Feet on the ground with team Air France!

9am, Tuesday 23 January, 2017

The landscape softly emerges from several days of downpour in the Paris region. The sky is still grey but we’re in luck for this working field day: the rain holds off… more or less.

And so, this chilly morning, volunteers from staff at Air France, organisers from Unis-Cité, the field operators Plantons pour l’avenir (forestry) and Agrof’île (agroforestry association), together with the managers from A TREE FOR YOU, meet up over coffee to plan the day ahead.

This is the first year Air France has organised its ‘Better Together’ volunteer days for staff, supporting a selection of associations.

The initiative includes A TREE FOR YOU because it shares Air France’s desire to support tree planting initiatives both in France and worldwide. By creating the Trip And Tree programme together, we are enabling millions of passengers to donate directly online when purchasing a plane ticket, and so support tree planting projects. What makes Trip And Tree special? Passengers can themselves choose the project where it will be spent and receive regular progress updates for, at least, the next three years. The French Civil Aviation Authority (Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile, DGAC) and Navigable Waterways of France (Voies Navigables de France, VNF) are also supporting A TREE FOR YOU as it gains momentum in 2018, especially the website for bringing together donors and projects.

A TREE FOR YOU has chosen planting partners in the field that are both respected and experienced, such as Plantons pour l’avenir and Agrof’île – the Paris regional operator for developing local agroforestry enlisted through the French Agroforestry Association (Association Française d’Agroforesterie, AFAF).

So after coffee, what’s on the agenda for today? Two sites; two settings.

On the one hand, working in Neufmoutiers forest, which suffered badly during the great storm of 1999; 124 hectares have since been replanted. Our guide, the extraordinary Sylvestre Coubert, vice-president of Forestry Experts of France (Experts Forestiers de France), only recently took over managing this site. By the by, A point of interest: the by-products of this forest are used to power the biomass heating plant at Roissy Charles de Gaulle.

On the other hand, down on the farm in Essonne (a department south of Paris). This 500-hectare holding on the Courances estate is switching over to organic and conservation agriculture. Here Benoît Dumas takes the group of Air France volunteers under his wing. Thanks to the team of farmers, agronomists, and landscapers at Agrof’île, the operation is well organised and extremely professional. The Air France volunteers gave their all on the still muddy land. White in the morning, their ‘Better Together’ tee-shirts certainly didn’t stay that way for long!

On the forestry side, in his introduction, Tancrède Neveu, director of Plantons pour l’avenir, told us that the forest-timber sector in France employs more people than the auto industry; that despite forests covering 30% of its land surface, France imports wood; that the French forest cover has lived through turbulent times due to the country’s history of farming; and, perhaps most surprisingly, since the French Revolution this cover has doubled to 17 million hectares today! So what are the reasons for this operating deficit? Well, three-quarters of forests in France are privately owned and inherited by individuals who don’t always know how best to manage them. In response, Plantons pour l’avenir is playing a part by providing loans so owners can plant in their forests – a move which, at the end of the day, puts them on the path to working their trees.

Forests in France are facing several challenges: the need to fill the commercial gap by stepping up production as demand for wood increases fast; adapting to climate change – a phenomenon happening faster than the natural ability of trees to adjust. Wood is special because it is CO2 neutral: the carbon it stores is drawn from the atmosphere.

Wood certainly has a bright future. “In the world of construction, we have had the ‘stone age’ with cathedrals and Haussmann-style buildings, then the ‘iron age characterised by the work of Gustave Eiffel. In the 20th century, we adopted concrete – a material that may be extremely practical, but which on the downside emits CO2 and is extremely energy intensive. The 21st century will be the ‘timber age’, with buildings in wood with several floors,” reckons Tancrède Neveu.

And so we’re ready to get stuck in! The volunteers are divided into teams. On the farm at Courances the team restores hedges originally planted to foster biodiversity. We had to remove the plastic netting in place for five years along the two hedges, as well as the sleeves around the trees and bushes – sometimes thorny! – to let them fully develop. The tasks were quite physical, but by twisting and turning and driven by team spirit everyone rose to the challenge! And we could at once see why these hedges are so important: there are many earthworms in the vicinity and the soil has more humus than on the adjacent land, where sand dominates. Preserving plant cover all the year round and bringing tired soil back to fertile life – richer in organic matter, more aerated, absorbing water and storing carbon – helps manage crop pests because their natural predators live in the shrub vegetation. Such are the virtues one expects from agroforestry and conservation farming. We certainly enjoyed our hands-on experience!

In the forest, some of the volunteers planted sessile oak saplings, which adapt better to climate change than most species; others removed protective shielding from trees planted several years ago; and yet another group selected the trees to be kept and did some pruning: trees overshadowing those to remain or any that have failed to grow properly will be felled and left on the spot to enrich the soil; trees providing protection will be left untouched.

On this oak tree plantation, birch, ash and beech trees have cropped up… and are welcome! “It’s a very good thing because they bring diversity to the forest, which in turn benefits the fauna, the soil, the water cycle, and plays a part in combatting disease,” explains Sylvestre Coudert. «We are just the companions of nature. She is the active party; our role is to help her.”

Another ‘Better Together’ day, on 23 January near Roquelaure, in the region of Toulouse, was covered by the French daily La Dépêche du Midi. And yet another, on 30 January in Neufmoutiers forest, appeared in the April 2018 issue of the (subscription-based) magazine Forêts de France under the title « Les journées sylvicoles d’Air France ».

Photos © A TREE FOR YOU

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