Just Planting Trees? Or Creating Nature-based Solutions?

Sustainability expert, Desiree Driesenaar writes about nature-based solutions as a viable answer to the world’s ecological and economical problems.

Updated: May 14, 2023
Desiree Driesenaar


[Originally published on Medium]

Many environmentalists are getting desperate. How to solve pollution, climate change, deforestation, and all the other problems that our industrial ways are creating?

Many economists are holding ground, saying the market will balance it all in the end. But secretly they ask themselves how to make the economy more resilient? How to tackle the huge gap between riches and poverty? How to feed a fast-growing world population?

It seems like the environmentalists and economists are on separate sides. But are they? Can we find solutions that will solve problems on both sides? Can we align the economy and ecology?

Yes, we can.

In my stories, based on my Blue Economy expertise (e.g. for the EU Commission), I explore solutions that create multiple benefits on both sides. The solutions that connect human systems with natural ecosystems.

Nature-Based Solutions

lood defenses of mangroves being built in the sea / Desiree Driesenaar.

Nature-based solutions are embraced by many big institutions in the past year. Apparently people start to see that we need nature to help us find solutions for our biggest world problems. Ecological problems as well as economic problems. There’s no getting around it anymore…

The World Bank calls  in their April 2019 report “a Cost-effective Approach for Disaster Risk and Water Resource Management.”

The European Commission says that  “are designed to bring more nature and natural features and processes to cities, landscapes, and seascapes. These innovative solutions also support economic growth, create jobs, and enhance our well-being.”

The United Nations Development Program published in October 2019 their view on : “It provides a framework for governments to identify potential NBS with the aim of enhancing their climate mitigation and adaptation action in a cost-effective manner and with multiple co-benefits.”

And in August 2019 the UN Climate Action Summit published its .


The light is turned on in many rooms now.

But what are Nature-based Solutions?

I think the  describes them best when they say:

“Nature-based solutions are defined as actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits” —

Nature-based Solutions by IUCN

Nature-based Solutions by IUCN

Building with Nature in Indonesia

Companies, governments, and researchers are collaborating in many fields to make Nature-based Solutions happen for real.

The example I want to highlight in this story is a great project designed and implemented by a Building with Nature Consortium, managed by , , and the Indonesian government. It’s .

Their  is inspirational. And is now copied in adapted forms by many other coastal areas around the world.

A quick introduction:

The aim is to enhance coastal resilience for 70.000 vulnerable people in the . The project will avoid further flooding and erosion of the coast including 6000 ha of aquaculture ponds. Without this project, coastal erosion will continue across the entire Demak district and land will be steadily lost. It also would mean that aquaculture production would not possible anymore. Yields would become zero.

Due to the project, coastal erosion has been stopped. Furthermore, sustainable revitalization of 300 ha of aquaculture ponds along a 20 km shoreline has been supported. Coastal Field Schools are introduced to innovative methods and best practices and will spread the knowledge. Incentives are provided through  of micro-credits. This approach enhances inclusive economic growth and self-reliance of the communities in the region.

What’s so special, you ask?

Mangrove trees are more often being planted, aren’t they?

Well, this is what’s special.

  • Instead of just planting the mangrove trees, as is often done, they create the perfect circumstances for the seeds that are still in the soil to germinate. This creates biodiverse forests instead of monocultures
  • They use sediment methods instead of tree planting, which gives the mangrove forests a much higher chance of survival
  • They measure and describe, sharing their findings open-source with the rest of the world
  • They combine the reforestation with nature-based aquaculture to ensure the people have food and don’t have to destroy the mangroves again for basic needs
  • They invest a lot of time listening to the varied stakeholder groups in the surrounding communities. Learning together, building best practices, and sharing nature-based education
Fisherman in Demak / Desiree Driesenaar

Fisherman in Demak / Desiree Driesenaar

Restored Ecosystems and Livelihoods

When Mike and I visited the project, we were welcomed warmly. Project leader Pak Eko told us proud stories. He is employed by , which is managing the partnership of Building with Nature.

He told us about building the dams that trap the sediments and create new land. About the many, many little crabs, snakes, and flying fish that are now finding shelter in the mangroves.

Together with his fellow villagers, they gave us fish for lunch and told us that vegan prawn crackers are being made from mangrove leaves. He showed us the training programs, and pictures of the meetings between the government and the local community.

Fish for lunch / Desiree Driesenaar

The success factors of the projects are definitely a combination of engineering and ecosystem restoration knowledge. Strong social interaction. And adapting the applied methods to the local environmental and cultural situations.

What makes a Nature-based Solution like this so strong is that it combines environmental restoration with human livelihoods. Entrepreneurship for the common good is as much stimulated as the restoration efforts are.

The overall aim is multiple benefits for humans and other species.

The Aim, Focus, and Effectiveness

Whenever there are two aims combined in a project, the question is which focus is strongest?

Human activity, here aquaculture?

Or restoring ecosystems, here mangrove reforestation?

In this scientific study done by and , different ‘management regimes’ have been analyzed. Such as protected, rehabilitated, , and converted mangrove systems.

The conclusion is that projects with a purely human focus score well on food, but bad on other , such as carbon emissions, flood risks, and water pollution.

Projects with a purely restorative focus, score high on 7  and only a little bit lower on food.


Here is the exact quote from the report.

