In this section

What is the importance of forest ecosystems? How big is the issue with forest degradation and which solutions exist and are being applied today?

Trees offer a natural mechanism to control the amount of atmospheric CO2 , a global challenge. At the same time, they also bring many other important benefits - some of which are critical for our societies and livelihoods. In this section, we try to give a good perspective of the issue, it's causes, and the different types of organisations involved in improving the situation.

We've selected information from specialist sources, adapted for a non-specialist audience, with text, images and videos. For those interested in learning more or in going directly to the source of the information, please follow the links we provide. This information can be used and shared freely.

This video from WRI’s Global Restoration Initiative provides a good overview of the issue and their initiative to restore degraded landscapes and forests worldwide, together with governments and international partners.

The basis

Ancient agroforestry system: a Dehesa farm combines holly oak (Quercus Ilex) woods with the rearing of acorn-fed pigs. Located in Salamanca, northwest Spain. (Source: Pravdaverita, Dehesa Los Valhondos Jamon BEHER Bernardo Hernandez Salamanca Pelayos, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Our view of nature has changed over time and even nowadays has very strong differences around the world.
How do we define the usefulness and value of nature?

Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans receive from nature: clean drinking water, timber, climate regulation, recreation, etc. In fact, scientists have discussed about them for decades, but the concept was popularized in the early 2000s by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Adopting this notion of “services” was an important step to change the perspective on these benefits, provided for free by healthy ecosystems, and to manage them differently.

Ecosystem services encompass a wide range of benefits but they can be grouped into four broad categories:

- Provisioning services are the products obtained from ecosystems. Forests provide us timber, wild food (e.g. mushrooms, Brazilian nuts), fresh water, medicinal resources, etc.

- Regulating Services are the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes. Forests regulate the global climate by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and help to diminish soil erosion and to moderate extreme events, such as floods, avalanches or landslides. Restoring mangroves, for example, is a well-known tool to protect coastlines from storm damage. In urban environments forests improve local climate and air quality by providing shade and removing air pollutants.

- Cultural services include non-material benefits, such as recreation, health, spiritual enrichment, and aesthetic values. Among tourists who enjoy nature and wildlife, forests are an increasingly popular destination. In our daily life, walking or doing other sports in nearby forests helps us to maintain our physical and mental health.

- Supporting services are the services necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services, such as soil formation, nutrient cycling and primary production.

As we can see, forests – and other ecosystems – provide us numerous services that are vital for our well-being. Yet, many ecosystems have been degraded due to our human activities. Because we do not usually pay a price for ecosystem services, we underappreciate their value and give them little weight in our decision making. Here is where the concept of valuation -- the process of expressing a value for a particular good or service – comes in handy. We assign a value in terms of money (e.g. by estimating the value of harvested timber or calculating how much would it cost to purify water if a forest is cleared) but we also consider non-market values such as improvements in public health outcomes, societal preferences, and intrinsic value.

The economic valuation of ecosystem services is a complex topic (especially for regulating and cultural services) but methods have improved in recent years and market-based mechanisms are promoting the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources. Through the payment for ecosystem services scheme, resource users pay the providers for maintaining an ecosystem service. For example, water users or an hydropower company pay farmers who live in the upper watershed to protect and manage it.

Humans have had an adverse impact on nature: habitat destruction, pollution, species extinction, climate change, etc. However, humans have also transformed many landscapes in a more sustainable way, creating tight interdependent links between the human and natural systems.

