To fight climate change, companies and nonprofits have been promoting worldwide planting campaigns. Getting to a trillion is easier said than done.
On a hot morning in April, near the start of Brazil’s dry season, four women and two men walked single file across a sodden field at the edge of Engenho, a village in the northern part of Goiás State. They wore long sleeves and wide-brimmed hats to protect against the sun, and leather gaiters and gloves to protect against snakes. In a plastic tub, they carried an entire forest.
The women and men who made up this team of tree planters were all Kalunga, descendants of enslaved people who centuries ago fled into the Brazilian cerrado, the vast region of grasslands, savannas and open woodlands that covers much of the country’s southern half. Nestled amid Goiás’s forbidding mesas, Kalunga villages remained largely isolated from the outside world until the 1980s. Anthropologists arrived first, then teachers. The planting team’s leader, Damião Santos, a trim, meditative man of 37 years, remembers when the first tourists showed up, attracted by nearby waterfalls. More and more, clay tiles and brick were used as building materials in place of the traditional spars and fronds of the buriti palm. Electricity came to the village. Then, a year ago, an organization appeared in the region, offering trees.
In the middle of the field, Santos stopped and pointed. There, nestled between tufts of grass, were three trees. They were several inches high and had two leaves each. Trees of similar size and shape were all around, Santos said. This wasn’t really a field; it was a forest. As we walked, I tried to avoid crushing it.
Finally, we reached a part of the field that was still a field. The planters dropped their packs and set to work. With a small, one-handed hoe, a planter opened a hole in the wet earth, which parted with a squelch. A second planter took one of the trees — some of which had leaves and roots and were the height of a half-used pencil, others of which were the size and shape of a marble — and tucked it into the hole. Each tree, situated about a pace away from its neighboring trees, took less than a minute to put in the ground. Santos said that over the last three weeks, the team had planted some 30,000 trees.
The group behind this effort, the California-based Eden Reforestation Projects, had hired Santos and the other villagers to plant the trees because it believed that doing so would reduce poverty in the region while helping to alleviate both the local problem of deforestation and the global problems of biodiversity loss and climate change. As the slogan on the back of Santos’s T-shirt put it: “Plante árvores. Salve vidas”: “Plant trees. Save lives.” In a broader sense, the nonprofit was paying residents of Engenho to plant trees because individual and corporate donors, especially in the United States and Europe, wanted people in other parts of the world to plant trees. The idea that planting trees can effectively and simultaneously cure a host of the world’s most pressing maladies has become increasingly popular in recent years, bolstered by a series of widely cited scientific studies and by the inspiring and marketable goal, memorably proposed by a charismatic 13-year-old, of planting one trillion trees…
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