Drone-based Planting Can Reduce Time, Costs of Reforestation

Although mining activity is often associated with deforestation, by some estimations it’s a lesser contributor to the problem – accounting for about 7% of forest losses and degradation – than commercial and subsistence agriculture (73%) and urban expansion and infrastructure (10%). Nevertheless, while mining’s direct impact on forests is often limited, its indirect and cumulative impacts can be significant, according to a paper* published by Chatham House, a UK-based policy institute.

For example, mining’s direct impact includes land-use change at mine sites, and downstream pollution and environmental damage. The sector’s indirect and cumulative impacts can be more significant, including those associated with the development of road, rail and port infrastructure for transport and export of minerals, and the impacts associated with inflows of workers and other economic activities such as logging as infrastructure opens forests up.

The paper explores the impacts of large-scale mining on forests, against the backdrop of rising demand anticipated for many mineral commodities. The study assumes that alongside the depletion of accessible reserves and declining ore grades across the sector, mining is likely to push further into forest landscapes, increasing the risk of deforestation and forest degradation. It expands upon the key themes of a research workshop which was held at Chatham House in May 2019.

Apart from the increased scrutiny and pressure that the industry is likely to receive as competition for natural resources such as water, timber and farmland heightens, reforestation of mine lands presents the prospect of another method to indirectly cut GHG emissions from mining – in this case, even long after mining ceases. Simply put, trees sequester CO2 and store carbon in biomass. Mining companies can integrate reforestation into their ESG strategies, provided the price is right.

A French climate-tech startup company has focused its efforts on developing what it claims is a unique solution for large-scale reforestation of degraded ecosystems, using drones. Instead of simply planning a monoculture reforestation for a tract of land, MORFO says it conducts a detailed analysis of the soils and the surrounding biodiversity in order to recreate viable forests which it will monitor for years to ensure sustainability and vigor.

MORFO says one of its specially equipped drones can reforest up to 50 hectares per day using seed encapsulation technology – 50 times more than traditional reforestation methods, according to the company, which says it has successfully carried out projects in Gabon (in collaboration with the mining and metallurgical group ERAMET), French Guiana and Brazil.

The company points out that in its reforestation strategy, humans and drones are complementary. In general, drones are:
• More efficient – They can plant between 20 and 100 times faster than humans. A single drone can treat up to 50 hectares per day and plant 180 bolls (seed capsules) per minute.
• Cost savers – They can be as much as five times cheaper, because of their speed of planting, but also because planting by drone avoids the need for a plant nursery.
• Safer – They are able to access areas that pose high risk for human activity; e.g., in rugged or extremely remote terrain.

However, MORFO explains that at each stage of a project – analysis of the terrain, choice of seeds, planting, monitoring of evolution – human intervention remains crucial. The company uses scientists, employed by MORFO or by partner laboratories and universities, as well as technicians, agronomy experts, drone operators and seed specialists. The company says it also collaborates with members of local entities associated with a project who assist in preparation and, depending on the project, may conduct some replanting in a traditional way. The capsules carried by the drones have several advantages over conventional direct seeding, according to the company:
• They offer a growing medium with optimal humidity and biological richness for the plant.
• Their physical structure is resistant to impact when dropped, resulting in adequate burial in the soil to initiate the vegetation cycle.
• They allow a storage period compatible with the planting seasons in different regions of the world.

MORFO says basic components of its capsules are sourced locally to support local economic networks and avoid risk of ecosystem disruption due to the implantation of exogenous plants.

As featured in Womp 2023 Vol 03 - www.womp-int.com