Forest News #20

This is a special issue of Forest News! Against the backdrop of these last 18 months, we decided to go on a longer reflexion about why restoration is a process of change, and why change is such a challenge for us. It's a longer Summer read, with several videos, so be sure to check it. We hope you enjoy it!

As this video from Vox shows, the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is still influenced by decisions taken 50 years ago, creating a complex situation with multiple factors at work.

Welcome to the 20th issue of Forest News, which will be a bit different from our previous ones!

These last 2 years have been extraordinary, often overwhelming, and have brought a new urgency and a truly global perspective to several critical issues. Therefore, we chose to look at the larger picture, particularly how we perceive and deal with certain aspects of reality which also affect, in direct and indirect ways, how we deal with forests and other ecosystems. In this newsletter, we cover different topics in a somewhat philosophical and opinionated way, and with more questions than answers. Think of it as a longer Summer read which, we hope, raises valuable points to think about.

Restoration is change

Our aim over these past newsletters has been to inform on forest restoration efforts and their connection with different societal themes, in an accessible and science-based way. We think that it is crucial to multiply such efforts, by sharing learnings and supporting them, given the ongoing degradation and loss of forests and other vital ecosystems around the world (as can be seen in data platforms such as the Global Forest Watch or Our World in Data).

Restoration efforts try to revert or mitigate the degradation of our natural systems, particularly those created or worsened by human influence. Ideally, they combine scientific and traditional knowledge and practices, taking into account the dynamics, driving forces and interactions of different natural and man-made systems: the Earth’s physical processes, the interplay between different species and their ecosystems, and our own socio-economical structures. (For practitioners and those with a deeper interest, we suggest visiting the website of the Society for Ecological Restoration or that of the PARTNERS network, which we’ve mentioned in the past).

To show that change is both needed and possible, we bring our readers positive examples of action in different areas, put in context and with relevant insights. What we see in the world – and how we see it – influences both the future we imagine and how we (re)act in the present. The global situation in these past 18 months gives us a good opportunity to reflect more deeply on these points and – not just in a theoretical way – highlight questions we need to face as a species and civilization.

This brings us to a few points that will be present throughout this newsletter, namely: that our world is a collection of interacting systems which affect our lives and efforts to change things; that, for this reason, we need to accept change as a dynamic and partly unpredictable process, not as something we can fully control; and why failing to consider structural factors can defeat the best plans and resources.

The question: “What if human civilization – down to our normal, everyday life – has to change from one day to the other?“

2 years ago, for most people, this would be either a unrealistic or simply irrelevant question. But, once again, the world turned “in mysterious ways”. We know that reality is made of different moving parts, some which we can easily observe and understand while others not. We also know from experience that unforeseen events are a common occurrence. Over millennia, humankind has developed different ways to explain these phenomena and try to exert a certain amount of control over the future: religion and spiritual beliefs, philosophy, science.

From a scientific point of view, our understanding has also changed. With constant inquiry, we came to realize that the world is not linear and predictable but rather a collection of interlinked systems where randomness plays an important part. Some of these systems are highly complex, non-linear and chaotic, beyond our normal perception but still crucial for our everyday lives (how much rain will fall, how many seeds will grow, which pest is going to attack our crop, how much will it sell for?). Along the way, it also became clear how our perception and decisions are strongly influenced by our lifetime experiences, cultural biases and biological limitations, meaning we have a very limited way to grasp reality and correctly predict outcomes, specially over longer time-frames. And so we started developing tools to handle these uncertainties: thinking in systems (as briefly explained here), building models and scenarios to consider probabilities, risks and desired outcomes. These approaches have spread all over our society, from health to political planning to product development, even when they are not immediately visible. Given all this, it is a bit of a paradox that so much of our individual and collective planning is done in a rigid way, assuming that the world fits our oversimplified views. And when things go off the script we expected, we’re unprepared and incapable of adapting (on this topic, we have to recommend “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman – here reviewed at the NY Times – a fascinating dive into our perception biases and why we systematically miscalculate the probability of events).

“What if” questions like the one above challenge us to keep our eyes open and to grow the limits of our knowledge and capacity. They also lead us to consider that we can’t foresee every possible variation and chain of events (the famous unknown unknowns), but to expect that something will happen nonetheless. To cope with disruptions or other constraints, we can embrace uncertainty as part of the process and choose strategies that are flexible and adaptable, giving us multiple ways to keep the general direction towards our end goals. That’s how life has thrived in our planet: through adaptation and diversity, it has been able to combine continuous adjustment and greater complexity, in a resilient or even antifragile way (where shocks make it stronger, as defined by Nassim Taleb). Lastly, instead of betting on solutions that only work in a specific set of conditions and with continuous human intervention, we should focus on low-input/low-maintenance solutions that create their own positive dynamics (self-sustaining and self-expanding).

