I asked the leaders of Three Trillion Trees organizations if anyone keeps a global total of how many trees have been planted or how many are still alive – if we could actually say when we would have reached the goal of one trillion trees planted . They all said no – and that planting a trillion trees wasn’t the goal at all. Nicole Schwab, the executive director of 1t.org, told me that her organization aims to “conserve, restore, and grow” one trillion trees. To boil down the achievements of the myriad organizations and individuals that make up the movement to a single number would be both incredibly complex and misguided, she says. “From our point of view, the trillion is desirable,” says Schwab. “We have to be brave, inspire ambition and put in place a system where everything that is promised is monitored. To me, that’s more important than actually counting to one trillion.” John Lotspeich, executive director of Trillion Trees, the collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society and BirdLife International, told me their goal is to improve existing ones Protect forests, address the causes of deforestation and restore degraded landscapes. This includes planting a few trees, but “our three organizations weren’t interested in finding an open field somewhere and planting a few trees there.”
The third trillion trees effort, Plant-for-the-Planet – still spearheaded by Felix Finkbeiner, who helped start the race to a trillion trees with his speech to the UN in 2011 – earlier showed what appeared to be a grand total Website, a graphic showing more than 13 billion trees planted by groups around the world. Sometime in the last year or so the graphic was removed. Finkbeiner, who is now doing his doctorate. in Soil Microbiology in Thomas Crowther’s lab, remains enthusiastic about the global movement. But the straightforward pitch of his youth is now full of caveats and subtleties. “We’d probably prefer to see ourselves as a forest restoration movement rather than a tree-planting movement,” he told me. “I think this trillion tree framework still makes perfect sense because it gives people a rough idea of the scale of the restoration potential. Obviously it’s clear and simple and catchy.”
The race to reach a trillion trees can still motivate donors, but Finkbeiner says his organization is no longer focused on counting trees. Ultimately, he believes, the movement’s success or failure in restoring the world’s forests will not be measured by the number of trees planted, but by satellite imagery, viewed long-term and discussed the old-fashioned way – in acres.
That April When Eden’s team of tree planters were converting the field in Engenho into a future forest, Damião Santos drove me and two Eden employees to see his vision of what that forest could look like. A few miles south of the village we parked at the edge of the red gravel road and crossed another tufted area, following muddy tire tracks. At the edge of the field, the open landscape suddenly turned into a towering forest, a mix of hardwoods and buriti palms, with dense undergrowth and hanging vines. Water pooled between the roots and dripped from a nearby spring. Santos bent down to pick up a seed that had just germinated. He rolled it in his hands. When scientists say people shouldn’t plant trees in Brazil’s Cerrado, they’re speaking of grasslands and savannahs, ignoring the scattered areas of dense forest like this one. Those spots would also need to be restored, he said. That meant planting trees. In any case, the opinions of outside scientists were secondary—the Kalunga wanted the trees, and it was their land.
Later that day in Engenho, I watched the Eden Reforestation staff carefully counting piles of trees and working to provide the raw numbers that would eventually contribute to the ever-growing list of trees on Eden’s website. These trees had already fulfilled one of the tree planting movement’s promises to provide work for people in a place with little economic opportunity. It would be much longer to see if the trees, which were really just seeds and saplings, would grow into the forest Santos envisioned and bring the expected benefits to the local environment, or if they and all the billions or tens of billions of other seeds and seedlings planted by Eden and other groups around the world would survive long enough to have a significant impact on biodiversity or the global carbon cycle. As a solution to the world’s most pressing problems, the trees seemed both obviously useful and woefully unsafe. Even as countries, companies, and individuals spend billions of dollars to fund tree planting projects around the world, there is much to believe about the trees themselves.
The tree planting visionaries, company founders and employees I spoke to insisted that they had learned the lessons from past failures, that they had retracted their wildest claims, that they saw tree planting as just one solution among many that are necessary. “We know how complicated this is,” says Jad Daley, general manager of American Forests. “We know we have to get the science right, especially in a changing climate. They say, “Well, if you’re focusing on a trillion trees, you’re not focusing on these details of ecologically appropriate, climate-conscious, community-centric reforestation,” which is factually incorrect. To be honest, it’s annoying.” Maxime Renaudin, founder of Tree-Nation, agrees. The tree planting movement is working towards more accountability and transparency, he says. “It’s more important that we make some mistakes than doing nothing,” he says, referring to the broader movement. “We are talking about an urgent problem. Our focus should not be on perfection.”