundayme, Ecuador July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia; Credit link:

CEDHU rejects the implementation of this extractivistic model that has affected territories with high biodiversity, violating individual and collective rights, and that has exacerbated levels of violence.

The implementation of the Mirador project has led to the dispossession of ancestral territories, pollution, displacement, forced evictions and deaths, causing a serious socio-environmental conflict and criminalizing human rights and nature defenders. In the report prepared by social organizations for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations in November 2018, 32 evictions of families are registered, representing 136 affected people, of which 52 are children and adolescents, 12 elderly people and 58 adults.

The Mirador project is located in Tundayme, Zamora Chinchipe, in the Cordillera del Condor, one of the most diverse and fragile ecosystems in the world, according to studies that would affect 227 water sources. It is the first large-scale copper, silver and gold project to enter the exploitation phase in the country and one of the most conflictive. The intervention in the zone of influence has been violent, with the participation of dozens of police and private security guards from the company Ecuacorriente ECSA.

In the future, in the 30 years of operating life of the mine and that the State has guaranteed its renewal for the same period, there will be the removal of millions of tons of soil, chemical elements and the use of millions of cubic meters of fresh water, which will also be polluted. The cost of large-scale mining for the country will be high, prioritizing an economic gain in the medium term putting at risk the very lives of human beings who in turn depend on mother earth to survive. We are witnessing vast expanses of land in neighboring countries turned into desert by mining.

The Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights – CEDHU rejects the surrender of our natural resources for the benefit of transnational capital and the implementation of this extractive model that has affected territories with high biodiversity, violating individual and collective rights, and has exacerbated levels of violence.

We call on the authorities and government institutions to take into account the voice of the affected communities, populations and people, to respect the right to prior and popular consultation, and not to implement this extractivist model in an arbitrary, violent manner without the legitimacy of the affected sectors.

2019 Update Report about Collective Action Protecting Native Mexican Corn From Genetic Modification

Published 31 July 2019

We have litigated for five year in 19 federal courts to defend, through this class action lawsuit, Mexican native maize and its wild relatives against the depredation of transnational corporations Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, and PHI Mexico (better known around the world as DuPont), and against complicity of two Ministry of State (agriculture and environment). This would end the genetic biodiversity of corn in the environment.

The lawsuit seeks of the federal courts a judgment where they declare that the release or sowing of transgenic maize will damage the human right to biological diversity of native maize, of current and future generations; as well as the human rights to food, health and native peoples. The ultimate purpose is to deny all permits for the release or planting of GMOs for maize.

The complainants of this class action lawsuit have succeeded in suspending the sowing of transgenic corn throughout the entire country from September 2013 to date, thanks to a precautionary measure ordered by the judicial branch. Since 2016, only planting permits can be granted for scientific purposes, but if the biosecurity measures are not effective the judge is authorized to suspend all types of permits, as well as the scientist of the class action lawsuit can know, comment and challenge the vigilance that the judge performs on the glyphosate herbicide, the unauthorized presence of transgenics and scientific research. However, the Agriculture Ministry has not issued any permits.

In addition, Agriculture Ministry and Environmental Ministry since 2016 must submit monthly reports to the judge where they must report that NO permission to plant corn transgenic has been granted or processed. The transnational defendants have tried 15 amparo trials to withdraw the injunction, so far we have won 11 trial, 4 are pending resolution by the Supreme Court.

In these five years, the main trial has passed the stages of preliminary admission, certification of the lawsuit (at this stage it passed 11 lawsuits of amparo that promoted the federal government and transnationals), offer and preparation of evidence.

We are currently processing challenges on the preparation of the evidence, because the defendants in the trial try to justify their technology by mutilating scientific articles financed by themselves with incomplete translations. The stages that remain pending in the first instance are the final hearing and the judgment.

Call to Action

Do you wish to contribute your art work or time to help this important legal injunction to keep stopping Monsanto and others from selling their GM corn? We will amplify your submission over all our social media channels!

