Expo 2020 Dubai provides chrysalis for Land Life cocoon technology

An innovative biodegradable pressed paper pulp 'cocoon' is nurturing young seedlings and an 'audacious vision' to fight climate change by restoring two billion hectares of land 

Expo 2020 Dubai has become the latest backer of a Dutch startup that has set its sights on restoring some of the globe’s two billion hectares of arid and degraded land.

Land Life Company won a grant from Expo Live at the end of July thanks to a clever innovation in planting technology known as the cocoon. The brainchild of founders Jurriaan Ruys and Eduard Zanen, the cocoon is made from a completely biodegradable pressed paper pulp and gives nature a kickstart by protecting young seedlings from harsh environments.

“The funding from Expo Live will allow Land Life to bring to life a long-held dream; a nature restoration project that brings together youth education, nature restoration and corporate involvement in a country suffering from widespread deforestation and degradation - Zambia,” says Ruys. 

Fighting climate change

Such deforestation and the ensuing gradual degradation of the soil can lead to increased desertification, a problem exacerbated by climate change. The UN estimates suggest that up to 135 million people may be displaced by the process of desertification by 2045, making any processes that can rehabilitate degraded land all the more valuable.

But there are clear benefits to the problem being reversed. The UN has estimated that restoring the soils of degraded ecosystems has the potential to store up to three billion tons of carbon annually, as well as stabilising the lives of effected populations.

“Projects like this one in Zambia, where we are working with a mining company, local schools, the community and UNICEF, with Land Life supplying the planting technology and tree expertise, are often hard to fund due to the many stakeholders involved,” says Jurriaan.

“However, we see these multi-stakeholder projects as the key to sustainable environmental restoration; providing tools and knowledge to the local community to restore their land, educating the next generation how they can positively impact their environment and future and engaging corporate responsibility in a tangible and effective way.”

How it works: the science behind Land Life

Simplicity in both design and application is part of the reason for the cocoon’s success. Waxed for waterproofness, Land Life’s three-piece cocoon uses capillary action to wick moisture from its reservoir into the soil below, encouraging trees to develop deep root structures that enable them to become self sustaining, even in environments as dry as the UAE.

The cocoon’s cylindrical tree shelter provides added protection from too much direct sunlight, winds that could dry the seedling out, and small animals that may feed on young shoots. Once planted with the cocoon young trees don’t need any additional irrigation and mycorrhizal fungi embedded within the cocoon, which drastically increase the surface absorbing area of roots, are gradually added to the soil surrounding the plant.

The simple appearance of the device belies the innovation, and nearly four years of trial, error and experimentation that have gone into the latest iteration, as well as its reported effectiveness. The result is a low-cost and low-maintenance way of nurturing young trees that have roots growing downwards in search of moisture, making them stronger and self-sustaining, unlike trees that are irrigated. Land Life reports survival rates above 80 per cent from planting in more than 20 countries, demonstrating the cocoon’s effectiveness in different environments.

Scaling up the sustainable business

“Our technology evolves over time,” says Ruys. “This is partly driven by formalised research and development (R&D) projects, performed by our central team in Amsterdam, but also by R&D partners such as the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) institute in Dubai. The other part is driven by input from local experts and experiences in the field from live projects. We incorporate local organisations to enrich the Land Life nature restoration approach.”

The next goal for Land Life is to bring scale to its operation, taking its plantings form numbering in the tens of thousands of trees to the hundreds of thousands. To make this possible it is working with a German partner to develop a transportable production facility that will take the manufacture of the cocoons to the locations where they are needed, also enabling the use of local labour and materials. And although, as a commercial business, it has patented its own technology, it is aware that it’s going to take more than one organisation to make a difference in the space of nature restoration.

“Land Life has an audacious vision: to help restore two billion hectares of land,” said Ruys. “We need our partners to think equally big and organise local nature restoration projects at a large scale, that we can support with our technology.”