In recent days an Instagram post about planting trees has been making its way, like the darkest of dark horses, up the list of most liked posts in the platform’s history. As of this writing, it’s tallied 14.3 million likes, more than Justin Bieber’s engagement photo with Hailey Baldwin, and more than any picture Kylie Jenner has ever posted of her daughter, other than her first photo. (Duh—look at that tiny well-manicured hand!) The Great Instagram Tree Post of 2019 currently sits in fifth place, just behind a picture Selena Gomez took with her friends.
The meteoric post is from the eco-friendly apparel company Tentree. Peppered with a healthy helping of tree emoji, it promises that for “every TEN LIKES this post gets, we will plant ONE TREE” in Indonesia. And who’d turn down an offer to help the planet when all it takes is to read a few words and tap a little heart.
Tentree, of course, has a business interest in going viral: It gains followers, exposure, and presumably sales. That said, if a company is volunteering to plant trees, then by all means they should help reforest the world. Except that reforestation isn’t so easy as liking an Instagram post, and it’s not so easy as just planting lots of trees and walking away. Because as with any celebrity’s carefully orchestrated photo on social media, the reality is much more complicated.
Conservationists have a few ways of restoring forests. One is known as natural regeneration, in which some deforested areas regrow on their own if protected from further logging. “You don’t need to plant anything, you just stop whacking the system,” says Bronson Griscom, director of forest carbon science at the Nature Conservancy. “Stop burning it, stop plowing it, stop cutting it.”
A variation on this strategy is called assisted natural regeneration, in which conservationists strategically plant certain species, like fruit trees, to kickstart the system. “Then the birds will start coming and they’ll bring species from elsewhere,” says Griscom. Their poop carries seeds that can over time add variety to the area. “You don’t have to plant all the species—you just plant some key species that bring the system back into a diverse form.”
But that’s just the beginning: Deforestation will keep happening in a given area unless there’s a bigger intervention. This means reining in unsustainable logging operations, which also isn’t that straightforward—the livelihood of local peoples has to factor in too.
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Take, for instance, work that the Nature Conservancy does in Brazil. A major threat to Brazil’s forests is ranching, both from big and little players: Smaller outfits raise calves, which they pass on to larger ranchers to raise as adult cattle. Conservationists can work relatively easily with the big ranchers and convince them to better mind the forests, “but it’s this larger group of people that have smaller amounts of land that’s hard, because they don’t have as many options,” says Griscom.
So the Nature Conservancy is helping them switch to a more forest-friendly livelihood with cacao farming. The beauty of cacao is that it does well in the shade, which means you don’t need to clear-cut forests to grow it. Instead, you integrate the farm right into the forest. Bonus: Studies have shown this kind of cultivation can actually increase biodiversity and improve soil fertility.
Reforesting by planting a bunch of trees, then, is just the start. “It’s a stop doing thing, rather than a doing thing,” says Griscom. “Having said that, in our experience in order to stop doing something it is still a doing story, in the sense that, how do you change someone’s livelihood so that they’re doing something else?”
Sometimes that means making strange allies, namely with logging companies. If they have a lease on a plot of land, they’re going to log it, so you may as well try to get them to do so sustainably.
The Nature Conservancy
“There’s actually empirical evidence that loggers that have a long-term interest in the system—and they’re trying to play by the rules and have a sustainable business—can log very high-diversity tropical forests sustainably while maintaining virtually all of the species,” says Griscom. “If you can keep the bad actors out, but help these companies figure out how to have sustainable businesses, they can be your ally.” Yeah, it might feel a bit gross, but it’s beneficial for all parties—conservationists keep an environment not necessarily pristine, but pretty darn healthy, and sustainable logging businesses can sell certified wood at a premium.
Over in Indonesia, Tentree says it is helping rebuild coastal mangrove forests devastated by earthquake-induced tsunamis and deforestation by locals seeking firewood and shelter. So it’s not going toe-to-toe with giant logging companies. But it’s also aware that you can’t just plant trees and leave, because this isn’t the company’s first reforestation rodeo. It says it has planted 29 million trees around the world to date, and hopes to plant a billion by 2030.
“What we’ve learned is that for a large-scale reforestation project to really take hold and really have a meaningful impact, you need to engage the local community,” says Derrick Emsley, cofounder and CEO of Tentree. “It’s really about employing local people in the planting, getting them engaged in the education of why tree planting is important, and how to prevent future deforestation.” Tentree also says it’ll fund security in certain reforestation sites for up to three years. The company can’t say, though, what a project the size of this Instagram campaign might cost them, though it’s worth noting they’ve set an upper limit of a million trees.
Tentree, which on its website says it wants to become “the most environmentally progressive brand on the planet,” may sell some more t-shirts or hoodies and pump up its follower count; its current 2.6 million includes a boost of about 300,000 followers since the campaign began, according to social media analytics company SocialBlade. (Tentree also deleted several thousand Instagram posts in the runup to this campaign, “to focus all of the attention we were getting on the impact of this post,” the company says.) But what a simple square image of a sapling on a bright green background can’t capture is all the nuance that has to go into doing this right. And Earth’s deforestation problem is nothing but nuance—saving forests means tweaking local economies, and at times making allies of loggers.
But what 14.3 million Instagrammers (and counting), and Tentree, and conservationists do know is that reforestation is critical for the health of our planet. “I’m optimistic in the sense that I think there’s a huge number of options for doing these things,” says Griscom. “It’s a huge lift, but the benefits of doing that are numerous—better water quality, air filtration, not to mention biodiversity.” Carbon capture, too: Vegetation helps soak up the massive amount of CO2 that’s infested our atmosphere.
Vaguely more important than Justin Bieber’s engagement photo, I’d say.