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23 March 2023

Does climate-compensating tree planting benefit local people?

A woman in Tanzania that has planted mango and avocado trees in her field.

Photo: Flora Hajdu

“Planting trees in Africa,” a common marketing slogan for climate compensation, ​​has become a popular way to offset carbon dioxide emissions. However, research shows that tree-planting projects often put too little focus on benefiting the people on site. Flora Hajdu and Linda Engström, SLU researchers in the Department of Urban and Rural Development, have therefore developed a web-based guide that makes it easier to assess the social consequences of such projects.

“Planting trees in Africa is often presented as a simple solution,” says Flora Hajdu, who is a professor of rural development at SLU. “But in reality, many and often complex factors need to work together for local communities to benefit from the projects – and it also happens that they experience negative effects from the projects.”

The guide is aimed at supporting consumers, organizations, companies, carbon retailers and others to ask the right questions about projects, in order to identify those that are socially sustainable and have the potential to mutually benefit the local populations.

The tree planting projects that aim to increase carbon storage by, for example, preserving, restoring or planting trees, span from large plantations of the same tree species to small-scale so-called agroforestry projects and pruning of trees to stimulate regrowth from stumps. If the right kinds of trees are planted in close cooperation with the local populations, it could potentially increase their access to fruit, firewood and timber. In addition, soil erosion can be reduced when the roots bind the soil, tree shade can provide a suitable microclimate for better harvests in dry periods, and the lineup of trees can also protect houses from strong winds. Research shows that such positive effects have rarely occurred, however, and that the tree planting projects in Africa instead have had negative impacts on the local populations.

The bigger trees at the back of the house were planted to provide shadow for people and crops, as well as to protect the house from strong winds. Photo: Therese Engvall.

The guide provides guidance in five areas that research has pointed out to be important to people, and also complicated to manage in development projects. One such key area is local people’s access to land.

“A major risk with tree planting projects is that the local populations lose access to important agricultural and grazing lands. This applies especially when trees are planted in large plantations, but access to land is an important issue regardless of which method is used,” says Linda Engström, a researcher in rural development.

Other key areas are to have a solid understanding of the environment, history and culture of the project site and its surroundings, to give local people influence, and to be aware of power relations.

“If you assume, for example, that it is the local populations’ overexploitation that creates deforestation in the area without a deeper problem analysis of how the forest is being used and has been used over time, why and by whom, you will not design a good solution,” says Linda Engström.

Other social risks to consider when planting trees include that people could have reduced access to firewood and timber, and their ability to quickly get cash in a crisis situation could disappear, if they are no longer allowed to cut down trees. These projects can also increase class differences within communities if the benefits are mainly received by the wealthier groups of the local populations, leaving the most vulnerable remaining disadvantaged.

The guide is based on another important conclusion from the research, which indicates that investments in climate projects such as tree planting projects should not be seen as compensation for fossil fuel emissions. “If we are to reach the climate goals, we need to both reduce emissions quickly, and invest in various carbon storage projects. Therefore, we should not count tree planting as compensation, but rather as a complement,” emphasizes Flora Hajdu.


The work on the guide was financed through Formas’ call “From research to practice – methods and knowledge transfer of research results” (FR-2019/0004).


Contact persons
Flora Hajdu, professor
Department of Urban and Rural Development
018-67 21 62

Linda Engström, researcher
Department of Urban and Rural Development
018-67 26 41