Trees are good for the planet. Today's guest explains how trees do so much more for us than just sequester carbon. He shows how we can all help too.
Today I'm talking to Hank Dearden, who's executive director of ForestPlanet. Hank, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Hank: Thank you so much for having me.
Anthony: Well, it's a pleasure. Now, Hank, your organization is dedicated to reforestation on a global scale. First of all, why do you want to do that? Secondly, how do you do that?
Hank: Why do I want to do it? Because I've kind of grown accustomed to the habit of a habitable planet, and my background is math and engineering, and I know how to add, and it's a small, itty bitty little blue dot that we have in a vast pitiless void. If you just look at the practical realities of it, if you do want to survive, which I do got to take care of the planet. As an engineer, you're looking at a big complicated problem like sustainability and what have you. You're always looking for an area... We're the fulcrum points or where the places where you can get a lot of leverage with not a whole lot of effort. Trees kept coming up in my life. So I decided to start Forest Planet about five years ago, with the intention that it would be a global thing.
Tree Planting Projects
There are tree planting projects, and the model is kind of what we call a white label business model, if you will, where there are tree planting projects that are up and running and doing beautiful jobs, that most of them are homegrown and they're all around the planet. They're way below anybody's radar that just don't have the awareness and the marketing chops and whatever. 99% of their efforts are spent doing the job of planting the trees and dealing with all the litany of issues they have to deal with in their local communities. They just need someone who can market for them and raise them money. That's been my background.
Anthony: Lots of people are planting trees and they're planting them for carbon offsets, but carbon offsets is not your purpose, is it?
Hank: Not specifically the carbon offsets... A lot of people come to me and say, "Listen, we want to support this because we want to cool the planet." That's true and that will help. But really in a lot of the places where we're working, certainly in the areas of Tanzania where I was just in June, it's about soil restoration or habitat restoration. It's an economic development organization almost masquerading as an environmental one because in all these instances, a big part of the tree, the point of the tree is to retain water, and hold onto water, channel water, and revitalized damaged soils so that the soils could now become arable again and provide livelihood for people.
Soil and Habitat Restoration
When people have a livelihood where no one's getting rich here, but have some kind of basic sustainable, some income security and some food security, they're far less likely to wander into the forest and trash the joint, and cut down all the trees for a short term sale of firewood. That's it. Now, if there's carbon offsets involved with this, and maybe that's the case, but that's not really what I'm doing it for. Maybe I should be, because there's money involved with that and that money could be then channeled back into more tree planting projects. But that's not specifically the goal.
Anthony: Yes. You talk about the money, you talk about 15 cents per tree now, that's presumably a seedling. How quickly does that then actually grow in order to be making a difference?
Hank: Well, actually how we define trees, and I'm glad you brought that up, is a seedling. I don't know if people have this on video. There's a lot of little seedlings behind me on my image here. The seedlings are in nurseries, those are seedlings, those are not trees. Okay. It's a tree as defined when that seedling gets out planted into the field. It needs to be the right type of species, in the right environment, planted at the right time, in the right manner with the right spacing and all that other kind of stuff. Then when that happens, you get 90, 95% survival rates. That is that goal. I'm sorry, I forgot the first part of your question. The 15 cents?
Anthony: Yeah, the 15 cents, as I said, that sounds like a pretty small tree. How long does it take to get up to a size where it's useful?
Hank: It depends on the goal. For example, we planted 80,000 trees on a hillside in Tanzania two years ago. It took them a year, and when they were out planted, they were like 6, 8, 9 inches, what have you. Within a year they doubled its size because they were planted at the right time for the rainy season. They're not full screening trees. But what they were doing is they already had done their job, which meant that they were retaining water during the rainy season. One year later, the people in the community were able to intercrop around the trees, corn, cabbage, beets, carrots, all kind of food products right at the beginning of the rainy season because the trees had already started to revitalize the soil. Within four months, I.e. March of this year, 2022, people were pulling out of that field all manner of food.
The trees had done their job even though they were not anywhere near full size just yet. That was the intent of that particular project. And it worked. The timing was great because that was right when you might remember Russia started this war with Ukraine and grain prices went through the roof, and everybody's talking about global food security and all these are huge issues. I was pointing, "Hey, check this out. These were trees that were planted less than two years ago," and that area looked like Armageddon.