Check this link or donate below: together we stand strong! Thank you.

The Crowd vs. GM Corn in Mexico

Stop Monsanto and other multinationals from growing genetically modified (GM) corn that will force all farmers to grow GM corn, will harm biodiversity, and ultimately puts Mexican cultural heritage and way of life at risk. Read more…

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Should We Care About a Coal Mine In Rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa?

“Through wilderness we remember and are brought home again.”

Sir Laurens van der Post

By Ronit Shapiro, Creator and Producer – Sisters of the Wilderness, Founder – One Nature

Published 25 July 2019

In 2005 I was asked to organise an event at the Royal Geographic Society in London, to raise awareness to Africa’s wild nature. The keynote speaker at the event was the late Dr. Ian Player, a much beloved South African conservationist and a deep-thinking writer. Little did I know at the time that this meeting with Dr. Player would make such a profound impact on my life.

Hearing Dr. Player talk was a great inspiration and touched something deep within. Then reading his books, in particular Zulu Wilderness, Shadow and Soul, made such an impression that this led me to change my entire career. 

Ronit Shapiro

After working in corporate communications for many years I decided to use my creativity and story-telling skills to tell stories that matter. I want to share the untold universal stories that need to be heard, those stories that can make a real difference to timely social and environmental issues affecting us all.

Passionate about the wellness of people and the environment, I intuitively felt that human and nature interconnect. I got affirmation to my intuitive feeling when I read the works of great writers, philosophers, poets and naturalists, and especially when spending time in nature.

Credit: photograph still from documentary “Sisters of the Wilderness” by Ronit Shapiro

In 2010 I wrote to Dr. Player and asked his permission to make a film inspired by his life and pioneering work in the wilderness. Dr. Player lived and worked in the African wilderness nearly all his life. He fought to protect wilderness and promoted a worldview of interconnectedness and deep ecology.

Over many years, he and his Zulu mentor and bush guide, Baba Maqgubu Ntombela, introduced thousands of people to the iMfolozi Wilderness, an ancient wilderness which nestles within the oldest game park in Africa, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. 

Dr. Player wholeheartedly supported my initiative to make a social impact film set in the wilderness. He invited me to visit him and his wife Ann in his farm Phuzamoya, in the Natal Midlands in South Africa.

This was the beginning of four extraordinary life-changing years of in-depth mentorship by Dr. Player, and a special friendship developed with him and his dear and wise wife Ann. Sadly, Dr. Player passed away at the end of 2014. His passing created a deep void. At the same time, I was determined to continue with the film and social impact projects.

Credit: photograph still from documentary “Sisters of the Wilderness” by Ronit Shapiro

I aspired to create a moving image story to reconnect audiences with nature and raise awareness to the value of nature to our well-being. In particular I was drawn into the African wilderness, which is unlike any other wild nature, with its primordial wildlife and fauna.

A moving experience, that I had on a wilderness journey in iMfolozi, gave me confidence that this is where the film should be set and that this precious wilderness must be protected. Here an ageless spirit survives and one can sense a spiritual connection to the land. 

Credit: photograph still from documentary “Sisters of the Wilderness” by Ronit Shapiro

The iMfolozi valley was home to the first people of Southern Africa and later became the heartland of the Zulu people, who lived here in harmony with nature and with great respect (inhlonipho) to Mother Earth and all creation. This is also the place where the Southern White Rhino was saved from extinction. This wilderness is alive and it enriches and revitalises its visitors, physically and spiritually. 

In the film, I wanted to ‘transfer’ the audience to this primal place where no barriers separate human and nature. A journey into this wilderness is an intense experience where one can expect to undergo a personal transformation. It is a place of great inspiration.

Sadly, the iMfolozi Wilderness is now severely threatened. An existing open cast coal mine on the eastern border of the wilderness is expanding regardless of its devastating impact on nature, the surrounding rural communities and their livestock. Moreover, there are additional proposed coal mines in very close proximity to the park’s southern boundary which threatens to devastate even further this fragile nature ecosystem and the nearby communities.

