Planting and utilising trees for people’s survival needs has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, but in the relatively recent past, about 30-40 years, tree-planting seems to have become something of a cult. This has been driven by a number of factors including the perception or belief that planting trees will somehow save people from having to pay for their environmental sins, especially the wasteful consumption of limited natural resources, pollution of the air, soil and water; and the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and climate change.
Tree Cultivation (Siviculture)
Historically, trees have been grown and used sustainably by people for various purposes; either through cultivating them as a source of useful products such as edible fruits and nuts, medicine; and timber for construction, fuel and furniture; or by using them as living screens for protection against bad weather or intruding animals. In many cultures trees are virtually synonymous with peoples’ homes, food and livelihoods.
Over centuries Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in forested regions acquired comprehensive knowledge of the trees and forests that provided them with so many useful things, and this knowledge together with the skills that enabled people to utilise trees and forests in a sustainable way, became known as the art or science of ‘forestry’. People used only as much as they needed, and the natural regrowth of trees ensured that forests were also able to replace themselves and thus maintain their provision of ecological services, such as climate regulation, and producing clean air and water.
Tree Destruction (Deforestation)
People have also been destroying trees (and forests) as part of so-called ‘development’. Traditionally this has been done in order to clear land for farming, or to obtain timber for building homes or making furniture and other useful items like boats and weapons. Over time, new industrial technology in the form of chainsaws, explosives and bulldozers made it possible for people to access and to destroy far greater areas of forest with far less effort and at a far lower monetary cost. Thus began the era of large-scale forest destruction and wasteful consumption that we are living in today.
Agroforestry and Permaculture
While the Permaculture model represents going back to traditional small-scale farming that integrates indigenous or fruit trees with crop and livestock production for local consumption, ‘agroforestry’ is now being pushed as another type of intensive industrial agriculture that is focussed on the large scale production of agricultural commodities for export markets. Agroforestry mainly encourages farmers in developing countries to plant alien tree species that can produce industrial commodities. Such alien trees are often invasive and can spread into natural vegetation and grazing land. Some examples of invasive trees that have been falsely promoted for planting as fodder or fuel are Leucaena leucocephala and Eucalyptus species.
Monoculture Tree Plantations
As people became increasingly addicted to the availability of cheap disposable products made from trees, such as toilet tissue and paper packaging, the world started to turn to tree plantations as a source of industrial wood. In many countries, these were established in areas where forests had already been destroyed, but this soon led to the deliberate destruction of old-growth forests to clear land for timber plantations. In South Africa, the national government and multi-national corporations like Sappi and Mondi established large-scale monoculture tree plantations on valuable natural grassland or farmland. This was to produce raw material to make cheap wood-pulp or paper products for export to industrialised countries.
Deciding if Planting Trees is Necessary
Planting trees should be in response to a real local need, not because of external pressure that has been created through the abuse and destruction of natural resources in other countries. An example of this is the way polluting industrialised countries such as Norway expect people in poor developing countries in Africa to plant trees, in order to offset the carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions produced in the North. However there are many good reasons for planting trees, especially if it is to restore previously damaged or destroyed forests, or to provide food, fuel, furniture and fodder; as well as giving protection to people and animals from strong winds and harsh sunlight.
Choosing the Right Trees to Plant
Wherever possible, only locally indigenous trees or non-invasive exotic fruit trees should be planted. Planted trees should complement the natural environment and existing food farming activities, not damage or destroy natural vegetation, especially grassland, or impact negatively on water or soil resources. It is very important to research which trees are best for a particular purpose, and to know what their requirements are in terms of space, water and general climatic conditions. Just as important is to know what purpose the tree needs to serve, in terms of how it will benefit the local wildlife and people where it is planted; besides how it might contribute to protecting the world from climate change. Sadly there are many more trees being destroyed in the name of the consumption-driven global economy than are being planted, and a planted tree can take up to 100 years to reach the same point as a forest giant being cut down in order to make throw-away items for wasteful consumers. Remember too that many of the trees you plant could outlive your generation, and provide pleasure and value to people who are yet to be born, just as we take pride and pleasure from magnificent old, large specimens that started out their lives long before we were born.
Criteria for Choosing the Right Trees
As a rough guide to making your selection, use the ‘Five Fs’ to help you choose a tree:
The shape, height and spread of a tree when fully grown is a most important consideration especially when space is limited or if you are planting near to buildings. Every tree has a particular form that can lend itself to growing in a specific position, and for a specific purpose; like building a tree-house, or serving as a good climbing tree.
Evergreen trees can provide effective screening to hide unsightly buildings or to block the view of a busy road. The dense foliage of conifers like the Yellow-woods can also help absorb noise and pollution from traffic and industrial activities. Densely planted rows of trees also make an effective barrier against wind, which also allows the planting of more delicate species, like fruit bearing trees, in the area that is sheltered.
The foliage (leaves) of a tree is the equivalent of our skin and lungs, enabling them to breathe, while at the same time photosynthesising (to manufacture with the sun’s help) the chemicals that the tree uses to grow, and to produce its fruit. Evergreen foliage provides deep, cool shade all year round in warmer areas, while deciduous trees give shade only when it is most needed in the hot summer months, but allow sunlight through in the cold winter months when they are dormant (without leaves).
Flowers are the reproductive organs of trees that enable them to produce the seeds that are vital to the survival of their species. Most people admire trees that have pretty, colourful or sweetly-scented flowers; however flowers are also an important source of food to wildlife, especially nectar-feeding birds and insects such as the honey-bee! Tree flowers are used in Homeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine for the preparation of valuable natural remedies for ill-health and mental conditions.
Imagine a world without the hundreds of kinds of delicious fruits and nuts that provide healthy food to billions of people over the planet. Different fruit-bearing trees have evolved to be able to grow in different conditions; from freezing winters to sweltering tropical climes. The domesticated fruit trees have also been bred by selection and hybridisation to enhance the size and flavour of their fruits, as well as to extend the fruiting period for the benefit of people. However we must remember that all of these varieties originally came from wild species, and we also have a responsibility to make sure that the natural species are grown and preserved for the benefit of future generations. Remember too that wild fruits are one of the natural sources of nutrients that our wildlife needs to survive.