Trees make communities and ecosystems more resilient to climate change

Trees are the unsung heroes in the fight against climate change. Not only do they pull carbon out of the atmosphere, but they also help communities and ecosystems adapt to extreme weather events and a hotter planet. They slow flood waters, reduce temperatures in urban areas, and make people healthier and happier

Every year, Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA), a leading Section 21 non-profit social enterprise that focuses on food security and environmental sustainability, plants between 25,000 and 35,000 trees in homes and communities around South Africa. In its 30-year existence, the organisation has planted more than 4.6 million trees. 

But they need to be planted in the right place. We caught up with the African Climate Reality Project’s branch manager Amy Giliam to tell us about trees and climate change.

How can trees help us fight against climate change?

Both indigenous trees and forests play an important role in helping us both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. As carbon sinks, trees and the planet’s forests help cool the earth by removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it within their roots, stems, and leaves. They also build long-term climate resilience by helping regulate the water cycle, reducing soil erosion and the risk of landslides, floods, and drought, while also purifying the air and providing habitats that house biodiversity and maintain genetic diversity of species. Fruit trees in urban areas also boost communities’ resilience, specifically their food security and livelihoods by providing access to fresh fruit and a cash crop. 

Where should we be planting trees?

The priority areas for tree planting need to be our degraded ecosystems or deforested areas like dryland and tropical forests, mangroves, and other key biomes. For instance, parts of the Congo Basin have been degraded and deforested so planting trees here would help improve the ecosystem. However, when planting trees or reforesting these areas, trees must be planted close to and according to the biome you want to restore. The ACRP’s tree list for Africa is a useful toolkit that identifies the continent’s nine major biomes and the types of trees to plant in each. 

Should we also be planting trees in more populated areas?

Of course, it’s also important for us to plant trees in urban areas and on farms, along with protecting and sustainably managing our existing forests. It’s best to plant trees that are indigenous to the area or biome where the planting is taking place and those that are going to improve rather than degrade ecosystems. 

One of the reasons is that indigenous trees tend to thrive in the areas they belong. For instance, the Spekboom, well-known for its carbon sequestration abilities, is more effective at storing carbon when planted in its native biome like the Baviaanskloof in the Eastern Cape. On the other hand, we need to avoid planting alien invasive trees, as they often undermine the resilience of natural habitats and make them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

Who should we rely on to plant trees?

Everyone from individuals to communities, non-governmental organisations, and governments has a role to play in planting trees. At the same time, we have to be aware that planting trees is not a silver bullet solution to the climate crisis, especially if other important carbon sinks or ecosystems like grasslands are replaced in the process. It’s absolutely essential then for all of us to understand which trees to plant where, when, and how. 

People desperately want to help in the fight against climate change. How can they help?

There are various ways people can get involved. If you want to plant your own trees, you can refer to ACRP’s tree list to see what trees to plant where and watch FTFA’s tree planting video to get step-by-step instructions to help you plant successfully. You can also volunteer to help local organisations like Greenpop carry out tree planting initiatives or donate to organisations like FTFA which plant the trees on your behalf. Either way, it’s always best to do your homework first and be sure that the trees being planted are suited to the biome in which they are being planted.

Donate to FTFA and help plant more trees around South Africa.

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