10 Golden Rules for Forest Restoration: Deep dive into MORFO's approach

Image source: Lifehdfilm
April 19, 2023

In 2021, scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) published a review defining the "Ten Golden Rules for Forest Restoration".. The aim of the review was to highlight the environmental risks associated with large-scale tree planting and to propose rules based on the latest ecological research for restoring forest ecosystems to maximize carbon sequestration and biodiversity recovery, while improving the lives of local communities.

Although some reforestation projects have been very successful, such as the successful regeneration of Nepal's forests through the through the Community Forest Program, which gave control of forests to local communities, resulting in an increase in forest cover from 26% to 45%, there have also been significant failures, such as in Cambodia where a 34,000 hectare reforestation project resulted in the disappearance of native forest in favor of a monoculture of species, with considerable costs to local biodiversity and the local community.

As a large-scale reforestation provider, we thought it would be appropriate to take a step back and evaluate our actions in light of these rules.

Golden Rule #1: Protect existing forests first

Rule principle

Forest destruction harms the environment with huge carbon dioxide emissions that are hard to offset by reforestation. Conserving existing forests is essential since it takes over 100 years for them to recover. Governments and corporations need to create more protected areas and legislate against deforestation, while local efforts should focus on tackling the drivers of deforestation, such as fires and overgrazing by livestock.

MORFO's approach

MORFO is an actor which specializes in reforestation and restoration of forest ecosystems. Our expertise may not be directly focused on stopping deforestation, however we certainly support the fight against deforestation and we are happy to work with any actor who consciously engages against deforestation without proof of sustainability.

Golden Rule #2: Work with local people

Rule principle

One of the most common causes of unsuccessful reforestation projects is the lack of local community inclusion. Such communities are at the heart of reforestation, and working with them benefits not only reforestation in itself by ensuring a long-term successful outcome for a project, but also benefits the own lives of local community members by creating and providing opportunities for employment — in land preparation, tree planting and forest maintenance — as well as for development of sustainable forest-based enterprises.

MORFO's approach

Local stakeholders are essential to the success of reforestation efforts at MORFO. We integrate the expectations of local populations into each reforestation project. Thus, each reforestation project begins with an interrogation phase, submitted in the form of a questionnaire. The analysis of this questionnaire makes it possible to establish a framework and recommendations specific to the project. This questionnaire can change many parameters, such as the species planted, the planting method, the planting period, the operational monitoring period, the investment in the operational monitoring of forest growth, etc.

Beyond this consultation phase, we also work closely with local players to collect seeds, prepare land and monitor reforestation projects over the long term. We collaborate with local associations to provide invaluable assistance in setting up projects, and in some cases, to help with planting in the traditional way. To date, over 1,000 people have worked directly or indirectly with MORFO on our projects in Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, France and French Guiana. We are convinced that this close collaboration with local stakeholders is essential to the long-term success of our reforestation projects.

Additionally, these communities have a valuable source of knowledge of the characteristics of the land and the native ecosystem. In exchange for their help, we enable fair economic redistribution and support the local economy. By restoring their native forests, which many subsist of, we aim to create a mutually beneficial relationship with these communities. These contributions are a form of "citizen science": communities participate in the construction of our scientific research and the development of knowledge. By sharing their insights, experiences, and local knowledge, they help to expand our understanding of complex ecological systems and the ways in which they are impacted by human activities.

Our project in the north of Rio de Janeiro

One example of local stakeholders integration is our reforestation initiative in Miguel Pereira in the northern state of Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with ITPA  , a well-established Brazilian organization that has been at the forefront of tree planting for over two decades. One of the key objectives of this initiative was to help restore the Atlantic Forest, which is one of the most damaged forests in the world. To date, ITPA has successfully restored over one million hectares of this forest , a remarkable achievement.

In this 50-hectare project, 75% of the area was replanted by drones, and 25% with the help of local populations who are already working there. ITPA provides MORFO with knowledge of the Mata Atlantica biome, access to a nursery for manual planting, and local workers to carry out the planting.

