How to restore a tropical rain forest

6 11 2009

thiakiHere’s a little story for you about how a casual chat over a glass of wine (or many) can lead to great scientific endeavours.

A few years ago I was sitting in the living room of my good friends Noel Preece and Penny van Oosterzee in Darwin chatting about life, the universe, and everything. They rather casually mentioned that they would be selling their environmental consulting company and their house and moving to the Queensland rain forest. Ok – sounded like a pretty hippy thing to do when you’re thinking about ‘retiring’ (only from the normal grindstone, at least). But it wasn’t about the easy life away from it all (ok, partially, perhaps) – they wanted to do something with their reasonably large (181 ha), partially deforested (51-ha paddock) property investment. By ‘something’, I mean science.

So they asked me – how would we go about getting money to investigate the best way to reforest a tropical rain forest? I had no idea. As it turns out, no one really knows how to restore rain forests properly. Sure, planting trees happens a lot, but the random, willy-nilly, unquantified ways in which it is done means that no one can tell you what the biggest biodiversity bang for your buck is, or even if it can compete on the carbon sequestration front.

Why carbon sequestration? Well, in case you’ve had your head up your bum for the last decade, one of the major carbon mitigating schemes going is the offset idea – for every tonne of carbon you emit as a consumer, you (or more commonly, someone else you pay) plant a certain number of trees (because trees need carbon to grow and so suck it out of the atmosphere). Nice idea, but if you deforest native ecosystems just to bash up quick-growing monoculture plantations of (usually) exotic species with little benefit to native biota, biodiversity continues to spiral down the extinction vortex. So, there has to be a happy medium, and there has to be a way to measure it.

So I said to Penny and Noel “Why don’t we bash together a proposal and get some experts in the field involved and submit it to the Australian Research Council (ARC) for funding?” They thought that was a smashing idea, and so we did.

Fast forward a few years and … success! The Thiaki Project was born (‘Thiaki’ is the name of the Creek flowing through the property north of Atherton – seems to be of Greek origin). We were extremely lucky to find a new recruit to the University of Queensland, Dr. Margie Mayfield (who worked previously with Paul Ehrlich), who was not only an expert in the area of tropical reforestation for biodiversity, she also had the time and energy to lead the project. We garnered several other academic and industry partners and came up with a pretty sexy experiment that is just now getting underway thanks to good old Mr. ARC.

The project is fairly ambitious, even though the experiments per se are fairly straight forward. We’re using a randomised block design where we are testing 3 tree diversity treatments (monoculture, 1 species each from 6 families, and 5 species each from those same 6 families) and two planting densities (high and low). The major objective is to see what combination of planting density and native tree species provides the most habitat for the most species. We’re starting small, looking mainly at various insects as they start to use the newly planted blocks, but might expand the assessments (before planting and after) to reptiles, amphibians and possibly birds later on.

But we’re not stopping there – we were fortunate enough to get get a clever soil scientist, Dr. David Chittleborough of the University of Adelaide, involved so we could map the change in soil carbon during the experiment. Our major challenge is to find the right combination of tree species and planting techniques that restore native biodiversity the most effectively, all the while maximising carbon sequestration from the growing forest. And of course, we’re trying to do this as most cost-effectively as we can – measuring the relative costs will give landowners contemplating reforestation the scale of expenditures expected.

I’m pretty proud of what Margie, Noel, Penny and the rest of the team have accomplished so far, and what’s planned. Certainly the really exciting results are years away yet, but stay tuned – Thiaki could become the model for tropical reforestation worldwide. Follow the Thiaki Project website for regular updates.

I’d also love to recreate the Thiaki Project in southern Australia because as it turns out, no one knows how to maximise biodiversity and carbon sequestration for the lowest cost in temperate reforestation projects either. All we need is a few hundred hectares of deforested land (shouldn’t be hard to find), about $1 million to start, and a bit of time. Any takers?

CJA Bradshaw

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© C. Madden



13 responses

24 08 2015
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[…] should restore a forest!”. Great idea, until you actually consider what that means. I know first hand what is required to restore ‘a forest’ – actually, a few small patches of growing experiments. It’s […]


19 05 2014
A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation |

[…] experiments designed to answer just such questions are in progress around Australia — one in far north Queensland in the tropical rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands, one in the semi-arid Mallee forest of South Australia, and one in the wheatbelt of south-western […]


19 07 2012
Experiments in carbon-biodiversity trade-offs «

[…] have heard of this before. A few years ago, Margie Mayfield at UQ, some colleagues and I were awarded an ARC grant to do just that, only that was for a tropical forest in the Atherton Tablelands in far north […]


2 04 2012
when humans suddenly became intelligent « Green Resistance (teaching, organizing, and eco-thinking)

[…] the session saw a world-wide pledge to halt all deforestation by 2013, with intensive reforestation programmes implemented […]


18 01 2012
More is better «

[…] If true, the net biodiversity effect is adequate justification for maximising species diversity in carbon plantings such that both carbon sequestration and biodiversity value are maximised – the best bang for […]


11 02 2011
More to bees than queens and honey «

[…] important rainforest pollinator groups, bees and flies. I met Tobias a few years ago as part of the Thiaki rainforest reforestation project for which he is doing baseline surveys of bees and […]


5 10 2010
More rain forest regeneration opportunities «

[…] 5 10 2010 Last November I wrote about an exciting conservation research endeavour (see ‘How to restore a tropical rain forest‘)  in which I am involved called the Thiaki Rain Forest Regeneration Project taking place as […]


2 01 2010
John Kanowski

Hi Corey
congratulations to you and colleagues on getting ARC funding for a rainforest revegetation project in north Queensland (the Thiaki Ck project). I know a number of the participants and understand the objectives of the project.

That said, in a blogsite dedicated to critical enquiry and debate about conservation science, you could have been a little more rigorous in your assessment of the state of knowledge regarding rainforest restoration.
You say:

…”as it turns out, no one really knows how to restore rain forests properly. Sure, planting trees happens a lot, but the random, willy-nilly, unquantified ways in which it is done means that no one can tell you what the biggest biodiversity bang for your buck is, or even if it can compete on the carbon sequestration front.”

In fact, in north Queensland, there has been over 15 years of research dedicated to these sorts of questions, specifically in relation to optimal restoration techniques, socio-economics of revegetation, and carbon and biodiversity outcomes of different types of reforestation. The research has been funded by the Rainforest CRC and now MTSRF, and it has resulted in considerable advances in our knowledge of this field. Research findings have been published in scientific and management journals, in books, and discussed in workshops, field days and conferences. There has been high levels of engagement with the regional NRM organisation and restoration practitioners.

So again, good luck in your project, which has the potential to provide new knowledge in the field of rainforest restoration. However, there is no need to suggest the field was empty (an intellectual ‘terra nullius’) until this project.

John Kanowski


3 01 2010

Thanks, John. As said, many plantings, but no broad-scale experimental work that addresses all three simultaneously (biodiversity, carbon & cost). Ball’s in your court to show me where I’ve missed it.


7 11 2009
uberVU - social comments

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7 11 2009
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6 11 2009
Marty Deveney

Thiaki is a local name for part of the Port of Stavros on Ithaca (Ithaka in Greek). Not many creeks there. it is also a Greek surname and the creek may be named after an early landowner.



6 11 2009

Thanks, Marty


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