Can seeds planted by drones spawn new forests?
This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which examines efforts around the world to make a difference.
CARCASTILLO, Spain – As forest fires ravaged Colombia’s Cerro de Monserrate in 2015, Juan Carlos Sesma, a Spanish consultant working in Bogotá, began to think about reforestation of the planet.
With experience in improving systems for restaurant chains, supermarkets and for the El Corte Inglés department store, he imagined that his know-how could be applied to the task of reversing deforestation.
“I knew that if reforestation could be made efficient and profitable, the world would have many more trees,” he said.
Taking time off work, he bought a box of Empress tree seeds – a fast-growing species capable of reaching 20 feet in a year – and returned to his hometown in Spain determined to learn how to plant trees. and put his idea into practice.
Mr Sesma, 38, is one of a growing group of global citizens who are not only concerned about the future of the planet, but are trying to find innovative solutions to save it. Thanks in part to the influence of young environmental activist Greta Thunberg and initiatives such as that of Prince William Earthshot Award, they get more attention.
But that was not always the case.
At first, only one person believed in Mr. Sesma’s project – a Cistercian monk who tends the orchards of the Monasterio de la Oliva, near Mr. Sesma’s family home.
One recent morning, Brother Enrique Carrasco, 83, pushed a wheelbarrow around the monastery vegetable garden. Dressed in blue overalls rather than a cassock, he explained how he had taught Mr. Sesma to cultivate and plant his Colombian seeds in a fallow field on the grounds of the monastery.
Together, Mr. Sesma and Brother Carrasco watched the seeds grow in saplings and then trees so tall that the Spanish government State Meteorological Agency complained that they overshadowed a nearby weather station.
There was another problem. The seeds were too invasive a species to be compatible with Mr. Sesma’s dreams of reforesting biodiversity. But he was not discouraged.
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Today, the start-up he co-founded three years ago, CO2 revolution, uses big data analytics and sophisticated drone technology to sprinkle – on inaccessible deforested land – millions of laboratory-improved seeds for trees native to Spanish forests and suitable for recreating lost ecosystems.
It’s a challenge. According to Ministry of Ecological Transition, 95,000 hectares of forest – almost 0.35 percent of the total area of Spain – are devastated by more than 11,000 forest fires each year. Traditional methods of reforestation are slow and expensive because disaster areas are often inaccessible or inhospitable to machines.
While governments around the world have set themselves the goal of achieving zero – that is, balancing emissions with eliminating greenhouse gases – by 2050 forests will be at the center discussions at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow over the next few days.
Marc Palahí, Director General of European Forestry Institute, hopes that discussions will focus on policies to intensify global reforestation by attracting investment in a new bioeconomy. He said he believes sustainably produced wood products – such as biopharmaceuticals, biotextiles and building materials – could provide more than $ 1 trillion in business and employment opportunities.
In a telephone interview, he agreed that “drones are a great help in remote areas.” But the key to achieving global reforestation goals, he said, is sustainable forest management.
“Planting trees is not as difficult as managing them over the next several decades,” said Dr Palahí.
When Mr. Sesma and his co-founder Javier Sánchez created CO2 Revolution in February 2018, their goal was quite simple: to plant trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The company has three lines of business. It offers consulting services to companies concerned with measuring and reducing their emissions. Customers can also mitigate their carbon footprint by using CO2 Revolution to plant on degraded land, using a mix of modern machinery and traditional methods and often involving local communities. In the third sector of activity, both more revolutionary and stimulating, CO2 Revolution sows entire forests with profitable drone technology. Then he sells carbon credits.
Things were moving slowly at first. Mr Sánchez, 33, who left his post as sales manager at a German supermarket company to partner with Mr Sesma, said: “It was such an innovative idea that people considered it surreal. “
During those first months, entrepreneurs would meet in cafes and throw their savings into their businesses. They hired machines to encapsulate the seeds with nutrients to help them germinate. They equipped the drones with custom dispensers. And they asked the landowners and the Spanish authorities for permission to sow.
But during their first attempt at aerial reforestation, only a tiny percentage of the seeds took root: some landed on stones; others hurtled down the slopes; those that nestled in the ground were eaten by mice and rabbits.
Still, it got them noticed. In October 2018, CO2 Revolution was named among the 100 best start-ups in the world in a competition organized by the innovation platform, South Summit.
Shortly after, CO2 Revolution landed its first big customer, the multinational, LG Electronics Iberia, who hired them to plant trees on scorched land outside Madrid. An agreement was also signed to use LG’s screen technology for improved drone flight accuracy.
The client list began to grow and investors, like the Regional government of Navarre, were attracted.
Mr. Sesma and Mr. Sánchez have joined a handpicked group of microbiologists, engineers and software programmers.
One recent morning, in his sunny lab in central Spain, a forestry engineer, Jaime Olaizola, gestured towards a stack of plastic dishes containing samples of pine and cedar seeds.
Dr Olaizola, 47, who specializes in finding microorganisms in soil, explained that the seeds, which he calls ISE seeds, are designed to anticipate the problems they will encounter when thrown into the soil. nature. Their clay coating is the key. It contains a powerful blend: plant extracts to deter rodents; hydrogel dried to retain moisture; mushrooms to strengthen the defenses; and Bohemian truffle to capture nutrients and stimulate root development.
Once the seeds sprout into a seedling, photosynthesis begins and nature takes over.
Andrew Heald, Director of NGPTA, a forest restoration company, is suspicious. He agrees that if drones can reforest the planet faster than humans, many seeds must be scattered for a single germ.
Dr Olaizola acknowledged the concern but said: “If 10 percent take hold, it’s a success.”
His expectation, based on experiments in his lab, is that 50 percent of the seeds sown in the air this year will turn into trees. He won’t know for sure until the November through April planting season is over.
Similar initiatives have sprung up around the world. A canadian start-up, Flash Forest, has developed a mechanical device that projects pods of drones deep into the ground. In Australia, Dendra Systems uses aerial seeding techniques to restore koala forests.
Stéphane Hallaire’s Parisian company, Reforest’Action, has used rudimentary tools – shovels and shovels – to plant 17 million trees in 40 countries over the past decade. Mr Hallaire said the use of drones was a viable method of capturing CO2 in countries with large uninhabited areas, such as Canada or China. But he said he preferred to involve local communities and empower a new generation of entrepreneurs to develop a more sustainable form of reforestation.
“The trees must improve the living conditions of people so that they are not cut down,” he said.
In line with the European Union’s commitment to plant an additional three billion trees in its member states by 2030, Mr Sesma and Mr Sánchez said they would be happy when there was an additional tree planted for each. no one on the planet every year.
An ambitious goal, but declared Mr. Sánchez, not unreachable: “With technologies like ours, it is possible.