If a tree falls in the woods ...

ROME, Italy — There are times when to solve one problem you must first tackle another. That’s especially true when it comes to one of the biggest challenges in tackling climate change — finding a way to reduce emissions from deforestation.

Loss of forest cover is estimated to account for some 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions. When falling trees and burning forests are taken into account, the world’s third and fourth largest emitters of greenhouse gases (after the U.S. and China) are Brazil and Indonesia.

If the international community is to rein in the warming of the globe, it will have to find a way to slow or stop the felling of the forests.

And while some of that can be accomplished by providing the right incentives (or disincentives) to land-hungry industries or governments, all too often the fate of the world’s trees relies on those who can least afford to protect them.

Small-time ranchers clear land in hope of a better life. Subsistence farmers encroach on forests to feed their families. Villagers turn trees into firewood to sell in the city center. In many cases, the choices that are shaping our future are being made by those who don’t have the luxury to think past the present. One solution, advocated by the United Nations, would be to arrange a payment scheme in which rich countries compensate developing nations that choose not to cut down their forests. But it seems unlikely that the funds will trickle down to those who need it most.

A better option, where possible, would be to work to ensure that our interests are aligned with those on the ground. That’s the approach being taken by Tree Aid, a British NGO promoting forestry projects in the area just south of the Sahara.

There’s no question that trees are useful to those that live near them. They can help control erosion, regulate the water cycle, and create homes for game and wildlife. If planted near a house, they offer shade.

In addition to providing food and animal fodder during good times, in places like Burkina Faso where the group has several long-standing projects, trees can play a critical role when the rains take a long time coming.

"They survive drought where other crops fail,” said Laurent Sedogo, Burkina Faso’s minister for agriculture. “They provide goods from which villagers can earn money to pay for food.”

According to Tony Hill, who coordinates Tree Aid’s programs, the villagers in Burkina Faso already know that their trees are worth more alive than chopped down and sold as firewood.

When a tree gets the axe, it’s almost always because times have gotten so tough that the family needs immediate cash income to survive.

If you see them cutting those trees, that’s a sure sign that there’s a big crisis,” said Hill.

Tree Aid’s approach is to make sure that crisis never comes.

 According to Hill, many households in the regions already make roughly 20 percent of their cash income by selling products harvested from trees around their homes. But Hill believes that the villagers of Burkina Faso could make their trees even more profitable if better processing techniques are introduced and far-away markets are made easier to get to.

 “There’s an opportunity to add more value,” he said. Helping villagers make the most of their trees not only makes them more likely to consider them an asset worth saving.

 The extra income can be stored — usually through the purchase of goats or other livestock — and used to provide a cushion that can get villagers through the hard times without relying on their axes.

 Giving villagers a reason and a means to preserve what is, after all, a natural resource makes it more likely that the trees will remain standing to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

By helping the villagers of Burkina Faso with their short-term crisis, we come that much closer to solving our long-term problem.

Or as Miranda Spitteler, Tree Aid’s chief executive, puts it: “Trees are good. But they’re even better when they help people.”