Why does this matter, particularly in a newsletter about reforestation and ecosystem restoration? 2 major global topics of this last year show why the above question can matter, a lot.

Can a pandemic change the global mindset?

As the corona pandemic swept through the globe, like a bad Hollywood movie from the 90’s, our unrealistic “what if?” was here in a sudden and disruptive way. Across all levels of society, our normal lives became dominated by uncertainty as everything slowed down dramatically within a few weeks. In turn, this exposed how domestic activities and livelihoods in so many countries are so tightly coupled with international flows and supply chains, depending on these in order to ensure the minimum (even if high) standards of living and services.

Similarly, a lot of the restoration work is also dependent on continuous inputs, visibility and, particularly, transnational financing. Many organisations active in the restoration field, such as our platform members, faced all sorts of operational and financial challenges: teams locked at home, planting and monitoring work put on hold, planning and financing uncertainty, etc. At the same time, there was increased human pressure on recovering or still healthy areas, be it due to the lack of control (like more illegal fires and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon) or the collapse of livelihood options for poorer populations. This highlights some of the links between restoration work and the broader economy, and the need to consider solutions that keep on working even when the human intervention stops.

On a positive, hopeful note, maybe the pandemic actually leads to increased public support for restoration efforts. On the one hand, we could see how the link between environmental degradation and the risk of having new diseases was strongly present in media worldwide. On the other hand,as we reported in our #17 issue and is impressively captured in “The Year Earth Changed” documentary (narrated by David Attenborough and presented below), the sudden standstill brought immediate – and very striking – environmental gains across the globe. Reminding people of how our planet can look like, the skies and waterways became cleaner and we could see nature rebounding and making a comeback into cities laid still. For many, this period was also a moment to (re)discover nature as a source of physical and emotional well-being in a world in turmoil. And, apparently, being surrounded by more, and chirpier, birds seems to increase the life satisfaction of Europeans as much as having a higher income! Although many of these changes can be quickly lost, we could see the power of life first-hand and feel how our own health is tied in so many different ways to a healthy planet. Time will tell how much this shapes our collective memory.

Another important aspect of this pandemic: as we collectively faced the unthinkable, many countries made “unthinkable choices”, such as implementing lockdowns that favoured public health over immediate economic losses (from a certain angle). This reminds us that many of our “limits” are actually societal choices, a product of political, economic, and cultural structures, therefore self-imposed. This means we have more options to act than we usually dare to consider but, as a first step, we need to reset the priorities and then change the structures accordingly.

Given all the complicated discussions and schemes around how to finance environmental restoration, maybe we should consider changing land tenure laws or adopting direct payments (locked into long-term incentives) for people who act as environmental stewards and keep critical ecosystems healthy. There is already a precedent – and relevant lessons – with payments for ecosystem services. And, after all, if we pay people/companies to extract resources in a destructive manner for short-lived products, why can’t we pay them to add to our natural capital instead? We should take a regenerative approach, in which we revert the destruction caused and increase the dividends we can draw from nature, in ecosystems services and in renewable resources. According to recent research, people have shaped Earth’s ecology for at least 12,000 years, mostly sustainably. The paper details how there are lessons that can still be used today, even taking into account the increase in population size.

Climate change and the global revolution

This brings us to the other major global topic: the ongoing challenge with climate change. The last 30 years have been spent trying to build an international consensus and mechanisms to tackle this issue. The famous 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro established sustainable development as a crucial pursuit for mankind, of which addressing climate change was an important factor, leading to the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, the Paris Agreements in 2015, and so on. The publication of “The economics of climate change: The Stern Review” in 2006 was a landmark in the areas of economic science and global policy. It gave political and business decision-makers a clear indication that costs and risks to global growth and development will greatly increase with time, a view validated by later research and events. Nowadays, economists talk about the social cost of carbon, a way to quantify the different impacts and costs of each extra ton of CO2 emitted to the atmosphere at different points in time (for a quick overview of the topic, we suggest this post by the Columbia Climate School; for a very thorough one, check the introduction in this paper by Stern & Stiglitz).

The notion that human activities have generated an imbalance of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GhG) in the atmosphere, and how this is altering the current dynamics of the Earth’s climate, is now broadly accepted. We have plenty of data showing how we have increased the output of such gases in the last 200 years, while strongly reducing forests and other natural sinks that could (partly) absorb them, and how this compares with past periods. Our understanding of how the different Earth’s mechanisms are coupled has greatly improved, particularly with fuller satellite data since the late 90’s, translating into climate models that link the atmosphere, ocean and land components. The critique about (ab)using these models to define policies that impact whole countries is frequently made by people who either cannot, or prefer not to, see the scale of the issue and see these simply as a way to create unnecessary fear.

