Countries taking part at COP26 have been asked to commit to ambitious emissions reductions targets and tasked with a number of interventions. One key element of reaching net zero by 2050 is by curtailing deforestation. Our researchers are already at work on projects around the world that are influencing policy and protecting the environments that are essential to a healthy planet.
We’ve been working extensively in the Amazon Rainforest to create a long-term baseline for assessing transformations that threaten biodiversity, indigenous heritage and community identity. By documenting the forest’s rich cultural and environmental history, we’ve demonstrated that native populations did not passively adapt to the forest, but rather transformed it, attaining long-term food security and nutritional diversity resilient to climate change and broad social upheaval. This knowledge is now helping to shape successful, sustainable subsistence strategies for the future.
In cases where it is too late to curtail deforestation, we’re working on projects that help to restore the environment. Partnering with the NGO Instituto Ouro Verde (“Institute of Green Gold”), we are supporting economically poor Brazilians to plant trees, creating tree-based grazing systems that provide a sustainable source of food and income while also improving the soil.
Another of our studies found that the rainforest released more carbon than it stored in the 2010s. This study is important because it demonstrated that rainforest degradation can be just as catastrophic for the environment as deforestation. By using a ground-breaking satellite vegetation index, we tracked degradation and its dramatic impact on overall biomass and carbon storage.
Professor Stephen Sitch - University of Exeter Global Systems Institute
We have also discovered that small trees that grow up in drought conditions can adapt better and grow into a new generation to help the rainforest survive. Severe, long-lasting droughts are becoming more common, often killing trees that form the forest canopy. By using data collected from a long-running drought experiment, our scientists discovered that small trees are more adaptive, using the extra light they receive when larger trees die to increase their capacity for photosynthesis and growth – despite a lack of water. This allows them to form the next generation of canopy trees, increasing the forest’s resilience.
Our work in the Amazon has been featured in the media, including a three-part documentary aired on Channel 4 in the UK and the Discovery Channel in the US.
Shifting the Focus: Curtailing Deforestation Beyond the Rainforest
As part of an international team, we’ve overturned the conventional wisdom that has seen most conservation efforts focused on rainforests.
In a study that included data from more than 10,000 forest and savanna sites across the Americas, we’ve revealed that temperate and tropical dry forests are home to thousands of unique tree species that merit far greater conservation attention and cannot be ignored.
Our efforts in curtailing deforestation also include reforesting. Here in the UK, the University of Exeter’s NetZeroPlus project is planting 750,000 hectares of trees over 25 years. In Borneo, we’re equipping community groups with the resources to grow trees and earn income, and in East Africa we’re working with TIST – which has supported local farmers to plant more than 20 million trees.
Trees are the most cost-effective way to remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere and deliver benefits such as enhanced biodiversity as well as recreational and health improvements. They are one of the critical assets we have to achieving net zero and at the University of Exeter, we at the forefront of their protection.
The University of Exeter’s IDSAI, and Global Systems Institute are working with The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program (TIST) to quantify and understand their impacts at landscape scales and on multiple sustainable development goals.
TIST is a network of farmers who have to date planted over 19 million trees. Started in Tanzania in 1998 by Bishop Simon Chiwanga and missionaries Ben and Vanessa Henneke, TIST has grown to over 90,000 members across 4 countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and India.
A meeting at Exeter with farmers involved in TIST outlined a project which could help TIST’s growth and effectiveness. Using their observations, remote sensing and fieldwork, the University of Exeter are assessing carbon capture, regreening, vegetation resilience, soil health and biodiversity impacts.
Additionally, thanks to a grant from the Turing Institute, the University have also been able to analyse TIST’s organisational data to study how factors like female participation and engagement with cluster meetings affect tree planting.
Analysing the data, the team identified the overall trends for TIST groups in Kenya, Uganda, and India. They found that in all three countries the early participants of TIST tended to be younger and longer established TIST groups tended to attend fewer cluster meetings than newer groups. In India, the ratio of women in TIST groups was significantly positively correlated with the number and diversity of trees planted by those groups.
With the use of satellite data researchers have monitored the effect that TIST has had on the groves of smallholder farmers in the vicinity of Mount Kenya, as well as across the landscape more broadly. They detected the ‘TIST effect’. Over this time period, TIST groves became greener than the surrounding agricultural region. They also investigated the secondary effects that TIST is having beyond the boundaries of groves, finding a spillover effect up to 200m away from groves. This is due to the ecological benefits of agroforestry, such as reduced soil erosion and increased soil nutrient levels, in addition to social effects of having a nearby source of wood fuel, as TIST farmers are less likely to deplete surrounding woodland.
The TIST programme, as a farmer-led enterprise which spreads by word of mouth has been extraordinarily successful. Through planting over 19 million trees, TIST has helped some of India and East Africa’s poorest farmers improve their lives and livelihoods. A ‘bottom-up’ approach with an emphasis on attracting diverse participants and providing networking and leadership opportunities to all members has brought opportunity and empowerment to the regions where TIST is active.
Climate change is not a problem for people 20 years in the future. TIST is active in some of the regions that are experiencing the worst effects of climate change right now. At Exeter we hope to continue our collaboration with TIST by helping them to analyse and understand their organizational data and to understand the ancillary benefits of TIST beyond tree planting. We hope that we can help TIST become an international example of how local leadership and ecologically beneficial farming can lead to a brighter, greener future for everyone.
To find out some real life stories from TIST Farmers who are transforming their lives, ensuring better futures for their children and improving local communities by planting trees, visit the TIST website.