A Dutch engineer has developed a cheap and easy way to restore vegetation to barren landscapes, and a profit business to go with it.
President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord was perplexing to Europeans for many reasons, not least of which was their determination that climate change represents a profit opportunity. In particular, the Dutch, who more or less invented water management in Europe, a millennium or so ago, have developed a specialty in related innovation.
Four years ago, Jurriaan Ruys was a partner at McKinsey, focussing on global sustainability issues. The Dutchman had been an environmentalist since the age of eight, when he went door to door handing out stickers to save the sea turtles, but he became frustrated by the abstract nature of his work—flying around the world, advising governments on term climate strategy. Eventually, he up and quit. Ruys had trained as an engineer, and he was convinced that the current moment, thanks in part to instantaneous communication, was one in which grassroots solutions to yawning environmental problems could yield results. He decided to focus on desertification, which is both a symptom and an intensifier of climate change. It’s also one of the most multilayered problems on Earth, the results of which lead to human misery, political strife, and war. For the next year, Ruys hunkered down in a storage space, tinkering furiously, making frequent trips to the local hardware store.
The result of this freelance engineering is a tech invention that is succeeding beyond Ruys’s expectations. Three years after he emerged with his prototype, his invention has been adopted in Mexico, Cameroon, Malawi, Peru, Chile, Spain, Italy, Greece, Israel, China, Dubai, and the U.S. The company he formed, Land Life, with Eduard Zanen, an entrepreneur, has twenty employees who are working with the U.N., the World Wildlife Fund, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the U.S. National Park Service, and in remote villages and refugee camps. José Luis Rubio, the vice chair of the European Soil Bureau Network, called Ruys’s invention “remarkable” in its results and told me that it represents “an innovative method” to restoring vegetation to barren landscapes.
Jurriaan Ruys’s invention, which can be buried underground, contains a sapling, water, and beneficial fungi.
So what did Ruys invent? One way to restore degraded soil is to plant trees—lots of them. The catch is that seeds and saplings won’t grow in such soil, but if a young tree becomes large enough that its roots can reach groundwater it stands an excellent chance of thriving. Previous efforts often followed two paths: cumbersome and impractical irrigation techniques, or tossing a few million seeds out of an airplane and hoping for the best. Ruys’s innovation was to develop a shaped paper cocoon, the base of which is buried underground. It contains the sapling, enough water to sustain the tree while it establishes a root system, and a small lozenge of beneficial fungi. The cocoon is cheap, easy to plant, scalable—a community can plant hundreds of acres of them in a short time—and biodegradable. Rubio told me that in the desert regions of Spain where his organization is working, other efforts have resulted in a success rate of ten to twenty per cent; “the cocoon,” he said, “is providing around five per cent survival rate of trees.”
In its three years of existence, Ruys’s company has planted a quarter of a million trees in twenty countries. Its current projects include reforestation in China, renewing mesquite forests that have been harvested for charcoal and reëstablishing the trees in which monarch butterflies nest in Mexico, planting forty thousand trees for shade and wood fuel at a refugee camp in Cameroon, and restoring ecosystems in Italy, Spain, and Greece.
Maybe more interesting than Ruys’s invention is the way he has worked himself into and around the bureaucratic complexities of the issue. The cheapness of the product and the ease of planting helped him to leapfrog over school N.G.O.s and establish direct relationships with villages. Olaf Tchongrack, an administrator with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told me that his people in the field were impressed precisely because of the cocoon’s simplicity: “It’s actually an ancient technique. What’s innovative is they’ve found a way to industrialize it and keep costs low.” Its success has gotten the attention of governments, the U.N., and private investors. At the moment, the company isn’t able to fill, or even respond to, all the requests it is getting for the cocoons.
The cocoon is a bit deceptive in its seeming simplicity: a good deal of tech thinking went into it. “Everyone likes biodegradable,” Ruys said, “but it’s actually a tricky concept. You want a thing to work over a period of time, then completely disappear. It’s hard to do, which is why, as consumers, we still buy plastic.” Ruys solved the problem with a particular kind of wax coating that dissolves at the right time. He also spent a lot of time developing a wick that would precisely feed water to the plant.
His company’s approach is similarly deceptive in its apparent simplicity. As a former McKinsey partner, he is used to thinking at a macro level, and his true goal, he told me, is nothing less than “to professionalize nature restoration.” Where agribusiness is highly professional, nature restoration, he said, remains “a charity.” He wants this to change. “Agriculture has developed satellite technology, G.P.S. locationing, remote sensors. We want to bring all of that to bear,” he said. Land Life is working on an app that uses Google Earth and other existing technologies to allow for time monitoring of every one of the trees it is planting.
Ruys and his partner insisted from the start that Land Life should be a profit company. As of this year, it is breaking even on revenue of approximately 2.5 million euros, with clients ranging from N.G.O.s to private companies to an Israeli businessman who has paid Land Life to plant trees on both sides of the Palestine border. Ruys is part of a generation of Europeans who believe that tackling climate change has to be commercialized if it is to succeed. And, as dire as the ecological threats are, he finds the restoration field to be wide open. The big aid agencies, he said, are receptive to new ideas in ways they never were before, and so are communities in need of reforestation. “I see this as a very doable technological challenge,” he said. “And I see a generation that sees it as a brainer, that is ready to buy a product called ‘fix this planet.’ ”