In Europe and elsewhere humans have shaped natural landscapes over thousands of years. Traditional agroforestry systems – any land use system integrating trees and agriculture (crops or pasture/livestock) – are numerous throughout Europe, for example. One of them is a 4,500-year-old system known as Dehesa (in Spain) or Montado (in Portugal).  This system consists of oak woodlands (Quercus ilex and Q. suber) where livestock (sheep, pigs, cattle) is released to feed on the acorn mast that falls from the trees. In addition, the system is also used for the cultivation of cereals and the production of firewood, charcoal and cork. Shade from the trees improves microclimatic conditions in the soil and air (milder radiation, temperature and dryness), which can favour the growth of fodder crops (e.g. oats). Therefore, the Dehesa systems represents a productive and integrated land use alternative in the Mediterranean region where are arable farming is sometimes unprofitable due to the hot and dry climatic conditions. Furthermore, Dehesas provide habitats for many species of conservation interest and have high aesthetic and recreational values (tourism). Today, Dehesa is the most widely-used agroforestry system in Europe.
Still, the protection of Dehesas and other wood-pastures is challenging. Many of them are being abandoned as people move from rural areas to cities, and dense vegetation grows out of control. The vegetation growth combined with climate change and the planting of profitable but combustible trees (Eucalyptus) is increasing the extension and intensity of wildfires.

Cities, another man-made landscape, are usually seen as isolated from nature. However, as more and more people live in cities, we are realizing that urban nature is critical for our well-being. Urban forests bring us many benefits: sustainable production of fuelwood, removal of air pollutants, shading and cooling, provision of recreational opportunities, improvement of mental and physical health, among others. For this reason, several cities around the world have launched initiatives and programs to promote green areas. To ensure that citizens are willing to protect and manage their urban forests, it is important to understand their needs of “public space” and to transform spaces into places that people want to visit and enjoy.

As such, when we consider the long and broad influence people have on nature, any attempt to restore ecosystems should also consider the relationship between humans and their environment.

Suggested readings:
Nerlich, K., Graeff-Hönninger, S. & Claupein, W. Agroforest Syst (2013) 87: 475. Available at:
Agroforestry in Europe:
A guide to agroforestry:
FAO Guidelines on urban and peri-urban forestry:

The issue and the causes

The amount and type of forest cover has changed over time, both for natural and man-made reasons.
In which way are people affecting forest ecosystems and are there any signs of recovery?

Forests cover over 30% of the land area on our planet. As covered above, they provide us numerous goods and services such as food, fuelwood, timber and freshwater. However, every year we lose 3.3 million ha of forest, which jeopardizes these benefits and impacts our livelihoods.

What are the main causes of deforestation?

The main driver of deforestation is agriculture. As the demand for soy and palm oil rises, forests are cleared and converted to plantations. Large-scale commercial agriculture accounts for about 40% of deforestation in the tropics and subtropics during the period 2000—2010, and it is especially important in Latin America and Asia.
Small-scale agriculture was responsible for 33% of deforestation in the tropics and subtropics during the period 2000—2010 and especially important in Africa. Small-scale farmers often clear forests by cutting down and burning trees (slash and burn agriculture) to grow their own food.

Another cause of deforestation, especially in Latin America, is the forest conversion to pastures for cattle ranching. In Argentina, pasture expansion accounted for 45 percent of forest loss in 1990–2005.

Although forest plantations are increasingly more common, the demand for timber, paper and derivative products is still very high. Illegal logging accounts for 15-30% of all wood traded globally and illegally harvested wood is sold in USA and Europe.

Around the world many people harvest wood to use it as fuel for cooking and heating. Fuelwood harvesting is sometimes illegal but it does not necessarily lead to deforestation and is more often associated to forest degradation.

Forests are also threatened by mining operations. In the Amazon rainforest, more and more small- and large-scale operators are mining alluvial gold deposits, clearing forests and releasing mercury into the rivers and polluting them. In the Congo Basin, mineral extraction has increased in the last 15 years, and forests have been cleared to establish artisanal and open-pit mines.

Other drivers of deforestation include urban expansion and infrastructure. In 2000—2010 urban expansion was responsible for 10% of deforestation in tropical and subtropical areas. Over the next decades, urban populations are projected to grow, especially in Africa and Asia, which will contribute to forest loss. Infrastructure for transportation and energy is vital for the development of any country. However, the expansion of road networks and the construction of hydroelectrical dams in Latin America and Asia has increased deforestation.

