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Tree Planting: A Temporary Band-Aid Or A Sustainable Solution? 

In 2021, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin officially launched the 100 Million Tree-Planting Campaign 2020-2025, kicking it off by planting a Merbau tree in the garden of Seri Perdana, the official residence of Malaysia’s Prime Ministers[1].

Launched simultaneously at the state level with the theme “Greening Malaysia: Our Trees, Our Life”, the 100 Million Tree-Planting Campaign was part of the national agenda to address the threat of climate change and improve the quality of life in the nation[1].

Part of safeguarding Malaysia’s biological diversity and enhancing environmental and river quality, the program strives to achieve significant growth in preserved forest areas by 2025. Led by the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (JPSM), it aims to expand preserved forest areas from 20,000 to 80,000 hectares[1].

Source: The Star

The campaign is expected to contribute to the absorption of carbon by plants by between 30 million tonnes in urban areas and 85 million tonnes in the forest and other areas a year. – Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, former Prime Minister[1]

Despite this lofty goal, not everyone supports this campaign. There are those who say tree planting campaigns such as this will do more harm than good.

Are these doubts founded?

What Is Tree Planting?

People have been planting trees for a very long time.

In the 16th century, affluent landowners in Britain and Europe initiated the establishment of tree plantations to provide a timber source for shipbuilding purposes. Well before that, the Zhou Empire, governing China from 1100 BC to 256 BC, established a dedicated forest service to safeguard existing forests and replant trees after logging activities[2].

Further, Indigenous peoples planted domesticated species before European settlers influenced the Amazon Rainforest composition. 

In the past, tree planting activities provided specific services or products. However, deliberate planting of trees to replace native forests is a recent initiative.

Reforestation in terms of ecological restoration, that is, reestablishing forests that will be similar to their previous ecological state, is a relatively recent ambition for Western society, although it has been practised by indigenous communities for thousands of years. – Kate Hardwick, a conservation scientist at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RGB), Kew[2]

In the present day, tree planting has emerged as a widely adopted approach to address habitat loss and climate change. Planting trees is seen as a straightforward solution with a simple message – anyone can actively contribute to tipping the scales for a better Earth’s climate. 

In addition to mitigating climate change, tree planting initiatives also undertake various other environmental objectives – including regulation of water cycles, the prevention of soil erosion and desertification, and wildlife habitat restoration. Furthermore, these initiatives often have socio-economic goals attached to them, such as poverty alleviation and health and livelihood improvement within local communities[2]

The caveat is that numerous large-scale tree planting initiatives prioritise the quantity of newly planted trees rather than carefully selecting suitable tree species for specific locations and subsequent maintenance efforts to ensure their survival. This approach raises concerns regarding the effectiveness of these initiatives in mitigating climate change and restoring natural habitats. 

This prompts many to question their overall impact.

The Go-To Option Environmental Restoration In Malaysia

Malaysia has become deeply involved in tree planting efforts to protect and restore its natural treasures. Although the 100 Million Tree-Planting Campaign is one of the latest initiatives, the Penang Forestry Department has implemented a tree planting programme since 2005. Based on department records, 346,152 trees were planted throughout the state from 2005 to November 2021[3].

As part of Penang Vision 2030, a mangrove planting programme was initiated as a collaboration between the Penang Infrastructure Corporation Sdn Bhd (PIC) and the Penang Coastal Fishermen’s Welfare Association (PIFWA) as part of a plan to strengthen cooperation in tree planting programmes as a greening agenda in the state[3].

Source: The Star

Besides governments wanting to preserve natural treasures, another stakeholder in these tree planting initiatives are NGOs who are making an earnest effort towards using tree planting as a means of conservation and environmental restoration.

One of these NGO stakeholders is the Free Tree Society (FTS); since 2012, FTS has worked to inspire a community of environmental stewards by giving away trees for free and producing a wide range of nature-based activities to engage and empower communities to adopt sustainable practices.

As of February 2023, we’ve given away 52,004 trees. All our free plants are grown from seeds or cuttings from our nursery garden. For the labour, we have volunteers who help us and whom we train as environmental stewards – it’s a beneficial exchange of knowledge for work. They help to keep our trees free. – Carolyn Lau, Free Tree Society General manager[4]

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, FTS planted more than 500 native trees on the Pulai Trail at Federal Hill, located just behind their Bangsar Nursery, a site of one of the NGO’s popular nature-based programmes.