Credit: photograph still from documentary “Sisters of the Wilderness” by Ronit Shapiro

Wild nature is fast disappearing due to humanity’s careless and irresponsible behaviour over generations. But we can stop this destruction! If we allow ourselves to pause and listen to nature and appreciate the value of nature to our wellbeing, and let nature remind us that we are nature and nature is us and what we do to nature we do to ourselves; that if we harm nature, we harm ourselves. When we develop an awe and reverence to nature, for nature sustains and nourishes us, we will be on the path to avert the destructive trend.

To that end I created Sisters of the Wilderness

Credit: photograph still from documentary “Sisters of the Wilderness” by Ronit Shapiro

The film, which takes one on an immersive journey within and without into the African wilderness, tells the story of five young Zulu women going into the iMfolozi wilderness on a journey of healing and self-discovery. On their journey they learn about the plight of this primordial wilderness from an open-cast coal mine on its border and an intensifying rhino poaching calamity.

Credit: photograph still from documentary “Sisters of the Wilderness” by Ronit Shapiro

Sisters of the Wilderness is not just a film. It is also a social impact project which aims to make a difference to timely and important social and environmental issues. The project’s key impact goals are: 

  • Young people empowerment and leadership development, using the power of wild nature, with a special focus on women empowerment.
  • Re-connect audiences to wild nature and raise awareness to the value of nature to our well-being.
  • Help the efforts to save the iMfolozi wilderness from the threat of unsustainable mining and the illegal hunting of its rhinos and other endangered species.

The film is now screening in film festivals worldwide.

Please follow our Facebook page Sisters of the Wilderness and share with your friends. Thank you!

Call to Action

If you wish to support my project, host a screening of the film in your organisation, event or to a special interest group, or distribute the film in your part of the world, please contact me directly at

The Crowd Versus works to support the defence of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Wilderness through the foundation Save Our Wilderness.

If my article motivated you to help The Crowd Versus, you can get involved by being creative (link here) or to contribute to the case of The Crowd Versus Destructive Mining in Zululand. Thank you!

The Crowd vs. Destructive Mining in Zululand

Coal companies and the South African government have to stop with coal mining that puts Zululand and its people in danger and threatens the world’s greatest concentration of rhinos in the wilderness area of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve.  Read more …

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Monsanto’s reasons for fighting GMO labelling? It loves you.


#GMO #Monsanto #organic #food #foodsafety

Fed up with Monsanto meddling in our food chain?

Then help stop them and the other large multinationals (Bayer, DuPont, etc.) from establishing their farming practices and seed control in Mexico, the country of origin for corn.

The Crowd vs. GM Corn in Mexico

Stop Monsanto and other multinationals from growing genetically modified (GM) corn that will force all farmers to grow GM corn, will harm biodiversity, and ultimately puts Mexican cultural heritage and way of life at risk. Read more…

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Re-published with permission; 17 July 2019

Canada: Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act Upheld in Ontario Court of Appeal

11 July 2019: a short update on climate legislation in Canada

This recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision has the potential to create definitive clarity in the difficult subject of proper legislation and climate change. The Court found the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act “constitutional” and within Parliament’s jurisdiction to legislate, i.e. to impose charges regulatory in nature, which are connected to the Act — and are not taxes.

The case itself deals with the validity of carbon pricing. The short background is that the Canadian federal government implemented carbon pricing and the Ontario provincial government appealed the decision saying that such a “carbon tax” infringed on provincial rights. They were overruled, with the Court of Appeal noting that climate change and therefore Greenhouse Gas (GHG) regulation is an issue of national concern.

This is one of the first serious discussion in any Canadian court (there was an earlier decision in Saskatchewan on the same issue which was not as well written) about climate change and the constitution, one that will inevitably go to the Supreme Court of Canada this or next year.

The first part of the decision (p. 3 onwards) does an excellent job of giving a background on GHGs and Climate Change and recognizes that combating climate change is a collective effort.

