rethink sustainability

    Figs, wolves and starfish: the regenerative power of keystone economics

    Over millions of years, fig trees have shaped our world, influenced our evolution, nourished our bodies and fed our imaginations. Fig trees could help us restore ravaged rainforests, stem the loss of wild species and even limit climate change.

    Mike Shanahan – Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future Of Fig Trees

    “By themselves, the figs could build a forest,” wrote botanist E.J.H. Corner, after years of studying fig trees in the Singapore Botanical Gardens in the 1930s and 40s. Fifty years later, biologist Steve Elliott put this claim to the test in Thailand’s Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.

    Following decades of land clearance for agriculture, one fifth of the park had become treeless, and locals were failing in their attempts to restore the lost forest. Elliott adopted the then groundbreaking ‘framework species approach’, planting ‘pioneer’ and ‘climax’ species all at once, aiming to accelerate the natural ecological ‘succession’.

    Fig trees played a central role – of the eight best surviving tree species planted in the second phase of the reforestation, five were figs; and one fig species “produced figs almost continuously from the time of planting onwards,” where most other tree species took at least two and a half years before they bore fruit.1

    Fig trees could help us restore ravaged rainforests, stem the loss of wild species and even limit climate change

    The result was spectacular. Within two years a new canopy had already begun to close, shading out weeds and covering the ground in rich leaf litter that encouraged new tree growth. Within 8 years the number of bird species populating the area had tripled and 73 other native tree species had sprung up, their seeds dispersed by the animals drawn into the new forest.

    After 21 years the forest had reached maturity, storing almost as much carbon as an old-growth forest.2 Australian biologist Nigel Tucker, who developed the framework species approach when restoring forests in Queensland, Australia, believes that, for effective reforestation, one in five of the tree species planted should be a fig.3

    Read also: Hope from the ashes: unearthing ancient value in our forests


    The magic figtree

    The most famous tree in the world is a fig tree. The bodhi, a tree of the species ficus religiosa (meaning ‘sacred fig’), sheltered the Buddha for 49 consecutive days of meditation, at the end of which he is said to have achieved enlightenment. A direct descendant of that tree – the 2,500-year-old Mahabodhi tree – has become a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists the world over.

    In the Abrahamic faiths, the first people on Earth made clothing from fig leaves; the ancient Greeks thought figs to be a gift from the gods; the Romans believed that Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, had been saved from drowning by the roots of a fig tree. For many indigenous communities the fig is the “world tree”, reaching up to the heavens and providing a conduit for God to communicate with his people. Other traditions believe that fig trees are gods themselves, or hold figs as symbols of divine sustenance.

    Science now understands why these trees have been so long revered. The ficus (fig) is an unusual family. They are prodigious growers, with powerful roots that can crack rocks, stabilise soils and locate water even in dry seasons. Many of the more than 750 species “fruit” multiple times a year (figs are not, in fact, fruit, they are bundles of hidden flowers), providing food at times when other plants are barren. This makes them biodiversity magnets – all told, over 1,200 species of birds and mammals feed on figs, more than any other single fruit.4

    In barren landscapes just a few fig trees can create an explosion of new plant and animal life


    But figs don’t dominate their environments. Instead, by attracting such a wide variety of seed-dispersing animals – who often arrive at the figs having first eaten the fruit of other trees many miles away – they give opportunity for other tree species to spread. In barren landscapes just a few fig trees can create an explosion of new plant and animal life. In 1986 Professor John Terborgh suggested that fig trees are so important to Peru’s Amazon basin that without them the entire ecosystem could collapse.5 According to Dr. Daniel Kissling, Associate Professor of Quantitative Biodiversity at the University of Amsterdam, fig trees are “keystone resources” on a “continental scale”.6


    All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others

    Nature has other keystones, too. In 1963, US ecologist Robert Paine began a multi-year experiment that would upend the field of environmental studies.7 From an ecologically diverse stretch of the intertidal zone at Makah Bay, Washington, Paine removed every starfish, a predator that feeds mostly on mussels and barnacles. Within a year, the total number of species in his 8-metre experimental area had fallen from 15 to 8; after a further 6 years the patch had become a monoculture of mussels.

    Paine controlled his study by experimenting with the removal of other species – none had such a significant impact. Paine concluded that the starfish was a keystone species – by keeping the mussels in check, they provided room for others, and ensured a vibrant, diverse ecosystem. “All animals are equal,” he said, “but some are more equal than others.”

    Ecosystem architects

    A still more spectacular example of a keystone species in action can be seen in Yellowstone National Park, USA. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone more than 50 years after they had been hunted to local extinction.8 While few in number (just 31 wolves were released, and even now the wolves total no more than 100)9 the wolves dramatically changed the character of the ecosystem. By creating what has been dubbed a ‘landscape of fear’, the elk and coyote population, who had previously roamed the park unchecked, were pushed to the fringes of the park.

