The thin green line – reforestation could hold back deserts and cool our planet

1 Feb 2013

At first it sounds like science fiction – planting a green wall of trees in Northern Africa to hold back the expansion of the Sahara desert. But the way Marie Noelle-Keijzer, CEO of the WeForest NGO explains it, this simple expedient holds the keys to not only holding back the desert but actually preserving life on Earth and providing economic growth for all.

Whatever way you look at it, we live on a dying planet. But dying does not actually mean dead. Despite all the damage that people have done to planet Earth in the last 100 or so years, the Earth can repair itself if we do the right things.

Already we know how to harness renewable energy and ambitious targets have been set to eventually wean us off our reliance on fossil fuels. There are a multitude of things that the people of Earth have to do to reverse the destruction we’ve inflicted on our only home, but one of the most important steps is also the simplest – we need to plant trees, lots of them.

According to WeForest’s Noelle-Keijzer, the world needs to plant some 2trn trees to create enough cloud cover to cool the planet.  She says that planting 300 trees per person on earth would not only reverse global warming and cool the planet, but it would also result in job creation in developing countries, boost access to education and healthcare. “It’s a virtuous circle,” she says with conviction.

I spoke with Noelle-Keijzer this week at the European Parliament in Brussels, where 36 kids from CoderDojo ages six to 16 held a dojo in one of the EU Parliament’s main assembly rooms to impress upon MEPs the importance of teaching software languages early in life if we want to meet the skill needs of the future and provide gainful employment.

After 20 years in the corporate world, Noelle-Keijzer became CEO of WeForest, an organisation dedicated to countering global warming and recover part of the forests which have disappeared.

The world’s deforestation has accelerated and in the last 60 years alone, 50pc of the world’s forests have disappeared. Forests stabilise the world’s climate, cool the air and regulate the water cycle. Trees generate moisture chemicals that in turn create clouds.

Global warming is attributable to the relentless march of the desert into African countries like Mali and Burkina-Faso, for example. Noelle-Keijzer and her colleagues at WeForest are committed to encouraging the planting of trees in these countries to create a kind of green wall to generate moisture, absorb the excess of carbon in the atmosphere and eventually stop the desert.

WeForest was originally founded by SOSventures partner Bill Liao in Switzerland as an NGO and it is now based in Belgium. So far, the organisation has funded the planting of 3.2m trees, thanks to support of donations, volunteers and corporate partners like Deloitte, Rockwell Automation, SAS and car maker Smart, to name but a few.

“The more we deforest the more trees we have to plant,” Noelle-Keijzer says in relation to the ongoing deforestation of the Earth. “We all know that we need to make the Earth cooler. Planting trees absorbs the excess of carbon in the atmosphere and makes the clouds. Where there are no trees, there are no clouds.”

The Great Green Wall of Africa

Noelle-Keijzer says that in order to restore quality of life for people in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, the idea is to reforest areas that will form a natural bulwark against the march of the desert.

“You can’t actually reforest a desert but there are specific methods you can use to plant something that will survive. Even in the desert there is some water.”

One of the methods she recommends is to plant pioneer trees that are tough and will help bring water back to an area. Once that happens it is possible to plant fruit trees and more.

The permaculture design principles Noelle-Keijzer is outlining, she says, have been proven to work. To give an example of what’s possible, a reforestation project in southeast Asia, in a region where 50pc of the people were jobless and the lands were a biological desert, was a success within three years.

At the end of the project, cloud cover had increased 11.5pc, rainfall increased 25pc and more than 3,000 people were making a sustainable income, thanks to the regeneration of the ecosystem in the area.

At present, WeForest is engaged in similar projects in Haiti, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Tanzania, Zambia, Senegal, Kenya, India, Brazil, and The Philippines.

The organisation is also bringing out a book about its work titled simply Forest, that will include a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Actors Stephen Fry and Jeremy Irons have also narrated YouTube videos on the importance of reforestation.

In addition, Belgian singer Milow has vowed to plant a tree for every CD sold while European carmaker Smart plants 168 trees for every car it sells. So far, some 217,698 trees have been planted by Smart, according to its website.

“We have high hopes, since President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech – he’s been very clear about the US committing to acting against global warming,” Noelle-Keijzer says.

“At Davos we saw so many statements from world leaders saying that this is a big focus for them so we would like to see action on this front.”

Noelle-Keijzer says the world needs 2trn trees planted to cool the planet. “That’s 20,000 sq metres. If we plant trees in only half the degraded land on Earth we could do it. That’s 300 trees per person on the planet, it can be done.”

She said if Coca-Cola planted a tree for every can or bottle sold today it would take just three years to reach the objective.

Noelle-Keijzer says 50 corporations are sponsoring the WeForest movement today and the support is growing 300pc a year.

“This is not just about resolving the climate question, it addresses poverty, it results in jobs for women and whenever you provide jobs in developing countries it impacts on access to education and healthcare.

“This empowers people to create jobs, so it’s a win-win.

“Do you know that in some countries in Africa, like Zambia, there virtually are no trees left? To construct something the construction industry would need to import wood from Scandinavia, that is crazy.”

Video: How to repair the world (Narrated by Stephen Fry)


* Disclosure: SOSventures is also an investor in

Green planet image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years