It is written in plain language and rather succinctly.

Having a decision like this signals that in future cases, Canadian courts hopefully will not have to grapple with the first hurdle of addressing climate change and the science behind it.

Vox: Restoring forests may be one of our most powerful weapons in fighting climate change

Adding 2.2 billion acres of tree cover would capture two-thirds of man-made carbon emissions, a new study found.

10 July 2019; Originally published by the digital website, author Umair Irfan  and updated Jul 5, 2019, 12:04pm EDT; re-published under the Creative Commons license.

Allowing the earth’s forests to recover could soak up a significant amount of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. 

The worldwide assessment of current and potential forestation using satellite imagery appeared Thursday in the journal Science. It estimates that letting saplings regrow on land where forests have been cleared would increase global forested area by one-third and remove 205 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s two-thirds of the roughly 300 billion metric tons of carbon humans have put up there since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. 

“The point is that [reforestation is] so much more vastly powerful than anyone ever expected,” said Thomas Crowther, a professor of environmental systems science at ETH Zurich and a co-author of the paper. “By far, it’s the top climate change solution in terms of carbon storage potential.”

Some climate scientists who were not involved with the study disagree with its calculations and are warning against its “silver bullet” message. Still, supporting natural systems that can soak up carbon is widely accepted as a major component of any climate change mitigation strategy — in addition to deploying clean energy, switching to electric vehicles, and curbing consumption overall. 

The challenges of such a massive reforestation effort are immense, however: Deforestation is still rampant and is accelerating in some parts of the world. Rather than building up forests as a resource to offset greenhouse gas emissions, we’re currently losing them, and emitting more carbon in the process. 

Restoring forests like the Amazon rainforest has the potential to offset huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. Credit: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

If the goal is to fight climate change, countries have to reverse course on how they use forests. Another paper out this week in Science Advances offers clear advice on where to focus: places where forest restoration would be most viable and beneficial. But as average temperatures keep climbing, forests may lose their effectiveness in soaking up emissions, so time is running out. 

There’s a huge potential for forest restoration, but we’re still moving in the wrong direction

Let’s take a moment to recall why plants are so critical to the global carbon cycle.

All plants use sunlight, water, soil nutrients, and carbon dioxide to generate energy and to grow. These plants then die and decay. This returns some of the carbon back to the sky and leaves some carbon in the ground. Over time, this leads to a net reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. Plants also move moisture into the air and release aerosols that can contribute to precipitation.

So plants in general and trees in particular play important roles in regulating weather and the climate around the world. 

Humans have disrupted many of these patterns. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have cut down 46 percent of all trees. Just since 1990, the world has lost 1.3 million square kilometers of forested area. The situation is even more dire in the tropics, where less than half of forests remain standing today. 

The modern world’s insatiable appetite for wood, land, agriculture, and mineral extraction continues to drive deforestation. In the Amazon rainforest, one soccer field-size area is clear-cut every minute. 

This chemically deforested area of the Amazon jungle was caused by illegal mining activities in the river basin of the Madre de Dios region in southeast Peru. Illegal mining has destroyed more than 11,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest.
This chemically deforested area of the Amazon jungle was caused by illegal mining activities in the river basin of the Madre de Dios region in southeast Peru. Illegal mining has destroyed more than 11,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest. 

At the same time, we’re pumping a record volume of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — 2.6 million pounds per second — from myriad sources, warming the planet as a whole. While some forests may benefit from more carbon dioxide in the air, others dry out, increasing risks of wildfires. Higher temperatures can also change rainfall patterns, leaving some trees vulnerable to drought or pests like bark beetles. In other words, climate change is a mixed bag for forests. 

The world’s forests have the potential to be carbon-sucking machines

It’s important to remember that forests are not just trees. They are whole self-regulating ecosystems, from the soil bacteria that fix nitrogen to fertilize roots to the rodents and birds that spread seeds to the fungi that rot away carcasses and break down tree trunks. 

