Mon | Nov 30, 2020

Editorial | We should be planting trees, too

Published:Wednesday | July 31, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Over 12 hours on Monday, Ethiopians planted, by the government’s count, 353 million trees. That works out to about three for each of the country’s 112 million people, or approximately 828 per square mile.

In the process, the Ethiopians broke the record for the most trees planted in a single day. They did seven times more than the 50 million Indians planted in 2016, using 800,000 volunteers. What was particularly significant about Ethiopia’s effort was the mass mobilisation of people. In cities, towns and rural areas, businesses, government offices and school workers and students took time off to participate in what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called a drive towards “a green legacy”.

Ethiopia has good reasons for wanting to plant trees. The country is severely deforested. A century ago, a third of Ethiopia was forested. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that is now down to four per cent. The absence of trees lends to land degradation and, in tropical countries, desertification, as well as flooding in times of rain.

Jamaica doesn’t have Ethiopia’s crisis of deforestation. But we are not without problems, and, in recent times, without an obviously robust programme with which to address them. In 2015, the latest year for which reliable data are immediately available, an estimated 30 per cent of Jamaica was covered by forest, the lowest in a quarter of a century – down from 31.48 per cent at the turn of this century.

Indeed, a policy document published by the Government four years ago said that the island was losing its forest at a rate of 0.1 per cent, or about 350 hectares, a year. On the other hand, the Forestry Department plants 120 hectares of land annually, which is 37.5 per cent of what is lost. The value of private resuscitation initiatives, if and when they take place, is not clear.

Notably, the mandate of the Forestry Department is the protection and conservation of forests on Crown lands, of which it has responsibility for 109,514 hectares. Ninety per cent of this, or 98,962 hectares, are designated as forest reserves. Another 226,401 hectares of land are classified as forests, but are privately owned, with, according to the policy document, “no comprehensive legislative framework to govern their protection”.

The clear implication of that observation is the need to update the Forestry Act, notwithstanding the power it affords to a minister to acquire private lands for designation as forest conservation areas. But it isn’t only in such areas that there are issues. For instance, natural-resource management officials have complained that of 26 watershed management units, 19 are degraded and in need of rehabilitation work.

While much has been discussed in recent years about the effects of global warming and climate change, little has been addressed publicly, particularly on the legislative front, about forest management and reforestation.

Nor have there been big initiatives like the Ethiopian tree-planting exercise, that capture the public’s imagination.

Part of the issue, of course, in the tension that often arises between the logic of environmental preservation and the demand for land for economic activity. The current dispute over whether a new bauxite-mining lease granted in the parish of Trelawny breaches, or is too close to, the designated Cockpit Country reserve is a case in point.

These are matters insistent on frank debate, conscious of the need to mitigate, insofar as possible, the degradation that human activity causes the planet.

Swiss researchers, for example, have estimated that there are 900 million hectares, or 3.5 million square miles, of empty, open spaces on the planet. If these were planted with trees, they could absorb two-thirds of the harmful carbons humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Jamaica should have a go at this idea.