Restoring Degraded Land
It had been burned, it had been denuded by, degraded by climate change, short term farming practices, all manner of negative impacts on the land, looked terrible. Two years later it looked like the Garden of Eden. It really depends on what you're trying to do. Now, did it suck down a whole lot of carbon to save the world in those two years? No, that wasn't the goal. Did it absorb carbon and by extension create a carbon sponge of the soils around it? Absolutely it did. I didn't measure it. I don't know if it's easy to measure that. I don't know if it's possible, but that wasn't really the point. But it did happen. It's non zero.
Tanzania and Morocco
Anthony: Okay. You're working in Tanzania, you're also working in Morocco. Are they similar projects-
Anthony: And are they things that you set up or have you just found these projects and you are working to assist them?
Hank: The latter. Yes. I think that in that way it's sort of like in the 21st century does allow for a certain amount of specialization and let people do what they do best. Let me do what I do best. Again, in the Moroccan project up and running, millions of trees planted, Western dollars go very, very far in the developing world. They just needed more money. They're a little bit more focused on fruiting trees, and definitely income security, and food security for these in communities that, oh, by the way, sequester carbon, and retain water, and start to change when you get to scale like this micro climates. The sum of the change in the micro climates, hopefully, eventually will change the macro climates, as well. But the Morocco project is a place I hope to visit in December, knock wood, and check out that as well.
Madagascar is another place where I'm working, but again, we're just getting started. There's a whole list of programs like when I was in Tanzania this year, I saw four planting sites that we had assisted and they're coming along and they're doing beautifully. But I saw dozens and dozens of more, and we were only in a small part of the country. There's so much work to do, especially on the coast with the mangroves, which is a literal discussion, but there's so much potential out there and needs to be done. It all comes down to yes, cooling the planet. Yes, sequestering carbon, but mostly providing some kind of reliable income to people because... Wangarĩ Maathai said, she was the Ugandan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize and rightfully so, in I think 2002 for planting 50, 60 million trees in her life. She said, "The biggest stress on the land is the stress of human desperation.”
There's a billion people with a "b" out there who are not sure where our next meal is coming from. And they will do short term things knowing that they're not sustainable. They're not stupid, they know this is not sustainable, but they're not thinking that they are desperate. They have to feed their family. If you can provide that a little bit of buffer, just back people a little bit off the edge of economic desperation, right away, you've reduced the pressure on the ecology and the environment tremendously, so that's part of our strategy as well.
Anthony: Yeah, I was talking to a plant scientist earlier on today. He was saying that hunger is the world's biggest health crisis.
Hank: It is.
Anthony: Now, so am right, you work with corporate sponsors, so your role then is channeling their funds to support these projects?
Hank: Exactly. I'm a... You look at personality types. I know this might be a shock to you, but I'm a connector, alright? That's what I do. I've been in business development and sales my whole life, but more of a consultative type stuff. I love making the connections and making win-wins. There are businesses and brands out there where the people and the company are well served by having a sustainable message or have a sustainable initiative that they can associate their brand with, that's real, that's easily communicated and not this carbon offset stuff, which I don't understand. But most people understand that, "Hey, how many people sell water bottles?"
They are a common thing. These are very good ones out there. I have one here that I got from a brand that you'd recognize. It costs $45, it's going to live forever. It's great. How do they differentiate in their market space? Well, if they can afford 15 cents to say, "This water bottle planted a tree right away," they get a little bit of mind share and mind share leads to market share, everyone wins. It's, I guess my message to the businesses is that it's not much money, and it's easily communicated and it's effective. The three major boxes get checked right there.
Anthony: Okay. Now, in addition to money, are you networking information between the different projects so that they can... Helping them to learn off each other?
Hank: I haven't gotten there yet, but certainly will because, I think there's a lot of synergies there. The Tanzania folks are different from the Moroccan folks, but maybe they already know everything they need to know. I haven't gotten that far yet. I would love to make the connection and I don't see why not. That wouldn't hurt anybody. They both got the memo with regards to the seedlings and the nurseries, which are critical. Kind of like a hub and spoke model where you have a nursery in various locations and it serves a geographic area around it and they're both doing that.