All these organisms working together allow forests to push moisture into the air and pull carbon into the ground. Nonetheless, trees are a useful proxy for the work that forests do, particularly with respect to climate change. 

Trees are usually 50 percent carbon by weight, and the vast majority of that comes from carbon dioxide absorbed from the air. A silver maple sapling, for example, would sequester 400 pounds of carbon dioxide over 25 years. That absorption can change based on the species of tree, its size, its age, its location, the soil it’s growing in, and the climate around it. Multiply that by the millions of trees across the world’s woodlands and you can get a sense of just how hard forests are working to keep our greenhouse gases in check. 

Forests may also have other effects that can offset some of their carbon absorption. Dark leaves on trees can cause local temperatures to rise. Forests also emit aerosols, some of which have heat-trapping impacts, so reforestation does not necessarily lead to a straightforward reduction in global warming.

But Crowther and his colleagues also wanted to figure out how much carbon-sucking potential we’ve lost due to deforestation and how much we could get back by allowing forests spring back up — and planting them — in the places they once were.

There is a distinction here between restoration, also known as reforestation, and afforestation. The latter refers to planting new trees where there were none before. The former refers to bringing trees back to areas that were previously forested, whether that’s through planting trees or allowing the woodlands to regrow on their own. 

Crowther and his colleagues used global satellite images to assess tree canopies, figuring out where forests are and where they could reemerge. They found that there are 2.2 billion acres, or 0.9 billion hectares, worth of forest restoration potential. That’s an area almost as big as the United States. Crowther hinted at these findings earlier this year and noted that this would amount to growing 1.2 trillion new trees across the planet.

A map of the potential for forest restoration around the world.
A map of the potential for forest restoration around the world. 

From there, the scientists calculated the carbon removal potential of the newly restored forests. They concluded that the new forested areas would soak up an astounding two-thirds of humanity’s emissions in the atmosphere since the 19th century. 

However, Laura Duncanson, an assistant professor and a forest researcher at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study, said this estimate is simplistic and doesn’t take into account much of the regional variation that can influence a forest’s capacity to absorb carbon. “I would take that as a very broad brush, back-of-the-envelope-type potential carbon sink [calculation],” she said. “It’s highlighting the potential of forests, but there’s so much more research to do.”

Other researchers, writing in The Conversation, also suggested that Crowther’s carbon storage estimate is too high, and ignores the amount of carbon already in the soil and the fact that forests can take centuries to mature. The researchers, University College London professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis, noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that restored forests could capture 57 billion metric tons of carbon by the end of the century, just one-sixth of the carbon in the atmosphere. 

And still others call it flat-out wrong: 

Forests are facing intense competition from industry and agriculture. That’s why researchers are so keen to show their services to humanity. 

Another study out this week tries to offer more specific guidance on where we should be focusing reforestation efforts. 

Robin Chazdon, a forest ecologist and an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut, wanted to figure out which restored forests would deliver the most net benefits to humanity. Beyond mitigating climate change, trees help purify water, clean air, and provide homes to wildlife, so there’s a lot to take into account.

In a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Chazdon and her collaborators came up with a scoring system for the world’s forests to figure out where restoration would yield the greatest benefits. 

They found that tropical rainforests — in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, India, Colombia, and Madagascar — in particular stood out. That’s because these regions are home to a huge amount of biodiversity and play a major role in the planet’s air and water cycle. Without these forests, these regions would see big changes in rainfall patterns, reductions in air quality, and the loss of some of the most unique species in the world. 

Chazdon and her team then identified restoration hot spots, regions that scored in the top 10 percent in their evaluation. Put together, these hot spots span an area totaling 101 million hectares, about the size of Spain and Sweden put together, scattered around the world. What it shows, according to Chazdon, is that every part of the world has regions that would yield huge dividends from reforestation. 

Most of the highest areas with the highest scores for restoration potential are in tropical rainforests.
Most of the highest areas with the highest scores for restoration potential are in tropical rainforests.

