Forest restoration is here to stay!
Public awareness about forest restoration had reached a new peak in late 2019. Huge media attention, numerous initiatives and public calls for a coordinated global effort. Boosted by the discussion and concerns related to climate change, the targets moved from the millions into the trillion range. However, this conversation was often limited to tree planting. Though it is emotionally appealing, simple to communicate and powerful, it is often not the best or most cost-effective measure. Or the one solving the root problems that have brought us to this point.
We hear from two restoration experts on what else is needed.
1) Is the ongoing focus on tree-planting a case of “not seeing the forest for the trees”? How can we move towards a more encompassing and useful push for forest and landscape restoration?
Tree-planting is just one of many nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change, but its benefits and long-term impacts depend on how and where it is undertaken.
First, it is essential to recognize that tree-planting and other restoration efforts are only a part of the solution (around 25- 30%) to staying within 2°C of current temperatures; reducing carbon emissions is far more important.
Second, it is really crucial that tree planting doesn’t cause forest clearing elsewhere – primary and intact forests store huge amounts of carbon and biodiversity, but are sometimes at risk of clearing if tree planting displaces agriculture elsewhere (for example). And tree plantations should never replace intact forest (this has happened in Chile and other countries).
Third, planting trees is a long-term process and requires good quality seedlings, matching of species to local conditions (including socially-accepted species), and long-term care. Planting a single tree species across a large area can also lead to poor survival and can also reduce water availability, increase fire risk, and jeopardize local biodiversity and local livelihoods.
Fourth, ecological conditions in many areas favor natural regeneration of diverse native forests that also support local animal and soil biodiversity. Tree planting is not always needed to restore forests, so should not necessarily be the default approach used – it is important that tree planting doesn’t become an end in and of itself. Agroforestry can also be a highly effective approach that increases tree cover, sequesters carbon, and also provides food security and economic returns to farmers.
For all of these reasons (and more!), restoration actions need to be undertaken from a holistic perspective that takes into account a diversity of approaches and involvement of local stakeholders in decision-making and implementation.
2) Which main lessons can be taken from your long experience with these topics, including challenges, setbacks and mistakes that should be considered in similar efforts?
.1) In your opinion, what is necessary to make these results sustainable?
Thinking of restoration as a process with key steps is critical to the success of restoration. Too often, projects will skip crucial steps like engaging stakeholders in planning, or monitoring and maintaining restored sites, because of a lack of resources, short funding cycles, and so forth. But without these steps restoration is far more likely to fail. It is important to view restoration using a systems approach with many interacting components that drive outcomes as well as influences external to the system. As a socio-ecological system, paying attention to socio-economic issues is just as important as a focus on ecological aspects. The holistic approach is required to make restoration sustainable and to make restoration systems take hold.
Before anything is done on the ground (e.g., trees are planted) it is important to pay attention to governance aspects and capacity building to achieve long-lasting and effective restoration outcomes and benefits for all stakeholders.
Successful restoration of any kind requires that relevant stakeholders be involved from early on in the process – especially any people who use, own and/or rely on the land. This is key but still often not taken seriously.
Equally important is making restoration align with local needs in addition to national and international goals. This requires understanding local needs, livelihoods, and customs around forest planting, clearing and use and assessing how adopting restoration measures can help meet those needs. There are occasions when local needs conflict with national goals. In these cases multi-stakeholder coalitions can help to mediate conflicts and trade-offs.
Integrating local knowledge is important to understand how and if restoration can meet needs and goals. Local people tend to know best what trees are useful to them, grow well in the local area, and support wildlife.
Once restoration interventions have been implemented, providing resources for basic maintenance, protection, and monitoring is very important. There are far too many stories of planted trees dying at extremely high rates, land being converted back to pasture or burned soon after implementation, etc. because adequate resources were not allocated to maintaining restored sites.
.2) How much is the continued involvement from non-local people a critical factor?
Ideally, if the context is right and practitioners/implementers have done the work required to engage communities, meet them where they are, and instill a sense of ownership and pride over the restoration, and provide resources for maintenance for at least the first 2-5 years, restoration in a given place takes on a life of its own and no longer requires ‘outside’ involvement.
But there are many places in the world that could benefit from restoration – to come close to achieving recent global commitments will require sustained support from ‘non-local’ people for quite some time. External support usually comes with a short-term time-frame, however, which can result in failed interventions after the funding period is over.
