Can seeds planted by drones create new forests?


This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions that looks at global efforts to make a difference.

CARCASTILLO, Spain – When the Cerro de Monserrate in Colombia was devastated by forest fires in 2015, Juan Carlos Sesma, a Spanish retail consultant who works in Bogotá, started thinking about reforestation of the planet.

With experience improving systems for restaurant chains, supermarkets and for the El Corte Inglés department store, he envisioned that his expertise could be applied to the task of reversing deforestation.

“I knew the world would have a lot more trees if reforestation could be made efficient and profitable,” he said.

Taking time off from work, he bought a box of Empress tree seeds – a fast growing variety that can reach 6 meters in a year – and flew back to his hometown in Spain to learn how to plant trees and get his idea put into action.

Mr. Sesma, 38, is part of a growing group of global citizens who not only care about the future of the planet, but are also trying to find innovative solutions to save it. Thanks to the influence of the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg and initiatives such as Prince William’s Earthshot Prize, they are getting more attention.

But it wasn’t always like that.

In the beginning, only one person believed in Mr. Sesma’s plan – 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 through the monastery vegetable garden. He wore blue overalls and no cassock and explained how he had taught Mr. Sesma to care for and plant his Colombian seeds in a fallow field on the monastery grounds.

Together, Mr. Sesma and Brother Carrasco watched the seeds grow into saplings and then into trees so tall that the Spanish Government’s State Meteorological Service complained that they were overshadowing a nearby meteorological station.

There was another problem. The seeds were too invasive to reconcile with Mr. Sesma’s dreams of reforesting biodiversity. But he was not deterred.

Now the three-year start-up that he co-founded, CO2 Revolution, is using millions of laboratory-improved seeds for trees that are native to Spain’s forests and capable of restoring lost ecosystems with the help of big data analysis and sophisticated drone technology.

It is a challenge. According to the 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 every year. Traditional afforestation methods are slow and costly, as disaster areas are often inaccessible or inhospitable to machines.

After governments around the world set the goal of zeroing off emissions by eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050, forests will be the focus of discussions at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow over the next few days.

Marc Palahí, Executive Director of the European Forest Institute, hopes the talks will focus on measures to expand 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 offer over a trillion dollars worth of business opportunities and jobs.

In a telephone interview, he agreed that “drones are of great help in remote areas”. However, the key to achieving the global reforestation goals is sustainable forest management.

“Planting trees is not as difficult as managing them for the next several decades,” said Dr. Palahí.

When Mr Sesma and his co-founder Javier Sánchez started the CO2 revolution in February 2018, their goal was simple: plant trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The company has three business areas. It offers consulting services for companies that want to measure and reduce their emissions. Customers can also reduce their carbon footprint by commissioning CO2 Revolution to plant on degraded land using a mix of modern machinery and traditional methods, and often involving local communities. In the third business area, which is both more revolutionary and more demanding, CO2 Revolution sows entire forests with cost-effective drone technology. Then it sells emissions certificates.

At first it was slow. Mr Sánchez, 33, who gave up his job as a sales manager at a German supermarket to team up with Mr Sesma, said, “It was such an innovative idea that people saw it as surreal.”

In the first few months, the entrepreneurs met in cafes and put their savings into their business. They rented machines to encapsulate seeds with nutrients that help them germinate. They equipped drones with customized dispensers. And they asked permission from the landowners and the Spanish authorities to sow.

But on their first attempt at aerial afforestation, only a tiny percentage of the seeds were rooted: some landed on rocks; others rolled down slopes; those that nestled in the ground were eaten by mice and rabbits.

Still, they noticed. In October 2018, CO2 Revolution was recognized as one of the 100 best start-ups in the world in a competition organized by the South Summit innovation platform.

Shortly thereafter, CO2 Revolution won its first major client, 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 flight precision of drones.

The customer list began to grow and investors such as the Navarre Regional Government were attracted.

Mr. Sesma and Mr. Sánchez have brought a handpicked group of microbiologists, engineers and software programmers on board.

One recent morning, Jaime Olaizola, a forest engineer, pointed to a stack of plastic dishes containing samples of pine and cedar seeds in his sunlit laboratory in central Spain.

Dr. Olaizola, 47, who specializes in soil microorganism research, explained that the seeds he calls Iseeds are designed to anticipate problems they will encounter when thrown into the wild. Your clay coating is key. It contains a powerful mix: plant extracts to deter rodents; dried hydrogel to help hold moisture; Mushrooms to strengthen the immune system; and Bohemian truffle to absorb nutrients and stimulate root development.

As soon as the seeds grow into seedlings, photosynthesis begins and nature takes over.

Andrew Heald, director of NGPTA, a forest restoration company, is cautious. He agrees that while drones reforest the planet faster than humans, many seeds must be scattered for only one to germinate.

Dr. Olaizola admitted concern but said, “If 10 percent takes root, it’s a success.”

His expectation, based on experiments in his laboratory, is that 50 percent of this year’s aerial seeds will grow into trees. He won’t know for sure until the November to April sowing season is over.

Similar initiatives have popped up around the world. A Canadian start-up, Flash Forest, has developed a mechanical device that shoots drone seed pods deep into the ground. In Australia, Dendra Systems is using aerial sowing techniques to restore koala forests.

Stéphane Hallaire’s Paris-based company Reforest’Action has planted 17 million trees in 40 countries over the past decade using rudimentary tools – shovels and spades. Hallaire said using drones was a viable way of capturing CO2 in countries with huge uninhabited areas like Canada or China. However, 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 people’s living conditions so that they are not felled,” he said.

In line with the European Union’s promise to plant three billion trees in its member states by 2030, Mr Sesma and Mr Sánchez said they would be satisfied if an additional tree was planted for every person on the planet every year.

An ambitious goal, but according to Sánchez, not unattainable: “With technologies like ours, it is possible.”

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