“Natural mangroves were found to score highest for all 7 evaluated ecosystem services except food, which scored only fractionally lower than aquaculture. Conversely, mangroves converted for aquaculture received the maximum score for food production, but this coincides with low or even negative provision of all other ecosystem services.”

— Wetlands International and Wageningen University

My personal insight is that a strong collaboration of entrepreneurs, NGOs, governments, and researchers works best.

Entrepreneurs drive a project forward. They combine creativity with risk-taking and fierce action. NGOs make sure the purpose is served properly. They bring in knowledge of environmental or social topics and trustworthiness for the community. Governments ensure that regulations are helping, not hindering. And researchers measure and share knowledge.

In this case, I like the fact that an NGO with a strong purpose and a realistic outlook on life () is the driving force of the project.

It can never be perfect from day one. Such a project involves experimenting, observation, and involvement of the local community. If a nature-based project like this is done right, Nature will take the results and build on that for a resilient future of all species.

And that’s what we want.

Humans design and boost. So Nature can play her role again with vigor and give all species abundance and a place to call home.

Mangrove restoration and fish farming / Desiree Driesenaar

Mangrove restoration and fish farming / Desiree Driesenaar

To Plant or Not to Plant?

An interesting aspect of the Building with Nature approach is the fact that the mangrove reforestation is not primarily done by planting mangroves. Instead, sediment methods have been used.

"Mangroves can grow back naturally, without planting, as propagules and fruits are swept in by the tides. If the biophysical conditions are right, then they can settle and germinate and establish without being washed away.

Many muddy coasts however are rapidly eroding. Like in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Suriname, and propagules are washed away. To stop the erosion process permeable structures are being applied to reduce wave impact, trap sediment and then allow natural mangrove recovery.

However, community-based planting (assisted by expertise) can also contribute in the areas where hydrological connectivity is not really possible. Planting may also be beneficial:

• When natural supplies of seeds and propagules are limited due to lack of nearby ‘parent trees’ or lack of hydrological connection to these trees. This is often the case along coastlines that suffered widespread mangrove degradation

• To re-introduce specific valuable species that have been lost from an area, so-called ‘enrichment planting’

• For educational or cultural purposes. As a symbol of life, planting a tree can create lasting commitment and ownership amongst all those involved

• In severely eroding areas, mangrove planting on remaining bunds can offer short-term relief by delaying erosion of those bunds

In cases where planting is necessary, appropriate species to site matching is vital. Non-mangrove habitat and areas showing natural mangrove recruitment need to be avoided at all times."

— Knowledge gained from correspondence with Wetlands International

The big advantage is that the seeds germinate in conditions advantageous for growth. And that gives a high rate of success.

Report about To Plant or Not to Plant

Research funded by the  and the  has led to the following conclusions:

“The world needs mangroves, but in many parts of the world they have been lost or degraded, along with their valuable services like coastal protection or fisheries enhancement. Restoration is necessary in many places.

Mangrove planting is hugely popular, but the majority of planting efforts fail to restore functional mangrove forests and we can learn from these experiences.

Successful restoration results in the establishment of a sizeable, diverse, functional and self-sustaining mangrove forest that offers benefits for nature and people.

When the enabling biophysical and socioeconomic conditions are put back in place applying Ecological Mangrove Restoration principles, nature will do the rest. When that happens, species to site matching is optimal, resulting in better survival, faster growth, and a more diverse and resilient mangrove forest.

In some cases, planting can assist or enrich the natural regeneration process. However, planting in non-mangrove habitat and areas showing natural mangrove recruitment needs to be avoided.”


The details of this work can be found in a report translated into many languages for relevant countries: English, Spanish, Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer, Malay, and Filipino.

The report can be downloaded from this link.


I’m really convinced that Nature-based Solutions are the way to go.

We can combine restorative projects with livelihoods and local economic activities. It means we can create multiple benefits for humans and other species at the same time.

So, please don’t limit impactful projects to environmental restoration only. The restored environment will be destroyed again if people are hungry and take shortcuts to fulfill their basic needs.

And don’t limit entrepreneurship to a product without caring for the externalities, such as waste, pollution, and soil degradation. The environment will suffer, will eventually die, and leave humanity with empty hands. There are many available that include ecosystem services. Use them and create multiple benefits!

No biodiverse, living Nature means no chance for humanity.

Restoring wetlands together with food production is such an important Nature-based Solution! And please don’t think it can only be done in rural areas. There are many  as well.

We need wetlands so badly!

We need wetlands for

  • prosperity in local economies
  • sufficient clean water
  • plentiful food
  • protection from disasters
  • carbon storage
  • diverse and beautiful nature

I feel privileged to have visited these local heroes who make it happen in their own Demak area. And I will continue telling their story. They deserve it!

Our visit- from the right- Mike second, Desiree third, and Pak Eko fourth. Picture by a community member.

If you want to connect, you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, my website, or somewhere in the world contributing to Nature-based Solutions with multiple benefits for all species…

Thank you, Mike, for our adventures and for adding your wise energy to my words.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on nature-based solutions. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

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Desiree is an entrepreneur and top writer on Medium for sustainability and climate change. She has 25+ years of experience in business management and is a regular contributor to The Blue Economy. Passionate about systemic solutions, Desiree actively collaborates with like-minded individuals.
Desiree Driesenaar