Mountains, Forests, Savannas

Project Team: Tanja Hoffmann, Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton

Project Support and Funding: The Leverhulme Trust and the Landscape Research Group

What heritages are encountered and mobilised by entanglements with trees? This central question drives our partnership with several communities and organziations who are working with trees to create innovative responses to challenges of food and water security in both urban and rural landscapes.

Whether depicted as the central subject of a landscape painting, commodified for their economic value, revered as ancestral beings, or more recently valued for their contribution to ecosystem services, the tree is a central character in many human narratives. This research project looks to engage with the beginning and end points of tree lifecycles. We begin with the ‘heritage tree’—individual trees often designated as such due to their commemorative, historical, or horticultural significance. Many heritage trees are of considerable age and are further classified as ‘ancient’ or ‘veteran’ trees. These trees, and their protection, often figure prominently in urban centres where they are celebrated as islands of nature in a sea of technosphere. In the UK veteran trees in particular play an important role in urban parks. There is a substantial literature on the physical care of these trees, often to protect them and extend their lives. We look to better understand, what impact the heritage lens of ‘managed decay’ (DeSilvey 2020) might have for heritage tree management in urban areas.

At the opposite end of the tree lifecycle is the seedling, the planting of which is promoted as a simultaneously accessible and productive response to forestall the impacts of climate change. One need look no further than initiatives like the World Economic Forum’s ‘1 Trillion Trees’ and the Nature Conservancy’s ‘One Billion Trees’ initiatives to understand the growing global desire to endorse reforestation as one workable solution for a seemingly endless list of wicked problems. While tree planting by governments, corporations, and NGOs around the world represent laudable carbon off-setting efforts, a growing number of these same initiatives are failing to caretake for the trees themselves. Millions of seedlings are planted without proper consideration of the extenuating impacts. These include the removal of valued agricultural lands, the introduction of invasive species, the lack of seedling diversity’s impact on existing forest composition, ecosystem destruction, seed scarcity, and the overall failure to consider the complex social, cultural, and ecosystem dynamics at play when planting a forest for the future. As importantly, an astonishing number—in some cases up to 90%— of seedlings planted in climate-based reforestation initiatives perish often due to the lack of after-planting care they require to flourish. Such huge mortality rates have raised concerns that planting schemes are rapidly devolving into superficial ‘greenwashing’ campaigns.

This research project seeks to understand the dynamics of reciprocal relations between and among people and trees. Specifically, we hope to work to better understand heritage knowledges and practices that guide human/tree relationships taking as a starting point the beginning and end of tree life. We hope that by working with people who are actively involved in planting and caretaking their tree relations, we can look to inform more nuanced actions that can be taken in support of the tree.

To begin our inquiry, we have launched a new partnership with Malambo Grassroots, a community-based charity working in Monze, Zambia. Over the past several years, Malambo Grassroots has funded the provision, and with the assistance of community-based distribution networks, the planting of over 5000 trees. The published goals of the tree planting include river bank stabilisation, water preservation, and food security.

We look to work with Malambo Grassroots, and the communities they partner with, to learn from people/tree encounters. Some of the questions we are interested in exploring include: How does planting trees interact with existing traditional knowledge of trees? How do the people of Monze work to establish reciprocal relations with young trees knowing their direct benefit (especially fruit trees) might not be felt for several years? What indirect benefits do the trees give the people, and the people the trees?

Sustainable Development Goal/s: