A review of Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation by Rosetta S. Elkin.
By Jennifer Wolch
Tree planting campaigns are widely seen as a nature-based solution to a variety of environmental challenges. Trees can absorb carbon emissions, halt desertification, protect biodiversity, cool urban heat islands, and redress environmental injustice.
Yet planting trees at scale—afforestation—has a far longer history, driven by very different goals. In Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation, Rosetta S. Elkin, ASLA, an academic scholar and practicing landscape architect, argues that rather than just being an environmental strategy, afforestation can also disguise continued deforestation, capital extraction, land theft, and environmental degradation.
Tightly argued and rigorously researched, Plant Life draws on history, geography, political ecology, botany, landscape ecology, and climate science to present a powerful critique of afforestation, specifically in dryland biomes (which represent 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface).
Afforestation creates wood products and revenues for corporations while it dispossesses people of their land and enmeshes them in state control, Elkin argues. Its use as an environmentalist strategy deceives, coaxing the public to believe that large-scale tree planting projects in drylands are beneficial, even though they often fail and can create severe environmental and social problems.
Elkin’s exposé of three massive afforestation schemes reveals the misinterpretation of drylands, and how large-scale afforestation funding streams render trees as countable units, or “facts”—justifying further funds. Yet, as Elkin states, “facts without context are risky things,” often with adverse outcomes. Ignoring the past failures of afforestation leads to future iterations that rely on unsuccessful design typologies, misunderstood species, and destructive human–plant interactions.
Plant Life also represents a crucial contribution to the growing literature on plant agency. Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021), Stefano Mancuso’s The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior (2018), and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (2016) exemplify this new work on plant agency and plant–human relations.
Throughout, Elkin seeks to show us how alive plants truly are and how seldom we regard them as subjects. She argues that although plants lack readily recognized forms of sentience and agency, they are not simply “tree units” to be entered into spreadsheets. Noting the ways in which classification systems such as Linnaean taxonomies reduce plants to units, she explores alternative approaches advocated by other botanical thinkers (including Theophrastus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Agnes Arber, Lynn Margulis, and Aldo Leopold) who grasped the deeper nature of plants and their relationship to soils, landscapes, and people.
Elkin also emphasizes that plants behave and evolve—they forage, make decisions, communicate, and collaborate not only with animals and other plants, but also with humans, who over long time horizons learn to interpret their signals. By doing so, plants can successfully adapt to cycles of landscape change.
Three analytic pillars structure Elkin’s investigation of afforestation: artifact, index, and trace.
Artifact refers to the tendency for people to consider plants as objects rather than organisms that are very much alive. They are dissected into their specific parts (bark, seeds, leaves, etc.) and genetically manipulated to achieve certain human ends. This process sidelines the organismic integrity of plants. It also divorces them from their larger context, including the atmosphere, rhizosphere, and interventions by other actors, including people, that can affect their behavior and evolutionary success.
Index captures the process by which living plants become standardized and integrated into economies via trade to become capital assets. Here, Elkin calls out landscape design (whether practiced by landscape architects or foresters) as a horticultural practice dependent on standard protocols that can produce predictable—and thus profitable—results.
Trace suggests that afforestation redefines lines of territorial control. While growing trees requires human cultivation, nurturing, and care over generations of people living in specific locales, afforestation involves planting trees over vast areas with no lasting commitment to care or place.
The result is often territorial dispossession of human communities in the way of the tree planters’ paths, whether such planters are agents of timber corporations or governments. The result is a revision of the cartographic traces of biogeography and human settlement justified by claims of public benefit in the form of carbon offsets or economic development, even as profits from deforestation or the expansion of state power continue.
To reveal how artifact, index, and trace play out in place over time, Elkin examines three compelling afforestation efforts on large-scale drylands: sub-Sahelian Africa’s Great Green Wall, the U.S. Prairie States Forestry Project, and China’s Three Norths Shelter System in its northern deserts and grassland steppes. The three case studies offer rich historical background; sketch the political, economic, and institutional contexts that drove the schemes; and detail their consequences for local dryland ecologies, communities, and livelihoods. They also attend to impacts on the planted trees themselves.
Yet beyond the problematic ethical, political, and policy implications of these cases, Elkin has a more profound message: Such afforestation projects have failed because their designers not only did not fully grasp dryland landscape ecology and dynamics, but they failed to appreciate the complexities of plant life. Each case is notable for misapprehensions about specific tree species targeted for widespread planting, arising not only because of gaps in scientific understanding, but also because foresters treated trees as technologies and calculable units—things—rather than forms of life whose ability to thrive depends on environmental and cultural context.
Elkin’s first case study, Africa’s Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative, is an enormous tree-planting scheme crossing the continent and encompassing 11 countries. It targets territory under threat of “desertification,” a term coined by the French botanist André Aubréville in 1949 to refer to the effects of the colonial forestry practices of overharvesting old-growth forests, leading to topsoil desiccation and loss, and ultimately landscape transformation. More recently, trees have become “artifacts” or units in global climate-policy accounting schemes, as institutions ranging from the World Bank to Google fund afforestation projects designed to mitigate desertification exacerbated by climate change.