But different species, and different parts of the world, and different challenges, and different issues with land and title and all that kind of stuff. Usually it's best if it's homegrown. But yeah, eventually I would love to be the guy that would have an annual conference of all my tree planting partners meeting somewhere in the middle we all get together, and everybody shares war stories, and they can learn from each other, and they get up and they talk what they're doing. I'd be thrilled with that when I've got a global network. I call it Forest Planet, and you might recognize this of expression because at some point I would love to say, "The sun never sets on Forest Planet."
Anthony: Yes. I've heard that somewhere before.
Hank: It might ring a bell.
Anthony: Well, yes. Well, there are plenty of places. Do you have any plans anytime soon to go into the Amazon?
Hank: No time soon, but I would love to, got to find the right partner there. we're just getting, the Moroccan project is just this year is the first time we've done that. I'm looking at somebody in Haiti and also Indonesia. But again, it all comes back down to money when I'm big enough, absolutely. Sure. There's a program in Iceland that I've researched.
Hank: Yeah, the cost per tree. They're trying to reforest Iceland. There's also the great Caledonia Forest over on your lovely island up in Scotland, their gentleman's up there. I don't know what his costs are, but I would love to work with him as well. Again, money is freedom, and freedom to do what you want to do, and get the trees planted that you want to get planted, and in the quantity and the quality that you want to get them planted in. That's what I'm about. I do a lot of events. I work with other people who have events, and I'm happy to tell you more about those. But that's our bottle. You hit the nail in the head. Yes, sir.
Anthony: How many trees have you planted so far, or haven't you kept count?
One Million and Counting
Hank: Oh, I keep down to the nickel. Are you kidding me? I'm a double major math and engineer. This is all about the numbers. I'm sneaking up on our first million that we've helped get, that's taken years. The next million, I hope takes months, and the next million after that takes weeks, and then days we have to pick up the pace drastically. I need more corporate partners, and that's what I do all day long.
Fruit Trees - Intercropping
Anthony: But are trees not competing with food crops for land space?
Hank: It truly, really kind of depends and sometimes you can get them to work together. The trees in the one village that we're working on, those are fruiting trees around which they will inter-crop. It's not either or, the whole concept of that forestry or forest garden, or even farming at multiple levels where you have trees that are cropped with ground crops, trees trimmed in the right way. But those trees can be holding soil, but also fruiting like avocados, which are incredibly nutritious. You're not talking about feeding a nation or a feeding a population, but nourishing a population. Those are two different things. You're not talking just about calories. They work together, but then on those trees, then you can start to graft different things. You can graft orchids and be selling flowers. You're farming at multiple levels. The well designed agroforestry plots are not about either or. It's about integration, which is how nature kind of evolves. It's emulating all those forces.
Anthony: How does the future look? Where will we be in 2050? How will your project have developed by then?
Hundreds of Millions by 2030
Hank: Gosh, I don't know. I hope it's global. I hope the sun's not setting. I hope we're consistently doing hundreds of millions of trees well before then. I'm trying to get to that point by 2030. 2050 is just sort of actually beyond my scope, my crystal balls too foggy that far. I want to be doing by the end of this decade, at least hundreds of millions of trees a year consistently and reliably. Then will that help the planet? Sure. Is it the panacea, the one pill that will solve all our problems? Of course not. We've got to do a bunch of other things. There was a big article in the New York Times just a few weeks ago about the trillion trees. Is it possible to plant a trillion trees, and would they survive and all this other kind of stuff, and is there enough room? I'm like "Look, that's an academic exercise that I don't have time for." I don't know. Can we get to the trillion? I don't know. I know we can do hundreds of millions, easily. Like in Tanzania alone, there's room for a billion trees.
A Billion Trees in Tanzania
Hank: With a "b" just in Tanzania. That's not really counting the program on the mangroves on the coast, which are probably some of the most important trees on the planet, so check all the boxes. Yeah, maybe it's a trillion trees, maybe things will look very, very different.