By planting seeds and restoring the ecosystem, this project helps regenerate this critical area that supplies 80% of Rio's water and 30% of its energy through the Guandu basin.

Golden Rule #3: Maximize biodiversity recovery to achieve multiple objectives

Rule principle

Planting fast-growing trees does not meet all the objectives of a reforestation project. It is necessary to achieve broader objectives such as reducing carbon emissions, conserving species, providing economic benefits to local communities and delivering ecosystem services such as stable water systems. Long-term restoration of native forests and reintroduction of the original biodiversity is essential to sequester more carbon, boost ecosystem services and generate economic benefits for the local community by offering diverse livelihood opportunities such as sustainable forest products and ecotourism.

MORFO's approach

At MORFO, we are convinced that a global approach is needed to restore ecosystemsincluding the promotion of plant species diversity, long-term monitoring of projects and the involvement of local populations. We have built up a catalog of over 150 plant species, which are currently being analyzed or have already been planted. We aim to plant at least 20 local species in each reforestation project. Nevertheless, we are well aware that there are obstacles to overcome to achieve our goal of maximizing biodiversity.

To remove the barriers to multi-species reforestation, we must quickly expand our microbiological, agronomic, botanical, and forestry knowledge. We are moving forward with R&D and improved coordination among the various actors in the reforestation process. We recognize that these steps are critical for the success of projects aimed at regrowing native forests. Our mission is to combine different areas of knowledge and make them usable in the field through simple and economical solutions. The daily work of each team member is essential to achieving this goal.


Golden Rule #4: Select the right area for reforestation

Rule principle

Planting trees on land that was once forest is the best solution for maximizing carbon sequestration efficiency, as non-forested areas such as grasslands or wetlands already contribute to carbon sequestration in their own way, mainly through the soil. Reforestation by linking a new forest to an existing one is also advantageous, as the new forest tends to regenerate naturally by enlarging the size of the existing forest. The location of reforestation can also be chosen according to the ecosystem services it offers, such as recreational space, wildlife habitat, clean air and shade. However, it is important to note that selecting a site already used for agricultural purposes could lead to further deforestation elsewhere if farming is not carried out in a sustainable manner.

MORFO's approach

MORFO restores areas — concentrated in tropical and subtropical areas such as the Atlantic forest and the Equatorial African forest — that were previously forested and that have been deforested, therefore turning unproductive. A natural ecosystem implies ecological continuity, which is necessary for forests to be resilient. When it comes to reforestation in an area that doesn’t yet possess an ecosystem, our goal is to reconstruct existing forests as naturally and closely as possible. This means that, while we are restoring these ecosystems and planting native species to the environment, we aren’t acting on areas where the existing fauna is already well developed, all thanks to analyses of the land done beforehand.

It is also important that we take into account the present and future human usage of the land when reconstructing the catalog of species to plant. This can include the gathering of wood and/or others which as medicinal plants, flowers, or fruits.

Golden Rule #5: Prioritize natural forest restoration

Rule principle

As well as being cheaper and more effective than tree planting, carbon sequestration can be 40 times greater in naturally regenerated areas. This natural approach is best used on slightly degraded sites or near existing forests, which can serve as an important source of seeds.

MORFO's approach

At MORFO, we understand that natural regeneration, that is, a natural recreation of forests done by the regrowing ecosystem itself, is the best way for these areas to produce local, adapted, strong flora and ultimately more carbon absorbent. Our goal is to replicate processes that occur naturally on a much quicker and larger scale.

While analyzing the land needing reforestation — the first of the four phases of MORFO’s reforestation process — we learn about the area’s characteristics and needs. We then pursue the second phase of every project, studying the ecosystem that needs restoration, and target areas which areas need more attention that others, specifically those that haven’t yet begun a natural regeneration process.

Source: MORFO

The process of natural regeneration without human intervention can present challenges in the face of the urgency of climate change. However, we know that forests are a major solution for absorbing carbon dioxide, sequestering around 35% of the carbon in the atmosphere, according to the IPCC. Aware of the importance of acting quickly, at MORFO we combine effective technology and research to reforest at a high rate. With just one dronewe are able to plant up to 50 hectares per day, sowing 180 seeds per minute. We focus our efforts on tropical and subtropical zones, which have a higher capacity for carbon sequestration.