Wildfires are becoming more common around the globe, from Siberia to Chile. In Europe, for example, forest fires burnt over 700,000 hectares of land in 2017. Nearly all wildfires were man-made but climate change (hot and dry conditions) and poor land management practices (overgrown vegetation and planting of flammable species, like Eucalyptus) were contributing factors.

FAO (2016) – The State of the World’s Forests. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2016. Available online at

During the last seventy years, the remaining forests in our planet have been lost at a speed and scale not seen since men began to use them. After the destruction of most of the temperate forests in Eurasia and North America during the previous centuries, the impact has shifted to tropical and sub-tropical areas (1).
A growing human population and the need for land and forest resources have kept the pressure on ecosystems at a high level in different ways, often without concern for the short and mid-term consequences. Around the globe, huge areas have changed in a dramatic and fast way due to urban expansion, large-scale wood extraction (legal or not) and clearing for plantations and cattle-raising. At the same time, the livelihoods of many people in poorer regions still rely on using natural resources in a destructive way, leaving the future of the remaining old forests in great danger if no changes are made. Cooking with wood remains the only alternative for many, with a single family needing 1 to 3 t of firewood every year. Indiscriminate collection of firewood, clearing forests for farming plots and grazing aggravates soil erosion, reduces available water and the sustaining capacity of the habitat. This leads to increased hardship, preventing people from building past survival strategies and short-term perspectives.

On a positive note, the rate of deforestation has slowed down in the last decade. Some areas, particularly in the northern hemisphere, have had gains or are being managed and restored in a positive way (2). Still, the areas destroyed every year remain large and the net global result negative (3).
Many of the benefits provided by forests - also called ecosystem services – have a great direct value for society: protected soil is less prone to erosion and has increased water retention; waterways are kept clean of excessive sediments, reducing the effect of floods; air quality is improved by not having particles and pollutants dispersed by the wind; fertile soil is retained and protected; drastic variations in temperature and rain cycles are partially regulated at a local level, reducing the swings between floods and droughts. Mature or intact forests have a greater capacity than newly-planted forests to perform these functions and are often more resilient.

Keeping healthy, mature forests reduces economic losses and threats to livelihoods, helping to mitigate social conflicts due to the lack of resources and the displacement of people. It also ensures an habitat for many other species and provides a source of beauty and inspiration for people. Finally, restoring forests to their condition 70years ago would capture huge amounts of CO2, just by growing trees, reducing the need for costly single-purpose solutions for fighting climate change risks.

References from text:

(1) Taken from FAO (2012) – The State of the World’s Forests. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2012. Available online at

(2) See charts compiled from differents sources and presented here:

(3) See also (2) and satellite images compiled by the Global Forest Change, available online at

Initiatives and organisations in action

Planting of mangrove trees (Rhizophora) in Senegal, in the world's largest mangrove reforestation program. Mangroves provide an essential protection for the coastline and support an ecosystem that guarantees the livelihood of many, many thousands of people. (Photo by Océanium. See project details here).

Around the world, many initiatives and organisations are working to restore forest ecosystems and their functions, while ensuring a sustainable use by people. Corresponding to the global dimension of this issue, the commitments for planting or restoring are bigger than ever before.
Who is carrying this work and which challenges are there?

Today we have understood and acknowledged that forests provide numerous services but are under threat. Therefore, global and regional initiatives that promote forest protection and restoration have been launched in recent years. But how do we achieve these goals? There are different approaches that reflect different forest concepts and management goals.

Two popular approaches are afforestation and reforestation, and both aim to re-establish tree cover. Afforestation involves the planting of trees in areas that were never forested or have not been forested in recent history (usually at least 50 years), whereas reforestation is done on land that had recent tree cover. In both cases, little consideration is often given to the type of tree cover or the species composition and diversity. Many reforestation and afforestation programs focus on timber production and tend to favour large-scale planting of non-native monocultures (beechwood, eucalyptus, teak, etc).

