When María Muñoz wasn’t taking care of her 4,000-acre cattle ranch in southeastern Uruguay, she liked to sit on the couch and look out at the rolling landscape. “You could see hills: hills and hills and more hills,” her eldest son, Pancho, remembers. “You could see very far.” This was 20 years ago, when cattle and sheep picked their way between splotchy gray and white rocks on the family land, and the occasional stubby tree stood amid tough grasses and prickly bushes.
Then, in the early 1990s, beef prices dropped. With two of their three sons still in college, Muñoz and her husband, Francisco Ferber, were struggling to make ends meet. So Ferber suggested a new business plan: planting 1,000 acres of trees, which could be harvested within a decade and sold for firewood, paper, poles, and posts.
The benefits and subsidies offered by Uruguay’s Forestry Law of 1987 made the option tempting. The law forgave property taxes on land covered with native forest or a tree farm—so, by covering half their land with eucalyptus, the Ferbers could dramatically reduce their taxes. Furthermore, the law subsidized the cost of planting the trees and guaranteed loans from the national bank, so the Ferbers would hardly have to put down any of their own cash. And they wouldn’t have to give up ranching. Once the eucalyptus saplings were strong enough to withstand the cows’ clomping hooves, the Ferbers would be able, once more, to graze animals all over their land—perhaps with better results than before, since the trees could provide shade in the summer and act as a windbreak in the winter.
Today, the Uruguayan Forestry Law that spurred the Ferbers to plant trees on their land holds a new, international interest, as environmental policy-makers at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris consider a similar plan: Initiative 20×20, a plan to plant new forests and tree farms on 50 million acres (20 million hectares) of South American land by 2020. So far, the initiative’s organizers have secured commitments from governments and investors to cover 28 million hectares, or 70 million acres, of land with trees. That’s a land area one and a half times that of the entire country of Uruguay.
Planting trees locks up carbon in the trunks—for a long time, if they’re left standing or used to make furniture or buildings. If they’re used for toilet paper or paper napkins, the carbon returns to the atmosphere as soon as the product starts to decompose—but even that can have its advantages, because tree farms can help take pressure off old-growth forests. While nearly 100 percent of the world’s wood products came from naturally occurring forests in 1950, less than 50 percent do today, says Roger Sedjo, the director of the Forest Economics and Policy Program at Resources for the Future, a Washington, DC–based think tank. A practice called tree—planting trees to harvest and sell—makes up the difference.