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The Dark Side of Reforestation Programs: Planting 7,000 Trees a Day in Brutal Conditions

"78 Days," a compelling documentary by Canadian filmmaker and former tree planter Jason Nardella, reveals the dark side of reforestation labor.
 
 
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Reforestation and tree planting is a tricky topic for many environmentalists. Every year, several billion trees are harvested for fuel, construction and paper products. While alternative products like hemp and bamboo can solve part of the problem, as can recycling paper products, curbing the effects of the behemoth logging industry takes time and resources. For ordinary people concerned about deforestation, it doesn't take much to buy some carbon offset credits or a voucher to replace a tree or two. But it takes an extraordinary amount of resources to actually plant and nurture all those new trees. And behind the scenes of every good faith voucher purchase is a whole other industry focused on regrowth -- not always with optimal results that actually reduce CO2 levels.

Some critics also argue that carbon offsets, or taking steps to neutralize our carbon footprint, can be ineffective or even harmful because they are only a short-term solution. Others contend that all carbon emissions are not created equal. Burning fossil fuels simply can't be compared with biological tree carbon. All of this controversy doesn't even take into account how carbon offset programs -- let alone the simple demand for lumber -- could potentially be fueling the grueling work conditions for tree planters.

78 Days, a compelling documentary by Canadian filmmaker and former tree planter Jason Nardella, reveals the dark side of reforestation labor. Nardella focused his lens on a 2008 tree planting crew in remote northern Alberta. Over the course of four short months, the small crew of mostly veteran hardworking planters was tasked with planting an astounding 10 million trees regardless of climate or injury. It wasn't some sort of unusually intense planting season. On the contrary, these planters toil every summer planting season under such extreme conditions and deadlines.

It's worth noting that the extreme conditions associated with the tree planting season are documented online if you go searching for planter diaries or warnings about the potential dangers of the job on tree planting job boards. What Nardella depicts isn't atypical, especially in the remote upper regions of the Canadian wilderness.

Shot on a mix of video and grainy Super 8 film, 78 Days focuses on the workers as they convene in the spring in High Level, a secluded town near the border of the Northwest Territories that seems to exist primarily for seasonal laborers who pass through the area. The planters work for Wildwoods Reforestation, whose clients include Tolko Industries and La Crete Sawmills. In a mere 65 days scheduled for the planting season, with only 28 planters on the job, they will plant an astounding 9.6 million trees.

78 Days touches on the politics of tree planting but focuses largely on labor conditions and the type of isolated piecework that attracts people searching for ways to push back against social norms about work, money and liberation. As one worker narrates over beautiful b-roll of the forest in the film's opening sequence, "A little discomfort can grant you a lot of freedom."

There's a running joke among the planters; as much as they love the freedom their job provides the rest of the year, they dread the actual work. "Every year before I come planting, I start buying lottery tickets the month before as the last ditch [effort]," says Tim, a planter in his ninth season. Like the other planters, Tim has had no formal training for the work. As he and the other seasoned planters have aged, they've also begun to consider alternatives to the grueling 10-hour-plus days of manual labor the time-sensitive seasonal work demands.

 
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