    Like fig trees, it turns out, wolves are ecosystem architects on a grand scale


    With fewer elk around to eat saplings, and fewer coyotes to eat small, seed-dispersing mammals such as mice and ground-nesting birds, tree-life flourished. New growth of willow trees stabilised the banks of the Yellowstone River. Beavers returned – their numbers multiplied nine-fold in just 15 years – and their newly-built dams formed habitats for waterfowl, fish and amphibians. They recharged the water table and even changed the course of the Yellowstone River itself.

    Like fig trees, it turns out, wolves are ecosystem architects on a grand scale.


    Keystone economics

    It pays to protect nature’s keystones. The cost of restoring the wolf population to Yellowstone National Park – an upfront spend of USD 30 million10 – has been paid off many times over; every year the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming receive USD 35 million in tourism income attributed solely to wolf-watching in Yellowstone Park.11

    Similar eco-tourism benefits have been seen in Costa Rica, often cited as the world’s most successful national reforestation project. There, figs are considered so valuable to forest restoration that “instant fig trees” (3.5 metre-long cuttings taken from already established trees) are planted in degraded areas in order to hasten ecosystem recovery.12 Three million tourists visit Costa Rica each year, contributing USD 4 billion (8% of GDP) to the government coffers – more than 60% of visitors to the country say they visit for the unique environment and wildlife.13

    By helping to turn carbon sources into carbon sinks, keystone species can also play a central role in rapidly growing carbon markets


    By helping to turn carbon sources (degraded landscapes that have become net emitters) into carbon sinks, keystone species can also play a central role in rapidly growing carbon markets. In Thailand’s Doi Suthep-Pui, Steve Elliott calculated that the value of carbon absorbed by the newly restored area, if traded as carbon credits, would be nearly triple that of the corn cultivation for which the land had been cleared.14


    Investing in nature

    For investors, carbon markets provide an unparalleled opportunity to invest in nature. Despite these markets being in their infancy, carbon markets have shown strong growth over the past five years, and there is room for much more. According to a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group the total value of carbon markets could rise as much as six-fold by 2030. In order to achieve our sustainability goals, the carbon price itself must quintuple over the next few years.

    This offers multiple portfolio benefits. Many carbon markets shield investors from inflation by pricing-in inflation protection. They also offer portfolio diversification (with low correlation to other asset classes) and an effective hedge against climate risk. At the same time, by contributing to the liquidity and growth of carbon markets, investors can play their part in the transition to a sustainable economy in which growth is decoupled from emissions (between 2005 and 2019, the EU’s regulatory carbon trading system reduced carbon emissions in the bloc by 35%,15 even as GDP grew 42% over the same period).

    Nature-based solutions that invest in transitioning degraded and depreciated land towards a more regenerative, resilient production of commodities offer a significant premium for investors

    Read also: Explaining carbon markets and the investment opportunity

    Over the next several decades, carbon markets will be just one of many ways to invest in nature, the engine of the global economy. Often, carbon investments will dovetail with other opportunities – increasingly, restored landscapes will form the basis of carbon credits while simultaneously creating income from eco-tourism, regenerative farming, or the circular bio-economy. In fact, investing in tangible assets will enable us to transition towards a more regenerative value chain and see new business models emerge. Nature-based solutions that invest in transitioning degraded and depreciated land towards a more regenerative, resilient production of commodities offer not only a significant premium for investors but effective risk mitigation.

    And at the heart of it all will be nature’s keystone species, restoring lost ecosystems and preserving our threatened biodiversity.


    Selecting framework tree species for restoring seasonally dry tropical forests in northern Thailand based on field performance - ScienceDirect
    3 Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees, Mike Shanahan
    4 Idem
    Identifying keystone plant resources in an Amazonian forest using a long-term fruit-fall record on JSTOR
    Food plant diversity as broad-scale determinant of avian frugivore richness - PMC (
    The Man Whose Dynasty Changed Ecology - Scientific American; The Nature Of Nature, Enric Sala
    How Wolves Change Rivers - YouTube
    Yellowstone Wolf Project Reports - Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (
    10 A rewilding triumph: wolves help to reverse Yellowstone degradation | Wildlife | The Guardian
    11 Implications of Harvest on the Boundaries of Protected Areas for Large Carnivore Viewing Opportunities | PLOS ONE
    12 How to grow instant fig trees to restore rain forests in Costa Rica | Natural History of Ecological Restoration (
    13 How Costa Rica Reversed Deforestation and Became an Environmental Model | Earth.Org
    15 The EU Emissions Trading System in 2020: trends and projections — European Environment Agency (

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