Another approach is agroforestry, which refers to the land-use systems and practices that integrate trees and crops and/or animals on the same piece of land. It is based on principles of ecology, forestry and agriculture, so that farmers can increase their revenues while protecting the environment.

Restoration and rehabilitation are approaches used in places where forest loss has caused a decline in the quality of ecosystem services. Restoration attempts to return to the forest’s original structure, function, and species composition (native species). In contrast, the purpose of rehabilitation is to restore the capacity of degraded forest land to deliver forest products and services. Thus, native animal and plant species are not always re-established and non-native species are sometimes used.

The landscape approach is a broad term that includes tools and concepts for managing land with complex and widespread environmental, social and economic challenges. This approach is increasingly used in restoration projects. In contrast to site-level forest reforestation, forest landscape restoration aims to restore ecological processes (hydrological cycles, soil development, wildlife population) while improving the productive capacity of land for agriculture, forestry and other land uses.

Community forestry encompasses policies and processes to increase the role of local people in governing and managing forest resources. In many tropical regions community forestry is pursued as a rural development strategy.Forest regeneration is the process by which tree cover is promptly renewed after the previous forest stand has been harvested or has died from fire, insects or disease. Regeneration can be accomplished through tree planting (artificial regeneration) or natural production of seedlings or sprouts in the area (natural regeneration).

Recommended reading:

FAO Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Toolbox



Almost half of the world’s original forests have been cleared or degraded to make way to croplands, cattle pastures and human settlements. Because of poor management practices, many of these lands are now ecologically and economically unproductive. In the next decades, population growth and the increased demand for food will put more pressure on forests.

However, every challenge provides an opportunity. It is estimated that more than two billion hectares of degraded lands worldwide are suitable for restoration – an area larger than South America. Improving the ecological functionality of degraded forests brings environmental and social benefits (carbon sequestration, watershed protection, improved crop yields, etc.) That is why several initiatives have been established to promote forest restoration around the globe.

The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. It was launched in 2011 and later endorsed and extended by the New York Declaration on Forests of the 2014 UN Climate Summit. The Bonn Challenge is not a new global commitment but rather a vehicle to achieve several existing international goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Land Degradation Neutrality goal, the UNFCCC REDD+ goal, etc. To date, 45 governments, private associations and companies have pledged over 156 million hectares to the Challenge.

Several regional initiatives are supporting the Bonn Challenge. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 40% of forests lands have been degraded or deforested in recent years. Indeed, in this region, the bulk of the emissions are generated from land use and loss of forests. Initiative 20x20 is a country-led effort to bring 20 million hectares of land into restoration by 2020. To date, 18 governments and NGOs have pledged over 27 million hectares to place into restoration by 2020.

In Africa, land degradation has been extreme (the extension of degraded lands is over 700 million hectares) and hinders the continent’s resilience to climate change and prospects of sustainable development. However, this also means that Africa has the largest restoration opportunity of any continent. AFR100 is a country-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of land in Africa into restoration by 2030. To date, 22 countries have committed to restore over 75 million hectares.

In addition, international initiatives such as the FAO Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism (FLRM) and the CBD Forest Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (FERI) contribute to and support the Bonn Challenge. FLRM helps FAO member countries to scale-up, monitor and restore restoration activities. FERI supports developing countries to put into effect targets and plans for restoration.


Different management objectives form the basis from which a forest is conceptualized and definitions are created. The inner circle shows how a forest can be viewed through different lenses, related to the different management objectives shown in the middle circle. Each objective provides a perspective from which specific definitions are created. The outermost circle describes institutions whose mission is associated with each management objective and forest definition (image source: Chazdon, Robin L. et al. “When Is a Forest a Forest? Forest Concepts and Definitions in the Era of Forest and Landscape Restoration.” Ambio 45.5 (2016): 538–550. PMC. Web. 26 Oct. 2017)

The sustainable management and restoration of forests is a complex process that involves practitioners, funding agencies, standards organizations, researchers and policy-makers. These actors are interconnected and need to collaborate to achieve their goals.