The question of invasive species is also a critical one, which, without any intervention, can grow and dominate forests, preventing actual ecosystems from flourishing. Intervention in these scenarios is needed in order to regulate the number and types of species in said ecosystems.

Additionally, in some biodiverse regions, natural regeneration isn’t always the best solution, where natural recolonization processes are incapable of reinstating ecosystems once the native vegetation has been removed. In such scenarios, substantial planting and seeding are required.

Golden Rule #6: Select tree species that maximize biodiversity

Rule principle

Conserving biodiversity when natural regeneration is impossible works best when creating a mixed-species forest. One that, in terms, will be better at creating habitats for wildlife, attracting seed dispersers and pollinators, and will be more resilient to disease, fire and extreme weather events. Planting a mix of native trees species, and if feasible, rare and endangered ones, is best as they form beneficial relationships with other livings beings native to the ecosystem, such as fungi, pollinators, and seed-dispersing animals. Invasive species should be avoided as they compete with other species and take over natural habitats, reducing biodiversity and oftentimes lowering water availability.

MORFO's approach

MORFO’s seed selection is the result of daily R&D work carreid out in our internal laboratories and with our partners. Our catalog contains over 150 species that are being or have been studied. For a species to be selected with the MORFO method, it must meet at least  13 criteria, some of which are mandatory and others non-compulsory. These criteria are taken into account based on project characteristics — distribution area, growth rate, carbon storage capacity, soil compaction, etc. — and include being local species, being a good-sized seed, being an orthodox seed, providing strong resistance to water stress, ensuring genetic diversity and being part of a large global stock.

Our seeds are encapsulated in what we call seedpods, then dispersed and planted via drones  on-site. These capsules contain all the biological and nutritional elements necessary for long-term reforestation.


Golden Rule #7: Use resilient tree species that can adapt to a changing climate

Rule principle

Resilience is important to restored forests in order to be strong against pests, diseases and long-term environmental change. This is why it is important to use tree seeds or seedlings with appropriate levels of genetic diversity to match the region they are planted in and make them suitable for the local or projected climate.

MORFO's approach

MORFO constantly conducts experiments and analyses in various laboratories to expand our knowledge in microbiology, ecology, botany, and forestry. This R&D work is an extremely important aspect of our mission because it allows us to optimize all aspects of our technology, starting with the quality and selection of our seeds.

We work with laboratories and research institutes in France and Brazil. In France, we have already launched two research programs with the IRD. We signed our first research collaboration with IRD in May 2021, which concluded in December 2022. This collaboration demonstrated the feasibility and the scientific validity of MORFO’s seed encapsulation process of tropical, temperate and Sahelian essences, as well as our large-area and diverse terrain procedure results. 

We work with laboratories and research institutes in France and Brazil. In France, we have already launched two research programs with the IRD. We signed our first research collaboration with IRD in May 2021, which concluded in December 2022. This collaboration demonstrated the feasibility and the scientific validity of MORFO’s seed encapsulation process of tropical, temperate and Sahelian essences, as well as our large-area and diverse terrain procedure results. 

MORFO interviewed Robin Duponnois, Director of Research at the IRD since 2002, who is the leader of our partnership. He has carried out various scientific, technical and administrative activities in evaluation, consultancy and research management for 20 years while being deployed in different countries. He is an internationally recognized specialist in the knowledge and management of soil-microorganism-plant and rhizosphere systems.


Golden Rule #8: Plan ahead

Rule principle

Decisions should be made long before the start of the project: where will the seeds or trees be sourced from, what facilities and protocols will be needed for seed banking and propagation. It is essential to use appropriate, preferably local infrastructure and seed supply chains, from seed collection to tree planting. Working with local people who are valuable sources of labor and expertise in identifying and locating target trees, and training them for seed collecting, cleaning and storage equipment and activities is crucial.