Like Elkin’s other cases, the Great Green Wall uses what is now the standard afforestation action plan: import seed stocks, establish a tree nursery, employ local people, and lay out “tree blocks,” regardless of local context or conditions and without consulting local pastoral communities that have deep local knowledge in selecting appropriate tree species. Afforestation managers typically close local access to these planting blocks, creating antagonism among pastoralists whose lives depend on herding animals in these lands.
Many Great Green Wall projects have failed to reach their goals, often harming local people in the process, as both afforestation and deforestation continue. In response, Indigenous tree-planting practices (such as the use of Zaï, small pits dug into the soil and augmented with manure that collect rainwater and nurture young trees) have been selectively appropriated by foresters, standardized, and repackaged as science-based “climate-smart” agriculture. These are then used to attract new rounds of afforestation funding. Elkin suggests that when fields of evenly spaced Zaï pits are spread over the landscape, progress on the projects is made visible, but the technique only works because of human tending and the addition of manure. Divorced from herding, and thus manure, they struggle to succeed.
Predating the Great Green Wall by many decades, the New Deal’s Prairie States Forestry Project created the template for large-scale afforestation projects that were to follow. Calls for “conservation” in the early 20th century by influential figures such as Gifford Pinchot linked conservation to forest policy, ultimately sanctioning forestry-based strategies for “treeless” drylands deemed to have little economic value. This was despite scientists’ warnings that untilled grasslands supported by complex rhizospheres, with their dense belowground networks of vegetation, built rich soils and provided valuable habitat.
The project’s goal was to plant millions of trees—turning trees into an “index” of value—to conserve the nation’s soil, but also, in pursuit of Manifest Destiny, claim land for national forests and clear the way for settler agriculture. This was accomplished by eliminating existing dryland vegetation and erasing cultural landscapes through the forced removals of Native Americans. As soil loss created by intensive settler agriculture reached crisis proportions, leading to the 1930s Dust Bowl, the project took afforestation to scale, planting massive shelterbelts across North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The scheme supported both job creation and environmental “improvement”—in the service of soil retention—but also promoted settler colonialism, agriculture growth, timber resource development, and range management for livestock at the expense of “empty” native grasslands. Native people, having developed rich cultures and lifeways in collaboration with grassland plants, fiercely fought back, but because they were nearly annihilated and stripped of their power, their lands were expropriated.
China’s Three Norths Shelter System was initiated in the 1970s in the wake of global cooperative action around the “problem” of drylands. With a projected life span of 70 years, Three Norths involved 42 percent of the country, largely arid and semiarid zones that span northwest, north, and northeast China, seen as having little value. These lands were targeted for tree-planting projects, dust-storm remediation, timber production, expansion of fixed agriculture, and a growing population.
Central to the project were experimental tree stations that developed new technologies and planting strategies, including straw-grid methodologies, which were designed to stabilize slopes, slow particulate movement, and serve as a replicable typology.
Such approaches, however, are neither replicable nor sustainable: to succeed in drylands, trees planted in straw grids need drip-line irrigation, with large quantities of water pumped from aquifers or rivers. Drip lines, heavy with silty river water, tended to clog and required constant maintenance; as water sources were pumped dry, enormous sinkholes appeared. Elkin argues that Three Norths has failed to halt desertification, spur technological innovation, or promote economic development. Yet Three Norths has left its trace on the landscape, namely “fallow fields sedimented by industrial agriculture, abandoned irrigation canals, redundant drip-line infrastructure, and provincial sink holes that drop far into the sandy substrate,” Elkin writes.
Central to each case study are Elkin’s analyses of the physiology, ecology, and behavior of tree species at the top of project planting lists, and her account of what happened when their fundamental nature was misunderstood or ignored. Misconstruing plants as objects rather than subjects, believing them able to be fully standardized and commodified, and ignoring their stunning ability to reconfigure landscapes regardless of human objectives led afforestation projects to fail.
In the case of the Great Green Wall, genus Faidherbia’s complex relations with the mycorrhizae (symbiotic fungi roots) that vary across drylands led to repeated nursery propagation and application failures.
The U.S. Prairie States Forestry Project confused Ulmus pumila L. (Siberian elm) with Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese elm), leading foresters to propagate pumila—superb at adapting to diverse, disrupted environments—and unwittingly creating an invasive species. China’s Three Norths Shelter System promoted the genetically modified Populus spp. without fully recognizing that it cannot thrive without irrigation, or that it can reproduce by cloning itself, leading to large swaths of identical trees vulnerable to disease, pests, and inadequate water supply.
Plant Life is not for the faint of heart. Densely written and analytically abstract, it weaves together historical detail, scientific data, and philosophical argument, requiring readers to simultaneously keep in mind its multiple theoretical, botanical, and narrative threads. Yet Plant Life is also a powerful philosophical and scientific exploration of human–plant relations.
By failing to appreciate the “aliveness” and agency of plants, humankind —the “planting species,” as Elkin calls us—repeatedly misreads, misunderstands, exploits, and haphazardly eradicates plant life. Only by fully grasping and appreciating how people and plants manage to communicate, collaborate, and nurture each other across the human–plant divide can we rescue our planet—and save ourselves. For landscape architecture this means redirecting both discipline and practice away from plant materials designed and manipulated without regard to context, toward plant life understood and nurtured through knowledge of—and partnerships with—plants in ways that are respectful of their deep roots in cultures and places.
Jennifer Wolch is a distinguished professor in the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she served as the William W. Wurster Dean of the College of Environmental Design from 2009 to 2019.