Previously, Bangsar and Federal Hill used to be hectares of rubber estate during colonial times, and even though the hill is now considered secondary forest, one can still find full-grown rubber trees and rubber saplings. All of the replanting is aimed at supporting wildlife in the area, and eventually increasing biodiversity in what used to be a rubber estate and is now a forest in recovery. – Carolyn Lau, Free Tree Society General manager[4]

Animal Projects & Environmental Education Sdn. Bhd. (APE Malaysia) has also been deeply involved in tree planting efforts, reforestation efforts in Lower Kinabatangan in Sabah, Borneo.

Since its inception in August 2008, the program has been dedicated to the reconnection of fragmented forests within the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Its primary objective is to create a continuous corridor that benefits from the rich biodiversity found within this distinctive rainforest floodplain. Numerous reforestation sites have been transformed from areas previously affected by logging activities. 

These areas include former log dumping sites, abandoned or unused lands, and even former agricultural lands such as palm oil plantations. To date, the program has successfully planted 96,000 trees, leading to the reforestation of over 42 acres of land.

The Good In Tree Planting 

Dr Azian Mohti of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) agrees that planting trees, at least in one’s home compound, is the most effective strategy to reduce climate change effects on top of creating a greener and more beautiful environment[5].

Those who do not have spacious land can also plant trees. – Dr Azian Mohti, head of the Climate Change Programme at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM)[5]

She said that tree planting initiatives would provide a proactive measure that enables communities to address climate change and environmental degradation.

Azian adds that FRIM has the expertise to calculate the carbon footprint and welcomes community involvement in tackling climate change and carbon emission reduction.

FRIM can also assist in the selection of the types of trees for planting according to the area as there are tree species that have a high ability to absorb carbon dioxide. – Dr Azian Mohti, head of the Climate Change Programme at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM)[5]

Among the purported benefits of tree planting are[6]:

#1: Absorbing harmful gases

Trees can absorb and store carbon dioxide (CO2), decreasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, but what’s more, is that they use it. During photosynthesis, CO2 is used to produce sugar, thus providing energy and releasing oxygen. The average-sized tree can store hundreds of pounds over the course of its lifetime.

#2: Supporting Wildlife 

Trees are shelter, food, and homes for critters, insects and birds. Planting trees also contributes to maintaining the diversity of flora and fauna in the area.

Depending on the type of tree planted, wildlife uses additional flowers, leaves, and fruits. The detritus of these trees (e.g. leaves, branches etc.) also enriches the soil once they fall, creating even more places for wildlife to burrow underneath for safety and security as well as returning nutrients back into the ecosystem.

#3: Improving Mental Health 

Living close to trees improves our mental health, recent studies show. Being close to nature positively impacts our cognitive and psychological health, reduces stress and improves concentration.

#4: Flood Prevention 

As storms become more severe, cities and states turn to trees to minimise damage. Indeed, trees are capable of intercepting rainwater and absorbing groundwater flow, reducing the amount of water entering lakes, rivers and reservoirs. New studies suggest that trees planted around rivers may reduce flooding height by as much as 20%.

#5: Health Benefits 

Air pollution is a major health concern and results in more deaths than you may think. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution contributes to more than seven million deaths every year. By filtering air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, trees can prevent adverse health effects and reduce health costs.

#6: Increasing Home Value 

Trees increase a home’s value both visually and reduce energy costs. Recent studies showed that mature trees planted in a nicely manicured yard could increase a home’s value by 1-19%. Another benefit is that trees provide shade to keep streets cool.

We can cut down heat in our cities by planting more trees and making other adjustments in our concrete jungle. We need to enhance natural landscapes by creating vertical greenery in high-rise buildings, planting trees in between lanes and setting up more parks. This will give shade and enhance wind flow to stop the temperature from rising. – Carolyn Lau, Free Tree Society General manager[4]

#7: Energy Conservation 

Through evapotranspiration (which is essentially the evaporation and transpiration processes merged), trees can cool the air. Trees also have a low albedo, and the solar energy is reflected off a surface and back towards space. The higher the albedo, the more solar energy is reflected back to space, often equating to higher temperatures. Lucky for us, leaves have a relatively low albedo, meaning energy is absorbed.

No Simple Solution

There are many doubts regarding tree planting’s effectiveness, however, and some critics believe that such initiatives are little more than greenwashing. 

These days, corporations tend to spend a lot of time and money marketing themselves as eco-friendly. The worse the environmental impacts of their project, the more money they might spend to make the project look green, attempting to draw in the authorities to play a part in the obfuscation, cover-up and greenwashing. – Khoo Salma Nasution, vice-president of the Penang Heritage Trust[7]

More often than not, tree planting programmes involve planting forest plantations. These are essentially monoculture forests filled with fast-growing commercially-important species such as eucalyptus and acacia[8].