The key is that donors and agencies supporting restoration invest in a place for long enough for restoration to take hold and to enable local adaptive management and monitoring. This includes the pieces outlined above – time for understanding, planning with and engaging local landholders/users, capacity building, technical support, and resources for maintenance, protection, and monitoring.
3) You have accumulated significant knowledge and experience over the years, both in research and in practical restoration work. There is often a fundamental gap between these two, leading to wasted opportunities and repeated mistakes. Through your involvement at the Partners restoration network and, more recently, at Forestoration International or as scientific advisor to multiple projects, you’ve focused on putting the science to use. What is your perspective on the main challenges faced and how can we try to tackle these?
The main challenges are in four main categories: (1) project-based external interventions; (2) capacity building; (3) effective governance; and (4) lack of an evidence-base.
Restoration projects financed by organizations and governments tend to focus on short-term interventions to bring about quick results, but are rarely followed up over time and often fail to deliver good long-term outcomes. This creates a situation where local communities work to fulfill a mandate from an organization or agency that they are not invested in, have limited involvement in decision-making, or may not have adequate training to do well. Who is restoration for? Restoration is not a project; it is a process and requires a change in “business as usual” activities that are focused on simple, short-term outcomes. Local communities involved in restoration need to become empowered to take on the task and to ensure that the restoration approaches used actually fulfill their needs. They need to “own it.” Often, the needs of local communities do not match the goals of externally-driven projects. Few projects take into account the needs for local governance for long-term success in restoration; these include active stakeholder engagement, fair distribution of benefits, including women in planning and activities, and resolving conflicts among different stakeholders. Understanding local livelihood activities is also key to understanding if and how restoring forests fits with local needs and goals.
Despite much activity in the field of restoration, we do not have an evidence-base to draw from to create good practices under different social and environmental contexts. Most restoration work is conducted on an ad-hoc basis and lessons learned have not been collected. Further, we lack information on how different restoration practices led to specific outcomes and how long this took.
4) From your experience, which conditions are necessary when trying to promote or support solutions where the local populations can help themselves and simultaneously contribute for the restoration and sustainable use of local ecosystems? Which role should external parties have and which obstacles should be considered?
See the answers to questions 2 and 3, above. The main points are engaging relevant stakeholders from the beginning in planning stages right through to monitoring and maintenance; understanding the local context (including land use and livelihoods) and if and how restoration might be a good fit; and ensuring the right conditions are in place for local communities to be able to fully engage with restoration. This includes appropriate capacity building, livelihood support appropriate to the local context, and strengthening and empowering local governance.
5) Which topics and regions/countries do you consider to be currently under-served and waiting for similar efforts, or simply present good opportunities for intervention?
There are many ways to identify opportunities for restoration and for specific types of interventions. For example, areas that present good opportunities for natural regeneration may not be the best opportunities for other types of interventions. In all cases, it is important to consider the overall benefits of restoration and the feasibility of implementing long-lasting restoration.
In my mind, restoration activities are driven by the needs of local people. I think restoration is most urgent in areas where local people need better land-use options and are driven to continue degrading land or are migrating out of the area due to the extent of land degradation and negative impacts of climate change. These include areas in drylands, dry forest, and moist forest.
Priority areas also include places where there is strong reliance on forest resources and where deforestation has led to risk of flooding, erosion and loss of topsoil. Often these areas coincide with areas of high population density, and restoration is urgently needed to prevent catastrophic loss of human life. Restoration could be an important focus in these areas to rebuild communities that have been marginalized, strengthen resilience to climate change, and adapt to changing environmental and socio-economic conditions. One exception is areas where migrations are politically-forced, which have low feasibility for restoration unless political issues can be resolved. For example, Rwanda became strongly focused on restoration following their brutal civil war. So restoration can also become part of a national healing process.
That being said, there are also large areas of land that have been degraded to the point of being unusable for agriculture (for example, large areas of pasture that are used at very low density or unused), and are sparsely populated. Working to restore forest cover or sustainable agriculture could also be a means of revitalizing these areas.
The best opportunities for restoration are where local people initiate and contribute to the effort, as they recognize the benefits of restorative measures that they will receive.
These efforts may require external support, but they should be governed and managed by local people, who are the stewards of the land for many future generations.