Restoration efforts are conducted in the field by implementing organizations such as WeForest, Taking Root, Océanium, etc. These organizations work together with local communities to enhance ecosystem services and improve livelihoods.

A wide range of funding organizations support projects on forest restoration: international funds (Green Climate Fund, GEF Small Grants Program), regional funds (EU LIFE), international and local NGO’s (WWF), development cooperation agencies (GIZ, NORAD), etc. Funding is available to national governments, community-based organizations, NGO’s, research institutions, etc.

To ensure that restoration is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, several organizations have set criteria and standards that forestry companies should comply with. The best known standard-setting organization is probably the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization that was established in 1993. Other standard-setting organizations organisations are Plan Vivo, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, among others.

Once the standards are established, third-party organizations need to compile and verify data on an organization’s policies, practices and procedures to measure conformance to management objectives. This independent inspection is called auditing and every standard-setting organization has accredited independent certification organizations to conduct it.

Forest restoration needs to take into account complex environmental, social and economic issues, and several international and national institutions are conducting research on these topics. Some examples are the Center for International Forestry Research  (forest and landscape management), the World Agroforestry Centre (agroforestry in the tropics) and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (a global network of forest scientists).

Managing a forest requires balancing various stakeholder interests. To guide their decisions on the sustainable use of forests stakeholders need to agree on a shared vision, goals and principles. These negotiated agreements are called forest policies. International policy-making organisations are the Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Convention to Combat Desertification, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), etc. Policy-making occurs certainly at national and local level too, and each country has its own policy-making organisations.

The environmental, economic and social benefits of forest restoration are well documented. However, restoration can be a challenging task as it involves many steps and stakeholders.

A first challenge is to ensure the production and establishment of plant material (seeds, cuttings, seedlings). We still do not know how to grow high-quality seedlings of many tropical species, whereas unsuitable weather and soil conditions, pests and uncontrolled cattle grazing can impede the establishment of plant material.

Another challenge is the landscape dimension of restoration. If a restored site is surrounded by lands with no sufficient source populations for seeds or with no seed-dispersing animals, re-emergence of native trees can be hindered.

Due to its landscape-level any restoration effort should consider all stakeholders involved in the area (local communities, forestry or mining companies, government, etc.). Restoration is indeed a multi-sectorial activity and requires a system of good governance so that stakeholders agree on a shared vision and goals. For example, stakeholders should decide which activities they will promote (restoration plantations, exotic tree plantations, natural regeneration, etc.) or how they will share the benefits. A lack of a good governance system diminishes the success potential of restoration projects.

Restoration can also be time consuming and its opportunity cost is often higher than the current land use. Restoration projects need to look for grants or other funding possibilities but also to analyse the cost-effectiveness of their activities and choose locations with a low land opportunity cost.

Natural risks affect also restoration. Droughts, especially in early stages of restoration, and natural fires can be devastating. As climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of these natural events, any restoration project should include measures that increase the adaptive capacity of forests.

Additional resources:
WRI - The restoration diagnostic. Available at
Guariguata M. & P. H.S. Brancalion. 2014. Current Challenges and Perspectives for Governing Forest Restoration. Available at:


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Partnerships & Collaborations

sustinova logo

Sustinova is a non-profit organisation based in Zurich, Switzerland, and devoted to promoting Sustainability in the NGO area.

As a partner, Sustinova provides operational support to Reforestation World in its public activities.

ETH Zurich - Chair of Ecosystem Management

The Chair of Ecosystem management at the ETH Zürich organised the Latsis Symposium ETH 2018 “Scaling-up forest Restoration”, on June 6-7 & 9, 2018.

Reforestation World collaborated with the link to NGOs, practitioners and others stakeholders in the field of forest restoration.