As explained in the video above (or here in a shorter way), scientist are clearly aware that models and scenarios are limited tools to help us understand a complex reality, that uncertainty will always exist and that the direct attribution of observations to “climate change” with enough scientific rigour is not always possible or straightforward. But which tools do we have otherwise, to frame risks and consider what the future might bring, and how preventively do we want to act? And how do we want to frame the continuous increase in extreme weather events in these past 20 years, considered by climate models and dramatically on sight again this very Summer? Based in historical data, these should be low-probability events, a statistical “once in every 100, 500 or 1000-year” occurrence. Instead, they are becoming so frequent and increasingly intense that the expression “climate weirding” is now being used. A recent article in Nature Climate, a valuable resource for the latest research, highlights how the probability and severity for these types of events is likely to increase further. According to Munich Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurers, natural catastrophes caused $166 billion of losses in 2019 and $210 billion of losses in 2020, a record, many of which are considered linked to the effects of climate change. We should not be surprised if these records keep on being broken every other year.

As our awareness and understanding has increased, multiple initiatives have been launched to address the risks associated with climate change, widespread environmental degradation and socio-economic inequality. Why do these issues remains stubbornly unresolved? Asides from the challenges of international collaboration, we see how progress is continuously hindered by differences in national development priorities (even changing between presidents, like in the USA) and the means each country has to tackle this challenge. How can we ensure global coordination and prevent individual countries with high impact from either perpetuating the problem, out of self-interest, or benefiting unfairly from the earlier efforts by others?

At least, there is a growing consensus that the path forward involves decarbonizing the global economy, as a way to curb CO2 emissions without impacting growth opportunities. Growth is still seen as the engine of development and even more needed after a crippling pandemic, as discussed in this WBCSD post. Most of the approaches being promoted are heavily market- and technology-based solutions, flanked by regulatory changes, aiming to lower our carbon footprint and act as catalysts for deep changes in the energy, food generation and transportation systems, urban planning, etc. In short, we are trying to solve climate change through another global change, a “planned disruption” that transforms our societies and systems at a speed and scale never done before. Not a modest goal.

With all the attention given to technological fixes, what is the role being dedicated to reforestation and other nature-based solutions which can help sequestering CO2 and provide additional crucial benefits? New research based on actual data (not models) from Europe has shown how forests lead to increased precipitation, supporting the views that reforestation can help mitigating droughts. As we’ve covered in our issue #12, several of these solutions already exist, can be deployed at a fraction of the cost and can potentially sustain themselves naturally. With the recently released 2030 Climate Target Plan, the EU is also committing strongly in this direction, by planning to expand forests and other carbon-capturing ecosystems and introducing higher standards for raw materials, local or imported. As a reminder of how much this is a political minefield, Bloomberg reports, that the European timber industry is raising major internal opposition to the new forest management plans. Nonetheless, the move by a major global player like the EU bloc might inspire, or force, others to follow.

A positive aspect in plans like the one advanced by the EU is the focus on creating broad favourable regulatory and market conditions, with a mix of specific policy targets and more general goals, fuelled by simultaneous large investments on multiple fronts, all in order to exceed what is considered necessary. This is akin to steering several large ships in a complicated choreography, but maybe we don’t have much of an alternative. Given our collective track record when managing change in complex situations with multiple conflicting short- and long-term interests, we are certainly looking at an ambitious endeavour.

The question raised above, about the balance between technological/market approaches and nature-based solutions contains other, deeper questions. Namely: how many resources do we need and what for? When and how should we use them, or choose not to? How to define an equitable distribution that ensures human well-being, both in the present and towards the future generations? And how do we address the primary mechanics of our current systems, which foster a continuous thirst for resources and energy and a depletion of the resource base? Even assuming continuous gains in efficiency, the tendency so far is to simply use more in total, often in non-recoverable ways due to modern economic structures and mindsets. For those wanting to understand more about our usage of ecological resources, we strongly recommend visiting the Global Footprint Network website, maybe starting with this blog post.

Structural challenges

This brings us to another crucial point: structural challenges and the tendencies that some systems have to continue in a certain trajectory, which can delay or prevent a desired change, like halting deforestation. The failure to directly address these aspects partly explains the lack of progress with many international initiatives, even with heavy political commitments behind them. Unfortunately, last year provided us with another sobering example of such a high-level failure.

The New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) was launched in 2014, quickly becoming one of the leading international restoration movements, an international pledge that brought hundreds of governments, companies and others together on a large-scale voluntary commitment. The goals were ambitious, complementing other initiatives like the Bonn Challenge, with two major targets for 2020: reducing the loss of natural forests by 50%, as a step towards a complete halt by 2030, and eliminating deforestation from the supply chains of major agricultural commodities.

