From the palm oil plantations that are replacing primary rainforest in Borneo to Brazil where cattle ranches, logger yards and soy farms are rapidly encroaching on a disappearing Amazon, global deforestation is happening at an alarming rate. It’s one of the largest contributors to climate change: trees are comprised of 50 per cent carbon (in 2019, Time magazine reported that the Amazon currently stores up to 120 billion metric tons), most of which is released into the atmosphere if they are chopped down.
'Planting trees is the climate change solution with the potential to have by far the most impact.'
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. With a heightened focus on climate change and a worldwide sense of urgency to create positive change, the good news is that large-scale collaborative initiatives are aiming to stabilise our natural environment. Research by Swiss University ETH Zurich in 2019 found that a programme involving the planting of billions of trees could remove two-thirds of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today. Together with curbing emissions from fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, planting trees is the climate change solution with the potential to have by far the most impact.
That same year, at COP25, the eight member countries of the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD) presented an ambitious regional climate action plan, known as the ‘5 Great Forests Initiative,’ which included a pledge to protect Mesoamerica’s remaining intact forests and restore 5,000,000 hectares. Meanwhile, June sees the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and the World Economic Forum’s trillion tree challenge. All of this marks a notable shift in support from governments and businesses for on-the-ground reforestation organisations such as non-profit Taking Root, which has been driving community-led action in Nicaragua for over a decade.
Taking Root’s premise is simple: if the main cause of deforestation is the pursuit of better economic opportunities, the only way to reverse the trend is to design reforestation initiatives that offer exactly that. Their CommuniTree programme, which is a registered Plan Vivo project, leverages the carbon offset industry to provide smallholder farmers with incentives to grow trees. Working with partners such as Swiss myclimate, Taking Root estimates how many credits each business will buy. Myclimate is also the offsetting partner of choice for Quintet Private Bank, which has launched what we believe to be the world’s first climate-neutral multi-asset fund.
‘Over 1,000 farmers are enrolled in the CommuniTree programme, with 60 percent of the sale of the carbon credit going directly to them…’
In line with Quintet’s Richer Life ethos that puts people and the planet first, the Quintet Earth fund is based on the principles transform, reduce and remove. Investing in green bonds (where proceeds are exclusively used to fund transformative sustainable projects) and low carbon equities, the fund purchases Voluntary Emission Reduction credits (carbon credits). With a real-world impact, this corresponds directly to Taking Root’s tree-planting target in Nicaragua. Over 1,000 farmers are enrolled in the CommuniTree programme, with 60 percent of the sale of the carbon credit going directly to them as income delivered over a ten-year period, based on successful reforestation outcomes. Investors in the Quintet Earth fund are able to calculate their individual reforestation impact with the Quintet Earth Reforestation Calculator.
Take Justina Victoria Valdivia, a farmer who lives in the northwest Esteli region. Before joining the programme, her family made their income from growing crops and raising livestock; now she takes care of a mature, growing forest too. ‘I was motivated to plant a forest to improve the ecosystem,’ she recalls. ‘This area is very dry with little rain due to the lack of mountains but now that I have a forest it is much cooler, my animals have shelter from the sun and I see many different species of birds. Most importantly, the trees provide high-quality wood and oxygen for life.’
Having discovered the programme through neighbours, a field technician made a visit to identify underused areas of her land where she could plant trees. She began by planting seeds in seedling bags at a Taking Root central nursery site, which, once grown, were transported to her farm. At training workshops, she learnt about pruning and the benefits of trees, and technicians regularly visit to troubleshoot any issues. Today, not only does she have a more diversified income (which provides security if other production should fail), when the forest is periodically thinned to allow more space for the trees to grow, she sells the timber through local markets, as well as for artisanal woodcrafts and locally made biochar (another Taking Root initiative which improves soil health and stores carbon).
‘At training workshops, she learnt about pruning and the benefits of trees, and technicians regularly visit to troubleshoot any issues.’
Similarly, Justina Gutiérrez Muños was growing grains until she decided to add a forest to her land. ‘Reforestation is very important because it gives us many benefits, such as preserving the water for our community and improving the soil,’ she explains. ‘With the money we receive from the CommuniTree project we are able to pay workers, fill planting bags, improve irrigation and manage the tree nurseries. It is a great project with a positive impact on the land.’
For Norvin Omar Flores Gradiz, it was a lack of funds that had previously prevented him from planting trees. ‘I grow corn, beans and now I have dedicated myself to trees. I had seen other farmers that had trees and wanted to grow some too but because of a lack of resources I couldn’t do it,’ he recalls. ‘I liked the project, so a pair of Taking Root technicians came to measure my plots; now I have about 15,000 trees. The trees give me many, many benefits. At the very least they give me work and there is a lot to do here. I have given the people of the community work so they too, benefit.’
Key to Taking Root’s approach is Farm-Trace, a specially developed web-based platform. This monitors the performance of each farm by combining ground data logged on an app (type of species, tree counts, growth diameters) with satellite imagery and machine learning algorithms that calculate how much carbon has been removed from the atmosphere. Crucially, it also enables businesses thinking of buying carbon offsets through planting trees to be confident in the transparency of the process and verify that they will be maintained over time.
The last few years were especially difficult for smallholders, not only because of Covid-19 (Taking Root’s technicians continued with their work and helped educate rural communities on how to stay safe) but also because of the weather. While two hurricanes hit the east coast of Nicaragua, on the west coast where Taking Root operates, delayed rains meant crop losses for many. Extreme weather events such as these are a stark indicator of the effects of climate change.
‘I have been growing coffee for 29 years and the climate has changed one hundred per cent,’ says Arminda Troche Aguilar, a farmer who has seen the alteration of the environment firsthand. ‘When I was 15, I remember it was pretty rainy and there were only two summer months, March and April. Now it is either too hot or too rainy, causing damage to the land. If there is too much rain, we lose soil nutrients, while if there is too little, our coffee dries out.’ She is now signed up to CommuniTree. ‘The programme has given us fruit trees, trees for shade and wood. The technicians have helped us to cultivate and we are able to pay people to help plant the trees. This programme is very good for us because nobody else cares about planting trees.’
‘Taking Root is now the largest single reforestation effort in Nicaragua.’
Despite the weather, 2020 was also the most impactful yet for Taking Root – now the largest single reforestation effort in Nicaragua – which had its largest planting season to date. Over 2,000 hectares were reforested (double the area of 2019), thanks primarily to new partners such as Microsoft who included the organisation in its portfolio of carbon removal projects.
Since Taking Root began, 10 million trees have been planted and 1.5 tonnes of CO2 has been sequestered, with $6 million directed to over 1,300 farmers. The model is already so successful that it is being applied in nine countries on all three tropical continents. The ambition though is to roll it out even further. Farm-Trace is close to being launched as an Approved Approach with Plan Vivo which means that, once industry recognised, it can be used as a monitoring platform by any smallholder wanting to measure and report on climate impacts and submit carbon credits – a significant step in scaling up this natural climate solution around the world.
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