MORFO's approach

MORFO not only uses efficient data collecting, precise R&D with valuable partnerships,quick and risk-free planting with drones and seedpodsand long-term follow-up of projects, but also works with local actors to collect, prepare and plant seeds, and this for multiple reasons. 

First of all, it is now established that reforestation projects are more likely to succeed if local communities benefit economically from the project. In a a recent study published in BioScience by Sara Löfqvist and colleagues from ETH Zurich, it was noted that the effectiveness of ecosystem restoration projects can be improved by taking social and equity issues into account. Our goal is to secure seeds at least one year in advance by financing seed collector networks. At the moment, this goal is not always met, simply because we have many requests for reforestation that must be completed within a short time frame. It should be noted that not only do we fund the collectors, but we also train them free of charge on seed preparation and storage, a skill they can then use in future contracts with other actors or organizations.

Working with local actors also allows us to better understand the characteristics of the area in question and to improve the quality of future reforestation. Despite all the data we have and the precision of our R&D, it is always useful to have the opinion of local experts to eventually change the choice of seeds that will be replanted in a particular area. For example, during the project carried out with the ITPA organization in the north of Rio de Janeiro (see Golden Rule n°2), we were able to discuss with the organization's experts before the planting project was carried out.

Collecting seeds on the premises allows us to respect all current sanitary rules by avoiding the introduction of diseases or external parasites.

Golden rule #9: Learn by doing

Rule principle

Existing sources of scientific and local knowledge should be consulted before starting a restoration project to aid decisions like species selection. Small scale trials are good to secure the right tree selection and to test their effectiveness before applying techniques on a large scale. Monitoring of success indicators, such as the recovery of an endangered species, should be regular in order to follow the ecosystem’s recovery and allow project managers to adapt accordingly.

MORFO's approach

At MORFO, learning by doing is the basis of our activities. Not only do we reforest, we also conduct research in parallel. Currently present in Brazil's Atlantic Forest, Gabon and French Guiana, we are gradually extending our activities to other regions of the tropics and subtropics. These ecosystems are known for their high carbon sequestration capacity and represent around 360 million hectares of land available for reforestation, without competition from human activities such as agriculture and urbanization. This equates to 40% of the world's total 900 million hectares of land available for reforestation. Although our focus may shift to areas in need of forest restoration in the future, we currently concentrate on a single biome, enabling us to master the areas in which we work and accelerate forest growth, concentrating on specific parts of these areas to learn as much as possible about local life forms and soil types. Regular monitoring of small-scale projects enables us to select appropriate tree species for large-scale planting, and to adapt our strategies according to observed results, such as the recovery of an endangered species.

Source: Global forest management data for 2015 at a 100 m resolution, Science Data

Golden rule #10: Make it pay

Rule principle

To ensure the sustainability of reforestation projects, it is necessary to generate diversified sources of income that benefit different people, including: carbon credits (a permit that authorizes a country or organization to produce a certain amount of CO₂ emissions, which can be traded if not used), sustainably produced forest products and ecotourism (a lucrative source of income for local people that values and monetizes biodiversity).

MORFO's approach

Being a cornerstone for MORFO, which praises each one of its actors, we make sure that every step of the supply chain benefits from our forest restoration projects. MORFO respects not only our clients’ demands but those of the local population. Specific elements can be taken into account during the customer ordering process. Stakeholders’ product needs, listed in the project’s specifications, can include demands for sustainably-produced forest products like wood, medicinal plants, fruits, flowers or ecotourism (see Golden Rule n°2).

Our business model is designed to be profitable, making large-scale reforestation projects feasible. Profits generated are partially redistributed to reinvest in technology and knowledge R&D. Thanks to the income generated by our projects, we can guarantee long-term production and project follow-up. We also offer reforestation projects to generate and sell.

In conclusion: summary table and future updates

Thank you for showing interest in this article. The chart bellow summarizes all 10 "Golden Rules" and explains how MORFO applies these rules in its restoration projects.

Source: MORFO

We will continue to develop our methodology in accordance with these 10 rules. We will keep you informed in future articles. You can also subscribe to our newsletter to receive all MORFO news.

Chief Writer and Content Manager
Lorie Louque
- Paris, France
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