“Our sense is that these really good bets for restoration are found all over the world and many countries can participate in these activities,” Chazdon said. “We did find some concentrations of these highest scores were distributed all over the tropics.” 

In particular, the highest average scores were in African countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. “These countries, even though they might not have really large areas of tropical rainforest, the areas that they do have are very important restoration opportunities,” she said. 

However, many of these hot spots are already being used in other ways, like for farming and livestock grazing. Local demand for materials, land, and agriculture is often why these forests were cleared in the first place. That means a restoration program in these regions has to show that it delivers benefits that exceed the current uses of the land. 

Looking at the carbon sequestration potential alone may not be enough to make that case, particularly since most countries don’t have a mechanism that rewards taking in carbon dioxide emissions. 

Forests’ other valuable functions, like purifying water, mitigating air pollution, and drawing tourists, also help make a strong policy case for restoring forests while creating pressure to deter further deforestation.

But Chazdon noted that it’s hard to attach a price tag to every benefit we get from restoring forests, like increasing habitats for endangered species. A purely monetary calculation can backfire if the value of cutting down the forest suddenly increases. And many people who live on cleared forests subsist on their farming, so they need to be compensated and given alternative livelihoods if that land is going to be repurposed. So the biggest hurdle may be coming up with an economic system that benefits the environment while protecting the most vulnerable.

“To really make this work economically kind of requires a frameshift in the way we generate economies,” Chazdon said. “The business as usual approach is what got us into this problem, so to get out, it is going to require some innovative mechanisms.” 

We need to prioritize forest restoration as a means to fight climate change, but we may be running out of time to do it

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that the world may have as little as 12 years left to limit warming this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Keeping global emissions in line with that goal demands a full-court press across all sectors of society, from changing how we produce food to generating all of our power from clean sources. 

But climate change isn’t simply a function of how much greenhouse gases we emit; it depends on how we damage the things that take up carbon. That’s why restoring forests stands to be a massive global opportunity to combat warming. The IPCC is now planning to release a special report this year focusing on land use, which will include forest management. 

Greenpeace environmental activists take part during Save the Amazon in Brazil demonstration in front of the Brazilian embassy on April 24, 2019 in The Hague,Netherlands
Greenpeace environmental activists take part during Save the Amazon in Brazil demonstration in front of the Brazilian Embassy on April 24, 2019, in the Hague, Netherlands.

Climate change in turn is starting to affect forests and their ability to store carbon. Crowther noted that warming is making some of the most carbon-absorbing forest areas less hospitable to their native species. Climate change-exacerbated weather extremes like torrential downpours can also damage forests. That means restoration efforts will have more climate benefits the sooner they are implemented and yield diminishing returns over time.

Duncanson, however, said that it’s not clear what direction carbon absorption will go under climate change. While some regions may become less hospitable to trees, others may benefit from increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so extrapolating forest behavior from the present into the future may not make sense. 

“We have a lot more certainty with how forests will respond to current growing conditions than in the future,” Duncanson said. “They might be more robust than we think. They might be even better carbon sinkers in the future. We don’t know.”

Also, not every bit of land that can be reforested will be because there are other constraints. Even if a government were inclined to restore a forest, there is a finite amount of money, resources, and political capital to do so. So despite the theoretical potential of countering two-thirds of human-made emissions, it will be breathtakingly hard.

Duncanson said that Chazdon’s and Crowther’s papers both stand out for getting specific in identifying regions where trees could regrow. “It’s nice to see that we have gone to the point of actually having maps of areas to restore forests,” she said. 

She is working on a project, known as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI), that uses LIDAR aboard the International Space Station to create a three-dimensional map of the world’s forests. From there, researchers hope to get a far more accurate estimate of how trees take in carbon dioxide and what that means for the global climate. “I think that will be a nice extension of this work,” Duncanson said. 

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the area with forest restoration potential. It is 2.2 billion acres.