Don’t just count trees, make trees count


Don’t just count trees, make trees count

In 2010, Greenpop started with a simple goal, to plant 1,000 trees during Arbor Month in under-greened urban areas of Cape Town. In the years that followed, we went from focusing on schoolyards in Cape Town to forest patches in the Western Cape, to forest landscapes across Sub-Saharan Africa. 12 years later, we are close to having planted a total of 200,000 trees in degraded forests, community orchards, and urban spaces in South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia.

“While we are proud of reaching this 200,000 trees milestone, we also firmly believe that it is time to stop concentrating on counting trees and rather shift the focus to making trees count.”

In order to build the world envisioned in the Sustainable Development Goals, building healthy landscapes must be the foundation. It is from this basis that increasingly ambitious tree planting targets (in the millions, billions, and trillions) have been set by international organisations, governments, companies, and NGOs alike. However, these targets, while inspiring, do not paint a holistic picture of what is needed to restore forest ecosystems for the benefit of both local communities and landscapes. We, as humanity, are now so focused on counting trees that we may be losing sight of the bigger picture. We literally can’t see the forest for the trees. 

10 Environmental Benefits of Planting a Tree

Of course, Greenpop has not been immune to this phenomenon. As an organisation, we have been counting (and assigning GPS coordinates to) every tree planted since 2010. In 2019, we set a goal to plant 500,000 trees by 2025. However, we have always recognised that planting trees alone cannot restore ecosystems in most contexts and, while they are present in many of our projects, trees are just one tool in our ecosystem restoration toolbox. We don’t just count trees, we also make the trees we plant count. 

This arbor month, we are shining a light on the six ways we make trees count within our forest restoration and urban greening projects.

1. Planting trees for the right reasons.

For Greenpop, planting trees is one of our common project activities but it is not the ultimate goal. Instead, planting trees is a means to an end. When designing our forest restoration and urban greening projects, we select appropriate indicators of success from the following list which we adapted from The Road to Restoration guide from the World Resources Institute based on our project experience and current academic knowledge:

    1. Biodiversity: Increased species biodiversity, species protection and connection between habitats. 
    2. Air: Improved air quality, improved airflow management, reduced urban air temperature.
    3. Water: Improved water quality, increased water availability, improved water management.
    4. Soil: Improved soil quality, improved soil stability, and improved soil management.
    5. Climate: Increased climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. 
    6. Community: Increased community income, health, cohesion and participation in restoration. 
    7. Culture: Improved land rights, increased protection of natural heritage, increased support for local practices. 
    8. Energy: Reduced energy scarcity, increased availability of energy resources, improved management of energy resources. 
    9. Economy: Increased land value, reduced cooling costs, increased ecotourism potential.
    10. Food & Products: Increased crop yield, improved routes to market, increased financing potential.

We recognise that while tree planting can help achieve some of these goals in some contexts, it is not the only relevant intervention and, in many cases, is not the most appropriate intervention. As such, after we have established our project goals, we select project activities which (1) are most relevant and appropriate within the project context, (2) will address the barriers which prevent forests from being protected or restored without our intervention, and (3) are based on current best practices and research. These might include:

Alien Invasive Vegetation Management

Natural Regeneration Management

Fire Management

Planting Trees

Planting Plants (such as Fynbos)

Environmental Education

Sustainable Community Development & Training

Establishment of Alternative Livelihoods

2. Planting trees in the right places.

At Greenpop, we know that trees do not belong everywhere and we take care to avoid causing the loss or conversion of natural ecosystems (grasslands, fynbos, etc) through our tree planting activities. As such, we will only consider planting trees in the following places:

Degraded Forests

Land which has been determined to have historically been forested (by means of BGIS maps, ecological research, and historical records), is currently in a state of degradation and reduced ecosystem function, and is not able to regenerate naturally without intervention.


Land, particularly in rural communities, which is currently being used for subsistence farming and could be improved (in terms of soil fertility and/or food production) through the addition of trees.

Villages & Urban Areas

Spaces which are in need of tree-specific ecosystem services such as shade provision, windbreaks, and urban temperature reduction.

3. Planting the right tree species.

At Greenpop, we recognise that not all trees are created equal. When selecting tree species for our projects, Greenpop utilises the following requirements:

    1. Trees must be non-invasive.
    2. Trees must be fit for their purpose (whether that is restoring a forest, providing habitat for a specific species, providing shade at a school, or providing fruit to a community).
    3. With the exception of orchard and agroforestry and some urban greening projects, trees must be locally indigenous. For our forest restoration projects, we give special focus to trying to source trees which have been grown from seeds collected in nearby indigenous forests to preserve genetic integrity and prevent unintentional hybridisation of tree species. 
    4. In South Africa, trees must be grown in nurseries which take precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer and other invasive pests and weeds.
Greenpop - A Tree is More than A Number - Community Nursery

4. Planting trees with the right people.

Based on our experience, Greenpop is aware of the complex challenges associated with indigenous forest and urban landscape management in Sub-Saharan Africa. As such, we don’t use drones to plant trees – we use collaboration. 

An Expert Team

Our team is made up of ecologists, social scientists, and educators with years of experience in ecosystem restoration, sustainable development, climate change, and monitoring and evaluation. We utilise all of our skills and knowledge to deliver the highest quality projects possible.

Local Partnerships

Our projects are designed in collaboration with and often implemented by on-the-ground partner organisations; passionate and effective, local, small-scale conservation and sustainable development organisations across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Stakeholder Enagement

Our projects take into account the goals and perspectives of local stakeholders (communities, local NGOs, and local governments) to ensure that our actions are in alignment.

Pro-Community Stance

Our projects are designed with a pro-community stance that recognises the local threats to ecosystem restoration success, identifies local community needs, and incorporates solutions that benefit both ecosystems and people.

University Partnerships

In order to deepen the impact of our work, Greenpop has partnered with various universities to provide opportunities for student research on topics of relevance to our interventions.

5. Measuring the right tree planting impacts.

Forest restoration and urban greening projects, by their very nature, are long-term, expensive, complex, and multi-disciplinary. As such, it is essential that the effectiveness of such projects is regularly verified through holistic and reliable monitoring and evaluation. 

In general, M&E of our restoration projects serves to support three main goals:

    1. Measure the direct ecological, social and economic impacts of restoration activities within the landscape;
    2. Inform and facilitate an adaptive management approach to forest restoration;
    3. And increase available knowledge and data sets through active research.

Based on the indicators selected for a specific project, we actively monitor our sites on an annual basis for the first 3 years after project initiation and continue conducting intermittent monitoring for up to 20 years. Our M&E data supports our adaptive approach to restoration, ensuring we can address challenges and notice changes as they arise.

Greenpop - A Tree is More than A Number - Monitoring & Evaluation

6. Planting trees for the right price. 

As is likely obvious, planting the right trees, in the right places, with the right people, for the right reasons and measuring the right impacts is not an inexpensive exercise. 

We can’t plant a tree for $1 and, honestly, we don’t want to. We want to continue to run holistic, locally-relevant projects which successfully restore ecosystems, guard biodiversity, uplift communities, and combat climate change. We want to ensure that everyone working on our projects is compensated fairly. And we want to continue to monitor our impact for years to come. 

So, this Arbor Month, we would like to ask you to contribute to our mission by supporting our forest restoration work here.

Support our work!

Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.