If policies to incentivise tree plantations are poorly designed or poorly enforced, there is a high risk of not only wasting public money but also releasing more carbon and losing biodiversity. 

That’s the exact opposite of what these policies are aiming for. – Prof Eric Lambin, Stanford University[8]

Indeed, the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s degraded and deforested lands by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030, found that nearly 80% of the commitments made to date involve planting monoculture plantations or a limited mix of trees that produce specific products such as fruit or rubber[8].

Almost 70,000 ha inside forest reserves in Peninsular Malaysia are planted with rubber trees. This is allowed because the trees are perceived as timber trees, though latex sales are crucial for the planters. Source: Macaranga

Malaysia is no different; here, only “degraded forests” are eligible to be converted into forest plantations. According to criteria set by the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia, degraded forests are those damaged by illegal logging, shifting cultivation, pests, or fire. They are also those where the average volume of harvestable timber per hectare is less than
153 m3 [9].

That last criterion is especially concerning as according to the latest National Forestry Inventory (2010-2013), forests in all states except Melaka have averaged below the 153 m3/ha threshold. This means that most forests in Peninsular Malaysia are considered “degraded” and – by extension – eligible to be turned into forest plantations[9].

Clearing healthy reserves is completely contrary to Malaysia’s tree-planting campaign goals especially when the workers log but do not replant as promised. The cleared land will be abandoned after the timbers have been sold, resulting in severe degradation of the forest. 

Macaranga,a journalism portal covering the environment and sustainability in Malaysia, found that between 2012 and 2020, about 67.9% of the 185,413 ha of reserves cleared for forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia have not been replanted[9].

And of those hectares of forest reserves approved for forest plantations by state governments since 2012, about 80% of these projects have been in Kelantan and Pahang. The lack of replanting by developers has led to Kelantan and Pahang chief ministers cancelling 12,000 hectares and 23,000 hectares of forest plantation projects, respectively[10].

The results of these new housing projects are disappointing. Corporations build nice, modern-looking homes but with sparsely planted decorative trees over what was once a virgin jungle or a secondary forest. Some are built on large tracts of dormant oil palm and rubber estate land. Worse, they build homes by clearing vegetation on steep hills. – Rohiman Haroon, film script writer[10]

Overall, the current tree planting projects are not enough to compensate for the current forest cover loss caused by the cutting down of “degraded forests” to create forest plantations. Such a simple solution to climate change and environmental degradation is not effective alone.

Can We Still Make It Work?

While tree planting is commendable, it becomes problematic when it replaces the removal of mature, old-growth trees that have taken decades to reach their full height. This process releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere, ultimately undermining tree planting’s purpose.

As such, we need to consider doing more than just tree planting if we are to save our forests and combat climate change. These are the 10 Golden Rules of tree planting[12]:

#1: Protect Our Existing Forests 

Keeping our existing forests in their current unspoiled state is always preferable; undamaged old forests with a wide biodiversity of trees are much better at absorbing carbon dioxide and maintaining soil stability than monoculture forest plantations.

Whenever there’s a choice, we stress that halting deforestation and protecting
remaining forests must be a priority.
– Prof Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at RGB Kew[12]

#2: Put Community At The Heart Of Tree-Planting Projects 

Studies show that getting local communities on board is key to tree-planting success. It is often local people or native communities (i.e. Orang Asli) who have the most to gain from looking after the forest in the future.

For example, we worked with the Orang Asli Jahai in the Royal Belum State Park for seed collection and to establish native tree nurseries, in collaboration with The Habitat Foundation and the Perak State Parks Corporation (PSPC). The Orang Asli Jahai from Kampung Klewang and Kampung Sungai Tiang, Perak collected seeds of wild fruit trees, dipterocarps, and other target species from the forests adjacent to their village based on the TRCRC’s requirements. – Dr Lee Jo Kien, Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) Lead Analyst[4]

#3: Optimising Biodiversity Recovery In Achieving Multiple Goals

Reforestation should be about several goals, including guarding against climate change, improving conservation, preventing biodiversity loss and providing economic and cultural benefits.

#4: Choosing The Right Area For Reforestation

Plant trees in areas that were historically forested but have become degraded, rather than using other natural habitats such as peatlands (known as a vital habitat for fireflies and other species).