Last year, the NYDF published its progress assessment report and the results were worrisome. Both 2020 milestones were missed but, more importantly, was the analysis about structural aspects and unchanged drivers of deforestation. Particularly, how many countries committed to the NYDF pledge of reducing deforestation while actively promoting a development model based on large-scale, top-down infrastructure projects and economic activity focused mostly on mining and agricultural commodities. These risk moving many forests past a tipping point, where the loss becomes irreversible, as The Guardian summarised with a sad list of examples. This contradiction in goals is also exemplified as the Cameroon government authorized one of Africa’s biggest palm oil plantations in an area that used to be primary forest, but which had become too degraded because of logging previously sanctioned by the government itself.

Many of these issues are decades in the making. The Vox video above gives us an historical perspective on the deforestation of the Amazon basin, back to 1970s. It shows how the choices of today are still defined by decisions made 50 years ago, when official policies defined the rainforest as a place to be “developed”, leading to persistent conflicts with later conservation policies that had to deal with conflicting laws, historical inflows of people and powerful economic groups, like logging companies or large cattle and farm owners, with significant political influence and an appetite for acting outside the law while waiting for a more sympathetic government. The video also shows how regulatory changes in land tenure and protected areas can keep large forests sheltered or leave them open to a (un)lawful conversion into plantations or pasture land. Or how a new road is allowed into the core of the jungle, setting in motion a common sequence of logging or mining with temporary and then permanent settlements, which in turn justify more infrastructure and further expansion. As covered in this feature article at Bloomberg Green, these stories play at various levels and through different ways.

Palm-oil is another perennial example of the choice between preserving an important ecosystem or clearing it to support an industry that can bring needed revenues and satisfy global demand for a specific product. The problem is often not the production itself, but the scale and the intense monoculture approach; instead of small, mixed-culture operations run by families, there are plantations the size of cities. But, in a globalised economy, stopping palm oil in one location might mean that deforestation and biodiversity loss simply move elsewhere, as discussed in this 2018 report by the IUCN, or this article at The Conversation. Without addressing the need for resources, the problem will persist. Nowadays, such large-scale operations are facilitated by financial markets, which provide capital (as investment or credits, for example) and keep the trade of commodities running at high level. Besides being exposed to several types of deforestation-linked risks, financial service providers are increasingly considering their role in terms of sustainability or responsible investments (as covered by carbon asset manager South Pole, in 2016). The following video from Nordea, another leading financial services group, neatly shows their different perspectives towards palm oil as an investment option.

The upside

Considering all the above points, we can why the challenge ahead is so great and why it is crucial to tackle the root causes, in an integrated way, while recognizing that failure is a highly likely result. Still, we would like to finish this newsletter with a positive view.
Despite all these troubles and shortcomings, small and large initiatives make an invaluable contribution to forest and ecosystem restoration. Partly, because everything that is protected and recovered counts, specially when we consider what was lost in these last 100 years alone. As an example, we can look at the results of the Great Green Wall, an initiative led by the African Union with the aim to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land in the Sahel region, across multiple countries where political instability, population displacement and desertification are a feature. Started in 2007, by 2020 the Great Green Wall was officially 4% – and unofficially 18% – complete, as detailed at the Global Landscapes Forum. Asides from the direct results, this initiative also brings valuable learnings and changes to the surrounding context, opening the door for further progress. Similar results are seen in other small and large projects, although the advances can also be fragile and quickly reversed.

Another part of this contribution is measured by the gradual build-up of a huge network of projects and coalitions with stakeholders across all levels of society. The result is a global movement, joined by governments and civil society, academia, finance and corporations.

On the science side, we see how and international cooperation and the huge amounts of data being collected have enabled a global perspective for defining priority areas for ecosystem restoration, as published in Nature. Or how they can be turned into real-time tools for monitoring, helping with decision and sharing results, like WRI’s Global Forest Watch or Open Forests, which we have highlighted in the past. Another recent addition is Restor, launched publicly by the team at the Crowther Lab this year, in connection with the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Restor is touted as an open data platform of ecological insights for the global restoration movement. The tool taps into larger datasets allowing, for example, to select an area and determine which species are suitable given the local ecological conditions. A TED talk available at Restor’s website provides a fuller overview of the goals and approach.

In a sign that this area is thriving, other tools are sprouting regularly. Some are based on applying cutting-edge technologies (like AI or blockchain) to perennial challenges, like remote monitoring and reporting, while others are focused on spreading practical solutions in different areas of the world.

Enjoy your Summer (or Winter, in the Southern Hemisphere) and keep on restoring!
The Reforestation World team

Closing off, we would like to remind Carl Sagan and his famous “Pale Blue Dot” speech, inspired by a 1-pixel photo of our planet Earth taken by the spacecraft Voyager 1, on 14 February 1990, just before leaving our solar system towards outer space.