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If you want to see the sort of miraculous comeback Mother Nature can make with the right assist, look no further than the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Here, along the Mississippi River, a partnership between forward-thinking investors and landowners is not only bringing a vast, robust ecosystem of trees, plants and wildlife back from the brink, but also creating revenue for locals and stimulating the local economy.

And these efforts come not a moment too soon.

Forests and wetlands totaling over 22 million acres in size

Forests and wetlands totaling over 22 million acres in size.

Once densely populated with forests and wetlands totaling over 22 million acres in size, today only 20 percent of these previously thriving habitats still exist. With much of it converted to agricultural land — a practice that started in the 1960’s and 70’s — the sparseness of the land leaves communities more susceptible to damage from hurricanes and flooding. And animals have been abandoning the area — nearly two-thirds of all bird species fly along the Mississippi River during migration, but those numbers have decreased as forests and woodlands have been converted to farmland.

Ray Aycock, a local retiree of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

“When we over-cleared (the farming land), we lost a lot of wildlife habitat,” explains Ray Aycock, a local retiree of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “It really affected migration patterns for neotropical birds. It affected endangered species like the Louisiana black bear. It certainly affected water quality, so the need for reforestation is great.”

Prioritizing land use solely for agricultural purposes, as Aycock warns, carries significant environmental risks.

For example, nitrogen-heavy fertilizers used on farms often end up in nearby water systems, contaminating local water and harming aquatic life. And without enough trees, the soil is more likely to erode — which isn’t healthy for the ecosystem or the farmers who depend on nutrient-rich topsoil to cultivate crops.

For every 100,000 acres of farmland restored to its natural forest, the release of 1,550,000 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous into the Mississippi River would be avoided annually.

Over 1,200 landowners have enrolled in the Natural Capital Partners and committed to planting trees on land.

Over 1,200 landowners have enrolled in the Natural Capital Partners and committed to planting trees on land.

Through Natural Capital Partners, a company specializing in environmental solutions for business, we are supporting a local non-profit, Green Trees, in their program to reforest one million of the 22 million acres that have been affected. Over 1,200 landowners have enrolled in the project and committed to planting trees on land that was previously used for agriculture. As a result, their efforts will reduce an estimated 200 tonnes of CO2 per acre.

For every tonne of CO2 reduced, which is measured and verified by independent third party experts, a “carbon credit” is generated. These credits are then available to purchase by companies and individuals who want to reduce their carbon footprint and support sustainable development in communities around the world. The projects have to show that without the income from the carbon credits they would not be viable. As a result, this carbon finance model, which MetLife participates in, ensures farmers have a steady income stream from tree planting on land instead of using it for agriculture.

Bobby Petrus, a landowner who has planted 1,100 acres of trees as part of the program.
Bobby Petrus, a landowner who has planted 1,100 acres of trees as part of the program.

“The trees have provided us a more reliable source of income than the crops that we had planted in the past,” says Bobby Petrus, a landowner who has planted 1,100 acres of trees as part of the program.

Rather than selecting just any type of tree, farmers plant 50 percent cottonwood and 50 percent hardwood trees, all native to the area. Cottonwood trees — referred to as “nurse trees” because they shelter the hardwood varieties from the heat of the direct sun — grow up to 12 feet every year.

With cottonwoods, the reforestation process can happen faster, which then results in carbon being captured more quickly and generating more protection from hurricane and flood damage. A mere three years after planting, wildlife could potentially begin returning to the woods, taking up an essential role in a resurrected, interdependent ecosystem.

“What we’re trying to do is mimic what happens naturally in forests as they regenerate,” says Don Anderson, Nursery Manager at Big River Cottonwood, a nursery that participates in the reforestation program by providing trees.

Thanks to funds from the carbon credit program, it is financially viable for farmers and landowners to forgo agriculture and begin the restoration process. Once the trees mature, they can also be harvested sustainably for timber.

A variety of companies — including MetLife — are purchasers of carbon credits from the project.

Tree planting can make a big impact on carbon emissions.
Tree planting can make a big impact on carbon emissions.

“This is a really important project in the US because of its scale,” notes Melissa Vernon of Natural Capital Partners. “This amount of tree planting can make a big impact on carbon emissions. Additionally, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley is a critical wildlife habitat and important for water quality. Some of the past farming practices have been devastating to this region, so reforestation has a massive benefit for the local ecosystem and communities.”

“MetLife has a longstanding commitment to improving the environment and ensuring a healthy planet for future generations to come,” said Tim O’Brien, Senior Vice President, Global Real Estate and Corporate Services. “We are constantly seeking new approaches to integrate sustainability best practices throughout our real estate portfolio and promote environmental stewardship in all the regions where we operate. Through the purchase of carbon credits, we are able to make a positive impact beyond our office portfolio — not only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but by bringing sustainable development to local communities.”

The project, which launched in 2008 and has reforested 120,000 acres thus far, will continue for 40 years until the trees reach maturity, with the goal of one million acres reforested.

As a continuation of our promise to achieve carbon neutrality each year, MetLife is dedicated to actively finding opportunities to increase the environmental and economic sustainability of the places where we live and work.

To achieve carbon neutrality, or net-zero emissions, MetLife first reduces emissions as much as possible across our own operations — through enhanced efficiencies, green building efforts, energy reduction projects, travel reduction and employee behavior change. To offset those emissions that we cannot immediately eliminate, we support high-quality, third-party certified low-carbon sustainable development projects that eliminate greenhouse gas emissions while providing numerous other social and environmental benefits to local communities.

An example of this commitment is MetLife's support of a project to reforest and rejuvenate parts of the agricultural land located alongside the Mississippi River — which results in important environmental benefits, like protection from storm damage and lower likelihood of water contamination, and economic advantages in the form of financial incentives and subsidies for families in these communities.