Dr Richard Chung, the Head of Floral Biodiversity Programme, Forest Biodiversity Division of FRIM, says that among the natural habitats found in Malaysia include hill dipterocarp forest, upper hill dipterocarp forest, mountain oak forest, mountain ericaceous forest, marine swamp forest, peat swamp forest, freshwater swamp forest, riparian edge forest, coastal forest, swamp forest and limestone forest[13].

Remembering which tree is best suited to which habitat is crucial to ensuring the health of both the tree and the overall ecosystem.

#5: Natural Forest Regrowth Wherever Possible

Letting trees grow back naturally can be cheaper and more efficient than planting trees.

#6: Selecting The Right Tree Species  

Tree planting requires picking the right trees. Scientists advise a mixture of tree species naturally found in the local area, including some rare species and trees of economic importance, but avoiding trees that might become invasive.

Knowing where to best plant new trees will also help minimise potential environmental issues (e.g. disrupting the groundwater table, increasing local warmth, reducing soil fertility etc.) that may arise from poorly located or chosen tree species.

The choice of species must meet the purpose of planting and land suitability, including prioritising local tree species, fast-growing trees which require minimum care, deep roots, suitable soil conditions, less leaf, branch or fruit fall and no poisonous fruits. Many are interested in planting forest tree species in their garden without realising that these trees will cause maintenance problems like uncontrolled growth or trees that can damage public amenities. – Dr Richard Chung, Head of Floral Biodiversity Programme, Forest Biodiversity Division of FRIM[13]

Of particular importance to Malaysia are members of the Dipterocarpaceae family of trees which dominate 80% of the country’s rainforest canopies and more than half of the species in Peninsular Malaysia are considered threatened.

Many dipterocarps have a slow reproductive cycle in which seeds are produced only during mast fruiting events which occur every five to seven years, during El Nino years. Coupled with their low survival rates in the wild and short range of seed dispersal (up to 30m from the parent tree), the odds truly are stacked against them. Adding to the conservation challenge, the dipterocarps have seeds that cannot be stored in seed banks due to their high-water content, which renders them unviable for freezing. They must be germinated within a few days or they die. – Dr Lee Jo Kien, Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) Lead Analyst[4]

#7: Selected Trees Should Possess Resilience To Withstand Climate Change 

Use tree seeds that are suitable for the local climate and how that might change in the future.

#8: Plan Ahead 

Always make plans for how to source seeds or trees, where and when to plant them and how to best work with local communities.

It’s not just about planting a tree. It needs to be done thoughtfully and well, because you can’t just stick a tree in the ground and come back in 100 years and have a forest. It takes an immense amount of money, labour, and patience to turn a seed into a sapling. “We don’t want to just waste our time sticking a seedling in the ground that’ll die. – Greg Edge, a forest ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Forestry Division[14]

#9: Learn By Doing 

Combine scientific knowledge with local knowledge. Ideally, small-scale trials should take place before planting large numbers of trees.

#10: Make It Pay 

Tree re-planting sustainability rests on a source of income for all stakeholders, including the poorest.

Tree planting is more complex than we think. And whether it does more harm than good depends on the context and the methods involved.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to plant more trees in your garden. You can always use shade and extra oxygen.

Explore our sources:

  1. Bernama. (2021). Muhyiddin launches 100 million tree-planting campaign. The Star. Link.
  2. M. Gaworecki. (2021). Explainer: Is tree planting as good for the Earth as we believe? Mongabay. Link.
  3. Mangrove tree planting programme. (2021). The Star. Link.
  4. Bernama. (2023). Planting trees no panacea for climate change: Experts. New Straits Times. Link.
  5. Bernama. (2021). Planting trees most effective strategy to reduce effects of climate change, says FRIM. The Star. Link.
  6. 10 POWERFUL BENEFITS OF PLANTING TREES. (2018). NuEnergy. Link.
  7. K.S. Nasution. (2023). Green or Greenwash. FMT. Link.
  8. M. McGrath. (2020). Climate change: Planting new forests ‘can do more harm than good’. BBC. Link.
  10. R. Haroon. (2022). We have tolerated corporate greenwashing for too long. New Straits Times. Link.
  11. H. Briggs. (2021). Scientists address myths over large-scale tree planting. BBC. Link.
  12. Bernama. (2021). 100 million tree-planting campaign: know the trees, areas before planting – FRIM. The Star. Link.
  13. K. Mandel. (2021). Planting trees helps fight climate change—but we need billions more seedlings. National Geographic. Link.

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