I hope they do. But I know here and now it's what needs to be done. I'm very passionate about it because it works. I saw it. I was up on a hillside. I saw how things are transformed, not necessarily with regards to carbon, but also the water cycle, which people don't really talk about as much, but the tree's impact on the water cycle is probably more important to the planet than the carbon cycle.
A lot of it is just sort of grabbing what water is there and hanging onto it before it runs down channeling into aquifers. Because what happens in a lot of places when trees cut down, it doesn't take too long before the wells dry up, and when the wells dry up, then that whole community is now refugees. There's a cascade of problems that go associated with that. No water, no nothing. You got to hang onto the water. The tree is the tool for hanging onto the water to keep a society or a community together. That's how I look at it as much as anything else.
Anthony: You're working with corporate sponsors, I'm sure you're looking for more. Are there opportunities for individual supporters as well?
Hank: Oh absolutely. Sure. As a 501(c)(3), or as a nonprofit designated company here in the States, individual donors, we have hundreds of them and we welcome any support, large dollar donors, foundations, we do events. Some are in person here in D.C. during Covid. When we couldn't do events, we actually kept our brand out there and we were engaging people because everybody was riding bicycles. I've hired a guy who fixed bikes, and we set up right next to a bike track and said, "Free bike tune up." People could stop. We were outside, we had masks on. They were out riding their bike. We had a tip jar, we gave them our information. We kept our brand out there right next to... Go where the people are. That's what you got to do. We had in person events. We've even had an eighties dance video party in person here in D.C. with maybe 200 attendees that raised enough money to plant 20,000 trees.
But that was on February 29th, 2020, literally the last night before everything got shut down. People were like say, "Hey, do that again." I said, "Well, you're going to have to hold that thought." We did in person film screening. I tried to get creative along those, and we tried to do another one earlier this year, but Covid kept rearing its head. Now, actually we're doing an on demand film that anybody can see. I curated, I researched and found a wonderful little non-profit... Sorry. Documentary film called From Seed to Seed, which is a great film made by German Canadian woman in 2017 about various farmers in Canada who are all committed to organic practices and sustainable practices. It is a nice movie because it follows all of them during the whole course of a season. No one's ever really heard of it. It's too bad, because it's well done.
I'm picky when it comes to these things. I tried to do the, like I said, the in person screening. That was only moderately successful. There's only so many people that can fit into a little room here in one city. The distributor has the capability of doing it on demand, where you have a 60 hour window in which to watch a 87 minute film so anybody in the planet can watch it. There's information on our website about it forestplanet.org, but we're asking a $10. With that 10 bucks we guarantee we'll plant at least 50 trees, if not more. People can make additional donations if they wish. But they also get to watch this cool movie from the comfort of their own home and with their comfortable chair and their own popcorn. We've got people already registered from South Africa, to Australia, to the States to wherever. Hopefully some in your lovely island would join us, too.
Anthony: Okay, well we'll have to put a link to that on the podcast website so that you can get some more people in your audience.
Hank: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Anthony: Hank, this has really been fascinating. Thank you very much for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report. Is there any thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
Bad News - but there is Hope
Hank: I guess I really wanted to drive home the point of there's a lot of bad stuff happening. Just today, I think it was the World Wildlife Federation released a report about species decline around the world. The U.N. has got a big conference on it, there's bad news everywhere. It's something that we should all take seriously, very, very seriously. But I guess I wanted to also say, "Listen, but there is hope. There are solutions and people are doing good work and it's fast, it's affordable, it's easily communicated, and don't despair." That's all I would like to leave everybody with.
Anthony: Well, thank you for sharing with us. Thank you very much indeed. That's Hank Dearden, executive Director of ForestPlanet.
Hank: Thank you very much for having me. I enjoyed it.
Find out more at forestplanet.org.
That's it for this week. Next week I'm talking to Leonardo Zangrando who plans to sail around the world and encourage 100 million people to help him save the ocean. I hope you'll join me then.
Thank you for listening and thank you all for staying loyal for so long to the Sustainable Futures Report. Particular thanks, of course, to my patrons who pay a small amount each month towards the costs of running this podcast and so help me to keep it independent and ad-free.
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For the moment though,
That was the SFR.
I'm Anthony Day.
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